Rereading Jospeh Conrad’s Heart of Darkness for the first time since I was a senior in high school was an interesting affair. When I read it back in the spring of ’89, I had almost no interest in it. There were other things to do. I had photos to develop, friends to hang out with, Calculus to do, and besides I’d already been accepted to college and was ready for my AP English test. Naturally, I gave the book a perfunctory read all the while wondering what the big deal was.
Our teacher showed Apocalypse Now, leaving me to wonder if we read the book mainly so he could show his favorite film. It was springtime. We were AP seniors. I’m convinced.
As I reread Heart of Darkness last week I kept going back to high school and wondering how and why I didn’t get into it back then. This time around I was in awe of Conrad’s rich prose, the vivid intensity with which he tells his tale of Europeans plunderers and their encounters with primitive Africans. This time around it was dark, mysterious, and a bit scary. It was a brilliant meditation on the ease and speed with which men will throw off the illusion of civilized behavior when given the chance to do so.
Last time, reading it was a hassle. More than anything else, Heart of Darkness made me think about the way young people relate to literature. Being an English teacher, this is something that’s of more than a little interest to me.
Sometimes we cynically joke and say that education is wasted on the young, but I think that that’s not true. I think they’re so loaded down with homework, projects and other classes that there just isn’t time to truly absorb the richness of books like Heart of Darkness. Most kids are going to give it a cursory read, memorize the major characters and plot points, keep the potential essay question in mind and never give it much thought. The list of great books that I read in that manner while in high school is quite extensive. Many of them I’ve reread and in most cases I like them more now.
There are certainly many books that some students really get into, really see all the way through, but I sometimes wonder if the ideal situation for high school teachers is to get most of their students to like a book enough to remember it and reread it later, when they have more time to really appreciate it, to let it in. Having a few extra years of life experience probably helps too.
In short, I loved Heart of Darkness this time around, but as always, what does it have to do with Lost?
It does not appear, but rather is referenced in “Numbers” in which Hurley goes on a quest into the dark heart of the island’s interior searching for Rousseau – his own Mr. Kurtz – who has been on the island for sixteen years and has left many of the trappings of civilization behind.
Other than that, the connection between Lost and Heart of Darkness if a relatively obvious one: in both cases we wonder just how powerful a force civilization really is and we see how quickly and effortlessly people will move away from it and revert to more savage behavior once the constraints of civilized society are gone.
For more of my Lost book posts, please see The Lost Book Club.