I hate that book, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. I've read it over ten -maybe twenty times- and still have no idea what it's about. This plague began in high school when my literature grade became jeopardized because of it. Thank God for Spark Notes! After high school graduation, I was relieved to let that book fade out of my memory with all that other stuff I was suppose to learn.
Soon my first semester at The University of Arizona was underway. I walked into my first day of Literary Theory and Criticism class. I thought the course sounded interesting, I liked to pick things apart and analyze them; I liked a challenge. How naïve I was. Inside the classroom the professor sat perched high on his desk. He was a very large man with a big white beard. I thought he resembled Santa Clause; however, I would soon learn that there was nothing jolly about him. The class commenced with his first announcement.
“This semester we will only be reading one book, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness,” face meet palm.
“We will spend this semester reading and rereading this novel. You are expected to write a minimum of ten analytical papers on the novel.”
The horror! The horror!
Of course you can guess that right after class I sprinted to the registrar's office, but it was too late. There was nothing useful that could be switched out for this particular course. Defeated, I returned to class week after week, with my shiny new copy of Heart of Darkness in tow. As the weeks went by the C's, D's, and F's piled up. As the middle of the semester approached, I gave up trying completely. No matter what I did, it was wrong. I even rewrote much of the work, handed it in, but still received the same grade. No E for Effort? Nope. Not even the tiniest bump of a D to a D+ or a D+ to a C-.
The book itself is not only muddled but impossible to understand. If I had to give you a synopsis of the novel I don't think I would be able to give it to you, at least not in a linear form. Let's see there's some people on a boat in the Congo, something about a guy named Marlowe, slaves with chains around their necks, and allusions to cannibalism. What order did all this belong in? Your guess is as good as mine.
Though I read the book probably 15 times, it was clear by my God-awful grades that I still had no clue what was going on. Halfway through the semester I gave up and spent the remainder of the classes writing poetry and doodling in the book. It was the only thing that could get me through the hour and a half.
After mentally checking out, I began to get a better sense of what was really going on here. Our professor was a lonely old man who punctuated anything relevant to our course description with anecdotes about his life and quotes from Nietzche. I'll be honest, I couldn't agree with him more about the whole “God is dead” thing- well, at least when I was in his class. I'll never forget how he went on and on about his Lasik surgery, how his son -years ago- liked to play that song “Black Hole Sun” over and over on his boom box, how that drove him nuts, and the fact that he had a hammer collection. Yes, hammers. It is obvious that I could tell you more about the professor than the book.
The more I listened to his stories, the more I understood about him. It seemed that he didn't have many family members and that he and his son were possibly estranged. If this were true, his system of grading certainly reflected his bitterness. Oftentimes he would come in with a stack of papers, scold us, and announce that no one got a grade higher than a C. There were a few A's every now and then, but never on my papers.
As class chugged on, I realized that he wasn't intentionally trying to look like Santa Clause but that he was in fact an Ernest Hemmingway wanna-be. It was something I'd seen before and would probably see again amongst the older male literary crowd. He didn't remind me of Hemmingway in the least, rather he reminded me of one of those relatives. You know, the relative you secretly fear you'll become one day? The one you pray to God you'll never end up like? We all have at least one of those.
Mine is my uncle. First I want to say thank God we have different last names. I couldn't count how many times his name has been in the police blotter because I don't have enough fingers on my hands. I haven't spoken to him in five years, but even when we weren't estranged we barely spoke.
My uncle started drinking alcohol at a very young age, did LSD, and got kicked out of catholic high school. When I realized that some of his traits also described me during my teenage years, I began to get nervous. Additionally, my uncle was married three times. All of his marriages ended in divorce, because he cheated on all of his wives.
He went from living in a beautiful house to having no house. He has stole from everyone in a ten foot radius of him. Now, he has moved on to seriously hard drugs and spends his time in the bad sections of the city pimping out prostitutes.
He is clearly an addict, though he went through the motions and was married to three women, I know that he was never there mentally or emotionally. I know that he went through life comfortably numb. I know this because for almost ten years, I did to, and went through life running from any semblance of love that was real.
It scares me, our similarities.
When I was 19, I had a boyfriend who I was in love with, but he pulvarized my heart when he cheated on me with one of my friends. After that I became more guarded. I made sure that the guys I went out with fit into specifically designed little boxes and if they didn't fit, they didn't make the cut. These boxes weren't deep but shallow; designed to keep certain people out, and if they got too close to my heart, they didn't make the cut.
The thought of being with someone who actually loved me made me wince. Just admitting to the previous statement makes me...wince. This is the thought process of an addict. This is what it feels like to have a heart of darkness; it doesn't mean you don't have a heart. It doesn't mean that your heart might not function like a normal heart one day either. What it does mean is that you have, at least momentarily, turned away from the source and closed yourself off from letting any light get in. My uncle has a heart of an addict, a heart of darkness and sometimes I'm afraid that I do too.
One of my last boyfriends really drove this insecurity home when he accused me of having no heart and being cold-hearted. The really crazy part is that at the time, I believed him. He wasn't the first boyfriend whom I allowed to play on my insecurities, but he would definitely be the last.
For some reason I found solace in these horrible relationships, where I was probably considered nothing more than a sex object. I went out with people I only had luke warm feelings for; people who I knew could never truly reach my heart. It felt so much safer this way, but it wasn't. I ended up getting used and abused because I stayed with people even though I knew they were wrong for me. It was hard to let go. I liked being in a relationship where I didn't have to feel. The fact that they could never reach my heart, made me feel strong. This of course makes very little sense and the idea itself was disproven every time we broke up. I think my uncle thought the same way. Somehow he and I inherently knew that the only way to truly run from love was to live life in a state of numbness.
Eventually, I stopped hurting myself through my destructive habits, and started going to counseling. Things began to change terribly at first. No one could understand why every little thing that went wrong gave me anxiety. No one got it, but I knew why: it was the first time I had actually felt anything in over ten years. I was no longer living in numbness. There was no more partying. There was no more having a drink or four every time I received a rejection letter or didn't get the job I wanted. There was no more disordered eating, no more unhealthy friendships. There was nothing unhealthy at all.
My uncle never made it this far. From the time he picked it up, he never put that bottle back down. Now he lives on the streets with prostitutes and recently was diagnosed with a incurable illness that he probably got from sharing needles.
In retrospect, twenty years ago he was the same person he is today, just slowly devolving and deteriorating into a junkie. He was always self-centered, selfish, and mean. He stole, he cheated, and was violent. Thinking about it that way, I realize that in most ways, I'm not like him. Maybe I don't have anything to fear but I believe you should never say never. I think that maybe we have relatives or people in our lives who parallel the shadow aspects of our personalities so we don't explore those aspects further ourselves. When we see someone living out our worst fear, when we see them taking the shameful and unhealthy things we've already done to new heights and extremes, we cannot help but consciously reevaluate our own characters and what we are doing with our lives.
I remember the days when I was in my rut. It took years to even get to the place where I began to begin to crawl out of it. It was hard, and everything seemed so fuzzy. I could've stayed in that headspace, I could have become comfortably numb. I don't know how it happened. Sometimes I fear that maybe I still do have the heart of an addict. Or maybe it never was true, that I too had a heart of darkness. Regardless, I don't think a heart can stay dark forever, not if the beholder doesn't want it to.Check out more at my site Hayley's Comments