Author: Joseph Conrad
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company Inc.
The 1997 edition of the Nelson Canadian Dictionary defines irony as an “incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs”. For example, a review attempting to explain in an explicit manner the inevitable ambiguity of words could be qualified as ironic. Modernists like Joseph Conrad favour a subjective recreation of existence in all its inordinate and confusing complexity. Because words are merely symbols for what they designate and because they can be interpreted in a number of ways, modern writers view objective truth as unattainable and impossible to directly convey, sort of like Kurtz in Heart of Darkness.
Though we’re only introduced to him in the third and final section of the novel, Kurtz remains an important presence throughout Heart of Darkness, which tells of an ivory transporter travelling down the Congo River in search of a notorious procurement agent. The narrator’s eagerness constantly leads the readers to believe they’re about to meet him: “I was then rather excited at the prospect of meeting Kurtz very soon. When I say very soon I mean it comparatively. It was just two months from the day we left the creek when we came to the bank below Kurtz’s station.” Marlow is obsessed with the notion of Kurtz. Meeting him becomes his only ambition: “I had traveled all this way for the sole purpose of talking with Mr. Kurtz.”
At this point, Kurtz is not a person to Marlow but rather an elusive presence. He is intangible: “I didn’t say to myself, ‘Now I will never see him,’ or ‘Now I will never shake him by the hand,’ but, ‘Now I will never hear him.’ The man presented himself as a voice.” This doesn’t change once Marlow meets Kurtz. He still refers to him as a shade and as a wraith: “I am trying to account to myself […] the shade of Mr. Kurtz. This initiated wraith from the back of Nowhere honoured me with its amazing confidence before it vanished altogether.”
Kurtz is the living embodiment of Europe: “his mother was half-English, his father was half-French” and his name is a German word. He comes to Africa “equipped with moral ideas of some sort”, but, once there, he lacks “restraint in the gratification of his various lusts”. He is blatantly greedy: “You should have heard him say, ‘My ivory.’ Oh yes, I heard him. ‘My Intended, my ivory, my station, my river, my…’ everything belonged to him.” Kurtz symbolizes the true nature of European colonialism in all its depravity.
It’s worth noting that Marlow journeys several months before finding Kurtz or rather the truth of him. According to modern writers, this elusiveness or intangibility characterizes truth in general, which is impossible to express through mere words: “He [Kurtz] was just a word for me. I did not see the man in the name any more than you do. Do you see him? Do you see the story? Do you see anything? […] it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence–that which makes its truth, its meaning–its subtle and penetrating essence. It’s impossible. We live, as we dream—alone.”
In other words, focusing on abstract concepts and symbols instead of clear depictions of the concrete, modern writers perceive truth as intangible, like a phantom that haunts our consciousness but never fully penetrates it. In Heart of Darkness, Marlow is haunted by the notion of Kurtz, a man who stands as a symbol for the true cruelty of European colonialism. His truth turns out an ugly, shameful one that had been denied by Western society. It is then ironic that Conrad would be among the first to expose this truth, all the while advocating the elusiveness of truth itself.