Up-River! The adventure of reality from Haggard to Conrad to Coppola to Bourdain

by Bill Benzon

How, then, do we get from H. Rider Haggard to Anthony Bourdain? Let’s start with the easy and straightforward. Both are white men, as are Joseph Conrad and Francis Ford Coppola for that matter. Haggard was British; he was born in the 19th century and died in the 20th (1856-1925). Bourdain was American, born in the 20th and died in the 21st, at his own hand (1956-2018). It’s easy enough to interpolate the other two: Joseph Conrad, Polish-British (1857-1924); Francis Ford Coppola, American (1939 and still living).

So much for bare biography. It’s the imaginative life that interests.

Haggard wrote a ton of novels, many of them well-known. The Allan Quatermain stories, starting with King Solomon’s Mines, are said to have inspired the character Indiana Jones. She: A History of Adventure marked the beginning of a different series and is one of Haggard’s best-known novels. If not exactly a high-culture masterpiece, it has been quite influential as one of the founding texts of “lost world” fiction. Wikipedia tells us that it’s been made into 11 films and sold over 83 million copies, making it an all-time fiction best seller, and has been translated into 44 languages.

I grew up with it. My father owned a large set of works – don’t know if it was complete – by Rider Haggard and may have read She to me; I’m certain he read King Solomon’s Mines. I’m pretty sure he inherited the books from his father, who’d made a carving of Ayesha, the title character of She; my sister now has that carving, which depicts Ayesha standing in the flaming Pillar of Life. I’ve read the book myself two, maybe three times, and I’m now skimming my way through it so I can make quick chapter summaries.

And, you know what? It’s an absurd story. But then many of our beloved stories are absurd, no? A white whale, the world in seven days, a Danish ghost walking the parapet – what are your favorite examples? An unnamed editor receives a manuscript from a casual acquaintance, Horace Holly, with a request to publish it while Holly and his adopted son, Leo Vincey, take off for Tibet in search of, guess what? Wisdom of all things! It seems that Leo is a descendant of one Kallikrates, beloved of Ayesha, who kills him in a rage because he refused to leave his wife. That was 2000 years ago somewhere in the interior of East Africa where (white) Ayesha’s been living in a huge abandoned funeral complex carved out of “the living rock” – a pet phrase – while breeding a race of mute (white) servants, lording it over the (black) locals, undertaking botanical studies, and pining away for her beloved Kallikrates.

I mean, as the saying goes, you can’t make this stuff up! Well, you or I may not be able to, but Rider Haggard did, in only six weeks, and sold it to tens if not hundreds of millions of people over the years. Why’d we buy it? What strange creatures are we that resonate with such tales?

One person who didn’t resonate with it is Joseph Conrad. Actually, he probably did resonate with it, but he just didn’t like it, nor Rider Haggard more generally. And for good reason.

Like Haggard, who spent several years in South Africa from 1875-1882, Conrad spent time in Africa, but at a different time and place – roughly the second half of 1890 in the Congo, quite enough to see the ravages wrought by King Leopold. Heart of Darkness was born of that experience, and it is a savage indictment of European imperialism (with which Haggard seemed comfortable enough), if somewhat austere in manner. And while it has plenty of action and violence, one would hardly call it a history of adventure. It’s a grim slog.

We don’t actually know whether or not Conrad had read She. But we do know he detested Haggard, we have his word on it; so he must have read something. There’s a general resemblance between the two stories. Both involve a strenuous river trip into the interior of Africa in search of a mysterious character who dies in the end. Holly and Vincey search for Ayesha (She), who was burned up in the flaming Pillar of Life. Capt. Marlow went while Kurtz (Heart), who simply died. Both Ayesha and Kurtz are depicted as extraordinary people, though Ayesha is obviously not-quite or more-than human while Kurtz is brilliant, well-educated, industrious, and crazed, but also entirely human.

Recent scholars have suggested a closer connection. Allan Hunter has asserted that Heart is a deliberate parody of She, and one can easily read it that way. Murray Pittock and, more recently, Johan Warodell and Stephen Tabachnick show more detailed correspondences between the two books [*]. From Tabachnick, quoting Pittock:

First, both stories “concern journeys undertaken to meet a mysterious character in the heart of Africa, in both cases white … Second, “Both journeys into the interior are by river, and, like Marlow’s, the helmsman of Holly and Leo is killed as a result of the action of the natives before either of the protagonists can reach his destination.” Third, in both works, the great age of Africa is part of the mystery. Fourth, the “technological superiority” of the contemporary explorers is “a feature of both books.” Fifth, “Marlow’s first sight of Kurtz echoes Holly’s last sight of Ayesha in She, as one terribly aged: ‘I could see the cage of his ribs [and] the bones of his arms moving.’” Sixth, both Holly and Marlow witness secret rites: Marlow “encounters Kurtz in the wood during the rites of the African sorcerer…, which echoes Holly’s solitary witnessing of Ayesha cursing her dead rival, Amenartas.” And last, neither Kurtz’s soul nor Ayesha’s knows any restraint and both “yearn for power.”

I find those correspondences convincing enough, but convincing of what I’m not sure. Deliberate parody suggests Conrad had She in mind as he told his tale. Possible? Sure. But I can easily imagine that he’d read She and that, in consequence, something of it had sunk. When he wrote Heart of Darkness, however, he gave not a thought to She. Such narratives have an inner economy that shapes them beneath our conscious awareness. I don’t believe that Conrad would have had to think about She deliberately in order to enact much the same trajectory in somewhat different and more modern terms.

