Into the Heart of Darkness

(This post is something I started working on earlier in the year while I was on holiday in Melbourne, it is fitting to post it now as I am just announcing my departure from New Zealand, which is part of the topic of this post).

I haven’t posted much lately, I have been working “full on,” as they say in New Zealand, on my book. I’ll post with an update on that at a later point.  I am just getting to edit some photos from a trip to Nikau Caves back in November. It was my second time at the caves which are down near Port Waikato. It is about a 1-2 hour tour that is mostly walking, but has one place where you have to let yourself down through a keyhole and then crawl on hands and knees through a stream for a bit. I am not a fan of tight spaces, but I challenged myself a few years back to go to Mammoth Caves in Kentucky, and I found to my surprise, that I actually quite like caves. It is an exhilarating adventure to enter into the darkness, to smell the damp, cool air, to get wet and grimy and then come out the other side into the light again.

Dave at Nikau Cave

Dave at Nikau Cave

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The Heart of Darkness is a novella by Joseph Conrad. Conrad was a Polish sailor, adventurer and writer. He, himself, travelled into central Africa. The book is a story of one man, Kurtz, who years back ventured into the heart of Africa. There, something happened. You could consider it that he went “native,” but it is not fair to the place or the “natives” to blame them for the transformation. The book is also about the inner journey as much as the outer journey. You cannot really have one without the other, can you? Every outer journey is also an inner journey. Kurtz came to something dark within himself. The narrator, sent to find Kurtz represents the innocent explorer and Kurtz represents the one who has been over-powered by his own darkness.

The movie, “Apocalypse Now” is based on the Conrad’s novella, a book that is not long enough to be a novel, but too long to be a short story. In the movie, Martin Sheen’s character is the innocent sent to find Kurtz. Kurtz has created some kind of bizarre web around him. The darkness that is explored in the movie is the personal shadow that everyone has. It also represents the shadow side of the United States — a failed war that turned into an occupation that attempted to win over the “hearts and minds” of the “natives” and to build an (empire) of democracy. It is a war that led to a shift in consciousness in the American psyche. USA was not #1 and the line between “good guys” and “bad guys” started to become blurred.

While filming the movie, Martin Sheen — in reality — had a heart attack.

In Conrad’s book, there is a line:

“And this also has been one of the dark places of the earth.”

I made a painting years ago that had that quotation written along the bottom edge. That line always struck me. It is a complex sentence. There are several key words in that sentence. It starts with “and” as if there had already been an ongoing discussion of dark places. The word “also” implies that there are other dark places. The word “has” is a pivotal word for me, it implies the possibility of change. Therefore, darkness does not seem to be unchangeable, it is not unusual and in fact, it is to be expected, perhaps all places at some point on the earth are dark. Returning to the earlier statement — all outer journeys are also inner journeys —could lead us to say that all people, at one point in their lives on earth are also a dark place, while this is incredibly serious, it is by no means unusual, nor is it a permanent state.

And This Also Has Been One of the Dark Places of the Earth

And This Also Has Been One of the Dark Places of the Earth

In my painting, which I called “And this has also been one of the dark places of the earth,” there was a sort of abstract landscape — a pool, a tree, grassy banks, browns, greens, blues — and then there was also a squiggle of colors from a squeeze tube of paint — light blue and dark purple. Much to my consternation, this always looked to me like a nun, the Virgin Mary, or some other female, Christian icon. Yet that consternation was what I loved about the painting. The painting and the quote were about dark places, but also about that operative word, “has been,” implying the hope and potential for change. The visage of this benign presence keeping watch over the dark places seemed somehow appropriate.

The brighter the light that illuminates an object, the greater the shadow that is cast. Light and dark are inseparable aspects of the same thing. Every place that is illuminated has also been a dark place. Jung wrote that everyone has a shadow. Jung didn’t believe that it was possible to “get rid” of the shadow, although by venturing into it and developing a different relationship with it could lead to transformation. We need not be speaking of anything spiritual or supernatural here, this applies on a psychological and metaphorical level, although it could be argued that these are all aspects of the same process.

I woke up this morning (January 27, 2013) gradually working out this essay in my head. At the time of writing this, I am in Melbourne, Australia. Yesterday was Australia Day. I went snorkeling at Portsea Pier on the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria. Water has also been one of my fears in life and there is some similarity between venturing into the darkness of a cave or the fluidness of the water and similar strange creatures and features exist in both places. I saw Weedy Sea Dragons, a giant sting ray, heaps of puffer fish and many jellyfish. We went to an aboriginal art show and then we went on a night tour at Moonlit Sanctuary, a great wildlife park where we saw all sorts of interesting animals — wallabies, kangaroos, a quoll, bettongs, barking owls and a sugar glider that climbed on my hand. All this ties together, the journeys in the dark, the art work, the outer/inner journey, the strange creatures and the heart.

At the aboriginal art show, we bought a beautiful painting of the Dream Sisters, two stylized figures leaning in with heads touching and a third thing/being created from the union of the two. The woman in charge of the show told us the story of how the figures represent watchful protection. She spoke about a mandala she has that is always the first thing to go up in her home and the last thing she takes down and how that makes her feel good in some way, not that she thinks there is some supernatural force or something, she said. I thought how cool that is, I wish I had something like that, then I remembered “And this also has been one of the dark places of the earth,” and I remembered how I had sold that painting prior to us moving to New Zealand. I remembered that with sadness, but also with the reality that you cannot have an adventure, particularly into darkness (which is where all real adventures into the unknown end up at some point) and be able to bring along everything that is a comfort to you. I also realized that we were just purchasing a painting that could serve that same purpose — in fact, the blue and purple outline of the female figure is somewhat similar to the Dream Sisters.

This morning, as I was waking up, I started to think about the move to New Zealand, wondering if that was a journey into the heart of darkness. I decided it was, particularly as I decided that all outer journeys are also inner journeys. I thought of Thoreau going to Walden and then of Thoreau leaving Walden. “I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.” I suppose I will say something similar when I leave New Zealand.

The question, “So why did you move to New Zealand?” is one I have been repeatedly asked and have repeatedly answered. For a change. To do something new. Because the life that we had was changing so much that it seemed like a good time to change our lives. I suppose the decision to move really had something to do with life and death. The old life seemed dead and I desperately needed to pump new life into myself. I needed to move, to travel, to see the world, to remind myself that I was part of the world and had a place in the world. It was all that much more painful when I realized that moving to another country is all about not having a place in the world. It is also about questioning who you really are and about what is really you, what is a conditioned cultural response from the country one lives in and what is a spontaneous expression of oneself. I went to New Zealand to see the world, to grow and to reconnect to myself. I am now in the process of leaving New Zealand for the same reasons.

This piece I am writing is really too long for a blog post, it is more of an essay, but I am going to post it as a blog post. I guess you could say it is a bl-essay. When I thought of that I had the sense the term is fitting as the idea of the watchful figure is like having a blessing, having a reminder that the dark places are temporary but necessary on the earth. Like Dante’s quote, “Midway upon the journey of our life, I found myself within a forest dark, For the straight forward pathway had been lost.” The darkness is necessary for the transformation that comes later. Life is created in the space between the contraction and relaxation of the heart.

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