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Biocentrism vs. Anthropocentrism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness


by Griffin Prechter

The Industrial Revolution at the dawn of the 17th century changed the world forever, altering man’s relationship to man and his relationship to nature. Along with the possibility to mass produce goods and crops came an unquenchable thirst for resources and power. At the forefront of the imperialistic quest for power was Great Britain, colonizing large parts of India and Africa under the guise of educating and civilizing the savage natives of those strange lands. In reality, Great Britain, soon followed by many other seafaring European powers, were after cheap, fertile farm land and access to high-priced luxuries such as diamonds and ivory. With the Industrial Revolution came many scientific advancements for civilization, but in many respects man’s relationship with nature was neglected. During European colonization, the native environment and the native people were completely ignored, only profit was considered. Often, trading companies would go after profit at any means necessary simply to please the crown, looting and uprooting cultures. Native populations were wiped out by disease or were enslaved, the environment was treated as something to be tamed and conquered. This view of nature is discussed heavily in Joseph Conrad’s 1899 classic novella, Heart of Darkness. Heart of Darkness tells the story of Marlow, a man well aquatinted with civilized Europe, who sails into the mysterious and primitive Congo in Africa. Along his journey, working for Ivory traders from Belgium, we learn about the treatment of and outlook on the African wilderness and people. Conrad subtly sheds new light on the issues regarding colonization and imperialism, staging a battle between biocentrism and anthropocentrism. Conrad raises and addresses the question: what should man’s relationship with nature be? When looking at Conrad’s Heart of Darkness through an ecocritical lens, it is clear that Conrad believes that man cannot overpower nature, and that both must coexist passively, this is shown through Marlow’s reaction and inner dialogue towards the affects of imperialism and the primitive peoples of Africa, as well as the ideological conflict between ecocentrism and anthropocentrism that leads to Kurtz’ decent to madness and ultimate demise.

In Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad subtly comments on the negative aspects of colonization as well as man’s undeniable connection to nature and the primitive, emphasizing that man must coexist with nature, and should not overpower it using brute force. It is clear from the onset of the novella that Marlow, our protagonist and author’s mouthpiece, is critical of the Company’s operations in the Congo. Marlow constantly points out needlessly brutal and pointless applications to tame the wild that is the unfamiliar landscape. When reflecting on the methods used to extract natural resources in the colonies Marlow believes that, “To tear treasure out of the bowels of the land was their desire, with no more moral purpose at the back of it than there is in burglars breaking into a safe”(Conrad 48). Throughout the entire novella, Marlow makes many references to the lack of morality in any of the companies actions. With regards to the extraction of gold Marlow compares it to literal theft, having no more “moral purpose than there is in burglars breaking into a safe”. With regards to ecocriticism it is clear that Marlow, and in turn Conrad have serious doubts about an anthropocentric view of the world. An anthropocentric world view dictates that man is more important and valuable than all other organisms and the environment. Many colonists and company workers during this time likely had that view of the world, because it was an easy world view to have. Having a world view that put you at the center, and anything that wasn’t a white man at the bottom, made profit seeking justifiable at any expense. Conrad makes it clear that the majority of the colonists and imperialists didn’t even regard the native Africans as human, making it justifiable to enslave and abuse their land for the sake of profit and betterment for the civilized ‘human’ society. Profoundly, Conrad recognizes this world view, and begins to subtly reject it. Research Scholar Anindita Kar references Conrad’s depiction of nature in her essay, Nature Conlonized, “The Wilderness is seen as an ‘enigma’- incomprehensible, impenetrable. It is almost Edenic- pure, untouched, awe-inspiring. But there inevitably lurks behind the fear of the loss of this Eden. Marlow is no environmentalist, but he doesn’t fail to see that the land was abused in pointless excess. He criticizes the “objectless blasting” (116) of the cliff in the name of building railways”(Kar 2). While it may be easy to perceive the wild Congo as dark and evil, Conrad doesn’t intend it to be malicious, simply mysterious and perhaps misunderstood. Kar says it plainly, that Marlow certainly doesn’t obviously criticize and castigate the colonist’s abuse of Africa, but throughout the novel he points out many abuses. Kar’s writings also suggest a possible ecocentric view that may be present in Conrad’s book, tying the Wilderness of the Congo to the pure wilderness of Eden; and Marlow’s recognition of the need to not abuse nature in excess could possibly show that Conrad himself is sympathetic towards nature and the people of colonized Africa. Kar continues, “The colonial experience was highly destructive in environmental terms, with the violent appropriation of indigenous land. Nature was abused as a means of imperial conquest. Heart of Darkness shows Conrad’s concern at the “despoliation of the earth in the name of ‘progress’” and critiques the western logic that reduces all relationships between the human and the natural world into relations of profit”(Kar 2). Conrad recognizes the injustice of imperialism and colonialism, and subtly allows the reader to come to the conclusion that the relationship between man and nature is important and fragile, and that it should not be exclusively controlled in terms of profits. In Heart of Darkness nature is being abused, and the brute force and violence used by the company and especially Kurtz is not okay with Marlow, or Conrad.

