Found this article from the Lithub, an interesting one.
The first dictum of medicine- primum non nocere- is that we must not harm. First, do no harm. Unfortunately it is difficult to intervene in a clinical scenario without causing some harm. Every drug we prescribe, many of the tests we order and every surgery we perform carry some risk of harm. ************************ We take […]
Reblogged via Out of the lockdown — Longrider
Author– Anton Chekov
Genre– Fiction/ Shortstory/ Realism
“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”
Anton Pavlovich Chekov needs no introduction to those who love classics and short stories, by and large, Russian literature. He was born in 1860 in Russia and grew up during the glory days of Russian literature reigned by Dostoevsky and Tolstoy when the literary style of Realism was on the rise. While practicing as a physician, he went on to write world-acclaimed plays and short stories in the realistic style, in simplistic, balanced, down to earth manner uncovering the mundanities and poetry of Russian life and the inner world of his life-like characters.
The mercurial temperament and abusive nature of his father, a grocer, painter and a religious fanatic, the financial hardships endured during growing up, and separation from his family are deeply reflected in his short stories, Vanka, The Steppe, and Sleepy. Becoming self-reliant at a young age, he took private tuitions, sold goldfinches and sold short sketches to a local newspaper, for his studies and secured admission to the medical school in 1879. Amidst the tough schedule at Moscow State University, he financially supported his family by writing humorous stories and selling sketches and by the age of twenty-six he had published more than four hundred short stories.
He never stopped practicing medicine and did so with the kind of empathy flashing through his stories, free of cost oftentimes until his final moments. He quoted, “Medicine is my lawful wife and literature, my mistress; when I get tired of one, I spent the night with the other”.
Though it is an exacting task to include or read all of his short stories, some must-reads include Ward No. 6, The Lady with the Little Dog, A Boring Story, The Student, Rothschild’s Fiddle, The Darling, Kashtanka, Vanka, Death of a Statesman, The Huntsman, A Dreary Story, Gusev, Chameleon, The Man in a Case.….( The list is countless). His personal favorite is said to be ‘The Student’.
He was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1898 and died in Germany in 1904. Witty and charming until the end, his last words were, ‘I haven’t had champagne for a long time‘, a sardonic reference to German Medicine at that time, of the etiquette of offering champagne to a patient with no hope for recovery.
The above-mentioned book in paperback format is a collection of twenty-three short stories. My personal favorite is ‘Ward No.6‘. ( There are many, but this one has lingered inside the heart and brain longer than the others for me). I shall get into the crux of this story only. Many of you might have read it. This is a re-read for me.
It was published in Russian in 1892 under the name ‘Palata No. 6‘. The story is set in a provincial mental asylum under the charge of Dr. Ragin who is a hero as well as an anti-hero. Though he started out with zeal and spirit, the monotony and uselessness of the filth and the lifelessness inside the ward wear him out and he stops his regular visits and leaves the patients under the care of the cruel warden Nikita, who beats them regularly. The situation changes when an intelligent young man, Gromov, is admitted to Ward No 6 with paranoid delusions. The doctor finds him interesting and visits him every evening. They discuss their beliefs philosophically. The doctor defends his philosophy of stoicism, according to which the external conditions that stir up our emotions are insignificant and one must remain stoic irrespective. “One must strive for the comprehension of life, and in that is true happiness,” says Ragin. The pain must be dismissed as an effort of will. To which Gromov asks, “Have you any idea of suffering? Were you ever thrashed in your childhood?” Ragin admits that he wasn’t. Gromov denounces all the injustices, whereas the doctor ignores all evils, due to his way of thinking, the reason for him ignoring the grim, filthy and shoddy conditions of ward No 6. There are other characters in the story, like Dr. Khobotov, who set his eyes on Ragin’s post and starts to scheme against him. A committee of local doctors concludes that Dr. Ragin is mad, after watching the heated debate with Gromov. They advise a holiday as the remedy and he finds himself penniless and jobless after returning. Dr. Khobotov snatches his position and in turn, admits him in ward No. 6. He realizes the fallacy of his philosophy and how little it helps to confront a real-life situation and he tries to escape but is stopped by Nikita and is badly beaten. The next day he dies of a stroke.
The story made a deep impression on Russians when it was published. The asylum was used as a metaphor for Russia and Dr. Ragin for the elites who ignored the problems of Russia. The confinement of the disillusioned, but sane (in a way) Gromov to the mental ward is a shadow of diagnosing the critics of Russia as insane and imprisoning them in asylums. Equally, reflections of Chekov himself are evident in the story, his doubts of himself as a physician, the tug of war between the sense of meaninglessness of life and a desire to embrace life with all its pain and a sort of fear of being alone, cut off from life. Lenin has famously said that it was Chekov’s stories that turned him into a revolutionary.
Maxim Gorky in “Anton Chekhov: Fragments of Recollections” writes, “That was characteristic of him, to speak so earnestly, with such warmth and sincerity, and then suddenly to laugh at himself and his speech. In that sad and gentle smile, one felt the subtle skepticism of the man who knows the value of words and dreams; and there also flashed in the smile a lovable modesty and delicate sensitiveness.”
In 1890, Chekov set out to Sakhalin Island, a penal colony north of Japan, through an arduous journey, where he spent three months interviewing convicts for a census. The visit took a toll on him mentally and physically, as he had to witness floggings, embezzlement and forced prostitution of women there. He was shocked and angered by what he saw and wrote, “There were times I felt that I saw before me the extreme limits of man’s degradation.” He was moved by the plight of children in the penal colonies, living with their parents. Chekov would later conclude that humane treatment of the convicts, and not charity, was the answer. He published his findings as a work of social science in 1893 and 1894 as “The Island of Sakhalin“. Later, he introduced the ‘The Hell of Sakhalin’ in his long short story, “The Murder“. “1Q84″, a dystopian novel written by Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, has a brief comment on Chekov’s writings on Sakhalin.
Virginia Woolf was a great fan of Chekov. On the unique quality of Chekov stories from her ‘The Common Reader‘, ” But is it the end, we ask? We have rather the feeling that we have overrun our signals, or it is as if a tune had stopped short without the expected chords to close it. These stories are inconclusive, we say, and proceed to frame a criticism based upon the assumption that stories ought to conclude in a way that we recognize. In so doing we raise the question of our own fitness as readers. Where the tune is familiar and the end emphatic—lovers united, villains discomfited, intrigues exposed—as it is in most Victorian fiction, we can scarcely go wrong, but where the tune is unfamiliar and the end a note of interrogation or merely the information that they went on talking, as it is in Tchekov, we need a very daring and alert sense of literature to make us hear the tune, and in particular those last notes which complete the harmony.”
Ernest Hemingway was more critical, “Chekhov wrote about six good stories. But he was an amateur writer.” Another great writer, Vladimir Nabokov criticized Chekhov’s “medley of dreadful prosaisms, ready-made epithets, repetitions.”But he also declared “yet it is his works which I would take on a trip to another planet” and called “The Lady with the Dog” “one of the greatest stories ever written” in its depiction of a problematic relationship, and described Chekhov as writing “the way one person relates to another the most important things in his life, slowly and yet without a break, in a slightly subdued voice.”
Chekov’s ambiguities, sense of absurd, range, the elusive nature of wit, have won him followers like Kunio Shimizu, the Japanese playwright. The way Chekov links humor and intense longing in his plays are stressed by many critics and followers. His humor and idiosyncratic world-view, his unceremonious life, is obvious in Suvorin’s( his friend) speech after Chekov’s death. He eulogized Chekov as “the kind of poet who sings like a bird – sings and rejoices.”
