I’m navigating my way through the heart of a story that started out as a faux-memoir about a journey into the “heart of darkness.”
Just when I felt sure I had morphed into pure fiction, I meet Dr. David Livingstone. On his deathbed.
David Livingstone, explorer and not-so-evangelical missionary, desperately needs help penning a letter—a response to a dispatch from his patrons in Europe. They have long been worried about his health and now they’re begging him to pack it in.
Give it up! Enough is enough!
“Tell them,” Livingstone says, “Tell them I’ll go anywhere…as long as it is forward.”
I’ll go anywhere, as long as it is forward.
There’s a mantra for a fictional protagonist.
My journey to Livingstone’s bedside begins with my literary slog up a tributary of the Congo River toward the heart of darkness. This is my work-in-progress, The Writer in Love. At the farthest reaches of this personal essay, the would-be protagonist (me), bogged down in a swamp-forest and despairing of not reaching the heart of his story, realizes he has “run out of geography.”
The protagonist runs out of geography.
I like the sound of that. It suggests the end of the plot within the realms of space and time. The story comes to a stop. Every good story grinds to a halt. Every worthy protagonist travels so far from home that he “runs out of geography.”
And yet the story is far from over. The major issues remain unresolved. So what happens? What happens to the most determined protagonists after their writer has (out of loving compassion) eroded the ground beneath their feet?
The hero moves forward in another realm.
Oh, really? Is that even possible? Does a study of fiction bear that out? More importantly, does it happen for real, in real life?
While the idea of transcending the plot may raise eyebrows, my essay-memoir-whatever-it-is serves up potent examples from Casablanca, The African Queen, and Out of Africa. Not to mention Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
But it is a real-life story that presents the most compelling evidence of an adventurer running out of geography. Conveniently, the event took place not far beyond the headwaters of the Congo River basin. Only three pages of narrative away—that’s all it takes!—and here I am at Livingstone’s deathbed helping him write that letter.
I’ll go anywhere as long as it is forward.
“Forward” served Livingstone as an article of faith in a vocation rife with disappointments, disillusionments, and dead-ends. It pushed him past the point of no return. It pushed him until he was running on empty, and it kept pushing him until malarial dysentery dissolved his intestines and he could no longer walk. Even then he didn’t want sympathy, didn’t allow his expedition to stop. They carried him until that became unendurable.
Now he lies dying in a daub and wattle hut. There being nothing more he wants from me, it is time to leave him alone.
At the door of the hut I turn to wish him Godspeed or whatever one says to someone about whom it is written* that they will die before dawn. Incredulous, I see that he has mobilized himself off his deathbed to a kneeling position beside his cot. I suppose he’s praying but look again—his palms are open upward. He’s not begging for anything, no, he’s offering. Offering what? What’s he got left?
Livingstone’s credo, like an inner flywheel still spinning, animates him even at death’s door. Forward! But to where? Can you imagine the nature of such a movement?
The Writer in Love is my attempt to explore that movement in fiction.
It is a protagonist’s forward motion in the aftermath of running out of geography that marks him or her as heroic. And if heroic strikes you as grandiose, then I invite you to consider that this everyday miracle (more so than the story’s climax) is what ultimately nourishes a reader.
Rick Blaine nourishes us in Casablanca. Likewise, Charlie Allnut in The African Queen. And the baroness Karen Blixen in Out of Africa. Their plots deliver each of them to the bitter end of who they thought they were. And if the protagonist isn’t exactly dying, he/she wishes they were.
Only now does our investment in their story pay off. The heroic disposition kicks in. Here at the deathbed of David Livingstone I’m seeing it with my own two eyes.
Dr. Livingstone has been beating his way around this African bundu for thirty years in the name of God and the Royal Geographic Society. His mapmaking days are over, he has run out of rivers and waterfalls and mountains. He has run out of time.
And yet as I watch Livingstone on his knees I feel no sadness at all. He may have run out geography but that’s so yesterday. The body is dying, sure, okay, I may even shed a tear for him, but corporeal does death not a tragic story make. Especially not when the protagonist on his deathbed says:
I’ll go anywhere as long as it is forward.
Instinctively a reader understands that the protagonist who empties himself has escaped the prison of his small self.
Look at Livingstone—he is still emptying himself. At the heart of the story, the protagonist discovers it’s the only way to move forward.
We don’t entirely understand how it works or where he’s going. It certainly doesn’t serve a protagonist to know such things. It’s only after the fact that we learn our trajectory was never other than toward this blessed emptiness.
As a wrap up to this piece, I’ll leave you with an account of David Livingstone’s death, as reported by his African lieutenants when his body—minus his heart—was delivered up for transport back to England:
Dr. Livingstone was kneeling by the side of his bed, his body stretched forward, his head buried in his hands upon the pillow. For a minute they watched him: he did not stir, there was no sign of breathing; then one of them, Matthew, advanced softly to him and placed his hands to his cheeks. It was sufficient; life had been extinct some time, and the body was almost cold: Livingstone was dead.*
* from The Last Journals of David Livingstone (1869-1873).