Into the Heart of a Title

Heart of Darkness is by far one of the most suggestive title ever. Darkness is a universal archetype that we naturally associate to death, mystery, evil or a menace, but despite the dangers that we word dark excites, it ultimately attracts us like a magnet. Conrad in this novel takes us to a voyage into the heart of mysterious areas like Africa, the colonizing mission and the self.

Marlow had always been fascinated by Africa, the “dark continent” since he was a child, when he was used to fantasizing over the “blank spaces ” on the map. After returning from a six-year voyage through Asia, he comes across a map of Africa in a London shop window, an event that revives in him those old emotions. Hence, he takes the chance to make his wishes come true accepting the position of captain of a steam boat of the Belgian company which traded on the Congo River. It is metaphorically sunset, when Marlow starts to tell his story to his fellows.They are anchored at the mouth of the Thames, on the Nellie, waiting for the tide to go out.  Yet, as darkness begins to fall, the scene becomes “less brilliant but more profound”, the narrator of novel  warns us, implying that when the blinding effect of the light ceases to be, one could see the heart of things, their dark, secret side.

As the river Thames goes into London, the symbol of the heart of progress and civilization of that time, “the greatest town on earth” for Conrad, the river Congo takes Marlow to the heart of primitiveness. Yet, once there, he witnesses that the sparkling narration of the wonders of colonization hides a very embarrassing and less glorious truth. The dark side of white man’s mission there is made of wild exploitation of people and lands, ill-treatment of the natives and pointless activities. The imperial enterprise appears to his eyes in all its squalor and cruelty and European man’s settlements seem just like tiny islands, white viruses, amidst the vast darkness of the impassive, majestic jungle that surrounds them.

As Marlow penetrates the darkness of Africa, he explores the impenetrable mystery of human nature as well.  He eventually meets Kurtz an ivory dealer, the man he had been sent for,  who is reputed to be the best agent of the Company, but it seems that the wilderness has captured his soul. It is rumored he lives among the natives, shares their rites and is venerated like a god.  Even if he had always been an idealistic man of great abilities, once freed from the conventions of  European society, Kurtz, the white man, reverts to his true self, savage, instinctive, just like that Yahoo, Swift had so brilliantly anticipated. The degree of awareness of that discovery is synthesized by the last two words Kurtz pronounces before dying: “The horror! The horror!”

Yet, any secret should remain so. Nobody likes to be seen for what he really is, that’s why we always wear a mask or more to disguise our “Yahoo” nature. Even a lie may work on this purpose. So, when Marlow returns to Belgium and calls on Kurtz’s fiancée, he doesn’t feel like telling her the truth on what he really was or did in Africa. For what, after all. That’s why, when she wants to know her beloved’s last words before dying, Marlow decides to throw some light over the darkness and answers with a sweet lie: it was her name.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Musings on Boxing Day

When you are a child, Christmas time is fabulous. When you are a child born on the third of December, named Stefania, Christmas time is a long Dionysiac festival, a bacchanal, which starts exactly the day of your birthday and whose wild dances die out the day of the Epiphany. Well, when I was a child. I should have realized that something was about to change the moment when accidentally I was told that, from then on, the name-day present was part of the Christmas present, implying that I would have received only one gift but, of course, a more expensive one. Was it really so? I don’t know. Actually, I didn’t give much consequence to that slight change of plan, after all, the name-day present was usually really a small thing, just the emotion of unwrapping the little surprise. That was all.

By the way, after few years, I started to suspect that something was going the wrong way, when I was told that I was too old to expect the usual sock full of candies, coins and that delicious sugar in the form and colour of charcoal, which was usually given to all the bad children in the world -and I was happily one if them – along with a present by the old and scary Befana witch. Old? Old at thirty!I couldn’t believe it.