Author: Orhan Pamuk
Award nominations: National Book Critics Circle Award Nominee for Autobiography/Memoir (2005),
Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction Nominee (2005)
A part memoir, part cultural history, Pamuk takes the reader through the blue mist of the melancholic city, its ‘huzun‘ ingrained deep into the DNA of the dwellers, searching for his place in the city. Once you start reading, the picture of the city that shapes itself inside the mind turns out to be seductively irresistible. It is as if you embark on a guided tour of Istanbul, acquainting with the guide who confides the enigmas of the city to the tourist. ( Old Istanbul is literally heaped in history and culture). This is my second re-read. I just love it.
The melancholic dimension of Pamuk’s Istanbul allows one to abandon themselves in the yalis, mosques, Byzantine walls, Ottoman harems and all those less explored spots of the old city which he has contoured with his painterly eye. He weaves a kind of inevitable ennui layered with romantic despair, throughout the narration. His conflicts with himself and his parents, as a teenager, the nostalgia he harbors for the city, the variance of accounts by Western travelers and Turkish writers are well described. An interesting feature is the inclusion of his personal collection of photographs of the city, himself and his near and dear.
That he is an artist, a painter, has helped a lot in breathing life into the city on his sketchbook, notwithstanding the sentiment of all-pervasive ‘huzun‘ experienced in monochromatic shades through his prismatic fantasies. It’s too easy to slither away into the same ‘huzun‘ which he had experienced as a teen. The not so infrequent contretemps with his mother regarding his future, finally heeding to his instinct to be a writer, is emotive, evoking our own turmoil when it comes to choosing a profession that could conflate sustenance, relish and stratum ( the ‘relish’ part too often had to be compromised in pursuing the other two goals in Indian white-collar ambitions though, I for one, can’t agree more of the primacy that relish carries down the line).
A self-portrait of the artist as a young man, a splendid memoir of Istanbul and Pamuk, profound, delightful, well-researched and erudite, a must-read.
Author– Albert Camus (French- Algerian)
Genre– Philosophical Fiction
Award– The Nobel Prize( 1957)
Albert Camus biography
Born in Algeria (1913), he studied philosophy at the University of Algiers. His father was killed in 1914 during WW 1 and he was reared by his deaf mother. He spent most of his childhood days in poverty, under the blistering African sun on the plains of the Mediterranean (The sun and the sea are major presences in most of his works as the emotions and memories of his childhood, adult years and hometown.)
Camus developed Tuberculosis during his University years and had to do multiple jobs to support himself. Around the same time, he joined the Communist Party and founded the Worker’s Theatre group for presenting plays for the working class Algerians. His early essays were collected in ‘The Wrong Side and Right Side‘ and ‘Nuptials‘. These dealt with man and death in relation to the oblivious universe, his defenselessness, isolation and the final exit of death.
Severely critical of the French colonial government, he had to leave Algeria in 1940 and lived in Paris where he worked as a journalist for a while before returning to Algeria when Germans invaded France. He started teaching in a school in Oran where the background ideas of his famous works, ‘The Stranger‘, ‘The Myth of Sysiphus‘, and ‘The Plague‘ were outlined and given shape. While in France, during the German occupation he became one of the intellectual leaders of the Resistance Movement and founded and edited the underground newspaper Combat. Handsome, charming, charismatic, exotic, and empathetic, he captured the hearts and minds of millions of French as an advocate of social and political change.
Internationally acclaimed after publishing ‘The Stranger’, ‘The Plague’, ‘The Just’, ‘The Fall’ and ‘The Myth of Sysiphus‘, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957. The character Meursault in The Stranger, a literary paragon of honesty, a meritorious and murderous antihero, synonymous with Camus’s absurdity and irony, was absolutely novel to the readers who accepted him and the book with open arms. Meursault’s realization of loss of freedom after imprisonment and the isolation of the Oranian citizens in ‘The Plague‘ seems similar.
His masterpiece allegorical work, the most successful one ‘The Plague‘ was published in 1947 when Camus was thirty-three years old. Without the usual gimmicks and overripened plots, his somber narration captured the misery of isolation and death, that resonated with the postwar readers. The novel is hugely introspective and personal, his dislike for the materialistic town of Oran when compared to his home town of Algiers clearly evident. He was advised against swimming, something he loved the most, as a result of his worsening Tuberculosis while in Oran and was forced to spend his days and night in the stifling heat within the Oran walls. He is describing the heat that confined him as if in a prison, in The Plague. Similarly, exile, isolation, and illness are major themes of the novel, something he personally suffered after French Algeria was cut off when Allies landed in North Africa, the Germans having responded by occupying Southern France, then governed by the puppet government of the French Marshal, Philippe Petain, Camus thus separated from his wife and mother until after WW II was over. Within a year it had been translated into nine languages and many more, later on, and it has never been out of print.
Camus became quite ill during 1949 when he isolated himself and started publishing his political essays. ‘The Rebel‘, a work of revolt was published in 1951, which became controversial and broke his friendship with Jean Paul Sartre. ‘The Fall’ was published in 1956, different from his other novels on account of first-person narration (others are mostly narrated in third-person) and the setting in Amsterdam and not North Africa. The book deals with the confessions of guilt by a lawyer haunted by his guilty conscience, who refused to help a drowning woman during a suicide attempt. It is a mirror of contemporary society.
Camus was killed in a road accident in 1960, three years after being awarded the Nobel Prize. His unfinished last novel, ‘The First Man‘ was posthumously published in 1994.
I had read this allegorical, philosophical fiction some time back. This is a re-read for me, but as in any Classic or any book for that matter, each re-read opens up a whole lot of different perspectives with the age and life experiences of the reader. The Italian novelist Italo Calvino( author of ‘Invisible Cities‘ and ‘If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller‘) in his short essay, ‘Why read the Classics?’ delineates seven points as the reasons, of which the one that I love the most is, ‘ A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say’.
While the whole world is reeling under the Corona pandemic, borders closed, neighbors and even our loved ones isolated and fighting an invisible enemy alone, this masterpiece of Camus seems so prescient in its literal elucidation of a city similarly under lockdown after a plague epidemic, the citizens condemned to an abyss of nonexistence. We, in today’s world, are far ahead of Camus’s citizens in ‘The Plague‘, technologically, socially, economically. Still, the meaninglessness and triviality of all the progress have never been more exposed as in epidemics and pandemics, not even during the war, when people contend with an invisible enemy that might kill us, even with an act as innocuous as a gentle touch or as existential as breathing in.
One cannot but reckon the absurdity and impotence of human lives in the vast Universe while going through the news reports from around the world of physicians having had to choose death for particular patients who could otherwise have been rescued, people who just a few days back were jovially enjoying lives, now dying lonely without their dear ones near the bed, saying their last goodbye through video chat, or coffins lined up head to toe in morgues for days awaiting a solitary burial without the attendance of loved ones. In Italy where many learn in school about the dreaded Monatti who, preceded by the ringing of a little bell, retrieved corpses on carts during the 17th-century Milan plague, the amassing of dead bodies seems out of another time.
“The plague had already entered Milan,” Alessandro Manzoni writes in “The Betrothed,” the 19th century Italian literary classic renowned for its vivid descriptions of the 1630 pestilence that gutted Milan, written almost 200 years ago. He describes how the plague arrived in Lombardy from outside, how the Spanish kingdom that ruled over them failed to react at first and how the people first ignored and then panicked ( Exactly as what has happened there during the Corona pandemic). In the novel, people become suspicious of foreigners, authorities squabble among one another, scarcity of necessities arise and a health emergency takes shape.
The novel picturizes the dreaded cart men (hooded Monatti) winding their way through Milan’s streets and “purposely let fall from their carts infected clothes, in order to propagate and keep up the pestilence, which had become to them a means of living, a kingdom, a festival.” Manzoni writes that “the city, already tumultuously inclined, was now turned upside down.”
