Altered Reality in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness

Powerful Essays
Altered Reality in Heart of Darkness

The world of darkness that Marlow finds himself in is directly comparable to what Leary describes of the bardos (stages) that occur during a drug-induced trip or psychedelic experience. ‘The underlying problem of the Second Bardo is that any and every shape—human, divine, diabolical, heroic, evil, animal, thing—which the human brain conjures up or the past life recalls, can present itself to consciousness: shapes and forms and sounds whirling by endlessly’ (48). An example of such presentation is Marlow’s perception of the jungle as a palpable force that has the power of human gestures. It calls, beckons, lures, etc. Leary writes that accompanying the moment of ego-loss is the perception of ‘wave-energy flow’: ‘the individual becomes aware that he is part of and surrounded by a charged field of energy, which seems almost electrical...the attempt to control or to rationalize this energy flow... is indicative of ego-activity and the First Bardo transcendence is lost’ (41). Marlow never loses ego-activity so he never reaches transcendence, but his ego-activity rationalizes his feeling of the physical awareness of the jungle. He colors the Congo dark instead of light and chooses to reject, not embrace, the force of the jungle so his rationalizations are negative and he thinks the force is evil.

The negative, wrathful counterparts to this vision occur if the voyager reacts with fear to the powerful flow of life forms. Such a reaction is attributable to the cumulated result of game playing (karma) dominated by anger or stupidity. A nightmarish hell-world may ensue. The visual forms appear like a confusing chaos of cheap, ugly dime-store objects, brassy, vulgar and useless. The ...

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... all truth, and all sincerity, are just compressed into that inappreciable moment of time in which we step over the threshold of the invisible’ (Conrad, 113).

Works Cited

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. Editor Robert Kimbrough. New York: Norton, 1988.

Cox, C. B. Conrad: Heart of Darkness, Nostromo, and Under Western Eyes. London: Macmillan Education Ltd., 1987.

Guetti, James. ‘Heart of Darkness and the Failure of the Imagination’, Sewanee Review LXXIII, No. 3 (Summer 1965), pp. 488-502. Ed. C. B. Cox.

Leary, Timothy , Metzner, Ralph, Alpert, Richard The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead

Ruthven, K. K. ‘The Savage God: Conrad and Lawrence,’ Critical Quarterly, x, nos 1& 2 (Spring and Summer 1968), pp. 41-6. Ed. C. B. Cox.

Watts, Cedric. A Preface to Conrad. Essex: Longman Group UK Limited, 1993.
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