As the time went by, I realized that December had become a “problem” for all my relatives and friends, as very likely, when you are no longer a child, it is less obvious to find a present that you really need or wish, let alone 4 in a month, so, before I knew it, the four presents had become one. Now I can candidly say that being born and having my name-day celebrated in December is a bummer. Furthermore, my beloved husband Mr Run and I (?) have decided that this year we would have waited for the sale season to buy and exchange our presents. Of course, mine will be something invaluable he said, but I suspect another….bummer?

A Christmas Fairy Tale

Even that year a beauty contest was held among the firs of the snowy valleys of the North of Italy in order to spot the most luxurious, majestic tree worthy to represent the Christmas spirit in the capital; yet, something really extraordinary happened for the first time: the contest got deserted. The sad story of the winner of the previous year, which was of a stunning beauty, as far as everybody could remember, had been the talk of the those valleys for months and months. How could it be that such a magnificent tree had become the object of worldwide derision so that to be named: “Spelacchio”(Mangy)? Nobody could explain it. There were also rumors about its having been turned into lumber to build a wooden house, where, it seemed, mothers could change and breastfeed their children. “Mothers in Rome don’t have proper places to perform those operations?” they murmured. “Strange, indeed.” “How had they called it?” “Oh, I know it: “Baby Little Home“.Those stories were too scary to remain indifferent. That was not exactly the destiny that a winner of a beauty contest deserved, everybody believed. “Turned into logs to make a hut?” “No way!”

So, when Christmas time approached, all the firs made their best to look as shabby as possible in order to avoid to be chosen. Those which were easily affected by these tales, turned soon grey with fear, while others thought about asking the help of some birds which hovered nearby for : ” Could you pluck some of my pine needles, please?” the fir asked some finches, which had just comfortably perched on one of its branches. “But, isn’t it going to be too painful?” “Don’t worry. You would save my life!” “Pluck as many as you can, please!” The finches were so touched by the imploring tone of its voice, that they demanded no more explanations and promptly set to work. They knew the poor fir was suffering, even if they endeavoured to be as delicate as possible. The brave tree bore it, without saying a word.

“What’s happened here?” said one the organizers of the contest. It seemed as if some sort of virus had spread among the firs of the Alps. “So weird! It has infected only the firs, as the pines, the larches and even those chestnuts look perfectly well !” “What shall we sent to Rome?” “Oh, they might use an artificial tree!” said another one. “An artificial tree! After what happened last year! Nonsense!” While they were walking through that desolation,wondering about what was the best option they had, they couldn’t believe their eyes! What a stroke of luck ! Before them stood a strong, healthy, fabulous tree. “Quick, pull it down!” said one of the organizer, as they were already late in delivery and after a few hours they left the place. It was only when all the men and the unfortunate tree were far enough that the firs recovered their bloom,vigor and serenity. At least for a year.

The winner had recently emigrated from a Southern valley of the Apennines and knew nothing of the sad story of Spelacchio. He had been fully informed by the trees nearby too late to put in place the strategies of its neighbors and now, there it was. Just like the previous year, the fir was accurately prepared and delicately placed on a lorry on a bed of cushions and tied, but this time, as it was too long and big for that lorry, many of its branches were cut. The tree heard some men saying that those branches would have been nailed to the stem once arrived at “Piazza Venezia” in Rome. “What a barbarous treatment!” he thought , “Being crucified at Christmas! That’s intolerable!” But nothing could be done, it was decided.

When it eventually arrived in the capital, it was so tired and looked so ruffled and poor after having been mutilated that not even in its wildest dreams the fir believed it might become that Christmas tree the capital deserved and had been waiting for years. A group of people were made curious by that scene, gathered around it and started frantically to take pictures: “This is even worse than Spelacchio” they sneered “at least, it had its branches on. Let’s call it Spezzacchio (from to cut= spezzare)” and went away laughing. It was mortified.