There is considerable difference between the two journeys. The journey in She is undertaken as an ancestral quest based on some ancient relics passed down through generations while the journey in Heart is a commercial venture to determine the status of a trading station gone silent. Holly and Vincey were looking for a woman, while Marlow was after a male trader. But that trader had a woman, or he wanted to have one. The woman’s known simply as the Intended. Kurtz wanted to marry her, but her family disapproved:

I had heard that her engagement with Kurtz had been disapproved by her people. He wasn’t rich enough or something. And indeed I don’t know whether he had not been a pauper all his life. He had given me some reason to infer that it was his impatience of comparative poverty that drove him out there.

What we have here, if you will, is a fairly conventional boy-meets-girl romance that gets derailed at that point where an impediment emerges in the way of true love. In the happy version Kurtz goes off to African, becomes rich, and then returns to his Intended, marrying her and living happily ever after. Alas, Kurtz went nuts when he got to Africa and, in consequence, the whole story had little choice but to implode into a critique of imperialism in which Marlow remarks on the maimed bodies and shattered lives he sees on this trip upriver.

Maimed bodies and shattered lives, that certainly characterizes Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, and a lot of craziness as well. Of course the film was not set in Africa, it was set in Vietnam and Cambodia near the end of the Vietnam war and it came out in 1979, 80 years after Heart of Darkness. Most of a century and half a world away, but still a story of imperialism, and of white people against colored people. Instead of a rogue ivory trader, a steamboat captain, and the Congo River, we have a rogue army colonel, a Special Forces captain, and the Nung river, a fictional river based on a real one, the Mekong. Thus in both narratives we have a river, the jungle, and madness.

Women have been edged to the periphery. Captain Willard, the Marlow figure, had a wife, but early in the film we learn that she’s divorced him. Kurtz had a wife and family back home; we hear in voiceover a letter he’d written to them. He likely had a native mistress, as did Conrad’s Kurtz. And there’s an incident involving the USO show with Playboy bunnies. But these women don’t play any role in the plot, such as it is – go up the river, assassinate Kurtz, and leave (The End). They’re decoration, important decoration to be sure, but decoration nonetheless.

We’ve come a long way from Rider Haggard’s quest for the awesome Ayesha, a powerful woman so beautiful that Holly falls in love with her on sight. Alas, for him, she only has eyes for his adopted son, Leo Vincey – stick that in your depth psychology pipe and inhale, deeply.

The late Anthony Bourdain takes us one step further away from fantasy and romance while at the same time returning us to the Congo. As you know Bourdain is a chef who has spent years traveling the world and eating the local food, using it as a vehicle to introduce us to far-flung local cultures. In the last episode of the first season of Parts Unknown he goes to the Congo (2013). He sails on the Congo River and, in his voice-over, Bourdain explicitly references Heart of Darkness. The sound track uses quasi-Doors rock reminiscent of the “The End”, which Walter Murch used in the opening montage for Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, and at one point Bourdain “dubs” (his word) their boat the “Captain Willard”, an obvious homage to Coppola’s film.

Rather than going up the river, however, he enters from the east (through Rwanda) and travels down river. Bourdain remarked in a blog entry:

At the time that my crew and I drove across the border into Goma, there were nearly 30 different rebel groups and militias—many of them aligned with the Congo’s neighboring countries—fighting it out across the country. One of them, M23 [short for March 23 Movement], were fighting amongst themselves only 10 miles away. The official armed forces of the Congo, the FARDC, were said to be on their way—an outcome generally considered to be a worst-case scenario, as they are widely regarded as professionals at the business of extortion, murder, mass rape, and robbery, rather than simply amateurs. We were, during our shoot, extremely fortunate. Relative to most, we had a luxuriously unmolested, violence-free time. We were extorted, detained, and threatened daily. But such is life in the Congo.

The Congo is a place where everything is fine—until it isn’t.

He’s talking about real events, events that happened not so long ago. But they’re events Bourdain himself observes, not only with his own eyes, but, as he acknowledges and wants us to know, through the lens of over a century and of culture-bound imaginings and desires – if he’d mentioned Rider Haggard it would have been a century and a quarter.

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We started with a gothic adventure story written by a minor British aristocrat and civil servant, H. Rider Haggard, moved on to novella written by a Pole, Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, writing in British English as Joseph Conrad, as translated into film by an Italian-American film-maker, Francis Ford Coppola, both of whom have impressed themselves on the imagination of an American-born chef. What’s real and what’s imaginary? Or is reality something we enact in the process of finding our way through the world?

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* Hunter, Allan. Joseph Conrad and the Ethics of Darwinsm: The Challenges of Science. London: Croom Helm, 1983.

Pittock, Murray. “Rider Haggard and Heart of Darkness”. Conradiana 1987, Vol. 3 (19).

Tabachnick, Stephen E. “Two Tales of Gothic Adventure: She and Heart of Darkness” English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920, Vol. 56, Number 2, 2013, pp. 189-200.

Warodell, Johan. “Twinning Haggard’s Ayesha and Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz”. Yearbook of Conrad Studies (Poland), Vol. 18, pp. 57-68 Kraków 2011.