Joseph Conrad's modern reputation largely derives from his great masterpiece- the Heart of Darkness- remade into a great modern film, Apocalypse Now, whose themes have been explored and criticised by numerous thinkers, novelists and analysts. It is a wonderful book to which I will return, but perhaps as fascinating is Conrad's earlier colonial short story- An Outpost of Progress in which he reflected on the isolation of the colonial officials dispatched to some remote frontier and their 'civilization' not to mention the 'civilization' of those that came to fetch them back from the mouth of oblivion.
An Outpost of Progress is a work about the periphery. It features two characters, 'two imbeciles' according to the director of the Company who sends them up the Congo river (it is the Belgian Congo we are in here- something that numerous clues and Conrad's own correspondence gives away) to an isolated station in the middle of nowhere. These two men, Carlier and Kayerts, are joined by a third named character, the factotum of the station, Makola, who observes the white men come and go to their destruction with impassive and grim glee. All around them is a world that neither Carlier nor Kayerts understands- the only sounds that they ever hear are the drums from the nearest African village- they cannot read the language of the chieftan and rely on Makola to survey Africa for them and interpret Africans. When he sells their entire set of servants for precious ivory, neither of the two Europeans has the wit to do anything but be asleep.
In part that is their failure to understand Africa, this renders them lonely amidst a vast uncomprehending crowd. In this crowd of strangers, they are Conrad informs us in a state of nature:
They were two perfectly insignificant and incapable individuals, whose existence is only rendered possible through the high organization of civilized crowds. Few men realize that their life, the very essence of their characters, their capabilities and their audacities, are only an expression of their belief in the safety of their surroundings. The courage, the composure, the confidence, the emotions and principles: every great and every insignificant thought belongs to the crowd: to the crowd that believes blindly in the irresistible force of its institutions and its morals, in the power of its police and of its opinion. But the contact with pure unmitigated savagery, with primitive nature and primitive man, brings sudden and profound trouble into the heart. To the sentiment of being alone of one's kind, to the clear perception of the loneliness of one's thoughts, of one's sensations- to the negation of the habitual, which is safe, there is added the affirmation of the unusual, which is dangerous: a suggestion of things vague, uncontrollable and repulsive, whose discomposing intrusion excites the imagination and tries the civilized nerves of the foolish and the wise alike.
Conrad's language is brilliant and he conveys the sense that the European had of Africa, when he believed that the savage was truly savage. But more than that that passage is not so much about the encounter with the primitive savage, as with the primitive loneliness of being unable to communicate. The real focus of the tale is that the silence of the jungle enfolds the two Europeans, as it does we watch them regress to an uncivilized state (a state which is far below that of the African tribes around them!) They cannot see the Africans as their comrades, when the African servants are sold as slaves by Makola, Conrad comments that the two Europeans talked with indignation but felt nothing about the illusion of that suffering. For them it is an illusion because they experience it from a distance, the same distance they would be at were they reading about it in a club in Brussels and exclaim at 'how shocking' it was. They remain detached and isolated.
And as Conrad demonstrates they thus sink into madness. These two inadequates become criminals- they become villains- they become savages. Civilisation, Conrad leaves us in no doubt, is a fortunate condition we are born into- not something that is innate to us. In this sense, the darkness of his Africa, the heart of darkness, is that life, nasty, brutish and short, that the English Philosopher, Thomas Hobbes explored in his Leviathan. But Conrad's state of nature is a reality- the true dystopian reality of his vision is that man is regressing through colonization, blazing a trail for Orwell and others to come, Conrad argued that the terror of colonization lay as much in its effects on the colonizer as on the colonized. Carlier and Kayerts are incompetent buffoons, but being colonizers turns them into villains. Our actions ultimately affect us as much as they affect those we aim them at: of course as Chinua Achebe reminds us there is something racist about only seeing colonization through European eyes, but Conrad was a citizen of a racist age and to find him calling Africans savages is not surprising. What is stunning is his clear vision, a clear vision that sits alongside the great liberals of the 19th Century- John Bright and Richard Cobden (les plus Gladstonian que Gladstone), that colonization would destroy the European colonizer: it would brutalize the brutal and would render the greatest achievement of European civilization- the security and peace that states ensure- vulnerable to the loners on the veldt and the river.
Conrad in this sense anticipates the darkest films from the Western genre- which demonstrate the terrors of the man in a state of nature. If you want to understand this short story by seeing a film, go and see the Searchers by John Ford. For in the vision of John Wayne, willing to murder his neice because she has been captured by the Apache, irreconcilable in his hate, with death in his eyes, you see Carlier and Kayerts's shadows had they but been wise. As fools their destiny is no less dark but more comic- as one ends up on a Cross with his tongue open and his cheek purple- the perfect mockery of colonialism, violence, disrespect and death- in a very European and Christian form. Communication and lack of it is the center of the decay of life for Carlier and Kayerts- they fall because they are unable to communicate with the Africans- and that signal is the last failed sentence, because it demonstrates that now they cannot even communicate with the director who sent them- they have become grotesques, lonely on the cross of their own lack, isolated forever, fixed in disrespect and mockery- fixed in a posture that ridicules the high words they came to enforce. Colonization here ironically turns the colonizers words back on them and in his last posture, the colonist is like a sow eating its own vomit- turning his own high words into high mockery.