( This haunting watercolor is by the Italian artist, Gaetano Previati, his most ambitious undertaking as a draftsman: a set of innovative illustrations for a deluxe 1900 edition of Alessandro Manzoni’s historical novel The Betrothed. Part of the story takes place in Milan during the plague of 1630. Here, Previati illustrates a passage in which Manzoni describes the grim role of the hooded monatti, or corpse carriers, who bore plague victims to the isolated hospital or an open grave. Previati’s watercolor features two ghostlike monatti (corpse carriers) descending a flight of stairs in a constricted alleyway, their frames weighed down by the naked body, which casts a foreboding shadow. )(https://artmuseum.princeton.edu/collections/objects/52856)
‘The Plague‘ brings to light Camus’s philosophy of Absurdism. The novel answers these questions in detail. What would it feel like if your town, state or country is shut off from the world, it’s citizens quarantined and isolated as a contagion spreads, disrupting daily lives, people dropping dead like falling autumn leaves? The book chronicles the abrupt arrival and slow departure of a fictional outbreak of bubonic plague to the Algerian coastal town of Oran in the month of April, sometime in the 1940s. Once it has settled in, the epidemic lingers, roiling the lives and minds of the town’s inhabitants until the following February, when it leaves as quickly and unaccountably as it came, “slinking back to the obscure lair from which it had stealthily emerged.”
Camus studied in detail the history of plagues before writing the book(probably he used the same narrative method as Daniel Defoe’s 1722 fiction ‘A Journal of The Plague Year‘ about the London plague of 17 th century). He read about the Black Death that killed an estimated 50 million people in Europe in the 14th century, the Italian plague of 1630 that killed 280,000 across the plains of Lombardy and the Veneto, the great plague of London of 1665 as well as plagues that ravaged cities on China’s eastern seaboard during the 18th and 19th centuries.
In the 14th century, the bubonic plague, also known as the “Black Death” killed almost a third of the people on the continent of Europe. When it rampaged through London in 1656 and 1657, it killed nearly a quarter of the population. The bubonic plague still exists today, not only in pockets of Asia and Africa but in the American Southwest. It’s transmitted by fleas from infected rodents and causes high fever, vomiting and painful swellings called “buboes” (hence the name “bubonic). Even when treated with antibiotics it had a death rate of 10 percent; and if untreated, up to 90 percent. Coronavirus is nothing compared to this.
The plague had decimated the city of Oran in the 16 th and the 17 th centuries. Though Camus relays the clinical progression and aftermath of the disease literally, he is allegorically picturing it in sociological and philosophical terms. His true subject is not so much clinical as metaphorical. He uses the contagion as something that subdues a population to any corrosive ideology like Fascism or Totalitarianism, man-made disasters, calamities, war- the list could be very long. Camus had seen the Nazis overrun Paris in 1940 during World War II. While he was writing The Plague, he was the editor in chief of Combat, the underground magazine of the French Resistance, whose contributors included André Malraux, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Raymond Aron.
What is quite surprising is that, in the novel, exactly as it has happened in many countries during the current Corona spread, Oran’s bureaucrats minimize the threat of plague as a false alarm and dismiss it as ‘a special kind of fever‘ until the evidence becomes undeniable and underreaction is more dangerous than overreaction. We could catch sight of how some world leaders just dismissed the corona pandemic as an ‘absurdity’ giving sway to the economy than health or life. In Camus’s words ” When abstraction sets to killing you, you’ve got to get busy with it.” He writes: it’s universal human frailty: “Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world, yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky.” The catastrophe erases ‘the uniqueness of each man’s life‘ and the isolation and powerlessness become a collective emotion.
Another pandemic of misinformation and disinformation, one that is much difficult to treat, let alone cure, has been wreaking havoc since the advent of new technologies that came handy to the public. There is constant friction between facts, alternative facts, faith, lies, and fables. Those who shout out objective facts are slammed by naysayers who get themselves trapped in these media bubbles. The current situation of denial was pictured by Plato in his famous “Allegory of the cave“. He speculated a lightless cave with eternal spectators buckled to their seats watching projections of what they would believe as limits of reality (This was way before the modern cinema halls!). Those of them who escaped the cave witnessed the rays of the sun( reality), but they got ridiculed and killed while they tried to spread the information( truth). The anti-scientism naysayers and deniers are not unlike these shackled crowd who never escape the bubbles of misinformation and disinformation, spreading them via the bubble blowers of new technology. Remember, this had been the norm for ages back, since the time of cavemen. The father of handwashing, Ignaz Semmelweis, who hypothesized the connection between unwashed hands of doctors and puerperal sepsis( sepsis after childbirth) and professed handwashing with chlorinated lime before assisting childbirth, in 1847, was criticized, ridiculed and attacked by his peers and he died as an insane man in an asylum, later.
During my first read, I had paid more attention to the clinical manifestations of plague, the physical suffering of people, the lime pits more than the psychological, philosophical and sociological dimensions of Camus’s dispassionate, but visceral narration. The “hectic exaltation” of the people caught up in the epidemic bubble of isolation when they decide to dress up and stroll aimlessly in “the frantic desire for life that thrives in the heart of every great calamity” burns into my heart, after reading it again, the import of community life for any individual. While practicing the art of ‘social distancing’, dutifully following hand washing and other measures, we might well wonder, for how long? We do not know and Camus did not know the answer either.
Reading between the lines, this masterpiece seems like a prophetic warning of many more epidemics of war, contagions, totalitarian governments, man-made disasters, and more so, the moral bankruptcy at the core of a society faced with any of these. According to Camus, “There have been as many plagues as wars in history yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.”
The story is set in the Algerian city of Oran, where thousands of rats stagger into the open and die mysteriously. The population is gripped by hysteria and newspapers shouts out for action, forcing the authorities to dispose of the carcass of rats. When Michael, the concierge of the hospital where Dr. Rieux works, dies of fever, and a cluster of similar cases appear, he and his colleague Castel realizes that the fever and deaths are due to bubonic plague. The authorities and other doctors are in denial and they refuse to acknowledge or take decisive steps to stop the spread until it becomes impossible to deny the facts. Now, the whole city is placed under quarantine and authorities enforce strict sanitation measures.
The isolation creates an intense longing for their loved ones, separated from them, some of them in other cities and countries.“The first thing that plague brought to our town was exile,” the narrator notes. Convinced that the plague is a punishment to Oran’s sins, Father Paneloux delivers a sermon. Each individual thinks that their pain is unique compared to others. Raymond Rambert, a journalist, tries to escape Oran to rejoin his wife in Paris, but the bureaucrats prevent him. Dr. Rieux struggles to surmount the pestilence. Rambert tries to flee with the help of Cottard’s criminal associates. Finally, he is ashamed to flee after coming to know that Dr. Rieux, despite being separated from his wife is battling the plague. “This whole thing is not about heroism,” Dr. Rieux says. “It may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency.” Another character asks what decency is. “Doing my job,” the doctor replies. The character, Cottard greets the plague with open arms. He had committed some crime before and he feels happy that he is not alone in fearful suffering. He utilizes the epidemic to amass wealth.
After the exile lasts for months, the residents of Oran learn that theirs is collective suffering and decide to fight it together. Dr. Rieux shouts at a shaken Father Paneloux, after Othon’s son suffer an excruciating death, that the boy was an innocent victim and delivers a second sermon, modified from the first. He exhorts Christians to choose between believing everything or believing nothing about God. Father Paneloux dies clutching the crucifix and refusing treatment and the doctor identifies his case as doubtful.
Finally, the epidemic comes to a halt and the lives of the citizens change for good. But, Cottard couldn’t cope, he fires his gun randomly and is arrested by the police. Rambert’s wife joins him in Oran, Dr. Rieux’s wife dies of prolonged illness. The novel ends with the public soon forgetting everything and returning to their normal lives except Dr. Rieux who keeps in mind that the war against plague is not over as the bacillus remains dormant before reappearing again.
