HEART OF DARKNESS, by Joseph Conrad
vs.
SHE, by H. Rider Haggard
Analysis by Gemma Files

 


Can it really be just a coincidence that two of my most often- (and
well-) read books (one favorite, one formative) offer two extremely
similar journeys into the unmapped areas of an unknown continent, yet
helmed by two very different writers--Conrad (elegant, eloquent and
evocative, simple in the best way) and Haggard (racist, classist, just
this side of lurid)?


     Presented from its outset as a trip "into theinterior"--ostensibly
of the African Congo, "one of the blank/dark places on the map", but
increasingly of the narrator's equally unexplored subconscious--HEART OF
DARKNESS is a retroactive inquiry into just what the hell has happened
to one Mr Kurtz, an ivory trader with missionary pretensions for
Conrad's nameless Company.  Universally acclaimed as "a genius" by those
he left behind, Kurtz set himself up as both a shining example of mental
and moral cleanliness, and proof positive that capitalism would
literally set his African counterparts free. Instead, he became a living
Death-God, worshipped and feared, whose sole posthumous tenet is
revealed to have been: "Exterminate the brutes."


     Conrad is wonderfully mysterious about Kurtz'sactual sins, probably
through self-censorship; as somebody recently said in a New Yorker
article, assuming that Kurtz has killed some people, had sex with others
and stolen all the local ivory is a good bet. He may well also have
allowed people to worship him as a false idol, accepted human
sacrifices, even eaten human flesh.


     Marlow, Conrad's avatar of choice, is sent "down the river" to
discover where Kurtz--and, more importantly, all that lovely ivory he
was amassing for the Company--has gotten to. By the end of the journey,
Marlow is burdened with a legacy of truth--an explicit understanding of
how *little* he wants to understand about Kurtz' descent into atavism,
and how easily it could happen to anyone...even him. (England, after
all--and Europe, all of which "went into the making of" Kurtz--was "once
one of those dark places"). Upon his return, Marlow chooses not to tell
Kurtz's "intended" what actually happened, because that would be "too
dark...much too dark altogether." He will, however, sit in darkness
himself and tell most of the story to his shipmates--much as Kurtz once
told him all sorts of things, sitting in the darkness, none of which he
now cares to remember.


     The reason that Marlow considers telling Kurtz's fiancee what
actually happened such a frightening prospect is because she stands in
for all women, who "civilize" men by forcing them to put curbs on their
hideous appetites out of respect for the female sex's native delicacy.
But she is also, in her black mourning gown, a twin of those two women
who Marlow meets at the front door of the Company's
office--constantly-knitting Fates, who guard the doorway into the
unknown. Which brings us back to the inescapable conclusion that Africa,
home of male lust, greed and genocidal madness, is also the black heart
of female unknowability: The fecund and merciless seat of primal
corruption that Marlow compares to the Biblical "whitened sepulchre full
of bones" (originally meant as a description of those Jezebel-ish women
who look great on the outside, but are full of sin, disease and
temptation on the inside).


     HEART OF DARKNESS, then--though a strictly male's-eye-view story,
boiling down to one guy talking to a bunch of guys about yet another
guy--has at its centre an extreme, yet not entirely invalid, vision of
femininity...a fever dream of sexual confusion which reaches its literal
apotheosis in SHE. Let's pause, now, for a little side-track into the
realm of mythology, where the only available female versions of HEART OF
DARKNESS are the Greek story of Persephone, and the Babylonian saga of
Inanna's Descent Into Hell.


     Persephone, daughter of Greek Earth-Goddess Demeter and virgin
Goddess of Spring, is playing in a field when the earth at her feet
opens up, disgorging the chariot of Hades, Lord of the Dead. Intent on
rape, he kidnaps her. After violent protest by her mother (who basically
threatens to starve the world to death unless Persephone is returned),
Hermes is sent down to cut a deal--but discovers that Persephone has
been tricked into eating six pomegranate seeds from the garden of the
Dead, which means she'll have to stay in Hades' realm...for six months
of the year, at least.


     Persephone thus becomes "married" to Hades by default, and takes
her place at his side as mediator between the Dead and the Lord Of
Death. She also shares a lover, Adonis, with Aphrodite, the Goddess of
Love. After Aphrodite accidentally kills Adonis during a hunt--she
mistakes him for a wild animal--Persephone gains Adonis completely, but
is nice enough to share him with her erstwhile rival. (This is possibly
a reference to some cyclical fertility rite, which reassured the harvest
by the death of a Year King, who is torn to death during an orgiastic
Bacchic frenzy.)


     Inanna, Babylonian Goddess of Love (and War), decides to go down to
the realm of her constantly pregnant but sexually unfulfilled sister,
Ereshkigal, lady of the Dead. Believing Inanna is trying to take over
Hell, Ereshkigal has her stripped of all raiment and objects of power at
each successive gate of her Descent through Ereshkigal's territory.
Eventually, Inanna is reduced to "a naked corpse hanging on a stake."


     But the Gods can't have a world without sexuality (or war), so they
make two sexless dirt creatures, and send them down to attend Ereshkigal
in her labor. They are to ask for Inanna's body as payment for their
comfort. Ereshkigal, grateful for their help, lets them take the body
away, but says that someone else must resign themselves to death in
order to make sure Inanna can stay alive. The dirt creatures appeal to
everyone, including Inanna's human lover, Dumuzi. Dumuzi, too afraid to
die, refuses.


     With the help of the other Gods, the dirt creatures bring Inanna
back to life. She goes to her house, finds Dumuzi sitting in state,
strips him and casts him down into Hell, where he takes her place as "a
naked corpse hanging on a stake." Ereshkigal thus "gets" Dumuzi, the
same way Persephone "gets" Adonis. (Though there is no particular
indication that Inanna ever wants him back.)


