I just finished a reread of Conrad’s novella. As with all retreads, it went faster than with the first time. And as with all rereads of this particular work, I stopped comparing it to Apocalypse Now as much (still heard “The End” in my head near the final act). My purpose was to absorb the soul of it to get myself in the right headspace to push through in writing The Sword, as a consequence, the socio-political aspects of it were less important to me.
But then, I don’t think they ever were. I don’t think Heart of Darkness is actually about colonialism per se. The rapacious aspect of Belgian rule in the Congo is just the setting for the novel’s true theme: the collapse of human spirit under harsh conditions. The encounter between human societies at differing stages of development, and the inevitable mistrust and exploitation that follows, is a vehicle for this theme. But you could set it in any hostile environment and get similar results. If you can get a character from a place of idealism to a place of “The horror!”, then you can get what Conrad was going for.
Their talk, however, was the talk of sordid buccaneers: it was reckless without hardihood, greedy without audacity, and cruel without courage; there was not an atom of foresight or of serious intention in the whole batch of them, and they did not seem aware these things.
Which is to say, if you take a Union cavalry lieutenant who studied at a seminary before the War, and set him on William Tecumseh Sherman’s Savannah Campaign – aka, The March to the Sea – he will undergo a not-disimilar transition to that of Kurz in Heart of Darkness. And if the March to the Sea was not quite like a Mongol Khan building a pyramid of human skulls, it had enough of “the horror!” to still echo in the American psyche. If my skills are equal to it, The Sword will capture that.