But that night, after the workers had reassembled its branches, something extraordinary happened. While it was sleeping as it was too worn out, a fairy, named Netflix, came by moved to pity and sprinkled some of her magic dust all over the fir. In a bit the tree found itself covered with Christmas ornaments, thousands colorful balls and a myriad of lights. When it opened its eyes, the fir could see only happy faces that looked on it in admiration. It could even feel a warm touch. It was a child who was petting its left branch tenderly and exclaimed: “Look mum, what a wonderful Christmas tree!”

This story has a moral: there is always hope. After almost three years of this adminstration we have eventually succeeded in having a decent Christmas tree, maybe in 20 years pot-holes and garbage won’t be a problem any longer of this city. We must learn to be patient and believe that a fairy one day will make things right. You’ve got to believe it, at least at Christmas time.

In the meantime, Merry Christmas everyone!!

Piercing the Veil of Hypocrisy

Heart of Darkness

If propaganda is a reality devoid of facts, a convincing narration which bewitches our reason, well, the bard of the wonder of colonization was doubtless, Kipling, while it was Conrad who lifted the veil that covered the embarassing truth. He resisted the charm of the sirens’  songs of his age and in a voyage down the river Congo, he saw with his own eyes the darkest side of the empire, its heart, a “Heart of Darkness”.

The assumption that the civilizing mission of western cultures was essentially a moral duty, was based on the rooted idea of the undiscussed superiority of the white man. By the way, as for many grand enterprises, the continuous effort in term of cost and people involved had become a “burden” in time, a noble burden, for sure, so that the Americans, as emerging power, were invited by Kipling to share with the Britons their mission in his poem:” The White Man’s Burden“. Kipling explained that the mission consisted in sending the “best breed” of a nation into “exile” to  –  pay attention – “serve”  the “captives’ needs”. Being “newly caught”, they were not able to understand the stroke of luck that had fallen on them and could be unwilling to be taught the customs of the white man.The empire’s civilizing mission apparently was at the service of the natives who were seen as “fluttered”, “wild”,”sullen”, in short  : “half devil and half child”.  It is a powerful symbology indeed, as ” devil” refers to the natives’ evil, dangerous and sinful nature, that is why the word “mission” , with its religious connotations, acquires even a higher meaning,  while their being at the same “child”  reinforces the idea of their inferiority, which is due to their naivety and ignorance. 

However, it is when Marlow, the narrator of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, is traveling down the river Congo through the wilderness on a steam boat and eventually manages to “open a reach” that the veil of the hypocrisy of colonization is definitely pierced.  His eyes are wide open to an unexpected reality, which metaphorically seems to blind him at first. A light is thrown on the dark side of the “mission”:

“A blinding sunlight drowned all this at times in a sudden recrudescence of glare.” (Heart of Darkness Chpt 1.)

It is a ” scene of inhabited devastation”. Pointless activities have caused a “waste of excavations” and an early deforestation. Useless pieces of machinery are scattered everywhere and lie on the ground like rotten carcasses of animals. It is a scene of both physical and moral death. The natural noise of the rapids is replaced by the deafening sound of the horn which anticipates a “dull detonation” which shakes the ground. He sees the natives running away fearful, trying to find a shelter under a “clump of trees”. These men are “mostly black and naked” and move about “like ants”. Six of them pass him by. They are chained, ragged, silent :

“I could see every rib, the joints of their limbs were like knots in a rope; each had an iron collar on his neck, and all were connected together with a chain whose bights swung between them, rhythmically clinking.” (Heart of Darkness Chpt 1.)

Marlow’s conclusion does not leave room for any doubt:

“these men could by no stretch of imagination be called enemies. ” (Heart of Darkness Chpt 1.)

But an effective storytelling could.

