In his most widely read story, Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad depicts the slow, painstaking journey of Marlow, his literary alter ego, out of the orderly world of European civilization and into the primeval forest of the African interior. At Marlow’s final, frightful destination, however, he is not confronted with the conventional, reassuringly distant dangers of the nineteenth-century Western imagination: spear-throwing natives or totem-worshipping cannibals. Instead, his trip up the Congo River brings him to Mr. Kurtz, a man once imbued with seemingly noble European ideals who has given himself over to horrifying appetites and brutal methods.
Mr. Kurtz has become one of modern literature’s most haunting images, and for good reason: As the modern world took shape, an emerging critical consciousness was suggesting—and for that matter, continues to suggest—that our civilized selves are in truth collective illusions, papier-mâché egos constructed out of thin layers of social convention. To be sure, in most instances we experience our culturally constructed selves as permanent and unbreakable. But after gaining a degree of sociological self-awareness, by way of either an encounter with other cultures or the historical study of our own, we often find that our most deeply held convictions are arbitrary, even alien. I could have been, one thinks, an ancient Roman, cheering for blood in a coliseum as gladiators fought to the death, or a scalp-collecting Apache, or a nineteenth-century Mormon with many wives.
For some, the initial shock of critical awareness gives way to a sense of liberation. Marlow, for instance, conjuring pictures of howling, leaping natives engaged in their sacred rituals, admits to finding thrilling “the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar.”1 This secret (or not-so-secret) envy of urges expressed and hungers satisfied percolates through a great deal of pioneering work in modern anthropology: One need only think of Margaret Mead, who relished what she imagined to be the sexual innocence of primitive Samoan society. Yet for others, this same critical awareness can terrify. Stripped of our confidence in inherited norms, we might understandably begin to worry that, underneath the veneer of culture, there is nothing but a lawless riot of primitive desires. And indeed, the first half of the twentieth century—from the bomb-pocked no man’s land of World War I, through the funereal prisons of Soviet Russia and the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War, to the consuming furnaces of Nazi Germany—would appear to have borne that suspicion out. Conrad’s imaginative vision of a single man’s internal degradation arguably became the cultural experience of two generations.
Yet as vivid as Conrad’s story remains, we should be wary of claiming for it the mantle of prophecy. The evidence suggests that our supposed illusions of civilized life are not inevitably shattered by a critical awareness of their failures. After all, European culture did not grind to a halt in the smoldering ruins of 1945. Whether by means of repentance, retribution, or sheer forgetfulness, the old social order was in large part restored. Émile Durkheim, the great French sociologist and Conrad’s contemporary, explained this seeming paradox. The rapidly changing social structures of modern industrial societies, he observed, overthrew established cultural norms. But while this weakened social authority produced a greater sense of personal freedom, it came at the cost of psychic stability. “We no longer know the limits of legitimate needs, nor perceive the direction of our efforts,” he wrote in his influential 1897 work Suicide.2 This crisis of meaning arising from a lack of life-governing norms—what he called “anomie”—poses a dire existential threat. The human psyche, he warned, needs authoritative guidance to consolidate and sustain a coherent sense of self. Therefore, while on the theoretical level a critical consciousness may make us aware of the arbitrariness of our convictions, at the same time it works to establish the psychological and social basis for our intensely felt desire to affirm and submit to societal norms.
The complexities and contradictions of our modern critical consciousness—the thrill as well as the disquietude, the freedom as well as the hunger for authority—are precisely what shape Conrad’s Lord Jim, another tale largely told by Marlow, and one that was written soon after Heart of Darkness. A much longer and more ambitious work of fiction, Lord Jim brings the frightful character of Mr. Kurtz out of the shadows and into the full light of day. Instead of a bloodthirsty madman who has assembled a private army—hardly the trajectory of most modern lives—the protagonist, Jim, is fair-haired and well-mannered, from a good family, eager to please, and well-meaning. He is, as Conrad emphasizes more than once, “one of us.” In fact, he is an almost perfect image of a modern ideal: True to his self-crafted inner life, he refuses to allow society to define his identity. This anomic protest—its appeal as well as its danger—serves as the singular focus of Lord Jim, making it one of the most sophisticated sociological novels of the modern era, and one with a great deal still to teach us about the paradoxical experience of modern life.
R.R. Reno is the editor of First Things: A Journal of Religion, Culture, and Public Life.