heart of darkness and charms

Wednesday, April 14th, 2004

What is the significance of the map in Heart of Darkness. Maps are interesting. Plots, paths, mazes, architectural plans, story boards, flow charts, maps of space, the topolologies of things, metaphoric space all, the mind’s conceptions on paper. They charm. Marlow says:

“Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for 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.’ The North Pole was one of these places, I remember. Well, I haven’t been there yet, and shall not try now. The glamour’s off. Other places were scattered about the hemispheres. I have been in some of them, and . . . well, we won’t talk about that. But there was one yet — the biggest, the most blank, so to speak — that I had a hankering after.

“True, by this time it was not a blank space any more. It had got filled since my boyhood with rivers and lakes and names. It had ceased to be a blank space of delightful mystery — a white patch for a boy to dream gloriously over. It had become a place of darkness. But there was in it one river especially, a mighty big river, that you could see on the map, resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land. And as I looked at the map of it in a shop-window, it fascinated me as a snake would a bird — a silly little bird. Then I remembered there was a big concern, a Company for trade on that river. Dash it all! I thought to myself, they can’t trade without using some kind of craft on that lot of fresh water — steamboats! Why shouldn’t I try to get charge of one? I went on along Fleet Street, but could not shake off the idea. The snake had charmed me.”

Here Marlow observes the map, an image in memory, and then builds off of its surface. The river “resembles” the snake and thus it takes on greater significance than as a mere shape on the flat map surface.

The map follows Marlow throughout his story but in different ways, and the readers reference to this kind of space will or can change, moving from the word map to the word “narrative” space. (Is it significant that the crew to whom he tells the story is also charmed, drawn in–he is an idol after all?) After crossing the Channel, he describes the city:

“A narrow and deserted street in deep shadow, high houses, innumerable windows with venetian blinds, a dead silence, grass sprouting right and left, immense double doors standing ponderously ajar. I slipped through one of these cracks, went up a swept and ungarnished staircase, as arid as a desert, and opened the first door I came to.”

Marlow get’s his commision then leaves on a French steamer. He describes the passage this way:

“I watched the coast. Watching a coast as it slips by the ship is like thinking about an enigma. There it is before you — smiling, frowning, inviting, grand, mean, insipid, or savage, and always mute with an air of whispering, ‘Come and find out.’ This one was almost featureless, as if still in the making, with an aspect of monotonous grimness. The edge of a colossal jungle, so dark-green as to be almost black, fringed with white surf, ran straight, like a ruled line, far, far away along a blue sea whose glitter was blurred by a creeping mist. The sun was fierce, the land seemed to glisten and drip with steam. Here and there greyish-whitish specks showed up clustered inside the white surf, with a flag flying above them perhaps. Settlements some centuries old, and still no bigger than pinheads on the untouched expanse of their background. We pounded along, stopped, landed soldiers; went on, landed custom-house clerks to levy toll in what looked like a God-forsaken wilderness, with a tin shed and a flag-pole lost in it; landed more soldiers — to take care of the custom-house clerks, presumably. Some, I heard, got drowned in the surf; but whether they did or not, nobody seemed particularly to care. They were just flung out there, and on we went.”

Here all the ideas are rushing in, a continual developing, developing, compounding, detailing and focusing of ideas introduced at the story’s top. The enticement of the unknown, the fascination.

“Come and find out.”

“Come and find out.”

The land is made to speak. To whisper, to entice. Is this the sublime? “‘This one,'” Marlow says, “‘was almost featureless, as if still in the making, with an aspect of monotonous grimness.'” All maps have borders, as does experience, edges that give contour to perceived space. But borders also have to be crossed, the expansive space they mark off penetrated. Recall that earlier the narrator has already indicated that Marlow’s stories are “inconclusive” (1961), their edges difficult to determine.

Even so, and if this makes sense, there’s Kutz. “‘His,'” according to Marlow, “‘was an impenetrable darkness.'” On the day of his death Marlow enters the pilot-house with a candle. He’s already observed that looking at Kurtz on the couch was like looking down at a man from a great height in a place where the light can’t touch (2010). The language is interesting. “‘One evening coming in with a cadle I was startled to hear him say a little tremulously, ‘I am lying here in the dark waiting for death.’ The light was within a foot of his eyes.'”

He dies. The description of the death, the change, goes this way:

“Anything approaching the change that came over his features I have never seen before, and hope never to see again. Oh, I wasn’t touched. I was fascinated. It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw on that ivory face the expression of sombre pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror — of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge?”

There’s that fascination again. But is the veil a border, an edge reserved only for the eyes of the perceiver, especially when it comes to death. In a way, the light comes too late, or hovers off at too great a distance. Marlow Marlow remains in the mess-room and gives emphasis to optics:

“I remained, and went on with my dinner. I believe I was considered brutally callous. However, I did not eat much. There was a lamp in there — light, don’t you know — and outside it was so beastly, beastly dark. I went no more near the remarkable man who had pronounced a judgment upon the adventures of his soul on this earth. The voice was gone.”

Charms, charms, charms.


One response to “heart of darkness and charms”

  1. gibb says:

    “There was a lamp in there — light, don’t you know — and outside it was so beastly, beastly dark.”

    And that, that is death. Seems to have bothered him more than he says.