The Ignoble Savage: An analysis of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (December 2007)

There are two intertwined and over-arching themes in Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness and in Apocalypse Now, the screenplay by John Milius which is loosely based on it: a study of the nature of man and an examination of the institution of Western Imperialism.  By exploring both (man’s individual and cultural nature) concurrently, in a sort of thematic double-helix, the authors craftily use each to mutually reinforce the other.

While most literary critics consider the works’ main emphasis to be an indictment of the pernicious effects of Western influence, the stories larger point is, in fact, that without the moderating influence of civilization, men regress to or remain in their primitive state of selfishness, violence, and superstition.  In a kind of literary refutation of the concepts of relativism and Rousseau’s Noble Savage theory, the author’s show that, rather than being a corrupting influence, it is civilization itself which serves to elevate man from his barbaric primitive state.

To be sure, both Conrad and Milius are careful to note rather vividly the darker side of Western Imperialism by depicting many of its faults and excesses such as racism and the inhumane treatment of natives by Westerners, but that is only half of the thematic equation.  And Conrad, while noting the brutality of the Westerners in Africa’s Congo, stopped short of condemning their presence there altogether.

Historically speaking, civilization has spread concentrically from its cradle in Mesopotamia.  In England, it’s uniquely Western variety was brought from afar when it was imposed upon the English by the conquering Roman Legions; it did not grow there organically.  And Englishmen have enjoyed the fruits of the Roman’s civilizing influence ever since.  As Conrad’s Marlow put it, “Light came out of this river [the Thames]” since the Romans first came, whereas “darkness was here yesterday” (1893).  While lamenting the less-pleasant aspects of imperialism, Marlow stops well short of condemning it: “The conquest of the earth … is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.  What redeems it is the idea only” (1894).

The philosophical focal point of both novella and screenplay is the character of Kurtz.  In both cases, he is a product of the preeminent civilization of his day (England for Conrad; The United States for Milius) who finds himself isolated deep in the wilderness of a relatively primitive culture upon which he tries to unilaterally impose modern Western values.  However, because Kurtz attempts to civilize the natives of the deep jungle after being isolated for so long from the culture which nurtured him, the paradoxically inevitable result is his unraveling into the dark depths of madness and savagery.  Unlike the Romans, who arrived in vast self-contained legions bringing with them their culture in microcosm, Kurtz, being isolated deep in the primordial jungle, is denied such contact with his own civilization and, absent this umbilical cord, is consumed by the savagery he had sought to contain.  Un-tethered from the moorings of civilization, he succumbs to the inexorable pull of the vortex that is fallen man’s true nature.  The farther Kurtz travels from civilization into the ‘heart of darkness’ the more savage and base he becomes.

Both writers are careful to construct the Kurtz character as a man of great intellect, achievement, and high ideals and principles; he can be said to occupy the very pinnacle of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  The writers do this to show that, without a living connection to the culture in which their success was achieved, even the most distinguished and capable individual with the noblest of intentions can and will tumble down from the lofty heights of this pyramid to be smashed to an unrecognizable pulp upon its stony base.

Before his trip up the Congo River begins, Marlow submits to a medical examination by the company’s doctor during which the physician alludes to the fact that the men who venture deep up-river do so at a cost: “I always ask leave to … measure the crania of those going out there” he says, even though “… the changes take place on the inside.” He does this because he says, “it would be interesting for science to watch the mental changes of individuals,” as they are exposed to the brutal backwardness of such primeval isolation (1897).  Later, Marlow, as he approaches the Central Station up river, remarks “I remembered the old doctor … I felt I was becoming scientifically interesting” (1904).  Thrust deep within the unforgiving wild, and stripped of the thin, protective veneer of civilization, Marlow already feels the tug of his anti-Rousseau-an Inner Savage.

During his trip up river, which Marlow likens to “travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world … till you thought of yourself as bewitched and cut off from everything you had known once,” (1914) and just prior to being buried under a fusillade of arrows in a thick fog by Kurtz’ native minions, Marlow is disturbed by the words of one of his ship’s crew, a cannibal who, upon observing the hostile natives on shore had said, “Catch ‘im.  Give ‘im to us” to eat; however, despite his unease at hearing this request, Marlow charitably concedes that, “They still belong to the beginnings of time – had no inherited experience to teach them” (1919).  Reminiscent of Russell Kirk’s later concept of an “eternal contract” in a society between those dead, living, and yet to be born, Maslow is suggesting that a man who clamors to devour the flesh of another human being is lacking in the moderating effects of living in a society built upon many generations of moral progress.

At length, he makes his way to the Inner Station where he beholds Kurtz’ hut surrounded by fence posts topped with disembodied human heads turned inward, their transcendent gaze fixed accusingly on its occupant.  At this ghastly sight, Marlow observes, attempting to explain Kurtz’ descent into madness, “… the wilderness had … whispered to him things about himself which he did not know, things of which he had no conception till he took counsel with the great solitude – and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating” (1933).  The dark, inner depravity, the sinfulness that lurks within each of our fallen hearts and is ordinarily held at bay by the fragile institutions and customs of our civilization, and by the grace of God, is brought to the surface by the wilderness in their absence.

