Culture Magazine

Heart of Darkness: Why Were Pilgrims on Board the Boat?

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
A couple of weeks ago I posted a fragment from an interview with Samuel Delany about the passage in Heart of Darkness when the boat pulled away from the shore at the Central Station with Kurtz on board. Delany remarked that the pilgrims had murdered his African mistress. They started shooting people indiscriminately and she was foremost among them. The text didn’t explicitly say that she was killed, but the implication is there.
I posted that passage because I somehow didn’t see that implication when I was working on the text a few years ago.
I forgot to note that that settled a question that had been bugging me for some time: Why were the pilgrims on board in the first place? Oh, I don’t mean what justification was given in the text. I forget what it was, but it doesn’t really matter with respect to my current point, which is about story-telling craft. Why did Conrad need them on the boat? He didn’t really need yet another example of monstrous European behavior in Africa. He had plenty of that. He must have had some other reason.
That other reason, obviously, was to murder that mistress. In the overall symbolic substructure of the tale, in the myth-logic, it was important that she be murdered by explicitly religious people. Roughly: Kurtz’s Intended is a tropological descendant of Dante’s Beatrice, the archetypal target of courtly love. Courtly love took fundamentally religious sentiments and imagery and applied them to secular targets. Courtly love became transformed into romantic love and, by the early 19th century, romantic love had become the ideal presupposition of and reason for marriage (think of Jane Austen). Kurtz had gone to Africa to make his fortune and thus become worthy of his beloved.
What did he do when he got to African. He “went native” and, in particular, took an African mistress, presumably a woman whom he had come to love. The pilgrims were on board the boat to exorcise him of his lover.
About a decade after Conrad published Heart of Darkness Freud would publish a classic paper, “Contributions to the Pyschology of Love. A Special Type of Choice of Object made by Men”, in which he outlines the virgin/whore dichotomy in the male mind. Kurtz’s Intended is on the virgin side of the dichotomy while the African mistress is on the whore side. About a decade before Heart of Darkness Thomas Hardy worked through this dichotomy in a different way in Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891).
There’s more to say, an actual argument to make, but this at least shows the direction that argument is to take. As I remarked to Delany in a conversation on his Facebook page, Heart of Darkness is inscribed in the rotting carcass of the 19th century European ‘love and marriage’ novel.
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Freud, S. (1910) “Contributions to the Pyschology of Love. A Special Type of Choice of Object made by Men.” Trans. Joan Riviere. Sigmund Freud: Collected Papers. New York: Basic Books, 1959, 192 - 202.

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