Piercing the Veil of Hypocrisy

Heart of Darkness

If propaganda is a reality devoid of facts, a convincing narration which bewitches our reason, well, the bard of the wonder of colonization was doubtless, Kipling, while it was Conrad who lifted the veil that covered the embarassing truth. He resisted the charm of the sirens’  songs of his age and in a voyage down the river Congo, he saw with his own eyes the darkest side of the empire, its heart, a “Heart of Darkness”.

The assumption that the civilizing mission of western cultures was essentially a moral duty, was based on the rooted idea of the undiscussed superiority of the white man. By the way, as for many grand enterprises, the continuous effort in term of cost and people involved had become a “burden” in time, a noble burden, for sure, so that the Americans, as emerging power, were invited by Kipling to share with the Britons their mission in his poem:” The White Man’s Burden“. Kipling explained that the mission consisted in sending the “best breed” of a nation into “exile” to  –  pay attention – “serve”  the “captives’ needs”. Being “newly caught”, they were not able to understand the stroke of luck that had fallen on them and could be unwilling to be taught the customs of the white man.The empire’s civilizing mission apparently was at the service of the natives who were seen as “fluttered”, “wild”,”sullen”, in short  : “half devil and half child”.  It is a powerful symbology indeed, as ” devil” refers to the natives’ evil, dangerous and sinful nature, that is why the word “mission” , with its religious connotations, acquires even a higher meaning,  while their being at the same “child”  reinforces the idea of their inferiority, which is due to their naivety and ignorance. 

However, it is when Marlow, the narrator of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, is traveling down the river Congo through the wilderness on a steam boat and eventually manages to “open a reach” that the veil of the hypocrisy of colonization is definitely pierced.  His eyes are wide open to an unexpected reality, which metaphorically seems to blind him at first. A light is thrown on the dark side of the “mission”:

“A blinding sunlight drowned all this at times in a sudden recrudescence of glare.” (Heart of Darkness Chpt 1.)

It is a ” scene of inhabited devastation”. Pointless activities have caused a “waste of excavations” and an early deforestation. Useless pieces of machinery are scattered everywhere and lie on the ground like rotten carcasses of animals. It is a scene of both physical and moral death. The natural noise of the rapids is replaced by the deafening sound of the horn which anticipates a “dull detonation” which shakes the ground. He sees the natives running away fearful, trying to find a shelter under a “clump of trees”. These men are “mostly black and naked” and move about “like ants”. Six of them pass him by. They are chained, ragged, silent :

“I could see every rib, the joints of their limbs were like knots in a rope; each had an iron collar on his neck, and all were connected together with a chain whose bights swung between them, rhythmically clinking.” (Heart of Darkness Chpt 1.)

Marlow’s conclusion does not leave room for any doubt:

“these men could by no stretch of imagination be called enemies. ” (Heart of Darkness Chpt 1.)

But an effective storytelling could.


25 thoughts on “Piercing the Veil of Hypocrisy

  1. Pingback: Piercing the Veil of Hypocrisy | e-Tinkerbell | Spirit of Cecilia

  2. It’s instructive to compare and contrast Kipling and Conrad, as you have, Stefy. It’s also shameful that such paternalistic colonial attitudes were not only held a century or so ago but can still be found (and heard and seen) in the world today.

    • It is frankly unbelivable how those “songs”, whether they may be old or new, still work like a spell on people’s minds . All this in an age where the access to information is simple and immediate, but, of course, if brains were on.

  3. One minor quibble:

    “The assumption that the civilizing mission of western cultures was essentially a moral duty, was based on the rooted idea of the undiscussed superiority of the white man.”

    It’s popular these days to just assume racism as the basis for all sorts of things. Certainly, it was a part of it, but we must also look at people like Aristotle, St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas and even thinkers like Thomas Hobbes and others.

    These people all make and accept a distinction between various classes of people. Some do it for religious reasons, others for political reasons, but mostly, I think, because it reflected what they saw around them.

    And, what they saw was a delineation between the haves and have-nots, the learned and the masses. Many thinkers throughout history observed what we might call “the stations of life”.

    It’s the world they were born into and, in many ways, it’s the world we live in now (even as we profess not to). What we see influences our thinking (often without us even realizing it because we “accept” things are as they appear). A simple example is that in our current societal norm, having money elevates you to a higher station and affords you better treatment irrespective of whether you are a decent human being or not.

    Side note: lots of money is — by my observation — tied to people of low character and lacking in compassion, honor, and honesty. Obviously, not all . . . but, oh, so many.

    Specifically, many of these thinkers spoke of people being born into various roles in life. So, for instance, slavery was justified in terms of these roles by some (some are born to rule, others to be slaves), or justified as a “humane” option to slaughtering conquered enemies (executing enemies remains a common practice in some parts of the world), or justified as the natural extension of the inherent spectrum of abilities found in humans.

    The idea that humans have rights from the moment they are born is something that was explored by Locke and others in the 1700s but even then, later thinkers (Rousseau) adapted those ideas with the overarching idea that the group (from family groups all the way up to organized government) takes care of the needs of the individual within the group but not necessarily individuals outside the group.

    I don’t want to be branded as someone that condones or justifies racism and I certainly don’t want to minimize its influence in behaviors of individuals or even countries.

    But, I do question whether racism was the driving force or was itself a byproduct and inherent part of much earlier thinking that permeates human history as far as we can go back.

    Some argue differently but I think I can make the case that humans are predatory by nature and be it by economic, moral, or physical force, various groups have (and still do) try to exert their will on others for the benefit of themselves and at the expense of the other.

