“Monstrous and free”…
The phrase arrested me as I reread Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
Marlow, the English river boat captain, is describing the jungle that surrounds him:
“…there you could look at a thing monstrous and free. It was unearthly…”
I get the chills.
Landscape as literary device—Conrad uses it to characterize Kurtz, the rogue ivory trader, whom Marlow has come upriver to find. Everything up there in the Congo River basin is “monstrous and free”.
Conrad’s novel is a cautionary tale of “uncivilized” freedom. Kurtz has attained god-like status by leaving conventional belief systems far behind. He’s free…and feral. It’s meant to freak us out.
And here I go, now, crawling out on a limb to propose that most satisfying stories direct the protagonist through a story heart that can be described as “monstrous and free”.
For the protagonist, the major crisis presents an existential dilemma that is both frightening and freeing. I’m suggesting this as a way to view every story heart:
The heart of a story is a country both frightening and freeing.
I have no proof that Conrad was trying to tell us the same thing. But here`s a personal story that places “monstrous and free” at the heart of my own story.
It happened in India.
We were seekers experimenting druglessly with altered states. We put our personal identities to the test by asking ourselves:
“WHO AM I?”
Pairing up, sitting nose to nose, taking turns, Who are you? “Well, my name is Reece; I have a B.A. in geography, I’m Canadian, I…my favourite book is, ahh… Heart of Darkness… I… ah…”
Sounds simple enough at first, but it quickly devolves into speculation. Who am I? Easier said than done! Try it. After five minutes, switch. Now, I’m listening non-judgmentally to my partner’s stream of consciousness. Rivers of baloney! Every 40 minutes, find a different partner. Eighteen hours a day for three days.
Day 2 and we are sick to death of our rationalizations, explanations, memories, hopes, dreams and delusions about who we are. Our belief systems are a cover-up for…for what? Something is trying to surface…something overwhelming. We are terrified. People are crying. It’s a madhouse! How can this be happening?
I find myself allowing all that baloney to fall away…
Miraculously, I have no more thoughts about who I’m supposed to be…
I become a lion on the Serengeti Plain.
Did someone say, “MONSTROUS AND FREE”? I have never felt such power. I can see through people.
Nearby herds of zebra and impala are in serious danger, although for the moment they are quite safe. You see, I’m not hungry. Not yet. My sexual appetite (now that I’m a lion, hmmm…) is another issue. I recall being mildly troubled by that. And in the next moment not troubled at all!
(Don’t worry—attendants kept watch over us.)
Power without a conscience, it’s not a safe state—that’s what I’m trying to say.
Freedom can serve the monster…or it may serve a higher cause.
I had the support of my fellow adventurers within an arena of trust to guide me through this jungle. But all the Marlows of the fiction world travel solo into the story heart. Alone, they face the consequences of a monstrous freedom.
Little wonder that readers are so compelled by the fictional protagonist steaming upriver toward the story heart.
I’ve been replaying my favourite novels and movies to see if “monstrous and free” applies to their story hearts. I’ll analyse Casablanca in an upcoming post. In the meantime, here’s a question to ponder:
Do all Marlows dread the story heart?
And if so, why do they dock their boat and step ashore and risk becoming “monstrous and free”?