Dirty Work = Heart of Darkness

Congo River

Labor Day Monday

In honor of Labor Day, I reflect upon some of my favorite passages about work, which appear in Joseph Conrad’s 1902 novel Heart of Darkness. Among other things, Conrad contends that work takes us out of ourselves and redirects us from an unhealthy obsession with our interior lives. I contend, however, that Marlow, the novel’s principle narrator, lumps together all kinds of work rather than making an important distinction: work that contributes to human happiness and work that contributes to human misery. His crisis of faith is connected to the fact that he is working on behalf of murderous policies.

Marlow is fascinated by central Africa and finds an opportunity to take a boat up the Congo River. Upon arriving, however, he learns that he must first salvage the boat from where it has sunk and patch it up.

The journey is as much an interior one as an exterior one. Indeed, the Congo serves as a metaphor for an internal “heart of darkness” and for a European civilization that feels as though it is losing its moorings. At times Marlow finds himself in danger of losing himself within the self, as in the following passage:

The broadening waters flowed through a mob of wooded islands; you lost your way on that river as you would in a desert, and butted all day long against shoals, trying to find the channel, till you thought yourself bewitched and cut off for ever from everything you had known once — somewhere — far away — in another existence perhaps. There were moments when one’s past came back to one, as it will sometimes when you have not a moment to spare for yourself; but it came in the shape of an unrestful and noisy dream, remembered with wonder amongst the overwhelming realities of this strange world of plants, and water, and silence. And this stillness of life did not in the least resemble a peace. It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention. It looked at you with a vengeful aspect.

Marlow turns to work to keep himself grounded. Work, he notes, is healthy because it focuses on something exterior. As he puts it,

I don’t like work. I had rather laze about and think of all the fine things that can be done. I don’t like work — no man does — but I like what is in the work — the chance to find yourself. Your own reality — for yourself, not for others — what no other man can ever know. They can only see the mere show, and never can tell what it really means.

The work that Marlow does is not particularly glamorous.  He is in charge of a “battered, twisted, ruined, tin-pot steamboat” which, he says, “rang under my feet like an empty Huntley & Palmer 
biscuit-tin kicked along a gutter; she was nothing so solid in make, and rather less pretty in shape.”

Work, however, transforms her into something more:

I had expended enough hard work on her to make me love her. No influential friend would have served me better. She had given me a chance to come out a bit — to find out what I could do.

One sometimes has the sense that work is the only thing that keeps Marlow from going mad. For instance, he doesn’t have too much time to dwell on “the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention” because he’s got a job to do.  As he puts it, he has no time to think about these things:

I had to keep guessing at the channel; I had to discern, mostly by inspiration, the signs of hidden banks; I watched for sunken stones; I was learning to clap my teeth smartly before my heart flew out, when I shaved by a fluke some infernal sly old snag that would have ripped the life out of the tin-pot steamboat and drowned all the pilgrims; I had to keep a lookout for the signs of dead wood we could cut up in the night for next day’s steaming.

The work, in other words, takes one away from self-focus:

When you have to attend to things of that sort, to the mere incidents of the surface, the reality — the reality, I tell you — fades. The inner truth is hidden — luckily, luckily. But I felt it all the same; I felt often its mysterious stillness watching me at my monkey tricks.”

So part of him—a repressed part but there nonetheless—sees his work as nothing more than monkey tricks. It’s almost as though he questions the work he is doing but is grateful to that work for shoving aside the questioning.

But work is not monkey tricks. It is our noble contribution to keeping humankind going. I think that Marlow wants to avoid introspection, not because human actions are inherently meaningless and absurd, but because he is contributing to colonialism at its most horrific, which is to say to Belgium King Leopold’s subjugation of the Congo. Even though Marlow is horrified by what he sees, he is still helping out in the ivory trade.

So the moral may be to do whatever you can to insure that your work contributes to human progress. To cite a couple of examples, I know that our College’s housekeeping staff, underpaid and overworked though they are, find satisfaction in the fact that their work contributes to the education of young people. A colleague, meanwhile, took a two-thirds salary cut to work as technology specialist in our Education Department because he could no longer bear doing simulated military exercises (video games that teach soldiers how to kill) for the local naval air force base. He is much happier now.

I know, of course, that sometimes we have to take the jobs that are there, not the jobs we would like. It was be an abuse of my own privileged status to suggest otherwise. What Joseph Conrad indirectly teaches us, however, is that contributing to human misery will take a toll, however much we try to focus on just staying busy.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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