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This article is taken from PN Review 219, Volume 41 Number 1, September - October 2014.

Culture, Civilisation, Conrad Chris McCully
I. ‘Savage customs’ and the savagery of civilisation

It’s often been noted that representatives of ‘civilisation’ in Heart of Darkness exhibit ‘insanity’ (a term explicitly used by Conrad, as for example in the first quotation below). Three well-known examples will suffice. As Marlow approaches the Congolese coast his ship encounters

a man-of-war anchored off the coast. There wasn’t even a shed there, and she was shelling the bush. It appears the French had one of their wars going on thereabouts […] In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent. Pop, would go one of the eight-inch guns; a small flame would dart and vanish, a little white smoke would disappear, a tiny projectile would give a feeble screech – and nothing happened. Nothing could happen. There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding […] (p. 16)1

On Marlow’s first landing in the Congo, he

came upon a boiler wallowing in the grass, then found a path leading up the hill. It turned aside for the boulders, and also for an undersized railway-truck lying there on its back with its wheels in the air. One was off. The thing looked as dead as the carcass of some animal. I came upon more pieces of decaying machinery, a stack of rusty nails […] (p. 18)

Or again, on Marlow’s expedition two hundred miles into the interior, there is a delicate juxtaposition between ‘on some quiet night the tremor of far-off drums ...


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