Several years ago at an NCTE convention in Nashville, a group of English teachers from Florida (I think) presented their instructional idea — combine the study of a great work of literature with modern music. Students were asked to find songs that evoked the theme of the novels they read. I thought it appropriate for instance, that one student chose Alanis Morissette’s “Uninvited” to demonstrate one of the themes in The Great Gatsby. What really struck me, however, was the song chosen to thematically represent Heart of Darkness: “Head Like a Hole” by NIN. Here are the lyrics in case you need a refresher. If you need to go read them, do so, then hurry back.
The last line of that song is left off the lyric transcription: You know what you are. I really think that line matches Kurtz’s famous last words: “The horror! The horror!” The horror, to me, is the mirror held up to one’s face — knowing the evil that is in man, and knowing you are part of that evil, if not all of it. You know what you are.
There is a steady ostinato of dread that underlies the short novel. It is a primal drumbeat. As Marlow travels down the Congo toward Kurtz, you begin to feel this pulse — this heartbeat. It is the heart of darkness.
This heartbeat is also a thread of suspense. As Steve mentioned just now as we discussed the novel, it is similar to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” that way. The heart of darkness is the very center of Africa, but it is also the very center of a black soul. I think you can read “The Tell-Tale Heart” that way, too. Heart of Darkness might be the best example of the use of foreshadowing I’ve seen.
I first read this short novel in my freshman year of college. Actually I think I skipped around a bit. I didn’t get it. I didn’t understand it, then. I don’t think I was ready. I am so glad Randal let me borrow a copy. His students are either reading it now or just finished, and maybe I can discuss it with some of them. So, yes, 14 years later, I picked up this book again, and I was ready for it. I wish I could write like Conrad. Really.
The book is rich in vivid details. I could clearly see the characters and scenes. Marlow sounded an awful lot like Alan Rickman, sitting in darkness on the Nellie. As I pictured it, I could see only his hand, rested on his bent knee, and his leg extending into his worn black boot, all barely discernible in a shaft of weak light. Occasionally as he told his story, his head would turn to the side, and I saw the outline of his face. That is how Conrad so clearly painted the setting for me.
“Head Like a Hole” is a perfect illustration of this ostinato of dread I mentioned — the repetitive lyrics, the madness in Trent Reznor’s voice. The kid that made that connection was brilliant.
All that said, this book is difficult. I can’t recommend it for those who are not ready, for they wouldn’t appreciate it. And I can’t define “ready” for you either. Like Marlow, I am left, in the end, to ponder, to question, to wonder. That ostinato is never resolved. It only gradually fades to silence, but I can still feel it — I don’t know how. Maybe because it is my own heartbeat.