First Descents Into The Inferno:
Parallel Ideology And Experience In Conrad's 'Heart Of Darkness' And Dostoevsky's Notes From The House Of The Dead

Dr Robert Berry
English Department
University of Otago

Deep South v.2 n.2 (Winter, 1996)

Copyright (c) 1996 by Dr Robert Berry, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the New Zealand Copyright Act 1962. It may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the journal is notified. This consent does not extend to other kinds of copying, such as copying for general distribution, for advertising or promotional purposes, for creating new collective works, or for resale. For such uses, written permission of the author and the notification of the journal are required. Write to Deep South, Department of English, University of Otago, P. O. Box 56, Dunedin, New Zealand.

Few critics would dispute the profoundly shaping nature of Conrad's 1890 voyage along the river Congo. Frederic R Karl assesses the episode as "momentous in Conrad's work" (301). A letter written from Kinshasa to his aunt and confidante Marguerite Poradowska suggests the harrowing psychological impact of Conrad's 1890 journey:

Decidedly I regret having come here. I even regret it bitterly ... Everything here is repellent to me. Men and things, but men above all. (Collected Letters of Conrad 1 62)

Conrad's reaction registers not just his revulsion, but his sense of profound isolation and alienation in this thoroughly hostile environment. When nearly a decade later Conrad came to fictionalize these emotions in 'Heart of Darkness' (1899), the deep unease suggested by this earlier letter had developed into a language evoking nightmare, even supernatural experience. Marlow, narrating his voyage up the river, admits to feeling:

bewitched and cut off for ever from everything [he] had known once -- [he is] somewhere -- far away -- in another existence perhaps. ('Heart of Darkness' Dent Ed. 93)

Dostoevsky, writing to his brother Mikhail in 1854, recalls a moment of similar uncertainty and isolation. As a political convict, Dostoevsky had to endure the interminable 3000 kilometre march from central European Russia to Siberia. The Ural mountains, traditionally viewed by Russians as the barrier separating a civilized West from the relative barbarism of an Asian East, marked for Dostoevsky a significant departure point into an unknown, new world:

The moment of crossing the Urals was a sad one ... There was snow and a snowstorm all around; the border of Europe, Siberia ahead and an enigmatic fate in it, all the past behind. (Dostoevsky's Letters 1 185)

Six years later, in his Memoirs from the House of the Dead (1860), Dostoevsky's fictional narrator Goryanchikov admits to feeling he has been transported, like Marlow, into another realm. The convict has left behind all that seemed familiar and reassuring, to enter a terrifying alien domain:

unlike anything else; here were our own laws, our own dress, our own manners and customs ... a life like none other upon earth, and people who were special, set apart. (trans. McDuff 27)

It is important to note the parallel positions of each narrator here. Marlow and Goryanchikov are both perplexed, horrified and profoundly intrigued by their new environments. Like the Roman colonialists Marlow cites at the beginning of 'Heart of Darkness' (1899), living in "the midst of the incomprehensible" has a "fascination ... that goes to work upon him" ('Heart of Darkness' 50). He becomes an observer trying to unravel and interpret the human (and inhuman) scenes before him, on what is a voyage of exploration in the fullest sense. Significantly, the Russian critic Konstantin Mochulsky sees Goryanchikov's narrative function in much the same way :

A new, peculiar world had been opened before [his] astonished gaze. But he is not confined by a description of its surface; he strives to enter it inwardly, to understand the 'law' of this world, to penetrate its mystery. (188)

In many ways, Conrad's Marlow and Dostoevsky's Goryanchikov will finally attain, in their new worlds, knowledge which lead them to draw surprisingly parallel conclusions as to the nature and evil potential of the human personality. Joseph Frank, in a passage equally applicable to Conrad, speaks of Dostoevsky's prison years bringing the writer "into firsthand contact with a terrifyingly expansive diapason of human experience" (Through the Russian Prism 126). The initial reaction of both fictional narrators, however, is not one of forthcoming illumination, but rather of profound terror. Marlow's overriding response to his journey is that it has taken him into "some lightless region of subtle horrors" (132). Similarly Goryanchikov typifies his early experience as "a hell, a dark night of the soul" (32). It is striking to note, in culminating passages of 'Heart of Darkness' (1899) and The House of the Dead (1860), how both Conrad and Dostoevsky make reference to an existing body of imagery to intensify the record of their individual experiences. They create their worlds, as I will now show, using a language that stongly recalls , even aligns, their narratives with an earlier literary voyage -- that of Dante's underworld journey through Hell in The Divine Comedy (c. 1308 - 1321).

