Burying the Heart of Darkness.
Words by Liisa Ahlfors & artwork by Liisa Ahlfors
A Study of Light and Darkness was a performance that involved burying the novella Heart of Darkness (1899) by Joseph Conrad (1857-1924), page by page into the daffodil beds at the City Park of Antwerp, Belgium, on one afternoon in March 2014. The performance was an artistic response to literary studies of post-colonialism and the relationship between Belgium and its colony of the past, Congo. The tangible deconstruction of a novella holding such a monumental position in our Western cultural heritage as one of Conrad’s, (“The best books ever written”, states the Penguin Classics series back cover) was a gesture of deconstructing intangible aspects the novella here represents: hegemonic canonisation of certain narratives over others, a form of imperialism itself.
The novella used as the material for the performance follows the ivory transporter Charles Marlowe’s travel down the Congo River in Central Africa (though the exact place is never directly indicated in the novella) to track down Kurtz, an ivory trader whose reputation precedes him and strongly impresses Marlowe, who slowly becomes obsessed by Kurtz. In the end, Marlowe finds Kurtz gone mad, abusing his position as a demigod among the native Africans. Conrad has acknowledged that he partly based Heart of Darkness on his own experiences during his travels in Africa.
During its publication, Conrad’s novella was seen as critical by his contemporaries, for example E.D. Morel (1873-1924), the leader of the international opposition against Belgium’s King Leopold II (1865-1909) exploitative colonial politics in Congo. Since then the novella has encountered criticism among the feminist theorists as well as postcolonial studies. In the essay of a Nigerian author Chinua Achebe (1930-2013), An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ (1977), based on his public lecture held at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1975, Achebe stated that Conrad’s novella dehumanizes the native Africans, incorrectly depicting Africa as the antithesis of Europe and civilization and continues to promote this prejudiced image of Africa. Achebe describes the novella as “offensive and deplorable book” and concludes that it should not be considered as a great work of art at all. This debate was the premise for my artistic response as well as the city where it was performed.
Antwerp is a city where ivory and red rubber from Congo were off-loaded. According to legend, there was a giant named Antigoon who charged a toll, and anyone refusing to pay for crossing the river Scheldt – he chopped off their hands and threw them into the river. Young Roman soldier Brabo finally defeated Antigoon by chopping off the hand of the giant. This folklore tale remains visible in the cityscape of Antwerp today: in front of the town hall is a statue of Brabo throwing the mutilated hand of Antigoon into the river Scheldt, and every corner sells regional speciality of Antwerpse handjes, small hand-shaped chocolates. Yet there is another story related to hands. Between 1885-1908, agents of Belgian controlled Congo Free State had a policy of collecting severed hands of Congolese who failed to fulfil rubber quotas. These cut-off hands were kept and presented to European higher-ups as a proof that the soldiers’ bullets were not wasted. This turned the hands into a sort of currency; the agents put Congolese in the row to collect multiple hands with only one bullet, and sometimes the hands were cut-off while the victim was still alive.
The cultural blind spot of Antwerpse handjes recollects a passage in Conrad’s novella: At the end of Heart of Darkness, Kurtz dies with his final words being “The horror! The horror!”. Marlowe returns to Europe, and meets with Kurtzs’ fiancée, dressed in black and still in deep mourning after a year of Kurtz’s death. Asking Marlowe to repeat the final words of Kurtz, Marlowe lies that Kurtzs’ final word was her name. Marlowe thus leaves the fiancée to remain in her illusion of Kurtz as a noble missionary. When we choose to disregard the history of brutal colonialism and retell a folklore, we brutalise not merely others, but ourselves. By facing the truth, in all its darkness, we can hope to resurrect into light.1
- 1. Narcissi, or daffodils, are widely spread in arts and literature, used as a grave flower and symbolising death, but also Spring and hope for resurrection. ↵