The Darkness of the Colonial
A quick contextualization
Though the book Heart of Darkness and the film Apocalypse Now were distributed 80 years apart from each other, I have found multiple aspects in common. Of course, the film is loosely based on the book, hence the themes are very similar even if they refer to two different moments in history and politics. Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novel is set in London and in the Independent State of the Congo, while Francis For Coppola’s 1979 film is set in Vietnam, during the Vietnam War (or Second Indochina War). Knowingly, both Congo and Vietnam have had a heavy colonial experience. While I enjoyed reading the novel and watching snippets of the film, I believe I found some resemblance with Renzo Martens’s Enjoy Poverty, which I will briefly discuss throughout of the post.
Re-educating and humanizing the “nothing” and the “unexplored”
During the read and the watching of the film, I noticed three main points that I think are key for the understanding of the postcolonial condition, but also of the content read and watched.
- A recurring obsession, almost veneration, for the “unknown”, and an obscure figure (Kurtz).
This aspect is conveyed in the novel when Marlow describes the forest as “virgin”, on page 59, as if the unexplored and unknown place (by the white men) would make it suddenly more appetizing. In another passage, Marlow uses a very specific set of words that describe the forest, in a way that conveys fear, but also “excitement” for the challenge of having to explore it and taking its virginity away, eventually: “[…] the forest, the creek, the mud, the river— seemed to beckon with a dishonouring flourish before the sunlit face of the land a treacherous appeal to the lurking death, to the hidden evil, to the profound darkness of its heart.” (Conrad 1899, 66) In the film, the same kind of curiosity that venerates a figure is conveyed through the portrayal of Kurtz. In the dark, we mostly see just the silhouette of the man. This aspect is also mentioned numerous times by Marlow, as he grows with anticipation as he keeps hearing about Kurtz and what a great worker he is.
- “Former” colonizers who settled in the territories, motivated to do so because the lands had “nothing” and the “savages” were to be re-educated and humanized.
This key aspect is something that, in my opinion, largely legitimizes the colonization of territories in the eyes of the colonizers (in addition to the economic gain that comes from the exploitation of the natural resources that just happen to be there as well). In the book, Marlow mentions his love for exploration, and tells about the way he would study maps: “I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, ‘When I grow up I will go there.’” (Conrad 1899, 11) How can he call them “blank spaces”, if there are indeed natives populating those lands, living their lives according to their societal standards? Going a step further, it becomes clear that those who were in Congo to exploit the production of ivory, would also believe that “each station should be like a beacon on the road towards better things, a centre for trade of course, but also for humanizing, improving, instructing.” (65) Again, this thought shows itself in all its patronizing and condescending nature. I believe Conrad did a great job in conveying these concepts and feelings to the reader. Similarly, Coppola does the same thing in his movie, in the sequence where those who represented the French colonial administration tell Captain Willard that when they came to Vietnam “there was nothing” and the Vietnamese were nothing.
- The figure of the narrator as someone in charge to bring the “truth” home.
In all the examples that I’ve mentioned, the novel, the film, and Martens’ piece, I found this pattern that put the main character of each story in the position of the narrator who is on a (more or less personal) mission to explore a specific environment and report “back home” about the truth that was happening. I found this point very interesting and cathartic in some way, because of the way all the stories unfolded, revealing that the reality was much different from the narrative we were led to believe. For instance, in both the novel and the film, the antagonist (Kurtz) is idolized, but eventually is is revealed that he’s simply someone who went too far with his ideologies and contributes to the “horror” of the colonialist discourse. In Enjoy Poverty, we see a double aspect to the difference between reality and expectations: first, the viewers expect Martens to behave differently from what he does; and second, the native people of Congo expected the people at hospitals and in charge of the press to behave differently (after Martens’ “lessons”).
I believe that all of this material is extremely valuable to better understand not only what the postcolonial condition might entail, but also to understand how easy it is to cause havoc and disruption in an environment that was meant to be left alone and respected, without imposing a “white savior” perspective into the mix.