Dr. Rieux “knew that this chronicle could not be a story of definitive victory,” Camus writes. “It could only be the record of what had to be done and what, no doubt, would have to be done again, against this terror.” The plague, he continues, “never dies”; it “waits patiently in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, handkerchiefs and old papers” for the day when it will once again “rouse its rats and send them to die in some well-contented city.”
The narrator point of view of The Plague is third-person limited. The perspective of the narrator is limited and he knows only what is going on inside the heart and mind of one person. Only in the last chapter does the narrator reveal his identity. Tarrou’s journal entries throw some light on experiences outside the narrator’s description. This is a plot device used by Camus to provide the readers with additional information. There are collaborators, deniers and sympathizers of the plague. Some like Cottard think health teams are a waste of time and use the scourge to make money. Tarrou is sympathetic and tries to overcome his past by action and words. Father Paneloux is the voice of fatalism, that the scourge is the result of one’s sins. Grand, the clerk is the symbol of unheroic resistance.
The epigraph is meaningful and we run into the allegory over and over again during the entire novel. It is taken from the preface of volume III of Robinson Crusoe.
” It is as reasonable to represent one kind of imprisonment by another, as it is to represent anything that really exists by that which exists not.” –Daniel Defoe
Daniel Defoe’s 1722 fiction ‘A Journal of The Plague Year‘ about the London plague of 17 th century is similarly narrated in third-person limited narration.
Though Camus intends objectivity of narration, his atheistic, social and philosophical beliefs are scattered everywhere in the novel. He was fed up with questions that presumed to be given definite conclusions as to the answer. He mentions this in the novel to Rambert- ‘The language that he used was that of a person who was sick and tired of the world he lived in-though he had much liking for his fellow men- and had resolved for his part to have no truck with injustice and compromises with the truth‘. Similarly, Camus’s view against the judicial death penalty is reflected in Tarrou’s confession to Rieux, ‘ I thought I was struggling against the plague. I learned that I had indirectly supported the deaths of thousands of men, that I had even caused their deaths by approving the actions and principles that inevitably led to them’. Camus might be reflecting on his Communist years here when Tarrou says, “We are all in the plague…. All I know is that one must do one’s best not to be a plague victim…. And this is why I have decided to reject everything that, directly or indirectly, makes people die or justifies others in making them die.” The novel exposes his positions against some of the Communist ideologies, political/ judicial murder, that led to the end of his friendship with the other postwar intellectuals in France. The style of narration reminds us of a journalistic one, probably from years of Camus’ journalistic experience. The readers should not expect the typical impressionistic devices of a novel in this book.
The setting of the novel is in the Mediterranean North African city of Oran. Apart from the specific geographic location, his description of the people tend to border on the satirization of the Western people as a bored crowd with armchair attitude and cultivated habits and whose main purpose was “doing business”, those who fritter away what time is left for living.
Camus stresses his philosophical ideas of absurdism through the argumentative dialogues of the characters giving importance to these than the plot. It is not the disease plague that he is talking about, but only using it as an allegory. It is important to get an idea of Camus’s philosophy of the absurd in the core of the novel. It is basically a mix of existentialism (a philosophical theory or approach which emphasizes the existence of the individual person as a free and responsible agent determining their own development through acts of the will)and humanism (a rationalist outlook or system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters.)
The philosophy of absurd is a realization and recognition of the fact of one’s own death. Camus, an atheist never believed that human suffering, existence or death has any rational meaning in an irrational universe. He exhorts to choose to fight until the end against death and suffering. Camus announces the death of different people in the novel until the fact hits home for everyone, according to him one begins to live only when he realizes this fact. The announcement of death is paramount in Camus’ philosophy and in his novels. Camus believes in fighting and rebelling against death and not fleeing from it. He explains death as discomfort. The mention of a “normal” dying man, “trapped behind hundreds of walls all sizzling with heat,” suggests the mazes of Dante’s hell, mazes which must be traversed before the plague’s thousands of deaths are tolled.
Camus intends a didactic approach and he stresses the moralistic points very often. This has a touch of irony in that though the narrator professes to be objective, we could clearly find the shadows of Camus’s atheistic beliefs and philosophical views on the narrator. Though, the moralistic tone is carefully delivered by Camus, not in a preachy manner. Such a rebellion is considered noble by him. He defines heroism as ordinary people doing extraordinary things. out of simple decency. He repeatedly stresses to be optimistic at times of hopelessness. The citizens of Oran realizes the collective suffering and understand that death will strike whether they do nothing or act in defiance. They choose between the two and decides to act together. This is exemplified through the character, Rambert, the journalist, who realizes his moral bankruptcy of giving importance to personal needs, and afterward blending with the collective conscience and participating to eliminate the scourge.
Camus has treated the concept of freedom in an ironic way. Exile and isolation are important themes in the novel, something close to his heart. At the beginning of the novel, the narrator says, “the first thing that the plague brought to our fellow citizens was exile,” and that “being separated from a loved one…[was] the greatest agony of that long period of exile.” He makes use of the same themes in his other works too, thus emphasizing the absurdity of life when anything like these could strike anytime from anywhere. In ‘The Stranger‘, the same absurdity comes to play when Mersault murders the Arab randomly. The irony with interpreting freedom in The Plague is that, even before the quarantine, their freedom was questionable, as they were enslaved to habits. The people love mechanically, robotically without desire or intelligence. The love gone wrong in Oran is a symptom of disease even before the plague strikes. The vital living is suppressed by the habits cultivated by the soulless people. For instance, in Oran love-making is relegated to weekends. Camus tries to explain the strangling of natural responses by habits that simplify a person to simplemindedness. Recognizing the bottomless death in its horrible form and confrontation with death creates new values in the living. Things change after the plague and the people learn to love in the absence of their loved ones whom they had taken for granted before the plague.
” It is impossible to see the sea“, the narrator tells. The sea here is a symbol of life. One could swim nakedly and boldly in the sea, but in social waters, swimming is done blindly against the hypocritic, jealous people.
As a Godless Christian, Camus expounds the Christian virtues in terms of sacred love for man and not to God. Another notable feature is Camus’s use of contrast. He contrasts the ordinary and extraordinary, for example, the ordinariness of Oran is contrasted with the extraordinariness of the plague. ( We can see the use of contrast in The Myth of Sysiphus too- the natural and extraordinary, the Universe and the individual, the tragic and ordinary). For Camus, the Universe is full of paradoxes and contrasts- man lives, yet is condemned to die.
The rats are symbolic of the plague and the people. They drop dead as the people would, later on, the indifference to their death from the people symbolic to the indifference of the Universe to the deaths of people. There is a contrast in Camus’s adjectives too. Dr. Rieux feels something soft under his foot, but in contrast to something pleasant that could have been associated with the adjective’soft’, he encounters the bloated corpse of a dead rat. Similarly, when a rat comes out of the sewer it spins on itself with a squeal, a miniature ballet before death. Camus says later that the rats were coming out in long swaying lines and doing “a sort of pirouette.” He describes the blood puddles around their noses as looking like red flowers. Again, as in Chapter 1, he uses an extreme contrast — here, to point to the absurdity of the symptoms: rats can’t be seeping out of houses and sewers for a reason — rats’ deaths can’t be beautiful. Yet both are. The blood seeping from the mouth of the rats reminds him of the blood spurting from his wife’s mouth in the sanatorium. His early indifference with the dead rats changes to a kind of civic duty while he phones the sanitation department to deal with it.
Rieux’s mother exemplifies the attitude of the nonchalance of Oran residents. She is blase, she has seen war, gone through depression, a seen- much, lived- through- much person who survives. The journalist Rambert is a foil for Dr. Rieux, whose compromises with truth contrasts sharply with the honest Dr. Rieux.
Dr, Rieux’s fight to overcome the red-tape of bureaucracy, his colleague’s insistence that there is no definite proof that the disease is infectious, isolation of the doctor by the others- all seem to replicate in the present scenario of Corona pandemic. The progression of the novel is akin to the unfolding of a Greek tragedy, the scenes playing out the familiar fate and agony of Oedipus or Creon.