In the celebrated 'Bath-House' scene of The House of the Dead (1860), Dostoevsky creates arguably his most extensive nightmare vision of the convict world. Opening the door into the prison baths in Part One, Goryanchikov suspects he has walked directly into hell:

Imagine a room about twelve paces long and roughly the same in width, into which were packed as many as one hundred, or probably at the very least eighty men at once ... steam swathed one's eyes, soot, dirt, the place so crowded that there was nowhere to stand ... a mass of humanity seethed. On the whole floor area there was not a space the size of a man's palm on which the convicts were not sitting huddled splashing themselves from their tubs. (155)

The scene here is one of unbearable human constriction. R L Jackson, writing in The Art of Dostoevsky (1981), aptly describes the passage as evoking " a veritable hell of disfigured, fragmented, compacted humanity" (95). The visual thrust of Goryanchikov's narrative, I would argue, depends much on a body of imagery that can be traced back to Dante. Crossing the Acheron in the Third Canto, the Italian Pilgrim is awestruck at the sight of an "interminable train of/souls" tightly thronged together, trailing off towards their respective punishments (Inferno, trans. Musa, Canto 3 91). Throughout the Inferno, Dante the Pilgrim continues to encounter such scenes. In 'The Circle of the Heretics', to take one example, sinners are thrust in unthinkable numbers into cramped, burning tombs. The image of a compacted damned is one that comes to colour the entire process of the Dantean underworld experience. Although it would be laboured to insist upon any direct derivation here, it is certainly significant to note the parallel imagery and tone of Dostoevsky's own evocation.

To counterbalance his visual scene, Dostoevsky creates an accompanying nightmare world of sound. Goryanchikov, now among the convicts, tells us that:

All was yammering and cackling, accompanied by the sound of a hundred chains being dragged along the floor ... Some men, wanting to get through, became entangled in the chains caught on the heads of those who were sitting lower down; they would fall cursing and dragging behind them those with whom they had become entangled. Filthy water poured everywhere. Everyone was in a kind of intoxicated, aroused state of mind; shrieks and cries reverberated. (The House of the Dead 156)

Despite its indisputable autonomous power, it is possible to see Dostoevsky being influenced here by an earlier tradition of aural imagery. Depictions of the screaming damned have been prolific in all periods of Christian literature, starting with the Bible. It is arguably the visionary legacy of the medieval imagination, however, which has shaped more recent European conceptions of Hell. Dante offers what might be claimed as a primary model. Passing through the vestibule that leads to the underworld, Dante's Pilgrim receives what Mark Musa describes as "an acoustical impression of Hell in its entirety" ('Commentary', Inferno 94):

Here sighs and cries and shrieks of lamentation
echoed throughout the starless air of Hell;
... tongues confused, a language strained in anguish
with cadences of anger, shrill outcries
and raucous groans ... (Inferno, Canto 3 90)

This early sound-impression develops into a recurrent image characterizing the Inferno, an image that has proved immeasurably fertile throughout Western literature. Its shaping influence on Dostoevsky's passage seems indisputable. Indeed the sights and sounds invoked in the 'Bath-House' scene strongly suggest a possibly conscious decision on Dostoevsky's part to create a world of horror that will parallel Dante's earlier, consummate example. In concluding the episode, the narrator Goryanchikov pays oblique homage to this fact:

It occured to me that if at some later date we should all find ourselves together in hell, it would be very similar to this place. (House of the Dead 157)

The journey into Siberia, to cite Dante, has taken the convict into a physical, and moral, landscape of "pain and ugly anguish" (Inferno, Canto 9 151). By applying this Dantean frame of reference, Dostoevsky is able to substantially intensify the mood of horror that initially overwhelms his narrator's senses.

Leaving Europe for Africa, Marlow admits to feeling that "instead of going to the centre of a continent, I was about to set off for the centre of the earth" ('Heart of Darkness' 19). Throughout 'Heart of Darkness' (1899), he persistently reiterates the sense of "peculiar blackness" that characterizes the entire process of his journey (142). Like Dostoevsky, Conrad draws on the same early literature to intensify the nightmare sensation of Marlow's experience. Investigating Dante's influence on Conrad's text, one critic, Robert Evans, boldly suggests a "close structural parallel between 'Heart of Darkness' and [the] Inferno", elaborately equating the river trading posts with specific circles of Hell (59 - 60). Though such interpretations might seem too narrow, they do alert us to some important similarities. Nowhere, I would argue, does the conscious Dantean associations seem stonger than in Conrad's central 'Grove of Death' episode.

Exploring the chaos of the first river station in the early stages of his journey, Marlow discovers a group of dying blacks, victims of the colonialists' futile efforts at railway building. His initial response to the scene is telling:

My purpose was to stroll into the shade for a moment; but no sooner within than it seemed to me I had stepped into the gloomy circle of some Inferno. ('Heart of Darkness ' 66)

From the outset, Marlow draws a parallel between his forthcoming experience and Dante's model. Through this introductory reference, Conrad subtly creates a nightmarish apprehension even prior to Marlow's narrative.The debt to Dante is further in evidence in Conrad's realization of the grove:

Black shapes crouched, lay, sat between the trees leaning against the trunks, clinging to the earth, half coming out, half effaced within the dim light, in all the attitudes of pain, abandonment, and despair. (66)

