Eating from the Tree of Knowledge? A Dilemma

To know or not to know–which one is the best option? Is “civilization” really better? What does the word “civilization” really even mean?

For me, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness addressed some thoughts that have been going through my head recently and put them into novella-form, especially in regards to the whole light-dark paradigm. We usually see light here as being “good”, illuminating the way forward, while dark represents a state of blindness and ignorance. But one can easily see how this book completely turns this on its head: this so-called “light” is often a way to reach unfathomable darkness.

Indeed, many writers that we have read in Arts One attempt to look at humanity’s origins as a way to base their arguments (e.g. Rousseau, Paine). For Rousseau, a return to nature seems to be best for humanity; all “progress” that we have made over the past  millenia of our history have led to greater and greater atrocities stemming from the fact that we have left this natural state. Yes, we have eaten of the Tree of Knowledge and have been kicked out of the safe shelter of Mother Earth, left to our own devices to construct for ourselves synthetic jungles out of concrete.

They say that to be in darkness is to be blind; but couldn’t having too much of this so called “light” also be blinding as well? Overall, very interesting book, so I’ll have to look at it more in depth since I’m not quite sure what to make of it. I’m not quite sure what side of the ignorance = bliss vs. knowledge = enlightenment argument that Conrad falls on, if does in fact have an opinion either way.

All in all, I see remarkable similarities between this book and Daoism. In short, Daoism is much like, if you will, “Rousseau-ism”–i.e. a return to the state of nature is best for mankind. Marlowe, in talking about how the Company men at the station were all fightening to obtain higher status within the station, yet pointing out the sheer absurdity and pointlessness in doing so, is uncannily similar to Laozi’s rejection of status hoarding and hedonism. It makes you wonder if this civilization thing really is a good thing after all. In the words of the Daodejing:

The five colours blind men’s eyes. The five tones deafen men’s ears. The five flavours spoil men’s palates. Running and chasing make men’s hearts mad. Rare goods confuse men’s ways. Therefore the Man of Calling works for the body’s needs, not for the eye’s. He removes the other and takes this.

(note the use of the “other”…. already in use in Classical-Era China! Yeah yeah I know it hadn’t even been conceptualized yet)

One Comment

  1. I haven’t thought about where Conrad seems to fall on the ignorance vs. knowledge question, but there are quite a few places in the text where he seems to be seeking the truth, reality, and finding mostly unreality, things that are difficult to understand, inscrutable. It’s as if he wants to find truth and knowledge, but is not able to do so during this experience. This may be related to the point from lecture about the world appearing absurd: we may want to find meaning, but it’s just not there, the centre does not hold and things fall apart. But I think it also has to do particularly with the absurdity of that enterprise he was a part of.

    Does Conrad’s novel suggest that returning to a state of nature would be good? Maybe so, though I’m not entirely sure. Going backward in time, to the earlier ages of the world, is described at times as if one is going into darkness, something problematic (when they’re going up the river Marlow speaks as if they’re going back in time (105, 107)). But obviously, the sort of “progress” that is embodied by the company is portrayed entirely negatively.

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