After finally removing Kurtz from the jungle to his riverboat, Marlow is forced to chase him back into the bush to which Kurtz attempts to escape.  When Marlow catches him just short of a native village, Kurtz finally concedes defeat: “I had immense plans,” he laments.  Marlow, having observed first-hand the primordial hold of the jungle on Kurtz’ ruined soul, says, “I tried to break the spell – the heavy, mute spell of the wilderness – that seemed to draw him to its pitiless breast by the awakening of forgotten and brutal instincts, by the memory of gratified and monstrous passions.”  He further observes, “[h]is soul was mad.  Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself, and, by heavens!  I tell you it had gone mad (1939).  Of course Kurtz was never truly alone in the wilderness, per se; there were natives all around him.  He was only alone in that he was isolated from civilization.  And it is these brutal instincts and monstrous passions that lie beneath the fragile shell of civilization.  This is a very clear rejection of Rousseau’s “Noble Savage,” who, left alone and apart from the corrupting influence of society, is pure and beneficent.

Throughout the work, Conrad gives his characters (and by extension, the West in general) different motives for their presence in Africa.  Some are there merely “to tear treasure out of the bowels of the land” for “no moral purpose” (1912); others display a “philanthropic pretense” to cover their real motive which is “to earn percentages” (1907).  One states that “each station should be like a beacon on the road towards better things … for humanizing, improving, instructing” (1913).  Kurtz, for his part, is assumed to have had the very noblest of intentions – in the beginning.  He even wrote a report called the Suppression of Savage Customs that gave Marlow the “notion of an exotic Immensity ruled by an august Benevolence,” which made him “tingle with enthusiasm” by its appeal to “every altruistic sentiment” (1927).  Alas, after his unraveling, Kurtz scribbles on the bottom of the report, “Exterminate all the Brutes!”

On the question of imperialism, Conrad seems to be of two minds: he seems to support the idea of the spread of Western civilizations in theory (Marlow unequivocally praises the Roman civilizing of England and is very critical of the savagery of the natives in Africa); however, he is disillusioned, even critical of the brutality and exploitation which accompanied it in practice – at least in the Congo.

This uniquely Western practice of self criticism and analysis engaged in by Conrad, however, too often degenerates into moral self-flagellation by Western intellectuals and critics blinded by an ethos of multiculturalism and relativism – concepts Conrad and Milius would be sure to reject.  The idea that Western influence had singularly horrible consequences for those it touched is predicated on the specious proposition that the affected cultures were pseudo-utopias before being corrupted by malevolent imperialists.  It is as if, prior to the arrival of Westerners, the indigenous peoples, like Wells’ Eloi, lived in some innocent state of cooperative bliss, their peaceful reverie interrupted only by the war mongering imperialist Morlocks.

The truth of the matter is that many of these remote cultures, whether in Africa, the America’s, or Asia, in addition to being warrior cultures in their own right – often fighting one tribe or nation against another – were also engaged in such brutal practices as ritualistic human sacrifice, cannibalism, slavery or other forms of savage depravity.  And the reason the European’s tended to prevail in these cultural clashes was not due to their excessive brutality relative to the vanquished or because the natives meekly acquiesced to their own conquest, but rather because the interlopers were militarily, technologically, organizationally, and materially – that is culturally- superior to those they came to dominate.  Since this is a concession most academics are unwilling to make, they instead ignore both the positive aspects of Western influence and the negative ones of the indigenous culture, and in so doing their reflexive anti-Western bias is affirmed, not refuted.

There were, of course, excesses and abuses – both isolated and systemic – during the colonial period; however, there was at least an undercurrent of benevolence on the part of Western imperialists both in theory and in practice that was largely absent in non-Western episodes of conquest and colonization.  And the crimes and excesses committed by Western imperialists paled in comparison to those heaped upon hapless populations by indigenous or non-European despots and tyrants in the East and the America’s throughout history that have been largely ignored by both their own descendants and Western intellectuals.  (The slaughter of tens of millions of Muslims by the Mongolians during their conquest of the Arabian Peninsula comes to mind, as does the Aztec’s practice of capturing thousands of slaves in battle whose still beating hearts were removed on the sacrificial altar.)  While these atrocities make the excesses of the crusaders and conquistadors shrink into insignificance by comparison, the Edward Said’s of the world criticize only Western imperialism.

This is not to suggest that I (or Conrad) advocate colonialism or imperialism, only that we are prepared to acknowledge certain points which critics of the West will not, and for the sake of intellectual honesty, they must: namely that Western influence in many cases actually improved the lives of native peoples; that the native cultures it touched were not innocent, peaceful utopias beforehand – many were brutal, backward, and savage; and that imperialism, colonialism, and empire building are not uniquely Western phenomena.  We in the West have been blessed to be the inheritors of a tradition of justice, law, and progress – however imperfect.  Could passing on such progress to those lacking it be as purely evil as some critics suggest?

Ultimately, Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now are indictments more of the idea that man is innately good and civilization is a corrupting influence, and the idea that no one culture can be judged superior to another, than a critique of Western imperialism.  And in the end I think Conrad and Milius would agree that, while in practice the colonization of the remote places of the world was marred by exploitation, racism, and brutality, it also played a crucial role in elevating primitive people into a modern era of progress and rationalism.   As Conrad wrote, it was “the forerunner of change, of conquest, of trade, of massacres, of blessings” (1941).  There was some good mixed in with the bad.

Works Cited

Conrad, Joseph.  Heart of darknessThe Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume F, Eighth Edition.  Ed. Steven Greenblatt.  New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2006.

About michaelstjoseph

Michael St. Joseph is the pen-name of a Catholic conservative citizen of the greatest country in the history of civilization. He has a law enforcement background and lives with his family in the New York area. He can be reached at
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