Nihilism in Heart of Darkness
Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1899) challenges readers to question not only society's framework but more importantly the existence of being. Through the events involving Marlow and Kurtz, Conrad communicates a theme of the destruction of Being, "including that way of being which we call 'human' and consider to be our own" (Levin, 3). This theme is more clearly defined as nihilism, which involves the negation of all religious and moral values. The philosophy behind nihilism is extensive and in its completeness connotes humanity's inescapable fate of meaninglessness. The extent to which various ideologists regard nihilism varies according to their own philosophies. Nietzsche represents the nihilism associated with the death of religion and in particular God, which he believes leaves "us without any values and any ultimate meaning in life" (Levin, 23). While Nietzsche strongly rejects the possibility of discovering meaning in absence of a fundamental source of values such as a God, Heideggar argues the possibility of a 'saving power' which may shield certain individuals from the abyss of self.
Conrad, like Heideggar sheds a more positive light on nihilism, with the implication that in spite of a deep void, one may find meaning in the complete knowledge of a hollow society. Conrad incorporates Nietzsche's nihilistic views closely in Kurtz, showing the tragic destiny of narcissism, while Marlow more strongly represents Heideggar's ideas of a 'saving power' in learning from Kurtz's dark experience and maintaining his own sense of morality and will. The effect and consequences of self-realization is contrasted through Marlow and Kurtz. Marlow's participation in imperialism exposes him to the raw experience of the darkness and he is able to encounter the truth of Being without stepping over the edge and succumbing to the abyss of nihilism. In contrast, Kurtz's self-realization comes too late, after his unconscious narcissistic change resulting directly from nihilism as Nietzsche postulates. Conrad furthermore addresses the desperation of society to assign meaning and value to overpowering forces through the natives' acceptance of Kurtz as a God-like figure despite the terror and grotesque acts he inflicts upon their society. The element of nihilism in Heart of Darkness is also strongly evident through Conrad's own nihilistic views and which are clearly portrayed not only in his novella but also in personal letters to R.B. Cunninghame Graham written even prior to the writing of Heart of Darkness. Through a thorough analysis of the above points, I will examine the incorporation of similar nihilistic philosophies according to Nietzsche and Heideggar in Heart of Darkness portrayed through the self-realization of Marlow and Kurtz, the worship and obsession of Kurtz as a god and idol, and Conrad's moderation of nihilistic views which addresses the implications of void on the human existence.