Veneer of Civilization

Heart of Darkness (1899)
by Joseph Conrad (1857-1924)

The story Heart of Darkness could be a metaphor for the future of humanity and maybe Conrad intended it as such. Although literally it is about a journey into darkest Africa (set in the late 19th century and published in 1902), the prose is too ominous to be about one man and one place. “The tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed somber under an overcast sky—seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.”[i]

“Later Marlowe [the narrator] met Kurtz and found that the man had, indeed, been corrupted by the evil at the corner of experience.”[ii]  The “evil” in question remains vague but omnipresent and can only be the fear-driven false self. When the illusion of civilization is absent such as in the “primitive” jungles of the Belgian Congo, fear can express itself with unrestrained savagery. “The journey into the heart of the Congo, however, is also a symbolic journey into the blackness central to the heart and soul of man, a journey deep into primeval passion, superstition, and lust.”

Before Kurtz’s downfall, he had been an idealist who began his journey hopeful that he could, by being of service to the native population, bring light into the darkness of the jungle without realizing that the darkness he experienced was coming from within. He had left the thin veneer of civilization that inhibits all of us from the unrestrained expression of our survival strategies, and entered the darkest corner of P-B. People like Kurtz, “who hope with conscious intelligence and a humane concern for all mankind to bring light into darkness, are doomed, are themselves swallowed up by the darkness and evil they had hoped to penetrate. Conrad manages to make his point, a realization of the evil at the center of human experience.”[iii]

Does Conrad’s tale foreshadow the future of humanity at large? If the veneer of civilization is an illusion, how effective will it be in protecting us from our own self-destructive behaviors? “Here the psychological phenomenon of Marlow’s tale emerges. Kurtz, a man relieved of all social and civilized restraints, goes mad after committing himself to the total pursuit of evil and depravity. The symbolic journey into man’s own heart of darkness reveals the blind evil of man’s own nature, the irony of the quest when the truth is revealed not in terms of light but in terms of darkness.”[iv]

Conrad’s insights into the nature of an unconscious humanity are profound and disturbing.  They serve as a wake-up call for all of us. Contained, as he was in P-B, Conrad could not take comfort from the realization that humanity’s future would not be at the mercy of its own heart of darkness. We are not evil, but we do instinctively create a survival strategy that necessitates our learning to meet basic security, sensation and power needs. But that is not the whole human story, only the beginning. There is a way to create a path through the jungle of the old narrative and out into the light of Simple Reality and then human civilization will be strong and resilient, compassionate and nurturing just as Kurtz dreamed it could be.

Veneer of Civilization

[i]     Magill, Frank N. [ed.]. Masterpieces of World Literature. New York: Harper, 1989, page 361.

[ii]     Ibid., page 360.

[iii]    Ibid.

[iv]    Ibid., page 361.


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

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