    Racism is certainly a part of the fabric, but it’s by no means the whole mantle because we can trace human thinking (via the writing and reasoning of “great thinkers”) to a time when the worth of people (individuals or groups) was measured more by their collective accomplishments and their ability to exert power than by the color of their skin.

    . . . for good or bad, one could argue that we’ve never stopped doing that. I mean, for example, what assumption do we make (often without thinking) when we see a homeless person? Or any person, for that matter? Appearance, cleanliness, the quality of their belonging (clothes or accessories) are all markers we notice without even being aware of the fact we use them to “classify” people. Sure, skin color is yet another marker . . . but if you see two homeless people, I’m betting the gradation between the two is minimal (if at all) if one happens to be non-white.

    Side note 2: just so I don’t catch any grief (or trying to minimize misconceptions from the above). I’m not saying racism played no part in the history of colonization. I’m saying it has less to do with “being white” and more to do with human nature. The assumption that humans of a different skin hue would act any different in similar circumstances and history is, to my mind, fallacious.

    • I may also add to your interesting disquisition, that the age I was dealing with was permeated by the idea of the so called “Social Darwinism”. Those at the top of that “ladder” were, according to the laws of nature, the selected, hence, the strongest and the most deserving: the rich white man. This justified the attidude towards those who stationed at the bottom of that hieararchy: poors, non-white.

    • I agree; I’m just pointing out how we got there (and maybe, why).

      Caste systems, feudal civilizations, and associated abuses are not restricted to any race (unless we’re speaking about the only true race; the human race). Japan, China, India, etc. all held to the idea of racial superiority and the consequent abuse of the “others” as justified by said superiority and that’s in addition to the superiority of some over others of the same race.

      Like it or not, we are tribal and humans are very good at finding justification for abusing those of different tribes. We can look at all the faults of Social Darwinism but we do so without taking into account the time or the motivations of diverse individuals.

      Calling everyone racist is, I think, overly-simplistic. I want to (again) stress that I’m not defending Social Darwinism. Just pointing out that the majority of the people accept what they see around them as “the way things are” until the flaws are pointed out.

      We then — as a race of humans — tend to modify and improve our thinking and attitudes. Were that not the case, we would still be mired in those erroneous beliefs and attitudes. If people were indeed racists, nothing would have changed and we’d still have Social Darwinism. Again, not to say there are no racists (I feel like I have to keep stressing what should be obvious; that’s how contentious the subject has become).

      • So, let’s say that in a way, despite our tribal attitude, we, human beings, naturally tend to goodness, only, it is still too far a goal, am I right?

      • A qualified yes. Progress is slow (glacial, even). The trend line is certainly in the right direction, but it is by no means smooth; there are always setbacks (as much as I hope not, I fear we may be living through the beginning of one now).

        Every advance requires humans to identify with a more inclusive (larger) tribe. Unfortunately, politics and religion (themselves rooted in tribalism) will keep us in conflict and oppressing “others” for many, many generations (and wars) to come.

        I hate to sound like a pessimistic optimist, but while I think we’ll get there, the road is anything but easy.

        By the way, one of the reasons I commented is because I see (quite evidently) the seeds of ethnic, religious, economic, and political discord starting to germinate. That’s fueled by one of the least admirable (not at all admirable) human traits . . .

        . . . the desire to find someone to blame (and punish) rather than recognizing problems and moving forward by solving them. A part of that is to judge everything purely as all good or all bad.

        For example, such is the state of most current affairs; here, in the US, it translates into contentious politics, contentious race relations, contentious economic and social policies. It’s this desire to throw out the good with the bad that causes pendulum swings in the governance of the country.

        Wow . . . look at me philosophizing like nobody’s business.

        Side note: the cynic in me says that while the majority of humans want nothing but good for themselves and others, there are always those who seek to profit by seeding discord.

        Side note 2: sorry for the long dissertations and thanks for putting up with my ramblings. I should probably do this on my blog . . . but, once I start there, I probably won’t stop for a long while. Here, I feel obligated to eventually stop . . . like now.

      • By the way, for anyone seeking to understand — or, at least be more informed about — how human thinking and history affected our current (and past) situation, there are two podcasts that are most informative:

        Philosophize This — it traces the history of human philosophy and the work of notable thinkers on the issue of the human condition and their effect on the progression of human rights and governance.

        Literature and History — looks at the history that shaped literature (and vice-versa) from the earliest known written record to the present.

        Those don’t tell you *what* to think; they arm you with information in case you *want* to think about such things.

        I didn’t provide the links because it would throw this into moderation, but searching for the titles will bring them up.

    • Well, those words earned him the title of “racist”, of course, he said he was not. Even if we want to believe him and be kind, we cannot but say that his choice of imagery showed a certain prejudice towards those people he had lived with for so many years of his life.

  4. Very interesting post that’s sparked interesting discussion. I taught Heart of Darkness once and really enjoyed it. One impression that’s never left me is Conrad’s marvellous use of language in the novel, so rich and often so condensed, almost poetic. You allude to it in your references to Marlow’s journey round the coast, and I just wanted to point it up… Conrad is a great writer who is sadly rather forgotten nowadays.

    • Heart of Darkness is his best novel or novella in my opinion and you are right, his language is very rich and poetic. I’ll write soon about Kurtz. 😉 In the meantime let me wish you Merry Christmas and a great New Year. Stefy 🍸🙋

  5. In my opinion this novella perfectly embodies and represents the hypocrisy of the colonialism and the English society of that period.
    But I don’t think that I discovered “hot water”, cause as we studied in class the goal of Conrad was to demonstrate how untruthful the statement “the white man’s burden” actually was. The question I ask myself is: How long people believed in this reality devoid of facts, and what was their reaction after reading this novella or other works like this?

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