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The Appaling Face of a Glimpsed Truth: Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness

Final Product: Unspeakable Secrets

"I had turned to the wilderness really, not to Mr. Kurtz, who, I was ready to admit, was as good as buried. And for a moment it seemed to me as if I also were buried in a vast grave full of unspeakable secrets."

So I join the conspiracy, obscuring truth in pursuit of some noble aim. My final product errs on the side of propriety, presenting the world as we choose to see it, regardless for how it actually is:

Digitizing: Two Sides of the Same Coin

So I ended up moving forward with two concepts into the digitization stage, both the C and the K.

Over the course of sketching, I grew especially fond of the ivory C, a potent symbol for so much happening in the novel. It also proved the most challenging to digitize, as the flat vectors (and my novice skills) immediately sacrificed much of the depth and shadows that added a sense of mystery and moral ambiguity. I attempted to compensate with some gradients, but everything still feels a little slick and smooth for my taste: 

I’ve been playing with craters for the moon and scars for the ivory tusk, but I wonder if the added complexity obscures the drop cap itself. Here’s a proof of concept to demonstrate the general effect:

Uncertain about the future of my C, I moved onto the K:

Two sides of the same coin, the rigid lines of the proper K cast a blurry shadow, its soft lines a welcome contrast to the sharp edges of the foreground. They share a common space with borders that fail to contain their contents. It’s an admittedly simple concept, but succinct, communicating the essence of the novel. I took the concept a step further with a “fragmented” K, a more blatant depiction of the decay of the self-appointed “enlightened,” carrying their delusional notions of civilization to distant lands:

Colors remained constant throughout each of the concepts: ivory for the light spaces, a deep shade of green for the shadows (avoiding black and white as discussed below), and a deep red, somewhere between crimson and blood. For the C, the red creeps in from a corner, suggesting a foreboding dawn or a fading dusk. Set behind the stark columns of the K, the red suggests power, the posh velvet of emperors perched on their thrones, the blood of empires overextended by ambition and hubris.

And finally, the K’s, side-by-side, with covers:

Moving into the final stages of this project, I have several lingering questions:

  • which concept better conveys the novel’s ideas, the C or the K?
  • is the “decaying” K a bit too obvious?
  • can I better reduce the unnatural “flatness” of the C, without adding too many unnecessary or distracting elements?

Sketches, pt. 2: An animated image of death carved out of old ivory…

As Marlow chases after Kurtz down the river the novel’s imagery becomes steeped in death, but the descriptive passages foreshadowing the dark events, both past and present, more often deal in light colors rather than the shadows:

“Not the faintest sounds of any ind could be heard. You looked on amazed, and began to suspect yourself of being deaf — then the night came suddenly, and struck you blind as well… When the sun rose, there was a white fog, very warm and clammy, and more blinding than the night.”

Ivory, already with its clear connotations of death and decay, receives extra attention, especially during Kurtz’ final moments:

“I could see the cage of his ribs all astir, the bones of his arm waving. It was as though an animated image of death carved out of old ivory had been shaking its hand with menaces at a motionless crowd…”

And again with Kurtz’ betrothed back in London, well removed from the heart of the jungle, where ivory buys power for the city’s plutocrats:

“It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw on that ivory face the expression of somber pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror — of an intense and hopeless despair.”

My later sketches reflect this potent symbol, carrying with it both the shades of death and power — power often purchased at the end of a gun, the power not of enlightened colonialists but of invading armies.

So these final sketches are also my favorites, chains and ivory reflecting the moon’s pale light. The curved tusk of a deceased elephant curls into a cruel C, for either Conrad or the Congo. A lonely K wrapped in broken chains stands in for a deceased Kurtz, or Konrad, as the author was named at birth.

I will likely pursue these latest developments as I move onto the digital stage of the project, but will gladly take any feedback on the project to date.

Sketches, pt. 1: An immense snake uncoiled...

After exploring those initial concepts of dark and light, I turned my attention to the river itself. Incidentally, when turned on its side, the Congo, in fact, takes on a rather crude C. At one point, Marlow recalls his childhood fascination with the river:

"But there was in it one river especially, a mighty big river, that you could see on the map, resembling an immense snake uncoiled…"

The predatory nature of the snake lends itself well to Conrad's ambiguous notions of life and death in the novel, so why not borrow this characterization:

In addition, I attempted to imitate the young Marlow's sense of mystery and wonder (later replaced by a more adult-like sense of dread), a river reaching into unknown interiors, the blank spots on a map -- in this case the negative space of the C.

The river's similarity to blood vessels struck me as well, arterial, coiled (to return to the snake imagery) around a pulsing heart, before bleeding out into the land.

Though I like the concept, I suspect the C becomes a little lost as the emphasis shifts to the implied shapes. Maybe this could be a good thing?

Research: The horror! The horror!

Conrad and I go way back. I've read Heart of Darkness no fewer than five or six times, yet each time has its own rewards. This time was no different.

The most fascinating aspect is how the prompt for this particular read shaped my perception this time around -- the details I was most sensitive to, the passages that stood out. Rather than the scribbled notes that typically go on to flesh out essays, I found myself sketching concepts Conrad conveys through his impressionist prose.

Scholars of literature, race and politics have all scrutinized Conrad's work, most notably Achebe's scathing accusations of benevolent imperial moralizing (a "bloody racist," I believe were his words). With this in mind, my early notes dance around with alternating blacks and whites: cratered moons, latticed shadows, reflected silhouettes and, in a moment of weakness a heart... of darkness.

(moons featured prominently in these initial sketches as I wondered if I could somehow hollow out the moon -- shadows? silhouettes? -- to form the foundation of a "C")

Yet the blacks and whites of a "sepulcher" London are soon replaced by the more vibrant palette of the Congo, one where even the darkest shades of the deepest parts of the jungle are never truly black -- only deep shades of green. Indeed, the color white more often serves as a source of death (ivory) or obfuscation (mist).

Towards the end of the novel, my focus shifted from the dichotomies of day and night towards the dualities of dusk and dawns bridging them, from the parallel to the perpendicular. But I suppose I should continue with the course before I get too far ahead of myself.

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