The horror! The horror!

Joseph Conrad (wiki)

The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad is among one of the most famous novellas ever written. Conrad had effectively travelled the Congo river from Matadi where it flows into the Atlantic to its other end in the east, Stanleyville or Kisangani. He probably met the infamous Stanley, but there is no doubt that he came across many people who had witnessed the atrocities committed by King Leopold’s Belgian soldiers avidly and rapaciously slaughtering elephants for their ivory, as well as their ruthless and murderous exploitation of the natives in their endeavour to gather latex for exportation to Europe, where the invention of the motor car had led to an insatiable demand for rubber. In his book, Conrad decides to concentrate on ivory. Kurtz is the agent of a company importing ivory, and after years in the jungle has gone native. Not out of love for the local population, but he has become obsessed by the idea that if there’s a single elephant left in the jungle its tusks belonged to him. Charismatic beyond comprehension, everybody he encounters is dazzled by his personality and by his highfalutin words. To the natives, perhaps impressed by the power of his guns, he becomes an almost divine personality. The narrator of the tale is Captain Marlow, despatched by head office to go find Kurtz and bring him back to Europe. First he sails to the Bas Congo (although the locations are not named in the book), fits his decrepit coaster and sets sail up the river. He begins to hear strange accounts of Kurtz, who is held in awe by everybody, white men as well as the natives. He forms a confused picture of the man in his head, until it becomes obvious to him that the man he is to take back to Europe has gone insane, and has almost certainly committed untold atrocities in his quest for riches. He hoards his ivory like Faffner guarding his gold in Wagner’s Ring. When Marlowe reaches Kurtz’s station he discovers that it is decorated by skulls of dead natives. Whose they were is not clear, but they might have been raiders from other tribes, killed by Kurtz’s army of locals who are devoted to him.

Kurtz might have been an idealist of some sort once, and he had probably set out on a mission to do good, perhaps to help the natives, but he had clearly lost his way. His stock of ivory from which he is not willing to part has become his sole obsession. When Marlow meets him, he is seriously ill and is in fact dying. He hands over papers to Marlow to be given over to the head office, as well as papers for his “intended” who he had left behind in Europe many years ago. When Marlowe finally reaches Europe, he goes to visit the latter in order to give her papers Kurtz had intended for her.

I have dramatised the meeting between Marlow and Kurtz’ “Intended” after he returns to Europe from the Congo, using Conrad’s own words wherever possible.

Elephant with ivory (Unsplash)

Captain Marlow enters a badly lit drawing room, filled with austere furniture and a grand piano. He feels uneasy from the start. He looks round blinking, prey to confused thoughts. he hears sounds from the past, including “The horror! The horror!” presumably as said by Kurtz as he lay dying. Enters the “Intended”, in extravagant black mourning cape. She walks towards him in a grand theatrical gesture and takes both his hands. Her attitude is one of exaltation bordering on veneration which Marlow finds disconcerting, but will try to hide it.

Intended

I heard you were coming.

The darkly lit room becomes slightly darker. She motions him to a chair and he sits, placing a packet on the table, ans she sits on another chair by its side, placing her hand on the packet.

Intended

You knew him well?

Marlow

Intimacy grows quick out there … I knew him as well as it is possible to know a man.

Intended

And it was impossible to know him and not to admire him …

Marlow

(blinking and uneasy)

Eh … eh … he was a remarkable man. It was impossible not to_

Intended

Love him! I know.

Uneasy silence. Marlow blinks ceaselessly and stretches the fingers of both hands nervously.

Intended

As you yourself said, it was impossible to know the dear man without loving him. And I daresay no one in the whole world knew him as I knew him. I had his noble confidence … I knew him best…

Marlow

But of course! You knew him best.

The room gets darker.

Intended

And you were his friend … you must have been if he had entrusted you with this (points to the packet) and sent you to me … I feel I can speak to you … Oh, I must speak to you… (getting more exalted) I want you who heard the last words he spoke … want you to know that I have been worthy of him. It’s not pride, you understand … yes, I am proud in the knowledge that I understood him better than … than anyone on earth … he told me so himself once … many years ago … (stifles a sob) and since his mother died … I’ve had nobody to talk to … about him …

Marlow had been dozing off wakes up with a jolt suddenly

… yes, yes, he drew people towards him by what was best in them … it is the gift of the great …

Marlow

(stifling a yawn)

Indeed he did, indeed he did.

Intended

Yes, you’ve heard him, you know what I mean …

Marlow

Yes I have … eh … I do.

Intended

(almost hysterical)

What a loss to me! To us! (after a pause) to the world!

Embarrassed silence.

Intended

I have been very happy …very fortunate … (very loud) very proud! Too fortunate, too happy … for a little while. Now I shall be unhappy for … the rest of my life. You and I_

Marlow

We will always remember him_

Intended

(Now tearful) And all this … this promise … his greatness, his generosity of mind, his his ambitions for those wretched heathens … nothing remains, nothing but a memory … no one to pick the torch …

(suddenly insightful)

It is impossible that all he’s done shall be lost … you know what vast plans he had … he told me … such a life should not be sacrificed. To leave nothing … his words must not die … his words …

Marlow

His words will remain_

Intended

(Forceful)

And his example! His goodness shone in every act.

Marlow

How true! I forgot that_

Intended

(aggressive)

But I do not! I cannot! I shall not!

Marlow

You’re right, we will not.

Intended

I cannot believe I will not see him again. Ever!

Marlow

(Interior monologue)

But I see him clearly enough. I shall see his eloquent, his ambiguous phantom as long as I live.

Intended

He died as he has lived.

Marlow

His end was in every way worthy of his life (to himself) whatever that means.

Intended

And I was not with him.

Marlow

Everything that could be done had_

Intended

Ah, but I believed in him more than anyone on earth … more than his own mother … (loudly) more than even himself. He needed me. Me! I would have treasured his every sigh, every word, every glance, every sign …

Marlow

Don’t …

Intended

Forgive me … I have mourned … so long … in silence … you were with him … to the last … I think of his loneliness. Nobody near, to understand him as I would have understood him … perhaps no one to hear _

Marlow

To the very end … I heard his very last words …

(In Marlow’s head, confused sounds) The horror! The horror!

Intended

Repeat them … I want … something …. something to live with …

In Marlow’s head: The horror! The horror!

Intended

His last words … to live with … Don’t you understand, I loved him, I loved him.

In Marlow’s head: The horror! The horror!

Marlow

The last words he pronounced were … was … your name.

Intended

(triumphant)

I knew it! I knew it.

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San Cassimally

Prizewinning playwright. Mathematician. Teacher. Professional Siesta addict.