Robert Harrison is a Dante specialist, but he is also very interested in people’s relationships with the Earth. His enthralling books Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition, and Forests: The Shadow of Civilization provide much food for thought.
What did the intervening century [since Joseph Conrad’s book Heart of Darkness was written] do to change the situation [of Western nihilism outlined in that book]? If one is honest, precious little. On the contrary, the twentieth century just enacted the most virulent forms of Western nihilism through two catastrophic world wars, and the endless genocides associated with communism and cold war politics and so forth. So it’s very difficult I think to soberly look back on the twentieth century and to say that the vision of nihilism that Conrad puts forward in ‘Heart of Darkness’ was not well founded.
I think it was well founded, raising the question of whether we are to be stuck in that dark hole that he so vividly portrays for us, or whether the twenty-first century might find a way out of it…
One of the visions that Conrad has of Western nihilism in ‘Heart of Darkness’ is of the sheer carelessness of the Western rapacious attitude toward Africa and the continent of Africa, as raiding its resources, and taking from the Earth as much as one can take without giving anything back in return. And this is the formula for nihilism.
Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ sees Western modernity as a kind of ferocious drive to extract as much out of the Earth as possible without giving anything back to it…So the question for the twenty-first century will be whether a turn is possible in our relations with the Earth, whether we can return to the primary human vocation of being caretakers rather than destroyers in our relation to the Earth.