This landspace of pain boldly recreates Dante's example. It clearly summons the visual world of prostrated bodies met with throughout the Inferno. Furthermore, it is cast in a language of hyperbole traditionally associated with epic poetry. Conrad's "black shapes" are not only lying, they are crouching, sitting, leaning, clinging: their 'attitude' is not merely one of pain, but "pain, abandonment, and despair." The literary method encountered here is regularly encountered in Dante's text. Leaving the 'Wood of Suicides" in Canto Fourteen, to cite one contrasting passage, the Pilgrim builds a visual picture of the damned using a language that similarly compounds and reiterates diverse physical movement:

Many separate herds of naked souls I saw,
all weeping desperately ...
Some souls were stretched out flat upon their backs,
others were crouched there all tightly hunched,
some wandered, never stopping, round and round.
(Inferno Canto 14 197)

It is interesting that in developing the scene, Marlow, like Dostoevsky's narrator, also focusses upon the extreme human distortion and physical dislocation of the sufferers. The appalling nightmare world, in fact, most resembles a scene of torture. Dying blacks are described as "bundles of acute angles [who] sat with their legs drawn up"; all round they are "scattered in every pose of contorted collapse". The sight, Marlow judges, is akin to "some picture of a massacre or a pestilence" ('Heart of Darkness' 67).With this closing reference, the narrator in effect directs us towards an unspecified, but recognizable, tradition of visual imagery, in order to more clearly define and underpin the nature of his own scene. Classical literary 'pictures' of "massacre" and "pestilence" are of course part of the normal mental furniture of the modern reader. One of the primary sources for such an imagery, and perhaps Conrad's conscious point of reference, is again Dante. Entering the 'Circle of Sorcerers' in the Twentieth Canto, in one notable instance, the Pilgrim observes a scene of human deformation that might be cited as a prototext for Conrad's' own grove of twisted humanity:

I saw people in the valley's circle,
silent, weeping, walking at a litany pace
the way processions push along in our world.
And when my gaze moved down below their faces,
I saw all were incredibly distorted,
The chin was not above the chest, the neck
was twisted -- their faces looked down on their backs.

(Inferno, 20 251)

The angular disfigurement suffered by the exploited blacks and Dante's sinners are in notable accord. Indeed critics have not been slow, particularly in this episode, to note the strong parallels with the Inferno. F R Karl, to take just one example, speaks of Marlow's "Dantesque ... journey underground", but does not pursue his point of contrast (800). For him, it is enough to say Conrad's narrator has walked" into the mouth of Hell" (418). Though the general validity of this observation is indisputable, further investigation does profitably reveal just how close the links are between Conrad's text and the Inferno. Like Goryanchikov's Siberian world of "foul air ... clanking fetters ... curses and shameless laughter" (House of the Dead 94 -5), Conrad's use of Dantean imagery allows him to realize an environment of complete moral horror, a world where shocking insights into the evil capacity of the human spirit will be possible. It is to the nature of these insights, won in Africa and Siberia, that I shall now turn.

Concluding a scene of intense brutality in Part Two of The House of the Dead (1860), Goryanchikov reflects with disgust and incredulity how hard it is "to imagine the degree to which human nature may become distorted" (246). For narrator, and reader, the record of convict life is a shocking initiation into a realm where man is innately capable of the most 'bestial proclivities" (244).Goryanchikov uncovers intrinsic moral depravity and lawlessness of spirit, a world where mankind is scrupulously observed taking the deepest pleasure in "gratuitous cruelty" (Jackson 75). Indeed Dostoevsky's vision of human perversity is extraordinary, providing studies of invididual convicts, even case histories, which chart examples of sometimes overwhelming human barbarism.

Like Goryanchikov, Marlow, in Jeremy Hawthorn's opinion, is similarly "unprepared for the levels of brutality ... he is to encounter" in the Congo (Hawthorn 173). Early on, he admits to feeling "secretly appalled" by the human scenes that confront him ('Heart of Darkness' 96).Later on of course, the focus is turned exclusively towards an account of the "unspeakable" behaviour of Kurtz. Whereas Dostoevsky can frankly articulate the psychology and actions of the convicts, detailing their appalling homicidal and sexual drives, the delicate sensibilities of a late Victorian audience made it difficult for Conrad to employ the same degree of openness. The record of Kurtz's barbarism, therefore, is less explicit, though more subtle, in its realization. As Marlow himself admits, it is "not so much told as suggested ... in desolate exclamations ... in interrupted phrases, in hints" (129). Despite this complexity, the account of Kurtz provides an alarming case study of what man can become when freed from all inhibiting social restrictions. The principal concern of Marlow, and Goryanchikov, however, is not to signal just fear, but to define the actual nature of this human barbarism, to discover some of the primary 'drives' behind such brutality. It is significant to note how both narrators isolate similar characteristics, and offer parallel explanations, to account for this human descent into primaeval savagery.

