Heart of Darkness - J.H. Stape, Robert Hampson, Owen Knowles, Joseph Conrad

I started reading Heart of Darkness because it got referenced in a computer game called Space Marine. That seems really shallow, but it is, more than anything, a mechanism for navigating classic texts that I have built up over the years. I read the Epic of Gilgamesh and Paradise Lost to better understand the Horus Heresy. I got into Virginia Woolf after visiting the house of the woman she fell in love with and listening to Patrick Wolf CDs. I read Iris Murdoch because I am convinced that the sea is going to kill me.


There are so many classics, and they belong to such different worlds to the one we live in, that the way you approach them has to have some connection to your life, to ensure that you can get to the meaning in them. I enjoyed Jude the Obscure when I read it for school, but I find that I can't get myself enthused enough to dig into Thomas Hardy again even though I'm sure I would enjoy it; there are too many other books to read and too little time before I die.


So I was playing Space Marine and one of the chapters of the game is titled Heart of Darkness and I know for a fact that it has nothing to do with the themes of the novel, but I only know of those themes second hand myself. At which point I decided to read the novel - not because I wanted to better understand Space Marine, but because it was now prominent enough in my consciousness as a thing I wanted to do.


Space Marine's use of the title Heart of Darkness makes very little sense. The section is basically running around in the sewers alone and occurs before there is any suggestion in the plot that Titus, the player-character, might be touched by Chaos, the only conceivable analogue for Conrad's Darkness in the game. Even that doesn't work as, in the 40k universe, Chaos is as often an affliction of civilisation as it is of wilderness. Regardless, I am pretty certain that t5he only darkness that is referred to, directly, at that point, is the lighting levels of the section.


Except that there's more. Classics are classic as much because they have been reified as because they are immortally readable. They are a thing in themselves, a closed symbol of culture as much as a book to be opened and read. Each classic is a title that points to an idea of historical engagement, a well-read cultured nature and, finally, an idea of the ideas in the book itself. And I find this fascinating. Referencing a classic novel (or film, or whatever) as an idea, even without engaging with it as a text, is an artistic move that invokes an ironic gravitas. It says 'you should engage with this text as if it was deadly serious, but with the understanding that it may not be.' It enables a game like Space Marine to inform you that, for the characters, this is a serious situation and that, by taking it seriously for the period in which you engage with it, you will get more out of it than if you engage it purely as Technicolor schlock.


The masters of this stance are Iron Maiden. The Loneliness of the Long Distance runner is a phenomenal story about power and control and the underclass mentality and I would never have read it if they hadn't written a song about a man running really far. And yet, reading it meant that I learnt more about how Iron Maiden see themselves and where they came from, and could link that to my own situation, twenty years later in the same bits of London. The Wicker man is a masterpiece of British horror and yet they used it for the title of a song about someone with gambling debts. It doesn't matter though. The meaning is clear: take this seriously, think about the links between popular and classic art forms as you do so, and you will get a lot more out of both. Conrad's Darkness isn't Chaos, but experiencing and understanding it makes Chaos that little bit more alive as a concept for the player that wishes to dig that little bit further.


Heart of Darkness is also a really good book. Especially if you care about the history of European imperialism.