Glittering ichthyosaurs in Heart of Darkness

I found my favourite imagery in all of literature several years ago when I read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Heart of Darkness, as you probably know, is a very serious work about colonialism and dangerous white men given too much power. To be honest I can’t remember much about the story (one day I will reread it), but was impressed by the very beautiful writing, such as in this passage:

The great wall of vegetation, an exuberant and entangled mass of trunks, branches, leaves, boughs, festoons, motionless in the moonlight, was like a rioting invasion of soundless life, a rolling wave of plants, piled up, crested, ready to topple over the creek, to sweep every little man of us out of his little existence. And it moved not. A deadened burst of mighty splashes and snorts reached us from afar, as though an ichthyosaurus had been taking a bath of glitter in the great river.

It brilliantly captures the kind of primal terror you can feel of being surrounded by vegetation so fecund that you feel you might be swallowed by it, or worse. It reminds me of a scene in the movie Annihilation where people start turning into plant-like forms after being irradiated. Or, there’s the real-life horror of parasitic fungi that infect insects, making them lose their minds before killing them and bursting out of their bodies. Being from a temperate zone where plants are generally seasonal and polite, I’ve experienced this unease walking in tropical rainforests, where the vines might reach out to you, or the moss and lichen might start growing all over your skin.

Parasitic fungi on an arthropod
Source: Gilles San Martin/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

But then there’s that splash in the river under the moonlight. And up rises not a fish, a turtle, or a hippo as you might expect in the rivers of central Africa, but something much stranger. An ichthyosaurus, a marine reptile extinct for at least 65 million years. On the one hand Conrad is definitely using the poor ichthyosaur to emphasise the primitive and exotic world his characters find themselves in (something he states much more explicitly when talking about the local people – it was that kind of attitude that caused Chinua Achebe to condemn the book).

On the other hand, how had that ichthyosaurus swum into Conrad’s mind? Dinosaurs had only been formally classified 50 years earlier when Heart of Darkness was published in 1899. It was around 1811 when Mary Anning, a fossil collector at the time, discovered a gorgeous complete Ichthyosaurus fossil in the cliffs of southern England.

800px-Ichthyosaur_mounted_skeleton
Source: User:Ballista/Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0

But then, on top of this mysterious prehistoric creature, there’s the glitter! A bath of it! Glitter can obviously mean a play of light, but Conrad seems to write about it as a physical object, as if he’s talking about the real, plastic glitter that we use in costumes and pride parties. According to Wikipedia, while people have certainly been using sparkly substances forever, the plastic stuff was only invented in the 1930s. Did they in fact have some sort of glitter back in Conrad’s time? Was he using it at turn-of-the-century parties? Or was he just using the noun to mean “bright, sparkling light”?

Either way it’s a delightful image that I choose to see as an ancient reptile lounging in a bathtub full of thousands of pieces of rainbow-coloured microplastic. Which would probably have been very bad for it and the oceans it lived in.

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