Camus exhorts each of us, wallowing in the comforts of life, to prioritize moral responsibility. All through the novel, he sympathetically parses good and evil, sympathizers and doubters, believers and nonbelievers through his allegory of a moral contagion sweeping through the society. The character of Cottard, an enabler in spreading the plague, and the numerous citizens who were sleepwalking and dutifully oblivious to the situation on the ground, are lucid references to the pre and postwar French citizenry similarly complacent of the puppet Vichy regime of German occupiers and their studied postwar amnesia. We would be able to appreciate Camus’s views of moral responsibility, humanism, judgment ( cleaved of its divine part), and empathy through the characters. The citizens beating Cottard at the end reminds us of the punishments meted out to collaborators after the Liberation by French men and women forgetful of their wartime sufferings, who gave color to their compromises and guilt in the form of revenge. He repeats the importance of doing something or taking responsibility during a crisis as goodness and not as heroism. He writes, that joining the health team during the plague in itself was not of any significance, but not joining must have been incredible. Rieux remarks, ‘ when you see the suffering it brings one must be mad, blind, or a coward to resign oneself to the plague‘. Thus his narrative is not a eulogy to heroism. Though many men and women had given their lives during the French Resistance, Camus was overtly uncomfortable with attaching heroism to deeds deemed as a responsibility by him. He abhorred the smugness and moral superiority with which many resistors (including many of his intellectual friends) looked down at those who didn’t do anything.
‘The Plague’ was criticized by his intellectual contemporaries who dismissed its tone, ambiguities, and moderation as politically incorrect. Simone de Beauvoir criticized its use of disease as an allegory of Fascism. She thought people who read the work would never take history or political responsibilities seriously. Roland Barthes, literary critic, in 1955 accused Camus of offering the readers ‘an anti historic ethic‘. Another barb aimed at him is vis a vis the ambiguities in the metaphors and judgments. Though it could simply be analyzed that Camus was using plague as an analogy for Fascism, the conclusions about good and evil, guilt and innocence, reside in a gray zone. Tony Judt, in his recent analysis of The Plague in his introduction in the new translation of The Plague by Robin Buss(Penguin Books), mentions Hannah Arendt with her notion of “banality of evil”, the idea that unspeakable crimes can be committed by very unremarkable men with clear consciences. ‘ Like Hannah Arendt, he saw that “the problem of evil will be the fundamental question of postwar intellectual life in Europe—as death became the fundamental problem after the last war.”
The Plague, originally written in French is highly allegorical, steeped in philosophy, a war allegory with a commentary on WWII. The Nobel Committee regarding his combined work declared them as “illuminating the problems of the human conscience in our times.” It is a philosophical heavyweight work, is a masterpiece that gets you thinking of the absurd, even if you do not belong to the particular camp. He was a moralist, who tried to define good in all, who understood human frailties and his narrative does not breed political polemics. But, it is sure to make you a Camus fan with each re-read, and an admirer of his philosophy, the absurdity of human life and the knowledge that the plague lies dormant within human nature and no one is immune to its ravage.
Author- Rosemary Sullivan
Genre- Nonfiction/ Biography
An unambiguously commendable feat from the author, Rosemary Sullivan, an irresistible and mind-blowing biography of Svetlana. The book stands out as a meticulously chronicled, assiduously researched, and intensively scrutinized memoir of the only daughter of Joseph Stalin. There are a handful of memoirs of Svetlana, out of which this one proffers an itemized elucidation of the identity and idiosyncrasies of Svetlana and the rationale of her actions matter of factly, in their historical, cultural and emotional contexts.
It literally upended my preconceived and prejudiced notion of her identity and disposition as a fairy tale princess reared on the lap of opulence by a cult figure loathed by many and revered by some. I still remember having gone through an article about her which had appeared in an English daily in 2011, the year of her death, which bears testimony to how the media can distort the facts and figures to a consummately grotesque way to the point of an egregious read, besmirching a person with presumedly concocted veracity claims, which is simply beyond the pale for any conscienced soul.
This book puts right the garbled facets of her personality for those who had misread her before and puts up a spellbinding read for those new to explore her. The author has methodically scoured through a treasure trove of references which include biographies, Svetlana’s personal missives, word of mouth accounts by Svetlana’s daughter, relatives, friends and a lot more.
The transfiguration of her life from one of facile comfort to an out and out destitution, the precariousness of her cardinal resolutions including the moment of her defection to the U.S, the capriciousness which very often than not presided over her reason, vacillations of her psyche, mercuriality of conduct, the incessant hankering for unmaterialistic and unconditional love which elicits extreme poignancy in terms of the tragic turn her relationships took without exception, occasional imperiousness that paradoxically reminded her friends about her pedigree, even as she tried every bit to steer clear of Stalin’s shadow until her last breath…. all these make the book a compelling read.
Though she had been trying hard to erase those scorched memories by running away from everything that had the stamp of Stalin, reading between the lines, I felt, she had always harbored an iota of tenderness for Stalin and this is somewhat obvious from her own memoir( NYT best selling memoir, Twenty Letters to a Friend, which is a very interesting read) in which she doles out an equal share of responsibility of his atrocities to his accomplices and lackeys who had been complicit and persuasive in his acts.
The memoir is eminently readable, riveting, transfixing, revealing, enlightening, poignant to a certain extent….. worth the time one spends for it.
Author– Joseph Conrad
Genre– Novella/ Fiction/ Roman-à-clef / Colonial literature/ Frame Story
Themes– Colonialism/ Racism/ Savagery versus Civilization/ Exploration/ Time/ Hypocrisy of European Imperialism/ Absurdity of evil
Joseph Conrad (born Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski), Polish by birth, was the only child of the Polish poet, writer, translator and political activist, Appollo Korzeniowski. Homeschooled by his father, he introduced little Conrad to the works of Shakespeare, Victor Hugo, and other Polish authors. His career as a sailor began in 1873. His first novel is ‘Almayer’s Folly’(1895). The novella ‘Heart of Darkness’, Conrad’s most famous, influential and controversial work, was first published in Blackwoods Magazine in 1899 as a three-part serial story and published as a book form in 1902.
Heart of Darkness begins on the deck of the Nellie, a British ship anchored on the coast of the Thames. The anonymous narrator, the Director of Companies, the Lawyer, the Accountant, and Charles Marlow sit in silence. Marlow begins telling the three men about a time he journeyed in a steamboat up the Congo River. For the rest of the novel, Marlow narrates his tale. Structured as a frame story, it is not a first-person- narrative but initially narrated by an anonymous person who listens to Marlow on the deck of Nellie.
Marlow begins by briefly explaining London’s dark history and the Roman invasion to his companions. Then, London might well have been a dark place where the Romans struggled to adapt. ( They had the bond of the sea between them. The Thames is described as a venerable stream, a conduit of history, of Romans, triremes, Gauls to the once dark England. It had served the great knights-errant of the sea like Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Franklin, the dark “interlopers” of the Eastern trade, generals of East India Fleets, bearers of the spark from the “sacred fire”( civilization).
Marlow was a seaman who”still followed the sea“. He was different from other seamen leading sedentary lives without an eye for the mystery and with a disdainful ignorance. But, for Marlow, ‘ the sea was the mistress of his existence and as inscrutable as Destiny‘. He loved to spin yarns as hazy as the halo enveloping the glow. With his typical ascetic gesture, Marlow embarks on the story of his travel to the farthest point of navigation, the impact it had on him, how it enlightened his shadowed mind with the somber, pitiful light, though it was hazy.