     Both these myths imply a cycle of jealousy between the worlds of
the Living and the Dead, and revolve around the ritual death of a human
male for draining off a female Goddess's generative power.They posit the
female journey "to the interior" as a journey of "mortification' (much
like the one Webster's Duchess of Malfi goes through--being prepared to
accept the fact of your own death by having your earthly power and
comforts gradually stripped away, leaving only your own individuality to
fall back on: "I am the Duchess of Malfi still." But that's another
essay).


     By no longer relying on help from the exterior--men, and the world
they have made--the female protagonist learns patience, humility,
cooperation, and definite action. Although the two poles of Life and
Death don't initially appear to "like" each other, what they put each
other through is ultimately useful to both of them. Neither can be
denied, and both are necessary to support any kind of balance. (Not that
it's a comfortable one--this is sex and death we're talking about here,
after all.)


     SHE begins with the discovery of an ancient vendetta that affects
both Haggard's narrator, the ugly but brilliant H. Horace Holly, and his
adopted son, the gorgeous but otherwise almost completely colorless Leo
Vincey. Apparently, Leo is directly descended from Mameluke "lion"
(Dumuzi's symbol!) Kallikrates, a former priest of Isis, who fled his
native Egypt after falling blasphemously in love with a royal Princess
named Amenartas. Taking refuge in Africa, they fell into the hands of
Ayesha (prn. "Ahsha"), an Arabian magician/scholar who had conquered
death, and wanted to intiate Kallikrates into her secrets. (So to
SPEAK.) Kallikrates refused, and Ayesha--in a jealous fit of rage--ran
him through with a spear, enbalmed the body, and kept it with her in the
plague-emptied city of Kor. But she let Amenartas (and the son she
carried) escape.


     This, however, was no mistake on Ayesha's part; with her infinite
long view, she is still waiting at Kor for Kallikrates to be
reincarnated in the body of one of his descendants, and knows that
Amenartas' legacy of revenge will eventually bring him back to her.


     Inspired by the story, Leo convinces Holly to come with him and
explore the region of Africa described by Amenartas' descendants. Once
there, they fall in with the Amhagger, degenerate remnants of the race
who once built Kor. Leo promptly falls in love with one of them,
Ustane--but Ayesha, now worshipped as the deathless "She Who Must Be
Obeyed", is able to "blast" this prospective Amenartas and bewitch Leo
into agreeing to enter the immortalizing pillar of fire with her. Her
second trip through the fire undoes the work of the first, however, and
Ayesha ages two thousand years in an instant, becoming "infinitely
horrible--a bald, howling monkey."


     With her veiled face, Ayesha is the living version of Kor's Goddess
of Truth--depicted in cold marble, a blindly enigmatic beacon of ancient
glamour--and because, as Holly (the Marlow/Van Helsing of the piece)
says, "in Death only is Truth found", she is also the Persephone/Kurtz
of the piece: An educated but "faithless" charismatic, ruling a land of
people who live in the ruins of their own history--burning mummies for
light, dressing in "tomb-linen", practicing ritual cannibalism. But
because the only thing she personally believes in is the permanence of
love, Ayesha is also Aphrodite--especially since her "erotic" version of
love is despised as a passing, carnal delusion by Holly's Christianity,
which favors Platonic "agape" instead.


     Although Ustane is at first presented as being as "forward" as her
savage counterparts, she very frankly seems to want to marry Leo
monogamously, rather than just give him a quick Bacchic fuck inthe
firelight. This further identifies her with Amenartas--and Ayesha--both
of whom nurse "undying" loves for the supremely useless Leo. (Even
Holly, Leo's biggest supporter, remarks on the distinction in
intelligence between Ayesha and Leo, and puts it ruefully down to the
glamor of good looks; maybe the difference between Ayesha and Ustane is
that while Ayesha assumes she can change Leo--over the hundreds of
centuries they'll spend together--Ustane just accepts him for the
beautiful boob that he is.)


     The main thing about SHE, however, is that it was very definitely
written by a guy--someone who found the idea of a death-Goddess with
immense mental powers and physical beauty (so potent that she has to
keep her face, if not her body, constantly veiled for fear of
hypnotizing every man she comes across) arousing as all hell, but knew
it couldn't work within the context of his patriarchal Christian world
unless he also took pains to make it very firmly clear that she was an
atheistic scientist, utterly deluded in her ideas about how the cosmos
worked and blithely unaware of her own potential damnation.


     Ayesha is represented as carnally glamorous,but spiritually
dead--much like the lovely mummy Holly runs across in a Kor side-room,
and obsesses over. Actually, everyone in the book is subject to this
kind of necrotic frenzy. The dead are everywhere, especially in Kor,
whose builders seem to have been just as caught up in the ritual
trappings of their own demises as the Egyptians ever were. These
mummies--enbalmed to creamy alabaster perfection by some long-lost
chemical breakthrough--are perfect post-Victorian post-mortem date
material: They ask for nothing, expect nothing, and they look so goood.
Ayesha herself, Queen Corpse, is seen dry-humping Kallikrates' mortal
coil by a disgusted/fascinatedHolly...just as oh-so-moral Leo will
"plight his troth" to her, later on, while standing over Ustane's dead
body.


     Chronologically speaking, neither HEART OF DARKNESS or SHE could
really have been influenced by the other, which thus makes all this
cross-referentiality stem entirely from my own fevered brain. But that's
why I like 'em, so--there ya go.


THE END

 

Gemma

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