I do not wish to dwell too long on the question of whether Heart of Darkness is a racist text. It is. Chinua Achebe is not right about everything, but the thrust of his argument I consider unassailable. Most critiques to Achebe amount to an insistence that it is Europe that is really being implicated in Conrad's novel, but saying that Europe is as bad as Africa is not exactly charitable to Africa. That is to say that intent is irrelevant--no matter what conclusions we are meant to draw, we are working from a particularly vile set of first principles that takes the horrific inscrutability of Africa and its people to be self-evident.
The question I find to be more interesting is what comparison is being made. The structure of Heart of Darkness is essentially metaphorical, but what is the object of that metaphor? In technical terms, Heart of Darkness provides us with a vehicle--Marlow's journey into the Congolese interior to retrieve the wayward station manager, Kurtz--but the tenor is somewhat less obvious. We would know instantly, if we could only see the images that visit Kurtz in his death-fever:
He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision,--he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath--
'"The horror! The horror!"
The interpretation I recall from reading it in high school was that the novel is really about the rapine colonization of Africa by European powers. Europe, this view suggests, is as rotten and repellent as Africa at its core. And that would indeed provide a neat comparison between the Congo River and the Thames, on which Marlow tells his tale to the unnamed narrator. But this interpretation seems woefully incomplete. Can it be that Kurtz, who even on his sickbed protects jealously his stockpile of ivory, has had such a change of heart?
A better answer, I think, is that the journey being traced is psychological. Examine this passage:
[Kurtz] had taken a high seat amongst the devils of the land--I mean literally. You can't understand. How could you?--with solid pavement under your feet, surrounded by kind neighbours ready to cheer you or to fall on you, stepping delicately between the butcher and the policemen, in the holy terror of scandal and gallows and lunatic asylums--how can you imagine what particular region of the first ages of a man's untrammelled feet may take him into by the way of solitude--utter solitude without a policeman--by the way of silence--utter silence, where no warning voice of a kind neighbour can be heard whispering of public opinion? These little things make all the difference. When they are gone you must fall back upon your innate strength, upon your own capacity for faithfulness.
Kurtz is a sort of ubermensch--a man whose capabilities exceed ours. He is rumored to be impassably intelligent and eloquent; his will overpowers. We are told that he outstrips his peers at the extraction of ivory by an absurd degree through these gifts; white men and natives alike are in thrall to him. Marlow sees him, mouth open, as having a "weirdly voracious aspect, as though he had wanted to swallow all the air, all the earth, all the men before him." If anyone has the "innate strength" to bend the African landscape to his will, it is Kurtz, and to some extent he does. And yet, when Marlow retrieves him from his outpost station, he finds him enfeebled and terrified on the fringes of some phantasmagorical night-ceremony.
The utter silence of this land reduces a man to his barest self, Marlow tells us. Robbed of civilized company, Kurtz approaches himself, and discovers his own interiority. Despite his supernal qualities--or perhaps because of them, exacerbated by them--Kurtz is horrified by the journey he must make into his own psyche, his most primeval and basic elements: his "reptile" brain.
Less often quoted are the words that precede Kurtz's last:
It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw on that ivory face the expression of sombre pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror--of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge?
Kurtz, it seems to Marlow, dies in the act of self-examination.
You might notice a certain circuitousness to it: The jungle, through its isolation, drives Kurtz's horror of the self, but it is also symbolic of it. The African tribesmen--conspicuously denied their own interiority--are both causes and expressions of this agony. The line between the self and the Other is constantly being blurred in Heart of Darkness, like some sort of photographic negative of Walt Whitman's democratic self. Or perhaps it is best expressed by Frost, talking about the same self-horror:
They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars--on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.
As far as Conrad's Africa resembles an alien world, this Frost may have considered Heart of Darkness something of a facile enterprise.
Achebe would have us throw the whole thing on the scrap heap where we keep minstrel shows and our tapes of Amos 'n' Andy. But Heart of Darkness endures because it has complexities and subtleties that Achebe's work lacks, and a thin ripple of irony that allows us to put Conrad at some distance from his narrators--though Achebe has a tin ear for it. It deserves both the praise of critics and Achebe's scorn, and if we can't abide by that sort of contradiction we are poor readers indeed.