Marlow clearly has one view, reflecting Conrad’s, of nature in Heart of Darkness, however, this view of nature being more powerful than man is emphasized even further through Marlow’s foil character, Mr. Kurtz. Outside of Marlow’s perception of the Wilderness in Heart of Darkness, Conrad paints lucid truths, expressing the inescapable nature of the primitive wilderness. Throughout the book, Marlow relays the struggle between man and the consuming wilderness. “We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there— there you could look at a thing monstrous and free. It was unearthly, and the men were—No, they were not inhuman… but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity— like yours—the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar”(Conrad 58). Marlow recognizes the undeniable connection between himself and the natives of Africa, those whom everyone else views as inhuman. He also recognizes that nature cannot be shackled, and that he can feel the wilderness overcoming him. Kar reflects again in her essay, “And, no doubt, for the European the African natives belong to the category of the non- human. It is environmental racism - defined by American environmental philosopher Deane Curtin as “the connection, in theory and practice, of race and the environment so that the oppression of one is connected to, and supported by, the oppression of the other” (qtd. in Huggan and Tiffin 4) - in its worst form where alongside nature, fellow humans are thought of as something external to the sphere of ‘humans’ and hence as easily dispensable”(Kar 3). Conrad begins to express the popular world view regarding colonialism and the conflict throughout the story between man and nature begin to address the question and validity of an anthropocentric world view. In his essay Modernism, Climate Change and Dystopia, Geoff Berry sheds light on the false pretenses used by the characters in the novel to extract ivory from the Congo, “Conrad is poignantly aware of the double standards according to which the light of civilisation is associated with order, truth, goodness – the usual gamut of positive allusions. He also ac- knowledges the darkness it represents – the profit motive lurking behind its missionary zeal”(Berry 3). Evident throughout history, the false pretense of the white man’s burden has been consistently used to justify the rape of lands across the globe. And, as we see in the novel Kurtz, Marlow’s ideological adversary in many respects, also subscribes to this anthropocentric way of thinking. “Ironically, the one character who personifies imperial exploitation the most is also the one described as being closest to nature: Kurtz. There are many instances where Kurtz is physiologically linked with ivory- his face sickened to the color of ivory, his head was like an ivory knob. Kurtz’s relationship with nature is one of unsustainable exploitation on one hand, and of identification with it on the other”(Kar 3). Kurtz is clearly subscribed to colonialism, and throughout the book is described as using absolute force and brutality to obtain ivory and wealth. In his paper on the suppression of natives, Kurtz writes, “‘must necessarily appear to them [savages] in the nature of supernatural beings— we approach them with the might of a deity,’ and so on, and so on. ‘By the simple exercise of our will we can exert a power for good practically unbounded,’ etc., etc”(Conrad 82). It certainly is ironic that one of the characters in the book who so favors imperialism and anthropocentrism becomes the most overtaken by the untamable wilderness. Although Kurtz preaches and practices that nature and savagery should submit to civilized western man, he himself soon becomes consumer by the wilderness, like much else does in the novella. “The jungle it is designed to overcome symbolises savagery, isolation and moral collapse to the urban conscious- ness, as Adam Gillon puts it.8 The hypocrisy of the market, however, will prove just as savage as the irrationality of nature and ritual in the heart of this seeming darkness”(Berry 4). Kurtz goes through the same experience, he is corrupted, brought back to his ‘savage’ origins. Even the colonialism is somewhat based under natural constructs, nature truly is inescapable. This notion of the unescapable wilderness is prevalent throughout the book, even before Kurtz is taken over by it. Near the beginning, Marlow notes, “I came upon a boiler wallowing in the grass, then found a path leading up the hill. It turned aside for the boulders, and also for an undersized railway-truck lying there on its back with its wheels in the air. One was o . e thing looked as dead as the carcass of some animal. I came upon more pieces of decaying machinery, a stack of rusty rails”(Conrad 22). As Marlow journeys through the Congo he begins to realize how nature is responsible for destroying ‘civilized’ technology. Nature always proves as an obstacle, incapacitating the steam boat and encroaching on machinery at the camp, and later encroaching upon Kurtz himself, proving that in a battle between biocentrism and anthropocentrism, the former always wins out.

Throughout Joseph Conrad’s insightful novella, Heart of Darkness, the ideologies of biocentrism and anthropocentrism are constantly at battle behind the curtains. Conrad raises profound questions regarding man’s place in nature, and his ability to control and conform nature to fit his needs. Using Marlow and his story, Conrad expresses his doubts about the moral validity of anthropocentrism and colonialism. There is no denying the severe ecological and cultural ramifications of colonialism and imperialism. Anthropocentrism, as shown by Conrad, is not a valid world view because it is simply unnatural. Nature always rules supreme and has the power to overtake anything, even if it is made by the mighty man. Some argue that Conrad misrepresented African culture; while perhaps this may be true, misrepresenting African culture (something Conrad himself likely knew little about), doesn’t discredit the largely ecocritical undertones presented in his work. Africa serves as a metaphor for all that is wild and natural. Conrad himself recalls being fascinated and intrigued by the unknown, the un’civilized’. Conrad wisely shows the reader the effects of anthropocentrism and discredits it throughout his story, despite it perhaps not being the sole purpose of his novella, there is no doubt that Conrad knew that man could not control nature and that the pointless exploit of Africa was unjust.

Works Cited

Berry, Geoff. "An Ecocritical Reading of Light Symbology in Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Eliot's “The Waste Land”." Modernism, Climate Change and Dystopia: An Ecocritical Reading of Light Symbology in Conrad's Heart of (n.d.): n. pag. Monash University. Web. 30 Mar. 2016. <http://artsonline.monash.edu.au/wp-content/arts- files/colloquy/ colloquy_issue_twenty-one/berry.pdf>.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness and Other Tales. ed. Cedric Watts. New York: OUP, 2008
Kar, Anindita. "Nature Colonized: A Postcolonial Ecocritical Reading of Conrad's Heart of Darkness." New Man Journal of Multidisciplinary Studies 1.12 (2014): n. pag. Web.

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