Heart of Darkness

by Theodore Dalrymple (Oct. 2006)


Recently, I had occasion to re-read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. It is a short book, and I have now read it so many times that I seem to know whole paragraphs off by heart (and Conrad’s paragraphs can be long).


By now, it is pretty well established that Conrad did not exaggerate the horrors of Belgian colonialism in his story, especially in its earliest phase when the Congo was but the personal fiefdom of the rapacious and utterly unscrupulous King Leopold (who, incidentally, so wished his capital, Brussels, to resemble Paris, that he knocked down the medieval Flemish heart of the city, that was as beautiful as Bruges, and had the grossly sub-Parisian city that we know today erected in its place).


Conrad describes the loose talk of the early colonialists as having been ‘reckless without hardihood, greedy without audacity, and cruel without courage.’ With contemptuous irony, he calls them ’pilgrims.’ Whatever their mission, it was definitely not civilisatrice.

Heart of Darkness is often taken as being unequivocally anti-colonial or anti-imperialist, perhaps because such an interpretation would redeem its portrayal of Africans as cannibals at worst, and uncomprehending savages at best. Only in this way can Conrad, who is acknowledged by everyone to have been a great writer, be made to appear sufficiently in sympathy with our modern susceptibilities.


Actually, I am not sure that the story is quite as anti-imperialist as we should like to suppose. The narrator, Marlow, describes how he looked at a map of Africa just before being appointed to the command of a river boat on the Congo. In those days (just after the Congress of Berlin, that partitioned Africa between the European powers), areas of Africa were coloured according to the empires to which they belonged. Blue, for example, was French. Marlow says this: ‘There was a vast amount of red – good to see at any time, because one knows that some real work is done in there.’ Red, of course, was the cartographic colour of the British Empire.


Now of course Marlow was a fictional character, and it is an elementary mistake of literary criticism to identify too closely the opinions of a fictional character for those of an author. Yet the biographical parallels between Marlow and Conrad himself are too great to ignore completely. They went to the Congo at the same time. Some of the phrases in Conrad’s diary of the time – the first of his known writings in English, his third language – appear in Heart of Darkness. And Conrad is known to have been a great admirer of the British. I think it unlikely that, at least on this subject, his views were too far removed from those of Marlow.


So it is specifically Belgian imperialism that Conrad condemns – though, of course, he is making a much wider point than that King Leopold and his acolytes were very bad men. The heart of darkness is the heart that beats within us all, awaiting its chance to express itself. Conrad was a materialist and an atheist but, in a sense, he believed in Original Sin. It was inscribed in our biological nature.


But what was ‘the real work’ of which Marlow spoke, when he saw large areas of red on the map of Africa? This is a question whose importance has not declined in the intervening years, indeed of late it has become more acute, despite the complete disappearance of the British Empire in the intervening century. Is it the job of any country in the world to do ‘the real work,’ indeed is any country capable of doing such work? Upon your answer to this question depends your attitude to foreign policy: is it the pursuit of your interests, or is it to do good (‘the real work’) in the world?


As a doctor and psychiatrist, I spent an awful lot of my professional life trying to change individuals in a direction that I thought appropriate and beneficial for them. I am not under any illusions about how far I succeeded. I think I succeeded very little. At the best, I implanted the seeds of change rather than caused change itself. It was often the case that my patients had adopted grossly self-destructive paths in life, that viewed dispassionately and with a minimum of common sense could lead to nothing but misery, despair and chaos. Indeed, my patients often acknowledged this themselves, at least intellectually.

‘Yes, yes,’ they would say, ‘of course you are right.’ And they would promise to change, and to take all the very obvious steps to amend and improve their lives.


When I was young and inexperienced, I believed them. I felt very pleased with myself. It then came as a shock to me that, despite all their protestations of desire to change, they persisted in their folly. My words had not produced their salutary effect after all. I might as well have said nothing at all. When I was young, I thought my pearls had been cast before swine; later, I realised the profound truth contained in La Rochefoucauld’s maxim, that it is easier to give good advice than to take it. When I considered my own life, I saw that this was so; most of the wrong decisions I had made, especially the worst and most important of them, I had made knowingly, in full knowledge of the ill consequences to which they would lead. If I have been saved from disaster, it is by native cunning rather than by superior wisdom.


But if it is so difficult to change a comparative handful of individuals, most of whom have the strongest possible reasons to change, how do you change whole nations, let alone whole cultures?