Voyages had always awed Marlow and after a journey through the East, he hankered for an adventure, but to a relatively unexplored place, a blank space on the map that had captivated him as a child, a delightful mystery, later filled with lakes and rivers, a place of darkness. He was charmed by the huge snake with its head on the sea, its body curving, the River Congo, like a silly little bird. Marlow, with the influence of his aunt, got hold of an appointment as the captain of a river steamboat. He got the job in place of a Danish captain who was killed in an altercation with the natives( Conrad describes the Company building in Brussels as a “whited sepulcher“.This is an allusion to Mathew in The Bible. Similarly, he sees two women knitting as he enters the building. This is another reference to his sealed fate- The Greek Mythological Fates – or Moirai – are a group of three weaving goddesses who assign individual destinies to mortals at birth. Their names are Clotho (the Spinner), Lachesis (the Alloter) and Atropos (the Inflexible)). Marlow had been told about the sublime nature of the captain who went out for a noble cause, that changed after the interactions with natives, transfiguring him to a killer( example of contradiction that Conrad uses in the novella). The natives left his body to rot, fearing the supernatural voodoo hoodoo possessed by white men and had fled the village.
Conrad uses the symbolism of the silent knitting women for the tight-lipped, know-all, rules-based control of the Company over its employees. They are symbolic of sealed destiny, knitting black wool for a warm pall. ” Not many of those she looked at ever saw her again” The non-disclosure agreement that he signed indicates this and he got the air of something not quite right from the start itself. Even the clerk’s sententious, resolute reply and the doctor’s farcical questionnaires, zany actions and prescient warnings gave an eerie feeling to Marlow. From the start, it is clear that Marlow was not blindfolded by the specious appearance of the glorified Company as an ‘ emissary of light weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways’. He mentions how out of touch women like his aunt were, who got carried away by this rot let loose in print and talk.
Marlow left Brussels in a steamer and along the way, his perspectives of the coast of Africa and the natives began to unroll. The coast he glimpsed was featureless, still in the making with a monotonous grimness( in contrast to other places with an enigmatic appeal, mute with an air of whisper ‘ come and find out’). He describes the forest with the huts dotted in the midst as ‘ God-forsaken wilderness‘. Even the names of trading places seemed to him ‘ to belong to some sordid farce acted in front of a sinister black cloth’. ( The symbolism is less like that of a percipient interpreter of the ambiance and more towards a prejudiced mind contrasting it as a mere backdrop with farcical characters). Marlow describes the native boatmen as having ‘ faces like grotesque masks‘, yet, realizing that they were vital humans still, took comfort in straightforward facts. But that wouldn’t last long as he witnessed a French warship insanely firing into the continent without any trace of an enemy. He describes the feeling like a “lugubrious drollery” (Another instance of oxymoron from Conrad). He got a general sense of death, of a vague and “oppressive wonder” as the steamer moved along the river, ” a weary pilgrimage amongst hints for nightmares”. The skeptical and cynical tone of the Swede captain about the activities of the Company staff roused him to be on the qui vive.
A rocky cliff, with houses and mounds of turned-up earth, reminded him of “inhabited devastation” where black, naked people moved like ants. He witnessed decayed machinery, rails, and mindless toil by the natives for no purpose other than just toil. The naked chained toiling men with “death-like indifference” were less like enemies, and more like criminals punished by an outraged law, an “insoluble mystery from the sea”. Though not prone to emotive excesses, the sight triggered a moral disquietude in him and he discerned the hypocrisy hidden among the lust of the red-eyed, rapacious devils committing a pitiless folly in the name of enlightenment ( Conrad satirizes the Company many times using his witty styled prose One example of this is the sentence in which he describes the purpose of a purposeless trench dug by the natives – ” it might have been connected with the philanthropic desire of giving the criminals something to do”). ( Another example of allusion is seen in the sentence describing the feeling he got when he stepped under the shade of trees- “it seemed to me that I had stepped into the gloomy circle of some Inferno” – alludes to Dante’s Divine Comedy). The natives were not enemies or criminals, not even humans, but black shadows of disease and starvation.
Marlow witnessed with horror, the collapsed, weak and dying men scattered on the earth and left to die. (Conrad’s descriptions and adjectives seem a bit inflated and egregious. He describes them as phantoms and creatures!!). The scene is contrasted with a well dressed, preened and primed colonist, an accountant that Marlow met in the station office, so uncanny that he took it first for a vision. Even the groans of a dying native or the buzzing flies in his office did not move him from his work. The kept-up appearance in that demoralization awed Marlow, something which he tallied with character, accomplishment, and backbone(Though a minor character in the novella, the Accountant mentioned above symbolizes the studied obliviousness and the blatant nonchalance of the Company towards the subjects). Marlow got an initial picture of Kurtz, described as a remarkable individual who sent much of the ivory from the Central Station, from the Accountant.
After a 200 mile grueling tramp, on the course of which he noticed the solitude of hills ablaze with heat, ruins of huts without the dwellers, Marlow reached the Central Station where he learned about the sinking oh his steamer. The meeting with the general manager, a successful, cold, blue-eyed man, with a stealthy half-smile brought the picture of the character, Kurtz again to Marlow. ( There is an allusion to the Arthurian round table here. This man had built a round table for dining, partly to fend off the altercation among his white staff as to who should sit where and partly to imply his sitting position, wherever it was, to be the first and the rest nowhere). He learned of the perils in the upper stations and to Kurtz and the much-needed exigency of action to evacuate the stations and Kurtz whose fate was unknown and guessed at. Marlow was assigned the task to regain the sunken steamer and mend it in three months’ time. He started working on it, turning his back on the goings-on there, still appalled at the “faithless pilgrims bewitched inside a rotten fence”( an allusion to John Bunyan’s ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress‘), whose “imbecile rapacity for ivory blowing like a whiff from the corpse“.
Months passed by and the futility and hypocrisy of the Company dawned more and more on Marlow. (Conrad employs the symbolism of the manager carrying water in a pail with a hole at the bottom to douse a shed-fire that was blazing with all its might). He encountered Company ‘pilgrims’ with job descriptions on the face of it, but ill-intentioned to make wealth from the ivory trade, intriguing, plotting against, and slandering others, an unreal setting as feigned as the philanthropic pretense of the Company, their talks or show of work. He exclaims, ” By heavens! there is something after all in the world allowing one man to steal a horse while another must not look at the halter”. This would provoke sympathy and even the most charitable of saints would act in response. Marlow gradually got more information about Mr. Kurtz as an emissary of pity, science, and progress, yet the sensation of absurdity overcame him as he was unable to bring up an image to mind no more than one of an angel or a fiend. He stared with horror at how a native was beaten for the shed-fire and the black shadows moving listlessly on the station ground in the backdrop of a silent forest. The staves in the hands of the Company staff, the mystery, silence and the concealed reality of the place perplexed him. Marlow’s work of overhauling the steamer got suspended due to the nonavailability of rivets, a straightforward errand in itself, but taken precedence by other obscure missions in the station.
Marlow learned more about Kurtz from the manager who told him that Kurtz is supposedly ill. The dubious disposition of the manager and his feigned concern for Kurtz made Marlow suspect his involvement in wrecking the steamboat to intercept the supplies from reaching Kurtz. The suspicion turned true when he overheard the conversation of the manager and his uncle about the former’s fear of losing the managerial post to Kurtz and the latter’s assertion of the power of the jungle to do away with him. Having had the steamboat repaired, Marlow left for the Central station along with the manager, some agents and a crew of cannibals to take relief to Kurtz. Nearer to the Inner station they were attacked by arrows by some unknown natives which killed a henchman and Marlow got disappointed that Kurtz might have been killed by those natives as well. Marlow felt a kind of distant kinship and regret for the dead helmsman.
