Joseph Conrad's slim novel may be the single most influential hundred pages of the 20th century, writes Robert Butler in his latest Going Green column ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Winter 2010
It was a beautiful moment in 1887 when a veterinary surgeon in Northern Ireland invented a new kind of tyre, to smooth out the bumps when his son was on his tricycle. Within ten years John Dunlop’s pneumatic tyre—inflated canvas tubes, bonded with liquid rubber—had become so successful that the American civil-rights leader Susan B. Anthony could claim, “The bicycle has done more for the emancipation of women than anything else in the world.”
The invention didn’t free everyone. The raw material for the pneumatic tubes came from the rubber vines of the Congo, and the demand for rubber only deepened the damage that had been inflicted in that region by the demand for ivory. A century later, the pattern hadn’t entirely changed: the coltan required for mobile phones comes from the same area, where war has claimed millions of lives over the past 12 years.
Our awareness of the shadowy stories of supply and demand also goes back to one man, a contemporary of Dunlop’s. Between June and December 1890, a 32-year-old unmarried Polish sailor called Konrad Korzeniowski made a 1,000-mile trip up the Congo for an ivory-trading company on a paddleboat steamer called Roi des Belges. It took him nine years to find a way to write about what he saw. Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” is a story within a story, which starts with five men on a boat moored in the Thames, and one of them, Marlow, a veteran seaman and wanderer, telling of a journey up a serpentine river into the centre of Africa, where he meets another ivory trader, Kurtz. Six pages in, Marlow tells the others, “The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.”
Published in 1902, “Heart of Darkness” had an immediate political impact—it was widely cited by the Congo Reform Movement—but it wasn’t an instant classic. Twenty years later, T.S. Eliot wanted to choose a quotation from it for “The Waste Land”, but his colleague Ezra Pound dissuaded him: “I doubt if Conrad is weighty enough to stand the citation.” Three years after that, Eliot chose another line from the novella as one of the epigraphs for “The Hollow Men”. (“Mistah Kurtz—he dead.”) “Heart of Darkness” had become part of the cultural landscape. In 1938 Orson Welles adapted it for a Mercury Theatre live radio production. He went on to write a screenplay in which he planned—with Wellesian gusto—to play both Marlow and Kurtz. He couldn’t get the movie made and was forced to move on to a project about a media mogul called Charles Foster Kane.
In the late 1970s, Francis Ford Coppola took “Heart of Darkness” and transplanted it to Vietnam as “Apocalypse Now”, with Martin Sheen as Captain Willard, the Marlow character, a special-operations officer, sent on a mission to “terminate…with extreme prejudice” the life of the deranged Captain Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando. In this version the Mekong River becomes the Congo. The irony was hard to miss: just as Britain, once colonised by the Romans (“1,900 years ago—the other day”, writes Conrad), had become an imperial power, so had the United States, once colonised by the British, now become one too. With the success of the movie, the novella’s place on the campus syllabus was assured. “Apocalypse Now” launched a thousand sophomore essays comparing and contrasting the book and the movie.
And now “Heart of Darkness” is a graphic novel by Catherine Anyango, with the ivory domino pieces—lightly touched on by Conrad in the opening pages—looming in the foreground of the opening drawings. The theme of traceability, where things come from and the journey that they take, is vividly dramatised. It’s a story for today. One day in June last year, Jeff Swartz, CEO of the leisurewear company Timberland, woke up to find the first of 65,000 angry e-mails in his inbox. These were responses to a Greenpeace campaign that said Brazilian cattle farmers were clear-cutting forests for cattle and the leather from the cattle was going into Timberland shoes. Swartz has written up his experience for the Harvard Business Review. His first action, he says, was to admit that he didn’t know where the leather came from. It wasn’t a question he had asked.
As “Heart of Darkness” has moved from one medium to another, it has made a good claim to be the single most influential hundred pages of the 20th century. If you consider its central theme—how one half of the world consumes resources at the expense of the other half—it’s easy to see its relevance becoming even greater. Only the resources will no longer be ivory for piano keys, or rubber for bicycle tyres.
Conrad’s artistic challenge was to make the world he saw visible to others. It’s a political challenge too. Sometimes writers reveal a hidden situation, sometimes campaigners do, and sometimes it’s just an accident. Few of us had much idea about the conditions in which copper is mined—everyday copper for plumbing, electrics, saucepans and coins—before 33 Chilean miners found themselves trapped 2,000 feet underground.