Late in Heart of Darkness, after Marlow has meandered deep into the jungle but before he meets Kurtz, who utters his now-famous judgement upon human nature, The horror! The horror! – before this, the most famous scene in twentieth century literature, Marlow finds himself making necessary repairs to the ship. He ruminates on these activities as distractions from the shadows around him, from the haunting underbelly of his own nature that he sees in the wilderness around him, in the passionate abandon of the local tribes-people. Here’s the full passage:
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.
Marlow employs seamanship as a kind of shield against the chaos, against the frightening shapes of his inner life. After all, he is a civilized man, an Englishman, for whom the shadow must be contained. Marlow is a sailor, one who traverses the waters but remains above them. Writers, conversely, are involved in plumbing those depths, in encountering their lights and shadows, in struggling with the full breadth of human propensity. But we distract ourselves too, and the most common method of doing this is to allow the electronic world to continually divert us from the blank page and blinking cursor. Email alerts, news feeds, blogs: there is enough distraction in these things to doom the wisest writer. We must go into the darkness, into the bardo, to discover our treasures. That we often have difficulty doing so is, in part, due to the persistent emphasis of our environment upon the facile and the transient and the ephemeral. Always an update, a flashing notice, a clamoring icon which seems to confirm our importance – but in fact belies our addiction to the inconsequential.
Writers have not been well-served by technology since about 1990, when the last console versions of WordPerfect showed us a black screen upon which a small, blinking cursor waited patiently for us to dive into the waters. Since the advent of graphical user interfaces, the blackness has been hidden, has been replaced by smilies and floral wallpaper and pastel icons. I’m not against the GUI; but for writing, it’s a serious impediment, the modern equivalent of Marlow’s leaky steam pipes.
The confrontation with what lies behind, or beneath, or hidden, is the essence of all good writing. And whether one perceives that hidden-ness as darkness, as Conrad did, or as a terrifying whiteness, as did Melville, the mystery is the same. Here’s Melville describing the peculiar terror evoked by the whiteness of the whale:
Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a colour as the visible absence of colour; and at the same time the concrete of all colours; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows–a colourless, all-colour of atheism from which we shrink? And when we consider that other theory of the natural philosophers, that all other earthly hues–every stately or lovely emblazoning–the sweet tinges of sunset skies and woods; yea, and the gilded velvets of butterflies, and the butterfly cheeks of young girls; all these are but subtile deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without; so that all deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within; and when we proceed further, and consider that the mystical cosmetic which produces every one of her hues, the great principle of light, for ever remains white or colourless in itself, and if operating without medium upon matter, would touch all objects, even tulips and roses, with its own blank tinge–pondering all this, the palsied universe lies before us a leper; and like wilful travellers in Lapland, who refuse to wear coloured and colouring glasses upon their eyes, so the wretched infidel gazes himself blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him. And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?
The writer approaches mystery by way of the white page or the black screen. That is our task, nothing more. Not to explain the mystery, or to resolve it, or to erase it; but to encounter it, struggle with it, allow it to enter and change us. This will not happen, cannot happen, if we are checking our emails and news feeds all day long. We must sit in silence, waiting for the mystery to descend. Now, from the mystic to the concrete:
Turn off all email notification.
Turn off all news notification.
Turn off software update notification.
Configure all desktop panels to “auto-hide.”
Remove all icons from the desktop (organize yourself!).
Choose a wallpaper that will not scream at you.
Close all browsers.
Use a text-based editor such as Sublime Text, Atom, Vim, or Emacs.
Learn to use the editor with keystrokes only (this takes time).
Write from the blinking cursor, with no other distractions. Just you and the waiting blackness (or whiteness, which amounts to the same thing). Reclaim the mystery.