Heart of Darkness, published in 1899, is British author Joseph Conrad’s famous novel about ivory trader Kurtz who sailed up the Congo river in Africa to manage a Belgian trading post in the heart of what was known then as the Congo Free State. The novel’s narrator is Marlow, the steamboat captain who tells his story to a group of fellow sailors aboard a boat anchored in the River Thames in England. As readers, we begin to realize early on that Conrad is leading us simultaneously outward and inward: journeying deep geographically into the heart of the African continent, as well as deep inside our own soul and conscience. Parallels and contrasts between Africa and Europe become painfully visible; it dawns on us that Conrad is using the horrific historical reality of Belgian King Leopold II‘s imperialistic exploitation of Africa’s natural resources and peoples as a backdrop for his fictional novel. The water of the Congo river provides fluidity for the story – a movement back in time to re-examine and ponder details of past lives (both fictional as well as historical), as well a movement through space to a place of darkness and horror.
This past week we read about Jesus’ healing of the man born blind in John 9:1-41. John’s gospel story deals with blindness and the recovery of vision. Jesus’ strange action of spitting on the ground to make mud with his saliva, which is then applied to the blind man’s eyes, is totally puzzling and hard for us to understand. We learn that the blind man is then sent to the Pool of Siloam to wash the mud from his eyes and “came home seeing”. Even more confusing!
Conrad and St John the evangelist perhaps both understood something quite fundamental about human nature. We are rarely capable of knowing for sure whether or not we ourselves are leading good lives. This is hardly an idle question given Jesus’ command to “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” in Matthew 5:48. It seems that in the course of our frantic lives, we rarely even ask ourselves that question. Is it really any consolation that most of us may not be as “morally repulsive” as Leopold II - who history records as having engaged in blatant genocide, forced labor, systematic mutilation, and selfish exploitation of natural resources and native cultures in what is today known as the Democratic Republic of Congo? Often, talking about “those repugnant evil other people” (always out there) turns out to be self-serving since this talk deflects attention away from ourselves.
Returning now to Jesus’ application of dirt and spit to the blind man’s eyes in John’s gospel. Perhaps one way of understanding this strange story is that Jesus understood us better than we can imagine. He knew that each of us also needs to look within and take that terrifying journey into the Heart of our own Darkness – especially those of us who feel self-justified and self-righteous.
We begin the interior journey by blinding/blindfolding ourselves first to the outside word just as Jesus did for the blind man. We simply stop, pause and detach ourselves from the world so that we begin to see ourselves within. And we move back in space and time between our past and current life. This difficult, seemingly unnatural activity has an end point and a destination: reawakening and cleansing waters. John’s gospel gives us a very real advantage however: unlike the blind man who simply was sent with instructions, we have already read how the story ends in that pool called Siloam.