In The House of the Dead (1860), the first of Goryanchikov's close studies concentrates on the twisted nature of the convict Gazin. Introducing this "fearsome individual", Goryanchikov suspects "there could be nothing more violent and monstrous than this man". He highlights the sensual pleasure, the barbaric relish, Gazin derives from his murderous acts:

There was ... a story that he [Gazin] had been fond of murdering little children, purely for pleasure: he would take the child away to some convenient spot; first he would frighten and torture it, then, delighting in the terror and quaking of his poor little victim, he would quietly and voluptuously slit its throat. (72)

What is perhaps the most striking feature of Gazin's murder is that it seems a routine expression, an accepted part, of the man's own nature. There can be no question of any moral guilt arising from his act; Gazin's mood is one of purely carnal and beast-like satisfaction at a kill. In a later episode, Goryanchikov turns to another convict, the bandit Korenyev, describing him as "just like a wild animal." As with Gazin, this man is motivated by the same brutal, sexual drives, but here the narrator isolates the reasons behind his disintegration. Korenyev's "savage desire for physical pleasure, for sexual passion and carnal satisfaction" is traced to what Goryanchikov terms his shocking "spiritual indifference." He is a human example of the complete triumph of the body over the spirit -- "the flesh" has gained, in Goryanchikov's words, supreme "ascendancy over all his [Korenyev's] mental qualities" (82).

The descent into primitive savagery is linked, therefore, to the complete breakdown of an inner spiritual code. Deprived entirely of his moral dimension, Goryanchikov implies, man's regression into murderous violence and complete sexual debauch becomes a real possibility. Though the connection is observed in Gazin and Korenyev, its clearest definition is reserved for Goryanchikov's later account of the aristocrat convict A-v. In him, the narrator depicts his "most revolting example" of human degradation (103); here is an individual who has become "a monster, a moral Quasimodo" (105). Goryanchikov points to "resolute depravity" and "complete moral collapse" on a scale even he finds remarkable (104). A-v is, in fact, no longer recognizable as 'human': he is:

a kind of lump of meat, with teeth and a stomach, and an insatiable craving for the coarsest, most bestial physical pleasures, to obtain the least and most whimsical of which he was capable of knifing, of cold-blooded murder.

In this study, Goryanchikov very specifically defines the cause of A-v's total moral disintegration.In his analysis, such overwhelming depravity is created when "the physical side of man" is "unrestrained by any inner norm or set of laws" (105). Applying these observations on a more universal basis, Goryanchikov goes on to insist that within every individual there exists a "sacred limit", defined by the laws of society and personal prejudice. Should this fragile boundary be violated, man experiences the "irresistible longing to overshoot all ... to delight in the most unbridled and boundless freedom" (140). Such 'freedom' inevitably expresses itself in the form of violence. In Siberia, in effect, Goryanchikov is able to closely survey what in 'normal society' remains a submerged, but primary human drive. The convict world is, in this sense, a microcosm where Dostoevsky's narrator observes in detail man's innate capacity for barbarism in an extreme, yet entirely valid, form. The scene Dostoevsky was exposed to in Siberia, in fact, convinced the mature writer that animal savagery formed a vital part of the human condition. In his The Diary of a Writer (1873-1881), the author refers to the "alluvial barbarism" he believes is one foundation of the human spirit (202). The Siberian experience, in this respect, provides Dostoevsky with his first personal evidence that:

in every man ... a demon lies hidden -- the demon of rage, the demon of lustful heat at the screams of the tortured victim, the demon of lawlessness let off the chain. (The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Garnett 254)

At its bleakest, The House of the Dead(1860) is a chilling account of man's capacity to perform "superhuman inhumanities" against his fellow man (Owen, 'Spring Offensive' 53). Within this broad framework, however, Dostoevsky does point to a further dimension of this primitive drive. In close analysis, his narrator isolates man's intrinsic desire to exercise power, to assert his dominating influence over other weaker individuals. In some harrowing case studies, Goryanchikov highlights what he proves to be a stongly developed faculty; he depicts individuals who derive an absolute relish from their "sense of mastery" over others (House of the Dead 244). At the centre of this interest is one man given full autocratic authority, the prison lieutenant Zherebyatnikov. In his official position, he is able to exercise his instinctual urge to dominate without fear of recourse. The brutalized Siberian environment acts as a catalyst, and encourages the emergence of powerful, primary impulses, which might ordinarily be kept in firm check. Goryanchikov shows how the human urge to power can result in truly barbaric tyranny. To support his thesis, the narrator details the unbridled sensual pleasure Zherebyatnikov derives from admininistering beatings. In his role as "executioner", the incensed lieutenant is clearly seen to revel in his power to inflict pain. In what is a compelling scene, the autocrat toys with his convict victim. At first Zherebyatnikov hints at a merciful reprieve, plainly gratified by the man's helpless pleas. Having secured his naive trust, the inevitable about-face occurs, and the convict is subjected to severe corporal punishment. The whole process records a man intoxicated by his unlimited ascendancy over another individual. At the height of the scene, Goryanchikov details the lieutenant's wild, yet profound animal satisfaction at the exercise of his power:

