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Heart of Darkness

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“The earth seemed unearthly. 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. Well, you know, that was the worst of it—this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; 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. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough; but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you—you so remote from the night of first ages—could comprehend. And why not? The mind of man is capable of anything—because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future. What was there after all? Joy, fear, sorrow, devotion, valour, rage—who can tell?—but truth—truth stripped of its cloak of time. Let the fool gape and shudder—the man knows, and can look on without a wink. But he must at least be as much of a man as these on the shore. He must meet that truth with his own true stuff—with his own inborn strength. Principles won’t do. Acquisitions, clothes, pretty rags—rags that would fly off at the first good shake. No; you want a deliberate belief. An appeal to me in this fiendish row—is there? Very well; I hear; I admit, but I have a voice, too, and for good or evil mine is the speech that cannot be silenced. Of course, a fool, what with sheer fright and fine sentiments, is always safe. Who’s that grunting? You wonder I didn’t go ashore for a howl and a dance? Well, no—I didn’t. Fine sentiments, you say? Fine sentiments, be hanged! I had no time. I had to mess about with white-lead and strips of woolen blanket helping to put bandages on those leaky steam-pipes—I tell you. I had to watch the steering, and circumvent those snags, and get the tin-pot along by hook or by crook. There was surface-truth enough in these things to save a wiser man. And between whiles I had to look after the savage who was fireman. He was an improved specimen; he could fire up a vertical boiler. He was there below me, and, upon my word, to look at him was as edifying as seeing a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat, walking on his hind-legs. A few months of training had done for that really fine chap. He squinted at the steam-gauge and at the water-gauge with an evident effort of intrepidity—and he had filed teeth, too, the poor devil, and the wool of his pate shaved into queer patterns, and three ornamental scars on each of his cheeks. He ought to have been clapping his hands and stamping his feet on the bank, instead of which he was hard at work, a thrall to strange witchcraft, full of improving knowledge. He was useful because he had been instructed; and what he knew was this—that should the water in that transparent thing disappear, the evil spirit inside the boiler would get angry through the greatness of his thirst, and take a terrible vengeance. So he sweated and fired up and watched the glass fearfully (with an impromptu charm, made of rags, tied to his arm, and a piece of polished bone, as big as a watch, stuck flatways through his lower lip), while the wooded banks slipped past us slowly, the short noise was left behind, the interminable miles of silence—and we crept on, towards Kurtz. But the snags were thick, the water was treacherous and shallow, the boiler seemed indeed to have a sulky devil in it, and thus neither that fireman nor I had any time to peer into our creepy thoughts. “The earth seemed unearthly. We are used to looking at it like a chained-up monster, but there it was monstrous and free. It was unearthly, and the men were . . . no, not inhuman. That was the worst part, knowing that they were not inhuman. They howled and made horrible faces, but you knew that they were human just like you, that you were distant relatives. It was ugly, of course, but if you were man enough you could admit that on some level you understood those people. And why not? The mind of man is capable of anything. Everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future. After all, what did we really see? Joy, fear, sorrow, devotion, bravery, rage, it doesn’t matter. What we saw was truth, truth without the disguises that we’ve put on it over time. Let the idiots laugh at them or fear them. The wise man knows to look at them without blinking. But he must be as much a man as the men on shore. He must meet that truth with his own strength. Principles won’t help him, and possessions are just rags that would fly away at the first good shake. No, you need a passionate belief. You need to be able to admit that you are attracted to that wildness and savagery, but also say that you have a voice that those screams and drums can’t drown out. Of course, idiots are always safe, because their fear keeps them from getting too close. Did one of you just laugh? Are you wondering whether I went ashore to howl and dance? No, I didn’t. You think these are just nice ideas? I didn’t have time for nice ideas. I was busy patching those leaky steam pipes. I had to steer around those snags and keep us moving. But there’s enough truth in what I say to save a wiser man. I also had to watch the native who manned the boiler. Looking at him was like seeing a dog in pants and a feathered hat walking on its hind legs. A few months training had turned him into a fine worker. He watched the steam gauge and the water gauge closely, bravely even. Poor guy, he had filed teeth, strange patterns cut in his hair, and ornamental scars on each cheek. He should have been dancing on the riverbank, but instead he was hard at work, under the spell of a different kind of witchcraft, full of helpful knowledge. He was useful because he’d been trained. He knew that if the water in the clear thing went away, the evil spirit inside would get angry. So he watched the gauge fearfully, with a charm made of rags tied to his arm and a bone stuck through his lower lip. And so we crawled on towards Kurtz. But the snags were thick, the water was dangerous and shallow, and the engine really did seem to have an evil spirit inside. So I didn’t have any time for strange thoughts.

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