50 Books to Read Before You Die

words to inspire before you expire

Tag: Civilization

Heart of Darkness

Hello again, class.

Heart of Darkness is controversial. It is a novella about Africa, written from the perspective of a European. It’s a story about the “lesser people” of Africa, the “civilized countries” attempting to conquer it, and the darkness men can succumb to in the attempt.

When I read it first, it was hard enough to simply follow the plot because it was so dense. The second time I read it, I felt as though I had conquered it myself—the fact that I could understand it was enough for me, and I dug no deeper into the racism and prejudice that was there. What I did notice, I excused with “it was a different time”, and that’s a sufficient defense for most art.

But I studied the novel a third time to write this post . . . the racism was much clearer than I remembered. Words like “savages” and “rudimentary souls” describe the people of a conquered continent, and scenes depict them worshiping a white man mad with power. Africa is shown as a backwards and evil land that corrupts the noble European cause—in the context of Heart of Darkness, that cause is stealing African ivory to sell back in Europe.

There’s no beating around the bush—racism is rampant throughout Heart of Darkness. My goal with this post is not to point out every racist moment in the story, though that’s a worthwhile cause. I think it’s more important to talk about why this book made the list of 50 Books to Read Before You Die, and whether or not the story’s racism had something to do with it. The reasons behind the story and it’s placement on the list may not be as important as the reasons we still read it today . . . maybe that makes all the difference.

Heart of Darkness opens with Marlow, a man with a story to tell about his time in Africa. He was sent there by a European company to investigate what happened to a man named Kurtz, one of the company officials. Marlow must journey into the heart of Africa in the hopes of finding Kurtz, and the further in he goes, the more “savage” things become.

Apocalypse Now (1979) is a Vietnam war drama adapted directly from Heart of Darkness. While the setting and time period have changed, the original characters and story points remain; Apocalypse Now is one of the most famous and most sincere adaptations of Heart of Darkness.

It’s not an adventure story, with epic battles or a heart-warming quest. It’s a disturbing journey, and we’re meant to hope Marlow turns back before it’s too late—in the same way that it’s too late for Kurtz, corrupted by the darkness of the environment. The longer these men stay in the heart of this dark land, the closer they are to reverting to savage ways—the ways of the African people.

This is the flaw in the story. To believe that civilized people are in danger of becoming savages by being around a continent full of savages, is to simultaneously demean a diverse group of people as uniformly savage (for differences of culture and skin color) and to antagonize that group of people as threats to one’s own standard of civilization. In Heart of Darkness, Africans are seen as slow-minded, low-born, and weak-spirited, and by some twisted logic they happen to have the ability to corrupt civilization elsewhere.

So why read Heart of Darkness? Easy: it’s written beautifully. I haven’t read a lot of Joseph Conrad’s work, but everything I’ve read by him has been just short of magical. It may be dense, but Conrad’s writing is unmatched. Knowing that English is not his first language (it’s his third language) makes it clear that he was a master in his craft. His words deserve to be read, and Heart of Darkness is some of his strongest writing.

Author Joseph Conrad

The problem, of course, is the content. If his other novels are written just as well, and are less problematic, wouldn’t those be better choices for the list? The controversy surrounding the novel (similar to the controversies of Huckleberry Finn) have made Heart of Darkness more famous, so that’s something—as if Heart of Darkness is the “gateway” to Conrad’s other works.

But if we’re to look at Heart of Darkness just as it is—if we focus on the story, rather than how it’s told or what it means—we get a pretty good idea of the evils of colonialism. Instead of reading Heart of Darkness and chalking up the apparent racism as byproducts of a “different time,” we can study the racism of the past—in all the glory of Conrad’s beautiful prose—to understand the racism of the present. The best way to read Heart of Darkness is as a historical artifact—appreciation with a grain of salt—and in that form, it deserves to make the list.

Next up is the final book on the list—Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. I didn’t like reading it in high school, but I went in prejudiced against it—it didn’t match the Frankenstein myth of a reanimated corpse-turned-zombie, and it lost all its cool-factor. I hope I read it this time with more open-mindedness. But more on that next time.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

Brave New World

Hello again, class.

I’m still a little surprised that I was able to read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World in high school—at the time, it was the most sexually explicit required reading that had ever crossed my path. But I had a teacher who made it clear that this was an adult novel . . . it wouldn’t be fun or funny. It would be challenging and disturbing, and probably raise more questions than it could answer. In another teacher’s hands, I would have written this novel off as weird; but as I read it for his class, and as I reread it over the past few weeks, I realize that this book is one of the few that invited me to read more challenging stories, even if I didn’t like them.

And there are parts of Brave New World I don’t like, but the novel is special for that exact reason. You aren’t supposed to like it because it’s not entertainment . . . it’s a warning.