'Mangle him!' Zherebyatnikov would below at the top of his voice -- 'Burn him! Thrash him, flog him! Set him alight! More, more! Hit the orphan harder, hit the villain harder! Hammer him, hammer him!' And the soldiers would lay into the man as hard as they could, the poor wretch would see sparks, he would begin to yell, and Zherebyatnikov would run along the line after him, laughing and laughing, bursting, holding his sides with laughter, unable to straighten up. (242)

A "craving for absolute power" becomes, in Robert Jackson's opinion, a clearly defined human value in Dostoevsky's mature world picture (82). The validity of Jackson's observation is quickly substantiated by the important reflections which follow the Zherebyatnikov episode. Raising the argument onto a universal level, Goryanchikov suggests that "the qualities of the executioner are found in embryonic form in almost every modern person". Should these primitive dominating impulses be allowed to develop, as in Zherebyatnikov, they may entirely overwhelm "all a person's other qualities" (The House of the Dead 243). In Goryanchikov's assessment, should any man attain "unlimited mastery over the body, blood, and spirit of another human being", or experience the "complete freedom to degrade another creature", he will, by a natural process, inevitably become "a fearsome monster" (242-43). The exercise of absolute power intoxicates and stupifies the individual, leading him into a brutish despotism. Though Siberia might provide examples of this primitive urge at its most extreme, Goryanchikov nevertheless insists that, in 'normal society', there do exist people who "are like tigers, [people] who thirst for blood to lick" (242). The lust for domination, in his final assessment, is a fundamental driving force of the human personality.

In many respects, The House of the Dead (1860) can be viewed as a major anthropological document. The insights into human psychology achieved by Goryanchikov in Omsk go to form an essential base upon which Dostoevsky builds his mature vision of man and his motivating drives. The thirst for absolute personal power becomes, to take just one instance, a central part of Raskolnikov's intellectual dilemma in Crime and Punishment (1866). He strives, by the act of murder, to prove himself an 'extraordinary man', an all-powerful Napoleon figure able, and wanting, to trample on social convention and even human life. All Dostoevsky's late novels, of course, are centred around acts of murder; man's elemental destructive energy is constantly a prime focus of the author's work. The prototype for Rogozhin, whose violent and consuming sexual passion for Nastasya plays such a vital role in The Idiot (1869), might easily be traced back to Dostoevsky's sketches of convict figures like Gazin and Korenyev, men equally unable to restrain their native homicidal and carnal impulses. The penetrating insights into the human personality recorded in the prison memoirs are, at a fundamental level, seen to colour all Dostoevsky's mature writings. In a famous passage from his diary, the author speaks memorably of his need 'to find the man in man'. An essential aspect of the human condition -- what Emile Zola called "La bete humaine" (the beast in man) -- is unquestionably revealed and documented in this early prison narrative.

I shall now turn to 'Heart of Darkness' (1899), a work I feel serves a similar function to The House of the Dead (1860). For it lays the principal philosophical foundations for Conrad's own mature vision of mankind, a vision which approximates to Dostoevsky's world picture on several, important issues.

Writing in The Art of Dostoevsky (1981), Robert Jackson speaks of the "outer and inner landscapes of violence" that exist in Goryanchikov's prison narrative. In his opinion, "there is a steady descent" in The House of the Dead(1860) into "the misery and degradation" that is part of "man and human nature" (72). On a fundamental level, Marlow's 'tale' in 'Heart of Darkness'(1899) can be seen to follow a similar formula. The attempts to define the actions and psychology of Kurtz closely chart a process Marlow himself terms as "the awakening of forgotten and brutal instincts" ('Heart of Darkness' 144). Indeed the process is all the more remarkable because of the seemingly extreme metamorphosis of Kurtz's personality. From the fragmentary evidence Marlow provides, one suspects a deeply cultured, 'civilized' spirit existing in pre-African Kurtz. The man's initial idealism, for example, is discussed by company agents at the first river post. Each trading station, in their record of Kurtz's early vision, was to be "like a beacon on the road towards better things, a centre for trade of course, but also for humanizing, improving, instructing" (90). The statement, one feels, records Kurtz's genuine commitment, and cannot be equated with the "philanthropic pretence" of the other 'pilgrims' (78). Kurtz, futhermore, is variously described as a gifted musician, a painter, and a talented political orator. By normal Western definitions, he is a man of remarkable intellectual and spiritual refinement. Like Siberia, however, Africa proves to be an environment where "the dissolution of all controls and norms" is possible (Jackson 86). "Out there", Marlow admits, "there were no external checks" ('Heart of Darkness' 74). There exist in the Congo none of the usual restraining social forces, what the narrator whimsically refers to as the butcher and the policeman round every corner to define the boundaries of so-called permissible behaviour. Isolated from such potent symbols of order, the 'civilized' face of man soon proves to be a fragile veneer thinly disguising other dormant, but powerful, impulses. Alone and unchecked, quite a different human state begins to emerge. It is in solitude that Kurtz first begins to make discoveries about his real, inner nature. As Marlow tells us, the wilderness "had whispered to him things about himself which he did not know, things of which he had no conception" (131). In this "region of the first ages", we are told, Kurtz discovers in himself an innate, even boundless capacity for brutal savagery (116). As with Goryanchikov's convicts, this urge would seem to be quantifiable as both murderous and carnal. As I noted earlier however, Marlow's impressionistic account makes it difficult for us to define precisely the exact character of Kurtz's barbarism. Whereas Goryanchikov leaves us in little doubt as to his convict's animal depravity, Marlow tends, in Marvin Mudrick's judgment, "to persuade the reader by epithets, exclamations, ironies, by every technical obliquity -- into an hallucinated awareness" of Kurtz's psychology and actions. Despite this essential difference in authorial technique, Mudrick nevertheless feels that in Kurtz Conrad does achieve a complete picture of "unplumable depravity ... [of] primal unanalyzable evil" (Mudrick, 'The Originality of Conrad' 545-553).

