Book Simple: Heart of (Reunion) Darkness
a blogumn by Amy Brown
Last week, my high school class gathered to celebrate ten years since our graduation. Ideally, in preparation for these things, one goes to the gym, practices the stump speech, drags along the significant other. I read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Travelling into the bleak vileness of the human heart, well, it seemed applicable.
Our narrator, Marlowe, begins his tale on the deck of the anchored Nellie, swaying on the Thames. “Lights of ships moved in the fairway – a great stir of lights going up and going down.” From the center of the civilized world, Marlow travels to another world with another river “resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land.” To repurpose a friend’s statement about the cash bar at the reunion, a malaria- and cannibal-filled jungle? What could go wrong?
His aunt maneuvers Marlow into his posting there as a steamboat captain, a favor that immediately pushes him into a web of politics and intrigue. Surrounded by scenes of devastating human misery, the captain finds himself negotiating against colonial administration both incompetent and actively malicious. Which is how I remember high school policies precisely.
Marlow’s task is to bring back, from the interior, a legendary agent, Kurtz, who has “collected, bartered, swindled or stolen more ivory than all the other agents together.” Despite Kurtz’s grand success, or because of it, the wilderness surrounding him “had taken him, loved him, embraced, him, got into his veins, consumed his flesh and sealed his soul to its own by the inconceivable ceremonies of some devilish initiation.” Something has gone terribly wrong with Kurtz. His travels “beguiled his unlawful soul beyond the bounds of permitted aspirations.”
That was, of course, exactly what I feared about my ten year reunion. Had my travels away from my eighteen-year-old self twisted me beyond recognition by my peers?
Even dying, Kurtz’s voice “survived his strength to hide in the magnificent folds of eloquence the barren darkness of his heart.” I have to admit, reading that, a little dark part of me wished for a tiny bit of Kurtz to take with me to the Boston Yacht Club, just a little bit of that voice’s power to sway the natives, to bend them to my will. Or at least a better story to tell about what I’d been doing for the past ten years. Ten years! The horror, indeed.
“Droll thing life is,” Marlow notes, “The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself – that comes too late – a crop of unextinguishable regrets.” When I arrived, (sorry — this will be anticlimactic,) I found the reunion to be quite a lot of fun. Listening for it, I could hear the same regret I felt in everyone’s voice. Time passes more quickly than you can predict at eighteen. We were all older, and most of us fatter, but also immensely more interesting. Whether that’s despite the cash bar or because of it, I was very grateful for it.