JANUARY 7, 2013 10:18PM

The Day Joseph Conrad Made Me Cry

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We all know Heart Of Darkness. We either either read it in high school or had the option to read it in high school. I passed. I chose to read The Pigman by Paul Zindel, whose characters, plot and themes escape me to this day.

I had to wait until I was 35 and a graduate student in writing to read Conrad's novel. Unfortunately, it was an intercession class and secondly it was taught by moronic graduate student.

We had a day to read the novel and 45 minutes to discuss. What did I care, I didn't know from Joseph Conrad.  Basically, I knew it was a novel about man against his darker nature blah, blah, blah. Apocalpse Now but in the 19th century--more or less.

The great thing about being a literature major is you are taught to read a text from many perpectives: scientific, feminist, racist, and whatever the politically correct soup of the day is. So even though I had preconcieved ideas of this man against his dark nature theme--I couldn't help but notice other things planted in the deep, dark. lush lines of Conrad's prose.

His writing was as verdant and layered as the "dark jungle" he described:

 "They were dying slowly--it was very clear. They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now,--nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation, lying confusedly in the greenish gloom. Brought from all the recesses of the coast in all the legalityof time contracts, lost in uncongenial surroundings, fed on unfamiliar food, they sickened, became inefficient, and were then allowed to crawlaway and rest. These moribund shapes were free as air--and nearly as thin. I began to distinguish the gleam of eyes under the trees. Then,glancing down, I saw a face near my hand. The black bones reclined at full length with one shoulder against the tree, and slowly the eyelids rose and the sunken eyes looked up at me, enormous and vacant, a kind of blind, white flicker in the depths of the orbs, which died out slowly.

The man seemed young--almost a boy--but you know with them it's hard to tell. I found nothing else to do but to offer him one of my good Swede's ship's biscuits I had in my pocket. The fingers closed slowly on it andheld--there was no other movement and no other glance. He had tied a bit of white worsted round his neck--Why? Where did he get it? Was it a badge--an ornament--a charm--a propitiatory act? Was there any idea atall connected with it? It looked startling round his black neck, thisbit of white thread from beyond the seas.

"Near the same tree two more bundles of acute angles sat with their legs
drawn up. One, with his chin propped on his knees, stared at nothing,
in an intolerable and appalling manner: his brother phantom rested its
forehead, as if overcome with a great weariness; and all about others
were scattered in every pose of contorted collapse, as in some picture
of a massacre or a pestilence. While I stood horror-struck, one of these
creatures rose to his hands and knees, and went off on all-fours towards
the river to drink. He lapped out of his hand, then sat up in the
sunlight, crossing his shins in front of him, and after a time let his
woolly head fall on his breastbone."

    Now it is a well known fact that English was not Conrad's native tongue. But it was only later I learned he would labor days on just on sentence. I don't think it was because he was struggling with a language that was not his own but because he was an artist of perfection.

Stephen King in is book, On Writing said that most people don't really ask a writer about "the language" -- And for me, the lines of Heart Of Darkness are a lesson in language. The language caught my breath, it stopped my heart, it gave me chills--the language made me ache.

Needless to say, when this idot graduate teaching assistant said, "Yeah, I know it's boring but we have to do it so we can move on to something else." I was crushed. I wanted to talk about the language but I knew we were going to do the rote "man against his darker nature" stuff that makes everyone bored to tears.  

I excused myself, went into the ladies room and wept. There will be those who will think I am an over sentimental goober but there will be those who get it, for they too have been swept away by simple words on a page. 

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memoir, literature

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"Heart of Darkness": Best. Novel. Ever.

Fortunately, I never "had to" read it for a class, but picked it up on my own years ago. I always go back to it.