At the Station, and during his extended sorties into the wilderness, Kurtz's "soul", in Marlow's opinion, has become "satiated with primitive emotions" ('Heart of Darkness' 147). In a language that remains defiantly generalized, but retains its heightened, exclamatory quality, even the numbed Marlow points to the "abominable" (151), "monstrous" (144), "unspeakable" (118) quality of Kurtz's passions. Pure, unrestrained brutality is of course perfectly symbolized by the row of heads on stakes which surrounds the river compound. That this primitive drive, as in Dostoevsky, also incorporates a powerful sexual dimension is strongly implied by further remarks. Kurtz's dissolution, we are told, has reached a "colossal scale" (156), to the point where he completely abandons himself to the "gratification of his various lusts" (131). He has surrendered himself entirely to base, primal instincts; he has become absolute victim to what Marlow terms "his vile desires" (156). In an infamous snapshot vision in 'Heart of Darkness' (1899), Marlow refers to Kurtz secretly presiding "at certain midnight dances ending with unspeakable rites" (118). Various critics, most notably Stephen Reid, have attempted to quantify the exact nature of these "rites" (45-54). Citing Sir James Frazer's study of West African civilizations in The Golden Bough (1890-1915) to support his thesis, Reid suggests these "rites" involve Kurtz in scenes of bestiality, human sacrifice, and even cannibalism. Though his investigation is unquestionably illuminating, it nevertheless ignores, even denies, the enormous suggestive quality of Conrad's image. For without attendant detail, the image 'per se' masterfully conveys the chilling completeness of Kurtz's surrender to his native, savage impulses.

There is much compelling evidence to support the view that Marlow does not wish his listeners to consider Kurtz's degeneration as a purely isolated case. Kurtz's descent into animal barbarism (as with Dostoevsky's convicts) might represent an extreme example, but it is nevertheless indicative of a larger capacity for savagery that exists in all men. It is significant to note, in a 1903 letter to Kazimierz Waliszewski, how Conrad stresses the "great care" he took "to give Kurtz a cosmopolitan origin" (Collected Letters of Conrad 3 94). Marlow, as well, reminds us that "all Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz" ('Heart of Darkness' 117). Indeed in this respect the figure of Kurtz assumes the role of 'Everyman'. Allayed to this is Marlow's own recognition that a latent primitive barbarism exists in himself. In his work Conrad the Novelist (1958), Albert Guerard points to Marlow as a "secret sharer" in Kurtz's violent world (41). In his opinion, Marlow experiences an almost psychic identification with Kurtz's mental state. Even before their meeting, I would argue, Marlow's encounter with what he calls "prehistoric man" cursing and howling at him from the banks of the river, proves him receptive to the primal savaagery present in his own nature. In a telling passage, he admits to sharing a "remote kinship" with the scene of "wild and passionate uproar". In a brief glimpse of tribal mankind, Marlow forges subtle emotional and intellectual bonds:

If you were man enough [he argues] you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you -- you so remote from the night of first ages -- could comprehend. ('Heart of Darkness '96)

Marlow's journey along the river, and his encounter with Kurtz, are truly an initiation into the dark heart of man; man who, irrespective of modern society's so-called civilizing values, still retains his essentially primitive homicidal and sexual identity. In conversation with Raskolnikov at the end of Crime and Punishment (1866), Dostoevsky's character Svidrigailov reflects on man's vast appetite for violent, sexual "'vice'". Such "'vice'", in his belief, is "'something that is founded on nature ... something that is always there in your blood, like a piece of red-hot coal'" (trans. Magarshack 482). The conclusion Svidrigailov draws on this occasion, can safely be said to reflect Dostoevsky's own mature philosophy, a philosophy very much born out of the writer's passage through Siberia. Similarly, Conrad's fictionalized journey through the Congo is a learning process, what Ian Watt aptly describes as "a spiritual voyage of discovery" (Conrad in the Nineteenth Century 199). In this sense, it fulfills a similar function to Dostoevsky's prison narrative. Indeed Marlow himself admits that his experiences seem "somehow to throw a kind of light on everything" ('Heart of Darkness' 51). Like Goryanchikov's insights, Marlow's anthropological discoveries exert a profound shaping influence on Conrad's entire, mature vision of human nature.

