Conrad the Observer

Heart of Darkness (novel 1899) and
The Secret Sharer (short story 1909)
by Joseph Conrad (1857-1924)

Let’s examine our thesis that artists when inspired during the creative process and working in the present moment are intuitive. That is to say, they will have insights into the nature of reality (P-A). In the context of two of Joseph Conrad’s stories we will be looking for P-A principles revealed in his characters and their story. The two stories are Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer.

Marlow, the protagonist in Heart of Darkness has an emotional reaction that we can all identify with experiencing the illusion of being “trapped” in P-B. “He felt himself held ‘within the toil of a mournful and senseless delusion.’”[i]  It is Conrad, of course, who through his characters is searching for the answers to the meaning of life. It is Conrad’s worldview and Conrad as “the observer” that will dominate his version of P-B and his glimpses of P-A.

Conrad the observer begins his story Heart of Darkness intuitively sensing that P-B is an insidious trap, that is to say, it is virtually impossible to escape without extraordinary insights available only by turning within. Coincidentally, the human story for all of us begins in the darkness—including the intellect, the ego, the false self, the shadow, the collective and personal unconscious—and proceeds toward the light, the heart. We must enter the “heart of darkness” to find our way out of the darkness. For Buddha that meant admitting that “life is suffering.” It is the same for Joseph Conrad.

Another of Conrad’s themes is: “materialistic minds cannot grasp or be interested in, adventures of the spirit.”[ii]  Here is our P-A principle that the spiritual journey is one of the heart not the head, intuition not the intellect. Heart of Darkness is about European colonialism specifically the ivory trade in Africa and the next Simple Reality principle, the illusion of the Other. “Marlow denounces colonization as ‘robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind—as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness.’ He sees the conquest of the earth as taking from those who ‘have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses.’”[iii]  The darkness of racism depends on the existence of the Other which Conrad questions. He also senses that Nature herself is considered to be the Other, and that the illusion of materialism, which is at the heart of the security center of the false self, leads to self-destructive environmental degradation.

Speaking of the existence of the false self, Conrad sensed the truth of the illusion of dualism in P-B. One of Conrad’s themes in The Secret Sharer was that “every person has a dark self. Knowing and accepting one’s total duality brings control and self-assurance.”[iv]  If Conrad believed that “control and self-assurance” came with “knowing and accepting one’s total duality” then he had some distance to go on his spiritual journey.

We tend to see the traits in other people that we ourselves possess—as in a  mirror which shows us especially what we do not like or accept about ourselves or our shadow.  That illusion can cause us to react against another person, projecting our shadow onto them and then blaming them which is the source for much of the conflict in the world.

There can also be an attraction to our projected dark side which happened in both of Conrad’s stories that we are considering. “The implication is that we should have pity on our ‘dark souls,’ forgive ourselves, and accept the duality within ourselves.”[v]  If we do that we are aborting our paradigm shift and choosing to remain on the sinking Titanic. The duality within us does not exist and is a part of the illusion of P-B. We don’t want to react to the non-existent “dark soul” but rather accept and “forgive ourselves.” We do not react at all and simply respond in the present moment as the observer, and we embrace our own perfection.

The over-arching theme of both stories is Conrad’s belief that accepting your dark self enables you to reach the “depths and heights of knowledge and experience.” Such an experience is not the end of Self-realization but at most just the beginning. Conrad was a good observer which is an essential skill for a storyteller but, lacking a profound context for his observations, he could only momentarily glimpse the wonder of P-A.

Conrad the Observer

[i]     Youngbird, Norma. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Secret Sharer. Lincoln: Cliff’s Notes Inc., 1965, page 21.   

[ii]     Ibid., page 18. 

[iii]    Ibid., page 19.  

[iv]    Ibid., page 63.  

[v]     Ibid., page 71.  


Find a much more in-depth discussion in printed books by Roy Charles Henry. 


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