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Responses To Intellectual Revolutions: Joseph Conrad?s Heart Of Darkness And Christopher Marlowe?s T Essay, Research Paper
Responses to Intellectual Revolutions:
Joseph Conrad?s Heart of Darkness and Christopher Marlowe?s The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus
Joseph Conrad?s Heart of Darkness is a view of a revolution ? not a political one, but a scientific one: the Darwinian revolution. Conrad was writing two generations after Darwin, in his monumental work Origin of Species, had disrupted one of the fundamental assumptions about the nature of the world: that there was a divinely ordered and created Great Chain of Being with man as the highest level on this Earth. This chain was destroyed, replaced with a seemingly random and incomprehensible evolution. While at first this change may seem inconsequential, it is only because we?ve grown so used to it. It is difficult to imagine the shock one would have reading a book and discovering that, contrary to what you had been taught from your very earliest of years, the world was not wholly made for man, that a divine creator hadn?t placed everything in a specific place on the Earth to be useful for man, but that it had all evolved from some primitive cell. The huge belittling that accompanied this would have major repercussions on the collective psyche, and in Heart of Darkness, Conrad struggles to understand these repercussions.
In his effort to write a book exploring life after a major revolution in the way of thinking, Conrad turned to another author who?d faced the same problem almost three hundred years earlier: Christopher Marlowe, author of The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus, which explored man?s relationship to the cosmos after Copernicus had moved its center from the Earth to the Sun. Conrad was clearly acquainted with the Faustus legend: he refers to an agent as a ?papier-mache Mephistopheles? in Heart of Darkness. And so he used it, both with direct allusions and indirect imitations, in his own novel, to provide himself some model for writing about a major intellectual revolution. Just as Marlowe?s Dr. Faustus is destroyed for using his sorcery (an application of astronomical and astrological knowledge) to become ?a mighty god? so too is Kurtz removed from his post for attempting to ?appear… in the nature of a supernatural being?(50) Both authors also stress moderation as the escape from damnation. Marlowe creates the sorcerers Valdes and Cornelius as examples of how one might explore cosmic knowledge and yet escape damnation, and Conrad uses Marlow to show how one endowed with the ability to survive as he was might escape the condemnation of the company by not attempting anything more than survival. Marlowe and Conrad both condone the study and use of knowledge that upsets the established order as long as the users do not seek personal gain in upsetting the natural order.
Christopher Marlowe believes that Faustus? damnation lies in his desire to transcend the limits of his power and his place in the world by gaining a greater depth in the field of study which has just changed the world. Marlowe?s Faustus needs to be ?grounded in astrology?(7) in order to access ?a world of profit and delight, / Of power, of honour, of omnipotence?(5) The images in his conjuring circle include ?Figures of every adjunct to the Heavens, / And characters of signs and erring stars.?(11) With his astronomical/astrological knowledge, Faustus summons Mephistophilis, and proceeds to make a contract with him stating ?that Mephistophilis shall do for him and bring him whatsoever [he desires,]? and in exchange Faustus will ?give both body and soul to Lucifer, Prince of the East… and… that twenty-four years being expired, the articles above written inviolate, full power to fetch or carry the said John Faustus… into their habitation wheresoever.?(22) Marlowe could not make it any clearer that the end result of Faustus? knowledge of the stars was damnation. However, not all sorcerers are damned, for Marlowe also creates Valdes and Cornelius, friends of Dr. Faustus and practitioners of ?that damned Art,? who are ?infamous through the world?(10) for their skill. Yet no mention is made of their ultimate doom or damnation, nor is any reason given for why they escape Dr. Faustus? fate. Perhaps it is because their ambitions are smaller than Faustus? ambitions, and aimed more towards material wealth and security than towards forbidden knowledge and great power. Faustus says ?A sound magician is a mighty god,?(5) while his two companions are more concerned with ?huge argosies, / And from America the golden fleece / That yearly stuffs old Philip?s treasury,? and ?the treasure of all foreign wracks, / Ay, all the wealth that our forefathers hid / Within the massy entrails of the earth.?(7-8) Marlowe may be using these different motivations, and the resulting different outcomes, to indicate that, as long as the ultimate end is material gain and earthly things, necromancy is safe, and that Faustus? desire to transcend his place in the natural order of things is the cause of his damnation. Note the similarity between this and between what Copernicus? theories had done: both unsettled the natural order. However, Valdes, Cornelius, and even Faustus? slave Wagner meddled in the same world-shaking astronomy/astrology, yet they were not damned for it as Faustus was; Marlowe suggests that this is because they did not seek to rise above their position in the ?Great Chain of Being? and were content with improving their own welfare. Marlowe thus condemns those who would upset the natural order to be a ?mighty god? while condoning that same upset as long as the objective was merely earthly wealth and power.