Marlow's observations, however, also extend beyond a primary vision of innate human savagery. For Kurtz, like Dostoevsky's Zherebyatnikov, is seen to be motivated by a craving to wield absolute power. In his "unlawful soul", Marlow affirms, there exists the urge to assert a tyrannizing domination over others (144). It is to this aspect of Conrad's narrative that I shall now turn.

There are clear indications, in the final part of Marlow's narrative, that Kurtz has assumed the status of Man-God in the eyes of his adopted lakeside tribe. Indeed writing in his 'pamphlet', Kurtz suggests that all white men must naturally appear to these "savages" as "supernatural beings". "We approach them", he insists, "with the might as of a deity" (118). Listening to the Harlequin's account of Kurtz's activities, Marlow comes to recognize the particular truth behind this improbable claim; in the narrator's final estimation, Kurtz has indeed achieved a "power to charm or frighten rudimentary souls into an aggravated witch-dance in his honour" (119). Though Kurtz's 'pamphlet' envisages the use of such power for "practically unbounded ... Benevolence", the reality of its exercise proves to be quite different (118). His "ascendancy" neither manifests itself in acts of civilizing philanthropy or altruism, to adopt Marlow's ironic paraphrasing (131). For here, as in Dostoevsky's universe, absolute power inevitably realizes itself in tyranny.

From Marlow's oblique, yet evocative conversation with the young Russian trader, one is able to piece together a reasonable picture of Kurtz's recent conduct. The 'Harlequin' recounts that the man would disappear into the wilderness for weeks, where he would live in tribal villages. There he would "forget himself ... forget himself -- you know" (129). The Russian's brief dialogue is pregnant with those "unspeakable" hints, those hidden, yet loaded meanings, which are a characteristic feature of Conrad's text. Kurtz, he continues, "could be very terrible" (128); his "ascendancy" over the tribe was "extraordinary". They "adored" him, they are said to "crawl" before him (131). The drying heads that surround the station, we are further told, are the heads of "rebels", men who have disputed Kurtz's right to absolute power. From these fleeting, but potent images, Marlow himself judges that Kurtz has indeed "taken a high seat amongst the devils of the land -- I mean literally" (116). It must be clearly stressed that Kurtz's Man-God status, through foisted upon him, is something he nevertheless accepts with profound gratification, in fact with relish. Such a thesis is supported by the 'Harlequin's' account of an argment with Kurtz over ivory. Recalling the scene for Marlow, the Russian reports:

He [Kurtz] declared he would shoot me unless I gave him the ivory and then cleared out of the country, because he could do so, and had a fancy for it, and there was nothing on earth to prevent him killing whom he jolly well pleased. And it was true, too. (128)

As with Dostoevsky's Zherebyatnikov, one recognizes the element of almost breathless hysteria in this paraphrase of Kurtz's words. Kurtz is clearly wildly intoxicated by the exercise of his complete, anarchistic power. For Kurtz everything and anything is now permitted, and the experience proves to be profoundly, indeed sensuously, gratifying. In remote isolation, in fact, a latent human capacity for tyranny has come to the fore, a tyranny characterized by its frenzied, animal brutality. Marlow himself admits that, in his contacts with Kurtz, he must now "deal with a being ... [he cannot appeal to] in the name of anything high or low" (144). Away from the restrictions of normal society, in the vacuum of Africa, Kurtz has been free to realize his inner, fundamental drives. Despite his genuine idealism, his belief that power might be put to purely philanthropic, civilizing ends, Kurtz's vision proves brittle and insubstantial when challenged by more rooted forces which exist as part of man's ancient psychological heritage. In many respects, the figure of Kurtz can be viewed as Conrad's first major anthropological statement; he is the prototpe for a whole Conradian universe where man shows himself to be entirely egocentric. Indeed Kurtz's image can be traced to its full fruition in later novels such as Nostromo (1904), a work in which man is consistently exposed as brutally self-seeking, once he is possessed of power. In 'Heart of Darkness'(1899), the postscriptum Marlow discovers attached to Kurtz's 'document' is itself a lasting testimony to the inevitable decline of the human spirit, should it be given the freedom to exert total dominance. Under such conditions, a brutal regime of tyranny -- even Kurtz's insane call to slaughter weaker individuals, "to exterminate the brutes!" -- becomes a real and horrifying possibility (118).