And when they reached the Central station, they encounter a half- English, half- French man, a frail. sick, bald man, Mr. Kurtz. He had lost his mind in the wilderness, where civilizational instruments of checks and balances are absent. Having been assaulted by the power of darkness, ordinary humans would not thrive there or else one needed to be an exalted creature, deaf and blind to anything but heavenly sights and sounds. Hence the faith and devotion in the back-breaking business of ivory trade. When Marlow met Kurtz, he was out of his nerves that caused him to preside over midnight dances and rites. Marlow found a pamphlet written by Kurtz in which he exhorts the Whites to appear as supernatural beings to savages and to approach them with the might of a deity. He had pictorialized an exotic immensity ruled over by an august benevolence. Amongst the eloquent, burning words and the altruism was the postscriptum ‘exterminate all the brutes’. Kurtz emerged as a composite character with the power to charm and frighten the savages and for commanding misgivings as well as camaraderie among the whites. Kurtz had a Russian assistant, who explained to Marlow the reason for the attack by the natives, they did not want Kurtz to be taken away, they adored him. As Marlow approached the hut, he distinguished the ball shapes on the stakes around it as human skulls.
The native’s heads, those of rebels, on the stakes struck Marlow as symbolic rather than ornamental and laid bare the brute who had done this for the gratification of lust or fulfillment of something wanting in him, though there was nothing profitable behind this act. Kurtz might have been bewitched by the solitude of the wilderness that avenged him for the invasion and echoed within his hollow core the deficiencies he harbored. The natives adored Kurtz to the extent that they crawled before him on all fours. The Russian, Kurtz’s last disciple seemed to fawn over him subserviently and exclaimed his feelings at how Kurtz was abandoned by the Company people.
Kurtz was taken on a stretcher to the steamboat and when the boat started to move, the natives and his mistress appeared at the shore. His health deteriorated and the steamer broke down the river, while he handed Marlow a heap of letters for safekeeping from the Company people. He died uttering the words “horror, horror” and got buried in a muddy hole.
The narration ends with Marlow visiting Kurtz’s fiancee and handing over the private letters and a portrait to her. When asked what his final words were, Marlow lied to her that it was her name. The anonymous narrator now resumes his narrative and the narrator looks at the overcast sky over the Thames that seemed to lead him into the heart of an immense darkness.
Character analysis of Kurtz
One of the most impenetrable characters in twentieth-century literature, Kurtz is an embodiment of oxymoron and symbolic of not just the darkness inside the empire, but an amplification of greed and lust harbored by all men. He is at the same time a brutal tyrant as well as a god-like cult figure among the natives. The evil at the core of the empire is personified as Kurtz. The Company feels his actions menacing as he turns out to display his intent without the sugarcoating of the ostensible enlightening narrative of the empire. Though his intent was philanthropic at the beginning ( enlightening the natives as the symbolism in his painting suggests), the coercive power of the dark jungle remolds him into the actual brute that he becomes.
His unsound methods in trading ivory without the veil of good intentions make him a thorn in the eye of the Company people. While Brussels is a white sepulcher of hypocrisy, Kurtz does their bidding brazenly. Marlow explains this clearly in the sentence ‘all of Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz’.
Review and analysis
Heart of Darkness tells the story of Charles Marlow, a contemplative sailor, who describes the journey up the River Congo into the heart of Africa to meet an ivory trader named Kurtz. The dark episodes and the absurdity of evil of European colonialism and imperialism are brought to light in this short novel. The characters are based on real-life that includes the novella in the Roman-à-clef genre. Like Marlow, Conrad traveled through Congo in 1890. He describes the novella as ‘ an experience pushed a little beyond the actual facts of the case’.
It is not an easy read, an intricate work of art, a Byzantine composition, intentionally made arduous for the reader to feel the grueling journey through the jungle, though Conrad’s witty slices are scattered throughout. Structured as a frame story, it is not a first-person- narrative but narrated initially by an anonymous person who listens to Marlow on the deck of Nellie. The narrator’s ideas of colonial Europe and its imperialistic exploits and ambitions, underpinned by lies, changes after listening to Marlow’s perspectives on the characters. Heart of Darkness fundamentally points to the darkness inside the heart of civilized Europe during colonialism. What makes it an arresting read, is the gradual unraveling of the horrors perpetrated by the ostensibly civilized colonizers that Marlow happen to encounter in Congo, one that instigates him to see through the facileness and dig into the shallowness, a self- seeking exercise in a way, and fathom out the darkness beneath the civilized whiteness.
The end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century signified the heydays of European colonialism( a scramble for Africa and division of the continent under many European powers, though Belgium was the worst) and the concomitant atrocities and genocides. The accounts of Henry Morton Stanley about his travels through Africa ( Adventures and Discoveries in Central Africa and Through The Dark Continent) were best-selling books in Europe at the time and the greedy King Leopold II of Belgium colonized Congo under the guise of civilizing the people and dispensing largesse, in effect plundering its wealth(ivory and rubber) and capitalizing on slave labor, whipping them with chicotte (dried hippopotamus skin) and beheading them( The historian Adam Hochschild‘s book, ‘King Leopold’s Ghost’ deals with these atrocities). Conrad’s novella is the real-life scenario of Leopold’s Congo, the atrocities he had witnessed during his travels, slavery, murder, only the names altered, the events are a fervent recountal of facts that had existed in broad daylight.
The 1979 film, ‘Apocalypse Now‘ was inspired by this novella though the setting was changed to jungles of Vietnam during the Vietnam War. The movie explores America’s military involvement in Vietnam and the figurative “darkness” that led to the apocalypse in the hearts of those sent there to fight. In T.S Eliot‘s poem ‘The Hollow Men‘, he uses a sentence from the novella, “Mistah Kurtz-he dead” as the epigraph. The essential hollowness in the core of the white colonialists is the gist of Heart Of Darkness. The work has inspired writers like William Golding ( The Inheritors), T.S Eliot( The Waste Land), Orson Welles, George Orwell (1984) Graham Greene (A Burnt-Out Case) and Francis Ford Coppola ( 1979 film Apocalypse Now). The capacity of his work to instigate debates, criticisms or even polemics and the staying power makes it one of the best classics in English literature.
The novella broke the generally embraced narrative conventions of the time for its ambiguity( “foggishness” in Conrad’s words) that Marlow uses for the subjective perception of conflicts and horrors. It’s somewhat interesting that Conrad, not a native English speaker, learned the language when he was in his twenties. He has once said that he would prefer French to the English language without clean edges and whose words are instruments for exciting blurred emotions. Ironically, this could be one reason for the palpable ambiguity in the novella. It is a classic that captivated many readers and irked a few critics like the British novelist, E.M Forster for the ambiguity and the Nigerian novelist, Chinua Achebe for the implicit and explicit racism in it. Achebe denounced it as the work of a bloody racist in his 1975 lecture. The eagle-eyed English critic F. R. Leavis drew attention long ago to Conrad’s “adjectival insistence upon inexpressible and incomprehensible mystery.” Achebe dismisses Conrad’s adjectival insistence as not a mere stylistic flaw or felicity, but a trickery to induce a hypnotic stupor in the mind of readers by the bombardment of emotive words and though regular readers usually bypass such tricks and baits, here Conrad had chosen the subject astutely and assumed the role of purveyor of comforting myths- one that would not put him in conflict with the reader’s mind or one for which he would not have to contend with any resistance.
In Achebe’s words,” [Heart of Darkness has] Africa as a setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor. Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril. Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind? But that is not even the point. The real question is the dehumanization of Africa and Africans which this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world”
“Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as “the other world,” the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality. The book opens on the River Thames, tranquil, resting, peacefully “at the decline of day after ages of good service done to the race that peopled its banks.” But the actual story will take place on the River Congo, the very antithesis of the Thames. The River Congo is quite decidedly not a River Emeritus. It has rendered no service and enjoys no old-age pension. We are told that “Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world. Is Conrad saying then that these two rivers are very different, one good, the other bad? Yes, but that is not the real point. It is not the differentness that worries Conrad but the lurking hint of kinship, of common ancestry. For the Thames too “has been one of the dark places of the earth.” It conquered its darkness, of course, and is now in daylight and at peace. But if it were to visit its primordial relative, the Congo, it would run the terrible risk of hearing grotesque echoes of its own forgotten darkness, and falling victim to an avenging recrudescence of the mindless frenzy of the first beginnings.”