Ruth

 

“If a young woman have beauty, birth, breeding, wit, sense, manners, modesty, and all these to an extreme, yet if she have not money, she’s nobody, she had as good want them all for nothing but money now recommends a woman; the men play the game all into their own hands.” (Moll Flanders, Chpt 4)

Can a “fallen women” be also pure, innocent? A sinless sinner? Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth is the answer to these questions. Ruth is the angel that sins without even knowing the meaning and the consequences of her action, she is a pure ray of light that brightens the entire novel and gently glides over the greyness of Victorian prudery and moralism. Ruth is an orphan of about sixteen, who works at a sweatshop and whose uncommon beauty attracts the young and rich Henry Bellingham. They form a secret friendship, which is found out by Mrs Mason, the owner of the shop, who soon dismisses her for the sake of the reputation her business. Homeless and unemployed she consents to leave with Henry Bellingham to go to London first and then to Wales. This makes her a “fallen woman” at the eyes of society, the point is that she didn’t know the meaning of it:

” She was too young when her mother died to have received any cautions or words of advice” (Ruth Chpt 3)

For her it had been natural to follow the man she loved and had offered protection; it was natural for to please him or entertain him; it is natural when you love. She couldn’t see anything wrong in her doings, but  the people she occasionally interacted with, oh yes, they could. Gaskell, here, is at her best when she depicts Ruth’s joyful and spontaneous world, made of expectations, true feelings and pure emotions, which strikes with the strict code of proper behavior of the Victorian society, which couldn’t but condemn the degree of moral corruption that all that meant. Only when a young boy, whose innocence had already been dented by the talks inside the family, shouts at her “naughty woman” – very likely without comprehending the meaning of his words – she catches for a moment a glimpse of reality, but she doesn’t figure it out fully. She’ll have to wake up abruptly from her dream of love, when Mr Bellingham’s mother, called by her son on the occasion of a fever, persuades him to abandon Ruth in Wales. She will remain alone with a 50 pound note and a kid on the way.

Elizabeth Gaskell never deceives her readers on the true nature of Ruth’s lover, he is a rake. Whatever point of view she uses, however genteel his manners may look or honest his intentions may be, there is always a fraction, a word that unmasks his real temper. Even when he seems to display a sort of heroic nature, saving the life of a child, we cannot trust him, in fact when he carries the boy back to his humble abode he is disgusted by the dirt and the smell of the place, and he openly says it with contempt, hurting the feelings of the boy’s grandmother.

Distraught and alone in a hostile world Ruth attempts suicide, but she is saved by Mr Benson, a Dissenting minister, who offers her comfort and decides to take her to his home town to live with him, his sister Faith and Sally their housekeeper. Being pregnant, she will be introduced in the neighbourhood as Mrs Denbigh, a young widow of only 16, to protect her from tittle-tattle. Years of sorrow and expiation will follow,  which she will be able to bear thanks to the love and comfort the Benson’s give her and, of course, her son Leonard who will become the only reason of her life.

So this “fallen woman” is given a chance to rescue herself and this is the novelty of this character. She will be accepted, loved, praised and be offered a job as governess, and when Mr Bellingham reappears in her life, she has become strong enough to be no longer seduced by his words and offers. Yet, her reception in that society was based on a lie, her being a widow, and when the falsehood is discovered, she is shunned once again, but she will not go away and she will endure with patience, like a Madonna, all the consequences for the sake of her child.

Once again she will redeem herself, and the occasion will be a deadly fever. Ruth volunteers to be sick-nurse for the townspeople, as no one else was willing. As a real Madonna she’ll work hard to comfort the sick and dying. It would seem the ultimate penance for her sin, but it is not. Mr Bellingham has caught the fever and even if she is weak and tired, she revolves upon attending him. She will catch the fever and die, while he will recover. I have to confess that his is the part I have real trouble to understand fully. Even Charlotte Bronte herself said: ” Why should she die?” and I would add: “why should she go?”  The turning of a “fallen woman” into a saint with the final sacrifice must have tempted her, but to find peace and her reward in the other world is not an end that can satisfy my more modern taste. I do prefer rewards in this world.