Essentially, Marlow observes in Kurtz not only one individual's fall, but a universal process of human disintegration of which all mankind is infinitely suspectible. In fact from one perspective, the whole imperialist 'adventure' recounted in 'Heart of Darkness' (1899) can be seen as the perfect collective expression of man's natural craving to dominate. Early in the text Marlow speaks of the active "conquest of the earth, which mostly means taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves" (50-1). His statement, read on one level, reduces human experience to a power struggle, to a process where the strong seem almost impelled, by their very nature, to oppress weaker societies and individuals. In a famous passage from Nostromo (1904), the financier Holroyd, with facetious arrogance but perhaps also profound insight, speculates on a future world dominated by those now in power (Nostromo Dent Ed. 77). The leaders, Holroyd suggests, will be essentially at the mercy of their own deepest instincts. Ironically, they will be powerless to prevent their own eventual supremacy in a world where the natural human order is essentially one of oppression and dominance.

As in Dostoevsky's world, the lust for power is shown to extend very deeply into man's being. Even in the most minor incidents in 'Heart of Darkness' (1899), the 'pilgrims' consistently display an almost unconscious urge to assert their dominance. On the long land trek to the Station for example, Marlow is accompanied by a sick agent being carried by natives on a stretcher. When this heavy man is abandoned by his exhausted carriers, his first cry is essentially tyrannic in character. Indeed Marlow reports that the man is "very anxious" for him "to kill somebody" at once ('Heart of Darkness' 72). Similarly, following the arson attack at the Central Station, Marlow focuses our attention on a powerless black, who has been falsely accused of being the perpetrator of the fire (76). He is subjected to what seems an almost habitually brutal beating. Though these incidents are specifically acts of colonial aggression, they can nevertheless be regarded as entirely valid outbreaks of a larger capacity -- that native urge to assert power which exists in all men.

Like The House of the Dead (1860), Conrad's novel can be regarded, finally, as a document charting the essentially violent and primitive character of man. Indeed for both writers, man remains essentially a victim of his own rooted homicidal and carnal identity. Not only this, he is seen to derive intense gratification from the brutal assertion of his own authority. From their respective observations and character studies, Conrad and Dostoevsky do distil a significantly common philosophy. It might seem surprising, in mature works particularly, to find both authors in such major ideological accord. If anything, Conrad can be said to deepen his initial responses into what is a profoundly fatalistic view of the human condition. Man, proven violent and despotic in 'Heart of Darkness' (1899), remains irretrievably corrupt in most of the later writing. The vast gallery of depraved humanity recorded by Nostromo (1904) only emphasizes this point. Figures like Sotillo and Pedro Montero are shown, as Kurtz was, to be wholly governed by their savage lust for power , by their brutally murderous capacity for greed. To the "violent men" of the Campo, to take just one example, Montero is said to appear as "little removed from a state of utter savagery" (Nostromo 385). In fact Nostromo (1904) tends to augment, even darken, the quality of Conrad's earlier convictions.

Dostoevsky, similarly, continues to acknowledge the central importance of his belief in man's primitive character. In The Brothers Karamazov (1881), Dmitry Karamazov repeatedly draws attention to what he calls the "insect lust" active in himself (trans. Garnett 111). He knows he is irresistibly drawn to the "back alley"; that part of his nature demands that he should "sink in filth and stench at his own free will and with enjoyment" (120). Even Aloysha Karamazov, striving for religious and spiritual purity, pays homage to the degraded sensuality he feels living in his own spirit. He senses the real truth behind his brother's accusation that, "Angel as you are, that insect lives in you, too, and will stir up a tempest in your blood" (109). Though Dostoevsky of course insisted on the existence of a spiritual dimension in man, he nevertheless consistently paid tribute to the enormous strength of this underlying primitive personality. To further illustrate the importance of this point, it is profitable to cite Prince Myshkin. With his Idiot, Dostoevsky fought to create what would be his "wholly beautiful individual" (Quoted in Mochulsky 344). Despite Myshkin's Christ-like purity, however, Dostoevsky was forced to acknowledge his character's identification, indeed in his dark bond, with the murderous world of Rogozhin. That Dostoevsky considered The Idiot (1869) a partial failure is perhaps attributable to this fundamental conflict between the author's attempt to realize unalloyed spiritual beauty, despite an earlier acceptance of man's latent savage identity. The discoveries made in the convict world of Siberia proved, it seems, too potent to unlearn.

As I have attempted to illustrate throughout, Siberia and Africa were, ultimately, perhaps the most important emotional and spiritual experiences in the personal lives of both writers. These private descents into the veritable hell of the human psyche were to exert a profoundly shaping influence in the later formation of both men's mature philosophies. The semi-fictionalized accounts of each writer's harrowing psychological odyssey, therefore, deserve to be recognized as major first statements of their creed. As I have shown, a parallel analysis of 'Heart of Darkness' (1899) and The House of the Dead (1860), from this perspective, does provide some revealing insights into the strikingly similar nature of both author's views on the human condition. For the literary establishment, which has long since pronounced that Conrad and Dostoevsky reside at opposing ends of a literary and ideological spectrum, there is much to suggest a major re-appraisal is long overdue. As these two early works show, there are fundamental philosophical bonds uniting both writers, bonds which seem both surprising and exciting.


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