Apr 14 • 21M

Re-Viewed: "Heart of Darkness"

The Congo, Anthony Bourdain, and the Nightmare of One's Choice.

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Welcome to Against Habit. My name is Cody Kommers, and in this show I talk to experts, authors, and scientists about the ways we can rethink the habits, ideas, and assumptions we take with us through daily life. Mainstream productivity culture tells us that optimal habits are the best way to solve any behavioral problem. But I think in our veneration of habits, we've overlooked something crucial. Many of our deepest experiences of creativity, connection, and meaning come from breaking out of our habitual rut and engaging in life in a new way. Exploring that idea is what this show is all about. (Note: This show was previously "Cognitive Revolution")

There was a moment in college when it occurred to me that I ought to have a look at my transcript. I felt there would be a certain judiciousness—a wisdom, even—in determining whether I’d fulfilled all the requirements necessary for graduation. For me, this moment came in the final term of my final year.

It was at this point I discovered that I had not in fact satisfied the university's standards for a “general education.” I was missing a class, and now in the final term of undergraduate, I was too late to enroll in one that would rectify this oversight.

The fix was to take an online class during the summer after my senior year. I was able to walk at graduation. I was able to start the job I had lined up. So this seemed like a good solution. And anyway, I would use the method which had got me through English classes in high school. I would forgo reading the actual book, opting instead to browse through a summary online.

This was the context for my first encounter with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

It’s the only book I remember being assigned during the course. There must have been others. But I think, even in the moment, I was struck by just how little I cared about it. I knew this was a much vaunted work in the canon of English language literature. But I couldn’t drum up a single shit to give about it.

I was working at a venture-backed start-up in Silicon Valley. I had no use for Conrad. I had no use for the Congo. And I had even less use for some esoteric work where the entire second section is some guy who isn’t even the narrator going on about some story which had, from what I could tell, only a tenuous connection to the actual “plot”. What I did have use for—even took pride in—was my ability to perpetrate bullshit. This was the muscle I decided I would exercise during this course. Not the literary, actual reading-of-books one.

In putting together the piece you’re reading now, I went back through my college docs and found my original essay. I can see why I chose not to read the book. The relevant assignment was only a single page. Hardly seems worth it to scrutinize an entire novel just to put together a few hundred words on it. I wrote about Conrad’s conception of “human nature.”1 Instead of going in-depth on the text, I connected its major (read: obvious) themes with general insights from cognitive science. This sort of move is often regarded by the grading class (i.e., grad students) as evidence of “critical thinking.”

The instructor singled out my contributions on the class discussion board as being especially incisive. I got an A in the course, and officially received my diploma. But I never made it into the Heart of Darkness. I didn’t even make it to the delta of the Congo River. I never even ordered the book.

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