The Revolution of Nihilism
Comparison of Nihilistic themes in the work of Joseph Conrad and T.S. Elliot
focusing on Heart of Darkness and The Waste Land.
The modern period of British literature is marked by nihilism in form, morality, and style. This nearly hysterical inquiry into the possibility of hope and the conclusion, explicit or implied, that none exists and optimism a childish fancy contrasts the Victorian era and demonstrates a clear shift in consciousness. Joseph Conrad and T.S. Elliot exemplify this modern trend and strike a resounding note of nihilism, yet while Conrad surrenders to, and perhaps embraces, nihilism Elliot reaches a markedly different conclusion. The author’s seminal works Heart of Darkness and “The Wasteland” respectively serve as studies in both the similarities and differences in the modern periods tone of nihilism.
The most immediate similarities between the two works is their tone of darkness and isolation. This sense pervades both works created with diction and imagery and often this serves as a background for ironic juxtaposition and haunting implication. The line in “The Waste Land” “A rat crept softly through the vegetation/Dragging its slimy belly on the bank” provides a striking example of this dark and unpleasant tone (187-188). Elliot’s imagery here is reinforced by his description of the canal the rat has surfaced from as well as the stanzas placement between the previous one that expresses a betrayal of the Romantic concept of nature with the succeeding stanza focusing on the “Unreal City.” This transition links the imagery of urban landscapes with death as well as placing the cyclical pattern of life within the urban environment further emphasizing death. Similar imagery can be found in Heart of Darkness like this description of the African coast “all along the formless coast bordered by dangerous surf, as if Nature herself had tried to ward off intruders; in and out of rivers, streams of death in life, whose banks were rotting into mud, whose waters, thickened into slime” (1899). Here we see the motif of death repeated and linked with the landscape as well as words like “ward” emphasizing apartness and isolation.
There is also an interesting similarity in how both authors explore nihilistic thought through the characterization of women. Heart of Darkness is often criticized for a misogynistic tone and passages like Marlow’s comments on women certainly seem to confirm this:
Its queer how out of touch with truth women are. They live in a world of their own, and there has never been anything like it, and never can be. It is too beautiful altogether, and if they were to set it up it would go to pieces before the first sunset. Some confounded fact we men have been living contentedly with ever since the day of creation would start up and knock the whole thing over (1898).
However this is likely an over simplistic reading the text and misses the fact that Conrad’s biting criticism here is not truly of women but of western civilization and the colonial spirit. The women here are allegorical representations of civilization with an ironic note due to the idea that women are a “civilizing” force in the world and as part of the doctrine of separate spheres, served to curb the brutality of man. To give this passage full context in the novel it must be related to Marlow’s final nihilistic capitulation:
“I heard a light sigh and then my heart stood still, stopped dead short by an exulting and terrible cry, by the cry of inconceivable triumph and of unspeakable pain.’I knew it—I was sure!’… She knew. She was sure. I heard her weeping; she had hidden her face in her hands. It seemed to me that the house would collapse before I could escape, that the heavens would fall upon my head. But nothing happened. The heavens do not fall for such a trifle (1947).
Here Marlow has betrayed his one principle by lying to Kurtz’s betrothed and maintained her illusions to save her pain and discomfort. Conrad’s point though is that this is how colonialism is perpetuated; the people who know the truth refuse to tell it in order to spare society the horror. In this effort to spare society though is the origin of nihilism, a failure or inability to confront moral failings and change them. Elliot too uses a woman to characterize nihilism but on a more personal level. “Her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass: ‘Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over’” (251-252). This woman has just been intimately involved with a man but feels nothing but mild discontent. This is emotional nihilism and is the “wasteland” Elliot speaks of in the poem’s title. Here the woman has ceased to hold any values and become an object in mind and body. To see how this occurs though another woman in the poem is necessary “if you don’t like it you can get on with it, I said. / Others can pick and choose if you can’t. / But if Albert makes off, it won’t be for lack of telling. / You ought to be ashamed, I said, to look so antique” (153-156). Here Lil is being advised by her friends to improve her looks so that her husband will still want her after getting back from the war and because she’s in ill health due to a botched abortion while her husband was away. This casual speculation about Lil’s husband adultery and the as casual acceptance of her own is a breeding ground for nihilism. Even at this personal level it is a refusal to admit and deal with hypocrisy and a crisis of morals that births nihilism.
The differences between the nihilism in both works have become apparent through these examples. Conrad examines and expresses a society wide nihilism converging on the individual while Elliot expresses personal nihilism leading to societal nihilism. This also forms the reason why Conrad leaves nihilism as ultimately inescapable while Elliot leaves open the possibility for hope. Marlow seems to fully recognize the hypocrisy of colonialism and sinks into nihilism when reading Kurtz’s pamphlet:
“It was very simple, and at the end of that moving appeal to every altruistic sentiment it blazed at you, luminous and terrifying, like a flash of lightning in a serene sky: ‘Exterminate all the brutes!’ The curious part was that he had apparently forgotten all about that valuable postscriptum, because, later on, when he in a sense came to himself, he repeatedly entreated me to take good care of ‘my pamphlet’ (he called it), as it was sure to have in the future a good influence upon his career” (1927).
In Kurtz we can see the hypocrisy of society rendered in microcosm, altruism is subordinated to greed and violence, and this contradiction results in the renunciation of virtue. In spite of Conrad’s critique of colonialism Heart of Darkness ends with Marlow’s own moral renunciation and strongly implies that this is the only possibility. Conrad’s point seems to be that nihilism is preferable to hypocrisy and regret. Elliot though ends with two curious scenes that blend western and eastern traditions together. The first is the scene of the fisher “I sat upon the shore/ Fishing, with the arid plain behind me / Shall I at least set my lands in order” ()? Here Elliot invokes the tradition of the “Fisher King” a figure throughout literature that is consumed and redeems the world in the process. Also he invokes the phrases “Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata. / Shantih shantih shantih” (432-33). Both of these come from the Upanishads and reflect a moral call to action and a final image of, as Elliot puts it, ‘“the Peace which passeth understanding.”’ This final stanza is where Elliot ties together nature and morality with the Datta line which is linked to thunder and three virtues of self control, generosity, and compassion as well as tying in the possibility of redemption. This is all done within a previously cyclical time frame that Elliot has established that, while concentrated on death, continually hints at the possibility of renewal.
In essence Heart of Darkness is a tragedy focused on the failures of idealism and “The Wasteland” is an epic which while offering renewal does so only because it is a view of time that renders human action meaningless. Hence even as Elliot attempts to offer up hope by integrating time he comes to a truly nihilistic conclusion that hope is truly rooted in our inability to alter time and reality. Conversely even as Conrad’s character embraces nihilism the act of pointing out cultural hubris implies the possibility of meaningful change. Differences aside this is why both authors utilize nihilism, they’re revolutionaries. They both recognize that the world as it is flawed and must be fundamentally changed in multiple ways. Nihilism serves both as a cautionary illustration and the expression of despair at the immensity of the change necessary. Both of these authors’ insights are necessary to resolve the nihilistic trend of modernism and escape both Conrad’s cynicism and Elliot’s circle of death, only meaningful change can accomplish this and must be the project of those concerned with life.