“Although the work of redressing which needs to be done may appear too daunting, I believe it is not one day too soon to begin. Conrad saw and condemned the evil of imperial exploitation but was strangely unaware of the racism on which it sharpened its iron tooth. But the victims of racist slander who for centuries have had to live with the inhumanity it makes them heir to have always known better than any casual visitor even when he comes loaded with the gifts of a Conrad”.( Source-http://kirbyk.net/hod/image.of.africa.html).
It is exactly the sort of mythologizing Africa( as a place of savages and cannibals) and racism sticking out like sore thumb amidst Conrad’s main purpose of unveiling the dark colonial legacy, that is rubbing up critics like Achebe the wrong way. In his 1958 novel, ‘Things Fall Apart‘, Achebe documents the spiritual history of Igbo people, their rich and civilized life before European colonization. The novel critiques Conrad’s work as not differentiating myths from facts when approaching the subject of Africa and seeing it through the white colonizer’s prism.
The title has aroused one of the most critical debates in the history of literature. Though from Achebe’s perspective, these allegations are true, more so as the reader attempts to step into his shoes and read the book, it is unjustifiable not to take into consideration the period during which the novella was written, the historical context and the zeitgeist captured during the middle and late nineteenth centuries when neither colonialism nor racism at their pinnacle was reckoned as ills or evil, but as run-of-the-mill and the travel writings and art projected and cemented the savagery as a pivotal and constant theme in them. A novel or any work of art was read/ seen for its literary qualities/ aesthetic values only. So, the then critics focussed on the form of the novel only. At the time Conrad, a creature of his time, would probably not have been able to present anything other than an imperialistic world-view. Though he criticizes imperialism, he finds it unavoidable in the end in part by vindicating Kurtz.
Contradictions and ambivalence abound in Conrad’s writing. Taking an example, Fresleven, the Danish captain has been described as a sublime soul who ends up murdering a native. Another example is the accountant, whom Marlow meets at the company station in Congo, who maintains an immaculately clean suit and coiffed hair despite the filth and chaos reigning the station- a light in the darkness. his views on life are ambivalent. Conrad begins the story by glorifying the idea of colonialism but shatters it by expounding on the horrors of Belgium Company in Congo. His justification of colonialism as “devotion to efficiency” transforms into”robbery with violence“. He repulses at how the natives are treated, still, they have never been conferred the equal human status as the colonizers. Near the end, Conrad describes life as ” that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose”– at once meaningful and meaningless. Whether these were adjectival flaws on his side or studied insertions are still debated.
The veil of hypocrisy employed in vindicating the purposes of imperialism is torn off to expose the nefarious activities of the company men. They describe their activities as ‘trade’ and ‘civilizing missions’ all the while suppressing and exterminating the natives. Though we feel that Marlow is trying to expose the hypocrisy, he has objectified and dehumanized them and they are just a framework for him to philosophically self-contemplate and expound on an existential struggle( Marlow refers to the native helmsman as a piece of machinery and Kurtz’s African mistress as a piece of statuary). This kind of implicit racism is much more sinister than the explicit one as per Conrad’s critics.
Kurtz’s madness is employed to gain the reader sympathy. Whether the Company or the natives are responsible for his madness is hazy. Similarly, Marlows moral confusion and absurdity in the judgment of evil, insanity and social values are evident in the part where Kurtz’s homicidal tendencies and a leaky bucket evoke the same reactions from him. Marlow is trapped between the devil and the rock and is forced to choose the lesser of the two evils- a hypocritic Company or rule-defying Kurtz.
The pointlessness and futility of the European mission in Africa are elaborated by a few instances like a French warship firing at an invisible enemy, the pointless attempt to extinguish a burning grass hut, and the random hole digging by slave laborers. The hollowness and moral bankruptcy of the colonizers is alluded to in the description of the chatty brickmaker with a forked beard and hooked nose (alluding to Devil) who he meets at the Central Station. He describes him as “papier-mache Mephistopheles” ( A demon in German folk-lore, he appears as the devil who tempts Faust into selling his soul in the drama ‘Faust‘ by Goethe and in the 16 th century English play ‘Dr. Faustus‘ by Christopher Marlowe). The brickmaker has ” nothing inside but a little loose dirt”. The same allusion is applied in the case of Kurtz. Marlow describes the African wilderness whispering to Kurtz- “It echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core.” Later, as Kurtz lays dying, he is described as a “hollow sham” of his later self.
Heart of Darkness was not the only artistic work where critics missed the racial content during those times. The famous art critic John Ruskin did not acknowledge the racial content of JMW Turner‘s painting The Slave Ship. Though, there were westerners like the Alsatian polymath Albert Schweitzer who was a theologian, organist, writer, humanitarian, philosopher, and physician( he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952) who sacrificed his brilliant career to serve the people in the same heart of Africa that Conrad describes as the seat of savagery, during the same time frame. This equivocality of perspectives is something to give thought to, during the period when the book was written and also while reading this book at any time period.
The way by which a reader approaches a work, literary or art, depends on many factors like how subjective or objective he/ she is, whether biased or unbiased, level of emotiveness in sympathizing/ empathizing/ hating/ liking a subject/ character and so on. The senseless murder by the character, Mersault in Albert Camus‘ ‘The Stranger‘, the imprudent murders by the character Raskolnikov in Dostoyevsky‘s ‘Crime and Punishment’, the abhorrent repulsive transgressions and sin of the deluded pedophile Humbert Humbert in Nabokov‘s ‘Lolita’– these are a few characters that linger and blemish our mind like indelible blotches. We adore these masterpieces, yet, when we read them, we get to encounter the goods and evils alike but never can/ never do we vindicate the evils they had done, the reader should never be short-sighted to blindly follow what the characters say or do. Exactly so, as an unbiased and impartial reader, though I could think highly of this masterpiece, notably Conrad’s use of foggy adjectives, symbolisms and imageries, his virtuosity for story-telling, modernist style, attempts at tearing the facade of colonialism……..the apparently misplaced adjectives seem a bit convoluted when he describes the savagery of the indigenous people in ostensibly racist terms with contradictory symbolisms and imageries, as something so bestial as to be inclined to spawn madness in a white colonialist man. Never can I vindicate or sympathize with a character like Kurtz. We are reading it in the 21- st century, and hence it is absolutely impossible to ignore the explicit racism while Conrad describes the African subjects in the darkest of tones and be impersonal to his narrative, though his intent might have been sublime in exposing the raw Company and its deeds. It is hard to leave the racist tones out of the picture, though there is a specter of the intentional fallacy while judging and critiquing any artwork, more so something that has famously triggered debates, through the frame of reference of a historian or psychologist.
All of which eggs on the mind to question the definition and criteria of the civilized- is it skin color? Is it the ability to read, write, communicate, dress up? Does it make the colonialists civilized or any better than a bunch of hoodlums, taking into account their hooliganism and plunder of the colonies, seizing hold of their wealth, thrusting them to indigence and ill-health? Naked, dark or savages, let them be, they never traveled west to invade or plunder the hypocritic, self-proclaimed “civilized society”. They led their own lives, followed their rituals or practices, living as units and families in communities without engendering any harm to the outside world, disconnected from the “civilized” society until the scramble for Africa took root, not for the ostensible humanitarian purpose but for looting and repressing them. Barring a few egalitarian souls like Albert Schweitzer, all of the “civilized” west from the Dukes and Monarchs to their minions in the lowest rung, men and women of letters including, literally and figuratively committed unpardonable, execrable barbarities in the colonies, which in itself is the single most reason to debar them from the canonical “civilized” society. And it is not cumbersome for the reader to discern, in whose heart the darkness dwells.