Of course, it is easy – nothing easier in fact – for the powerful to have an effect upon the weak and the seemingly powerless. The trick is for the powerful to have precisely the effect upon the powerless that they want, and in my view this is never possible. The weak may bend before the powerful, and may change their ways for them, but rarely (actually, I think never) in precisely the way in which the powerful want.


The disparity in power between the colonising nations of Africa and the native Africans was much greater than that between the United States and the Iraqis. ‘We have the Maxim gun and they do not,’ sums this up. But it is unlikely that at any stage of the colonial enterpsie in Africa, the colonisers had precisely (or even approximately) the effect that they thought they were having, and no other. In the late stage of British colonialism, for example, the British fondly imagined that they were bequeathing to various African countries institutions that would function in the same way without them as with them. In retrospect, this now seems an almost laughable belief. No better example of this could be had than Uganda, that land that Churchill called ‘the pearl of Africa.’ (Beware of pearls of continents, and above all Switzerlands of continents: for them, special horrors are usually reserved. The only exception to this rule known to me is Costa Rica, the Switzerland of Central America.)


This is not to say that the colonialists left nothing behind; the continent they invaded was changed for ever. For example, traditional forms of African political authority were destroyed once and for all, in favour of western-style nationalists, who spoke the language of freedom but dreamed the dream of power. Whether this constituted an advance or a deterioration depends not only on the facts, but on the values that you hold dear. It boils down, in a way, to the question of whether you think corrugated tin roofs are better than grass roofs. No definitive answer can perhaps be given to this thorny question.

What is certain is that the colonialists changed Africa for ever. The arrow of politics, like that of time, flies in one direction only. You can conserve, perhaps, but you cannot return. The impis of the Zulus will never again stomp the hills of Natal, nor will the Azande return to the prelapsarian state in which the anthropologist, E E Evans-Pritchard, found them, when they believed that all deaths were caused by witchcraft. The Sudanese government has made sure of that.


So where does that leave us? I have always thought it a mistake to suppose that our example is so utterly splendid that everyone will want to copy it on the first contact with us. For one thing, our example, while admirable in some respects, is not admirable in all others. And for a second, people are inclined to prefer their own path to the path we suggest for them, simply because it is theirs. As Dostoyevsky pointed out a long time ago, if there were a government that arranged everything for our own perfect good and nothing but our own perfect good, thinking nothing whatever of its own good, we should still rebel against it merely to express ourselves as human beings. In fact, of course, no such government has ever existed or will ever exist.


In Africa, where I spent a number of years, I saw that the best of intentions did not necessarily produce the best of results (I worked for several years in Tanzania, where billions of Scandinavian, Dutch and World Bank money wrought nothing but economic and social disaster.) This is not, of course, an argument in favour of the worst of intentions. It does not follow from the fact that the best of intentions often produce bad results, that the worst of intentions produce good ones. It is, alas, a truth of human existence that the paths to disaster are many, the paths to success few. Tolstoy had it exactly right when, with regard to personal relations, he said that all happy families are happy in the same way etc. etc.


If what I am saying is true, then foreign policy should be the pursuit of interests and not of virtue, at least among others. Of course, one hopes that ones interests are not incompatible with benefits to others: trade is an example of this. The fact that I derive a benefit from selling you something does not obviate the benefit you receive by buying it. But when I sell you a pair of pyjamas, I do not suppose thereby that I am promoting your marital fidelity. With luck, I am making myself a profit, and you comfortable at night.

Should, then, we be seeking to instil our notions of democracy in the Middle East? The first thing to remember is that freedom and democracy are not necessarily the same thing at all. A people may easily vote into power a government that wishes to massacre part of the population. (In Equatorial Guinea, in Africa, the first democratically elected president either killed or drove into exile a third of the population, executed all people who wore spectacles as being dangerously intellectual, and kept the national treasury under his bed, at least until he was executed by the present president, his nephew.)


Democratic elections in Palestine and Iran have not necessarily been to our advantage, as the late Emperor Hirohito might have put it. I am far from suggesting that our sonofabitch must be better than all other possible sonofabitches (or should it be sonsofabitch?), but it is worth remembering that the alternative to bad is not always better.


It is one of the common charges in the Middle East against the west that it has supported dictators and not promoted democracy. The latter, however, is desirable only where the people are infused with a spirit of tolerance and moderation. Freedom and democracy are not in the gift of anyone, and to suppose that they are is to hinder their only real, that is to say, indigenous, development. As the physician in Macbeth pointed out, sometimes the patient has to minister to himself. Our job is to make sure the patient doesn’t spread any diseases to us.


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