Whereas in Faustus power is derived from knowledge of the subject of the revolution, power in Heart of Darkness stems from embodying the principles of the revolution. The ability to survive, the only thing that mattered in Darwin?s theory, endows the survivor with power in the Congo. The Manager of the Central Station remarks that ?Anything ? anything can be done in this country. That?s what I say; nobody, here, you understand here, can endanger your position. And why? You stand the climate ? you outlast them all.?(34) Once Kurtz has gained this power, however, he uses it ?to appear to [the natives] in the nature of [a] supernatural [being and] approach them with the might as of a deity.? He ?presid[ed] at certain midnight dances ending with unspeakable rites?(50) Another commentator on African culture writes of the Ryangans of Uganda that ?there is no distinction between the religious and the secular in their culture,?(Friel, 59) and so to appear as a deity is not as difficult as it might at first seem. However, to the other Europeans, this is atrocious (One is reminded of C3PO in Return of the Jedi saying, in a stuffy British accent, that ?it is against my programming to impersonate a deity?). The Manager removes Kurtz because his ?method is unsound.?(61)
However, Conrad condemned The Manager and the company as much, if not more, than he condemned Kurtz. There is no direct precedent in Dr. Faustus for an entity like the company, an organization ?faithless pilgrims?(26) who spend their time ?backbiting and intriguing against each other in a foolish kind of way.? Marlow says:
?There was an air of plotting about that station, but nothing came of it, of course. It was as unreal as everything else ? as the philanthropic pretence of the whole concern, as their talk, as their government, as their show of work. The only real feeling was a desire to get appointed to a trading-post where ivory was to be had, so that they could earn percentages. They intrigued and slandered and hated each other only on that account ? but as to effectually lifting a little finger ? oh no.?(27)
This sentiment extends all the way back to Brussels, home of the trading company, a city ?that always [made Marlow] think of a whited sepulchre,?(13) an allusion to Christ?s condemnation of the Pharisees for observing the letter of the law while forgetting its spirit. Conrad criticizes the trading company for living a lie, for being a ?papier-mache Mephistopheles?(29) that had no real power. This may be Conrad?s condemnation of those who would deny the truth, of Victorians who rejected Darwin?s theories and remained convinced of ?the uniqueness of the human soul,? (Stromberg, 103) and a reaction to things such as Winwood Reade?s ?story of a Victorian youth who brooded on the Book of Doubt (Malthus?s Essay on Population) and the Book of Despair (Darwin?s Origin of Species), then took his own life.?(Stromberg, 103) Conrad dismisses all this as ?a flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly,?(20) and much prefers Kurtz?s ?judgement upon the adventures of his soul on this earth,?(69) though that judgment be ?The horror! The horror!?(68)
Conrad also offers a view of moderation in the character of Charlie Marlow, a survivor of the Congo experience. Unlike Kurtz, he has no desire to become a deity. While he admits that ?The essentials of this affair lay deep under the surface, beyond my reach and beyond my power of meddling,?(40) his insights into the situation indicate he was just being modest there, and it was clear that he understood the situation quite well and could have probably assumed a position similar to Kurtz?s. His discussion of ?the savage who was fireman? is particularly telling:
?He was an improved specimen; he could fire up a vertical boiler… A few months of training had done for that really fine chap… He ought to have been clapping his hands and stamping his feet on the bank, instead of which he was hard at work, a thrall to strange witchcraft, full of improving knowledge. He was useful because he had been instructed; and what he knew was this ? that should the water in that transparent thing disappear the evil spirit inside the boiler would get angry through the greatness of his thirst and take a terrible vengeance. So he sweated and fired up and watched the glass fearfully (with an impromptu charm, made of rags, tied to his arm and a piece of polished bone as big as a watch stuck flatways through his lower lip).?(38-39)
Whether or not Marlow had been the one who had trained him, whether he had taken that first step of associating himself with the divine or not, is unclear. However, he obviously understood the situation well enough and could have assumed power had he wanted to. He didn?t, for he says of his dead helmsman that ?He had no restraint, no restraint, — just like Kurtz ? a tree swayed by the wind.?(51) Marlow uses his ability to survive so that he might survive, and doesn?t exploit it as Kurtz does.
?Don?t play god? is the most obvious message of both Conrad and Marlowe, a deceptively simple conclusion for two monstrously complex works. Yet its simplicity belies both a pertinence and an importance to readers of Conrad of both his time and ours. The temptation to play God was no so strong in the Elizabethan era precisely because the gods and fate had so much more power over the life of the average Elizabethan then they did over the average Victorian or modern, or at least they appeared to. Life was shorter and more fragile, and the security to which later ages have become accustomed was virtually unknown. And so Dr. Faustus, while it is certainly a cautionary tale, is cautionary on a far more abstract level than Heart of Darkness is, because for the Victorian the temptation to play God was very real, both at home and in colonies such as the Congo. Anytime that the divine, that the ?greater than? is removed from an aspect of daily life and something previously mysterious becomes comprehensible, man is empowered as much as he is belittled, for it is a common belief that anything not divine is subject to human control and exploitation. Thus, while Darwin and the Industrial Revolution removed man from the center of the universe, they also destroyed human humility before the divine and prompted mankind to attempt things heretofore thought impossible. And so Conrad wrote his cautionary tale, admonishing Victorians to remain mere humans. For the real danger of man becoming a god is not what he will do to the rest of the planet, for clearly people who make no aspirations to divine can destroy the environment, but what he will do to his fellow man (and, more often, woman).
Perhaps this is why Heart of Darkness remains so pertinent today. Since Conrad wrote it, the previously divine atom and gene have entered the realm of human knowledge, and men have dominated other men and the Earth on an immense scale. The horrors of fascism and totalitarianism were unknown to Conrad, as was the divine adoration accorded to such figures as Jim Jones, whose life mirrors that of Kurtz to a remarkable, and frightening, extent. Heart of Darkness is pertinent to all of these, and to those who might not play God to the same degree but are still tempted into abusing power given to them: bosses who demand 12 hour days out of their employees while they go play golf, men who beat their wives, parents who beat their children, legislators and leaders who abuse the power given to them by the people. Above all else, Conrad reminds us that, however degraded they might appear, our fellow humans are just that: humans. ?What thrilled you,? he wrote of the natives, ?was just the thought of their humanity ? like yours ? the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar.?(38)
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. 1899. Ed. Robert Kimbrough. New York: Norton,
Friel, Brian. Dancing at Lughnasa. New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1991.
Marlowe, Christopher. The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. 1604. Ed. Thomas
Crofts. Mineola: Dover Thrift, 1994.
Stromberg, Roland. European Intellectual History Since 1789. New Jersey: Prentice,
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