Quinn on Heart of Darkness
We cannot read Quinn’s Ishmael without re-evaluating ourselves. Quinn confronts us with powerful revelations about mankind. According to Quinn, if we continue to live in our taker lifestyles, we will eventually destroy ourselves. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness illustrates a real life manifestation of Quinn’s insights. Written nearly a century ago, Conrad’s tale of early English imperialistic taker lifestyle still resembles present day taker lifestyle. We still try to rule other lands and people. We still have the attitude that everything centers on man. We still exhaust Earth’s resources and kill its creations. Above all, we still do all this with ignorance.
With Ishmael as a guide, we can better understand how Conrad’s more intricate story critiques taker lifestyle. Laying out the major issues in Ishmael will reveal insight to the imagery and symbolism in Heart of Darkness.
Quinn states that man believes that the leaver community to be “a place of lawless chaos and savage, relentless competition, where every creature goes in terror of its life” (Quinn 117). Not until takers conquer these places of “lawless chaos” can these lands be “paradise for man” (222). Until then, these lands and its inhabitants are wrenched and in the wrong. Conrad establishes this mentality at the beginning of Heart of Darkness. We are instantly aware of the imagery of dark and light. Traditionally, dark represents evil and light represents good. Conrad begins with associating savagery with darkness and civilization with light. Conrad’s protagonist, Marlow, explains his version of the origin of England. He asserts to his shipmates, “When the Romans first came here, nineteen hundred years ago Light came out of this river Thames since. But darkness was here yesterday” (Conrad 3). Takers demand that everyone and everything must be civilized. To takers, “civilize” means living by their beliefs and their lifestyle. Like gods, takers believe “they know what is right and what is wrong to do, and what they’re doing is right” (Quinn 167). Everything and everyone is to live the taker lifestyle because that lifestyle is the right way to live.
Oddly enough, the taker culture actually performs the exact opposite results from what it attempts to accomplish. As Ishmael preaches, “everything was in good order. It was the Takers who introduced disorder into the world” (146). When man thought he was not exempt from the laws of nature, he and everything was fine. When man decided that he was exempt from the laws of nature, he introduced chaos.
Ishmael indicates to his pupil that takers do not wish to realize their destructive ways. To them, ignorance is bliss. If takers actually gave up their lifestyle, “it would mean that all along they’d been wrong. It would mean that they never known how to rule the world. It would meanrelinquishing their pretensions to godhood” (Quinn 168). Takers’ ignorance is evident in Heart of Darkness. When Marlow visits Kurtz’s fiancee, she is still in mourning over Kurtz. She has been dressed for mourning for over a year. And yet, her devotion is not actually to Kurtz himself, but rather to his image. She is wholly devoted to the seemingly noble purpose of Kurtz’s mission to Africa. Like takers, she desires to believe in the greatness of men like Kurtz and their ideas without realizing that it is wrong and harmful. Her loyalty to his image is so dedicated that Marlow must lie to her. Marlow does not admit that Kurtz deserted his ideas of civilizing the African culture and that his last words were “The horror! The horror!” Instead, he tells her that Kurtz’s last words were her name. The only purpose this serves is letting her cling to her false impressions, strengthening the belief that takers are right.
Another example of this blindness is visible in the imagery of Kurtz’s painting. Marlow sees the painting on the wall of the Brickmaker’s room. It depicts a woman blindfolded, carrying a lighted torch. Traditionally, we think of such an image as representing justice or liberty. Kurtz’s painting is deceiving. She exemplifies the Company, willingly blinds itself to the horrors of its destruction in the name of civilizing. Ishmael points out that the only way to end the vicious ways of takers is to “free themselves of Mother Culture”the nurturing mother of takers’ beliefs. As with Kurtz fiancee and the painting, no person is going to exonerate himself of Mother Culture if he puts on his blindfolds.
What is the ultimate goal? Ishmael reveals the source of takers’ mentalitytakers want to be gods. Takers act “as if they eat at the gods’ own tree of wisdom, as though they were as wise as the gods and could send life and death wherever they please” (Quinn 177). Takers believe that they can do better than the gods; they can take the gods work into their own hands. The difference between takers and leavers is that leavers live in the hands of the gods, while takers try to live beyond the reach of the gods. Some major symbols and images in the Heart of Darkness suggest man trying to accomplish his ultimate goal. As Marlow enters the Company’s headquarters, he sees two women knitting on black wool. We see the Fates in Greek mythology working in this imagery. In mythology, the Fates have the awesome power of deciding man’s destiny. They choose how long a man lives and when he dies. Even the supreme god, Zeus, could not escape them. A way to interpret this mythological image is that the black wool is the African culture, and like the goddess, the company is “knitting” the fate of the African culture. The Company decides life and death in the Congo region.
Furthermore, at the headquarters, Marlow signs a contract of total secrecy about the Company’s policies. Metaphorically, we might say he is signing of his soul to the devil. Christian philosophies preach that the devil tries to recruit human souls to help him overthrow God. Again, the company is playing god. Like the taker culture, the company believes in its own supremacy. With Marlow signature, the Company is trying to enlist as many people as possible to fuel that supremacy and further conquer.
Kurtz extensively exemplifies man’s desire to be gods. He embodies Europe according to Marlow”all Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz.” He enters Africa with the ideas of “humanizing, improving, instructing” the African culture. Yet Kurtz does not conceal his desires like the Company does. Kurtz abandons his initial ideals and achieves exactly the taker’s dreambeing a god. The Harlequin comments to Marlow, “You can’t judge Mr. Kurtz as you would an ordinary man” (Conrad 51). The Harlequin implies that Kurtz is beyond man, no longer can he be seen as a man. When the very natives Kurtz has enslaved attack the steamboat further glorifies Kurtz as a god because the natives do not want to see him leave; he is their god. Kurtz becomes the ultimate goal in taker culture”the power of life and death over the world” (Quinn 166). He chooses the life and death of the people.
The major goal of Ishmael’s teaching is to warn that nature will always prevail. Taker culture will eventually wipe itself out. Man owes everything to the laws of nature and the laws of life. “If the species around him had not obeyed it, he could not have come into being or survived” (Quinn 118). These laws protect the whole community as well each individual. The gods are the only ones who know the ruling system; they can keep the balance. The character in Heart of Darkness, Fresleven reflects the conflict between takers and nature. In the beginning, Marlow learns that a piloting position has become vacant because a native killed the former pilot. Later, Marlow finds his remains. Grass has grown through his bones. The imagery of the earth growing through Fresleven’s bones evokes the power of nature. Nature will always prevail. Creation began without man, and creation will continue without man. Africa, nature, has won against all the Fresleven representstaker imperialism.
Reading Heart of Darkness is like reading Ishmael all over again. Knowing the issues in Ishmael, we see interplay in the Heart of Darkness. The ultimate goal of takers is to become gods. Unfortunately, man can never equal the gods. On his quest for complete supremacy, he only creates destruction. Man cannot live outside the laws of life and nature. Reading Conrad’s novel reminds us of our taker lifestyle and how we can end up destroying ourselves like the people of the novel. If nothing else, Ishmael and Heart of Darkness serve as warningsour taker lifestyle will be the death of us all.