Wisdom of the Moderns: A Brush with Nihilism

In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, we are given a picture of two men’s experiences of life in Africa. Soon after Marlow is told that Kurtz has died, he summarizes his view of life in one long paragraph (p. 70-71). The experiences and reactions of Marlow and Mr. Kurtz that are discussed in this paragraph can be understood as being a temptation towards nihilism.

The paragraph is placed near the end of the book, meaning that it is a conclusion to everything that has happened. Leading up to this paragraph, the whole book has been a dreary view of civilized men interacting with savages in Africa. Marlow, the narrator, went to Africa and witnessed horrid things, but acted merely as a witness. Kurtz, on the other hand, was there far longer, and became the chief of a tribe. He went on to “preside at certain midnight dances ending in unspeakable rites” (p. 50). In other words, he jumped straight into the tribal culture, with its harems and sacrifices. The context of the paragraph is that both men were given a glimpse of human nature when it goes beyond the façade of civilization. They were confronted with the possibility that at bottom, all men are savages, or at least they want to be. They experienced a disillusionment with the West’s hope of patient reform. They ceased believing in altruistic sentiments. This can most clearly be seen by Kurtz’s pamphlet. Before he experienced disillusionment, he wrote a pamphlet that contained great hopes of the possibilities of taming and enlightening the natives. However, after he became chief of the tribe, he appended his seventeen page long pamphlet with a simple postscript; “Exterminate all the brutes!” (p. 50). This shows that Kurtz had been thoroughly disillusioned with the West’s optimism.

Because of these experiences and this disillusionment, both Marlow and Kurtz adopted a new interpretation of life, as outlined in the paragraph. Marlow now calls life a “nightmare” (p. 70). This conveys a sense of irrational horror. He goes on, “Droll thing life is – that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose.” (p. 70). This sentence shows four parts of Marlow’s interpretation of life. First, it is droll. It cannot quite be grasped or understood, and this causes it to have a certain humorous effect. This is similar to Albert Camus’s notion of the absurdity of life. Second, life is mysterious. This adjective again emphasizes the enigmatic nature of life, but it has a more sinister tone, especially when considered in light of the context of the paragraph. Next, life is an arrangement of merciless logic. Though it is mysterious, it is not arbitrary. It has logic, but it is harsh logic. It is not warm and comfortable, but merciless. Life does not try to accommodate mankind. Finally, and most importantly, life has a futile purpose. Whatever purpose it seems to have, this purpose will never be accomplished, and it is in vain. Instead of hoping for progress, Marlow says that “The most you can hope for from [life] is some knowledge of yourself” (p. 70). He identifies knowledge of self with “a crop of unextinguishable regrets” (p. 70). He is saying that rather than redemption, life is ultimately only regret. Considering this characterization of life, it can be seen that Marlow has been brought to the point of a deep nihilism.

Though Marlow feels this nihilism, he says that he did not understand it as much as Kurtz. He writes that he was able to understand Kurtz because he “had peeped over the edge myself” (p. 70). One can imagine him looking over the edge of a chasm with the horrible truth at the bottom. This mirrors a famous Nietzschean passage; “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” (§146, Beyond Good and Evil). With this image in mind, Marlow then relates, “[Kurtz] had made that last stride, he had stepped over the edge, while I had been permitted to draw back my hesitating foot.” (p. 70). Marlow caught a glimpse of the nihilism he describes, but retreats from it. Kurtz, on the other hand, sees the same nihilism, but jumps into it. He becomes the tribal chief and lives in his nihilism. Because he does this, he has a much more intimate knowledge of nihilism than Marlow does.

Once the two men are confronted with nihilism, they must have a response to it. Marlow describes this when he says, “I have wrestled with death.” (p. 70). He uses the word “death” to refer to profound apathy, a feeling of life’s meaninglessness, and his looming nihilism. He wrestles with it and attempts to resolve it into some sort of belief or meaning. However, he finds that he is unsuccessful. He writes, “I was within a hair’s-breadth of the last opportunity for pronouncement, and I found with humiliation that I probably would have nothing to say.” (p. 70). Marlow has interacted with nihilism, and has been unable to stop its inroads into his mind. When it comes time for him to interpret and find a meaning in the world, he finds that he is unable. That is, he has succumbed to nihilism.

Marlow recognizes that any real conviction after a brush with nihilism is a victory, and this is why he affirms that Kurtz is “a remarkable man” (p. 70). Kurtz jumped into nihilism more fully than Marlow, and yet when the time came for his pronouncement, he was still able to cry, “The horror! The horror!” (p. 69). Marlow remarked about this cry, “This was the expression of some sort of belief; it had candor, it had conviction, it had a vibrating note of revolt in its whisper” (p. 70). While Marlow had been unable to conjure up any true convictions in the face of his nihilism, Kurtz had been able. Kurtz recognized that the world was horrible, but his rebellion lied in the fact that he still evaluated the world as horrible, rather than simply being crushed by seeing it for what it is. Because he had the strength to name it horrible, it can be seen that he retained some sense of values. Without a value, he would not have been able to call the world horrible. This is the “moral victory” that Marlow admires (p. 71).

This victory is the reason that Marlow decides to be “loyal” to Kurtz (p. 71). He recognizes that Kurtz was able to rebel in a way that he was not, even though Kurtz had wrestled with nihilism at a far deeper level. For this reason, Marlow felt that he was inferior to Kurtz. Thus, he decided to “show his loyalty” to him by continuing to live (p. 70).

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