Monday, May 23, 2011

Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad

Over this longest-of-all weekends, I re-read the novel that changed my life back in high school—the novel that made me want to be a writer. And I stand by my younger judgment: it's a perfect book.

All great books get better with each re-reading. More than ever I was enthralled by the novel's form, the rhythm of its prose, its imagery and its courage. Effortlessly—yet ruthlessly—Heart of Darkness addresses life's fundamental questions. Proceeding through it, I often stopped and thought, I can't believe how good this is. It's as good as anything; it's one of the great works in world literature.

And because it belongs to my youth (I seem to have forgotten nothing from my youth; I felt that I remembered every line) it afforded me the chance to contrast that younger reader with who—with what—I've become. Conrad's framing, telling the story in retrospect, invites and then steadily intensifies this kind of self-interrogation.

Kurtz was right. The horror.

After reading it I watched the Billboard Music Awards, when I wasn't walking in circles, rubbing my face. Listen: I like popular culture as much as the next guy. But the sanest response to the Black Eyed Peas is: You can't be serious.

Conrad is serious. He knows that if you're going to risk adulthood—and not content yourself with BEP—you've got to make your journey up the river. What you find there will be serious. Kurtz's last words are serious. The measure of a man is not what he finds at the end of his river—we all find the same thing—but how we respond to what we find.

Marlow finds, among many things, that it's ok to be haunted by the truth.

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