The society of Brave New World runs on a set of rules that everyone happily follows; for instance, solitary actions are as prohibited as possible, and in sexual terms, everyone belongs to everyone else. Extreme emotions have been all but eradicated with removal of the family unit, genetic modification, psychological conditioning, and a drug called soma. Without extreme emotions—passion, rage, fear, jealousy, misery—all that’s left is a mellow contentment. Between universal happiness and ideals like truth, beauty, or knowledge, the populace has overwhelmingly chosen happiness.

And that’s the setting for a rather depressing story, told from the perspective of a handful of individuals in a society where individuals shouldn’t exist. Bernard Marx is the catalyst for the plot—a man shorter than those he is genetically similar to, and therefore made an outsider. He is simple and somewhat shallow, but by being an outsider, he refuses to medicate himself for happiness and wishes society were different. His friend, Helmholtz Watson, is an outsider because of his affinity for poetry—the happiness of their society begins to wear itself thin for him, causing him to challenge social norms for the sake of the beauty of language.

Author Aldous Huxley

But the real outsider is John the Savage, a man born in one of the few Savage Reservations left that are not “civilized” like the rest of the world. His mother was a woman from civilization, but she became trapped visiting the reservation and was left there, unexpectedly pregnant with John. He grew up with a different skin color from everyone else in the reservation, so he had been an outsider his whole life—then the opportunity arose to visit civilization, as a scientific and social experiment. But he soon learns that the “brave new world” of civilization is terrible, where adults act like children, morality and freedom are all but stripped away, and humanity is weighed down under machines and medication.

Huxley’s novel portrays less of a dystopia and more of a parodied utopia; there’s a clear distinction. A dystopia is inherently bad, like 1984 or The Hunger Games, where it’s clear people are suffering due to humanity’s mistakes. But Brave New World actually represents a utopia—an almost unrealistically happy society, without war, poverty, famine, misery, or burden. The only person who cannot bear this society is John, who grew up apart from it.

1984 is about a regime holding power and using ideology, propaganda, and torture to subdue threats . . . humanity’s enemy is more powerful than ever, but it’s the same enemy: an upper class with all the power. Brave New World might even be scarier, because there is no enemy. Humanity simply gave up, surrendered to happiness. All the things we like to think make humanity good—art, morality, intelligence, curiosity, passion . . . all replaced by peace. A numbing, terrifying global peace.

Brave New World is a warning, but not like most dystopian novels, warning us against threats to society. It’s warning to us that if our everlasting search for happiness and comfort continue, we may gain peace, but we will lose what makes us human.

Nothing hits this point more at home than the many Shakespeare references throughout the novel. Shakespeare has been completely removed from this society, because his words are too beautiful and evocative. His stories of revenge, passion, tragedy, and love cause too much instability to the stable World State, so his works cannot be allowed to exist in society.

A Portrait of William Shakespeare

But in the reservation, John finds one of the last remaining copies of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, which he uses at a young age to learn how to read. His attraction to Lenina Crowne in the civilized world becomes reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet, while his contemplation of suicide is mirrored in Hamlet‘s “To be or not to be” soliloquy. Most importantly, the title of the book comes from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which John uses to describe civilization when he sees it for the first time: “O, wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, that has such people in’t!”

And that, possibly more than anything else, it what makes this future so horrible. To have happiness, we have to get rid of Shakespeare . . . as well as any other good story, along with God and religion, scientific discovery, and anything else that doesn’t serve the greater purpose of providing comfort and stability for society. Welcome to the brave new world.

I honestly don’t like thinking about this. At least with 1984, I can see that abuse of power is something that has always happened and will continue to happen—the current state of the political world does nothing to convince me that that will ever change. But this . . . Huxley’s novel is simply messed up, and I can’t stand the possibility that humanity might surrender itself completely. This is scarier than any horror I can think of.

So I’m just going to move on to the next novel. Hopefully, students, you feel better about this than I do. I’ve got nothing.

Next up, I’m reading Wuthering Heights, another somewhat depressing story, but at least it comes with a better ending!

Until then, be careful with your happiness and beware the future.

Prof. Jeffrey

“If you look at a column of ants on the march you will see that there are some who are stragglers or have lost their way. The column has no time for them; it goes on . . . And all the time the great busyness continues, and that apparent sociability, that rite of meeting and greeting which ants travelling in opposite directions, to and from their nest, perform without fail.

. . .

We were simple men with civilizations but without other homes. Whenever we were allowed to, we did the complicated things we had to do, like the ants. We had the occasional comfort of reward, but in good times or bad we lived with the knowledge that we were expendable . . . and that others would replace us. To us that was the painful part, that others would come at the better time. But we were like the ants; we kept on.”

—from A Bend in the River by V. S. Naipaul