“Mistah Kurtz-he dead” (The Hollow Men. Line 1)

Conrad’s Kurtz seems, by no means, what Kipling had defined “the best ye breed”, the perfect product of Western civilization, all Europe, in fact, had contributed to the making of Kurtz, as his mother was half-English, while his father was half-French. Painter, musician, writer and even philanthropist, he exercises a powerful influence on  people with his charisma, in fact, whoever has ever known him would bet that he is destined to success. Yet, in this case “Nomen” is not “omen”, as this promising future of greatness is not reflected by his name, which, ironically, hints at a certain smallness of the man. Kurtz, in fact, means short in German.

Kurtz truly believes in the civilizing mission of the white man. Not only he had  supported it in a pamphlet he wrote, but he had also given form to his ideas in a painting, which Marlow describes with the following words:

“a woman, draped and blindfolded, carrying a lighted torch. The background was sombre—almost black. The movement of the woman was stately, and the effect of the torchlight on the face was sinister” (1.57).

Kurtz’s painting, an image of a blindfolded, stately  woman surrounded by darkness, carrying a torch, obviously, represents European colonization. The torch is the “light” of culture and order that Europeans are apparently bringing to the region. The blindfolded woman is, in fact, a symbol of justice, the white man justice, of course, which causes tremendous injustices at the hands of the European colonizers, whose eyes must be well covered by a blindfold to accomplish their activities. That’s why, the effect of the light on the woman’s face for Marlow is, somehow, “sinister”.

Kurtz goes to Africa carrying a luggage full of idealism and dreams of glory, but once  far from Western civilization, Kurtz’s sophisticated masks drop one after another leaving his now defenseless self, naked and exposed to the power of the wilderness which will affect him to madness .The jungle will slowly get “into his veins” and consume “his flesh”  and soul transforming him into a totally different man. He loses any sense of decency and restraint as often repeats Marlow. Once crossed the line drawn by his ethics, he is no longer able to go back and is swallowed by his thirst of ivory, greed of power and the pleasure given by the sense of omnipotence he can experience, after having turned himself into a god for the natives. Yet, in a certain way, the natives have succeeded in ruling over him, deeply affecting his nature, that’s why they have to be exterminated, as he writes in a last shred of sanity or folly in a postscript to a report for the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs.

Once, eventually, Marlow finds a dying Kurtz on the verge of madness, his obsession for him, which had been the products of many and different narrations, gives way to an unexpected truth. That man hidden behind all his masks of grandeur, talent and success is only a small man, as his name suggested, “hollow to the core“: “shape without form. Shade without color. Paralyzed force“, as T.S.Eliot writes in his poem “The Hollow Men”.  Kurtz had not been able to find a real meaning in his life, mostly because, he was devoid of human emotion and understanding, just as other fictional heroes like Dorian Gray or Faustus and this is what gives their tragic ends a sense of “horror”.




18 thoughts on “Kurtz

  1. One of my class studying Joseph Conrad’s HofD was a Nigerian student. He was incensed, refused to take on the book.
    I, like other, could not see why.
    We did not equate ‘literature’, what was printed, on the page, with real life. It is similar to when we read of real atrocities, there is a gap of understanding that reading , silent reading, itself has created.

    • But he did. There are books which are really painful to read, acconding to personal histories of events of one’s country. To me “If this is a man” by Primo Levi is one of them.

  2. I wonder just how many Kurtz there actually were . . . also, who would be classified as one today. I mean, we still have people who go on “missions” to spread their religious views (minus the swords and guns). Religion was at least paid lip service as a driver for invading other civilizations; ultimately, I think it was greed, but many thought it their duty (and many still think so) to “save” others from eternal damnation.

    We seem to live in an age of self-castigation but every culture fancies itself superior to others. As an immigrant to the US, what irks me to no end is that rather than integrating into a society that is a truly amazing mix of ethnic diversity, many immigrants insist in congregating into conclaves aimed at duplicating the very conditions they escaped from. Many demand change under the claim of respect for their culture.

    The irony is that integration happens organically when not “forced”. Show people something they like, and they will adopt it (although, that too is now seen as an insult — that whole cultural appropriation argument).

    It’s one thing to keep personal traditions and honor one’s roots, but that’s not what I often see. Plus, like the “white man”, most people push for an idealized version of their culture that seldom has a deep resemblance to their actual culture and never acknowledges the flaws of said culture.

    How, then, are any people different from any other people? We speak of the “white man” as somewhat unique in its approach to colonialization but even a cursory reading of humanity’s history shows that it’s not an ethnic trait, but a human trait. It just so happens that Europeans happened to have the means to exert their power over distances, but it could have been anyone (in other parts of the world and different times, it was).

    I think all such efforts fail precisely because human clans (ethnic or cultural groups) by nature not only think “their way of life” is better, but automatically disregard and denigrate anything new and different not based on merit, but ideological loyalty.

    It takes a different mindset to both keep to one’s traditions and way of life while accepting those of others as equally worthy of respect. The good news is that I see more and more examples of such mindset . . . the bad news is that I also see strident dissent from all sorts of sources; the pushback, unfortunately, is also a common human trait.

    Side note: we speak of colonization only when referencing European venturing to non-European countries. Otherwise, we speak of “invading”. But those are essentially the same thing. Current European borders did not come about organically; European cultures did not arise in isolation. Examples of aggression and expansion and forcing one’s values onto others are what populates human history.

    Side note 2: some people might read this as a defense of “the white man”. As a general rule, I’m not a fan of colonization, invasion, or any group of people forcing their religious and cultural values on others, no matter the colors involved.

    • I bought the book but hadn’t started reading it and then ended up selling it when we moved. That, unfortunately, was the fate of most of my “to-read” pile. Why I now mostly buy e-books . . . so I can not read them electronically.

      I think there also was a documentary or other show by the same title . . . also not watched.

      But, thanks for reminding me of it. I’ll see if I can borrow it from the (electronic) library.

  3. My specialist field: arguing that colonization has, historically, been the means of bringing an inferior culture (in terms of ability to withstand the superior one) into a stage of acquisition of the same abilities. That the process is often unjust or even brutal is not disputed. On the other hand, it is foolish to ignore the benefits that come to the colonised, whether immediately or over a period. They would not have happened without that cycle in history.

    • Episodes in history can be judged from a synchronic or diacronic point of view. An example: when the Normans invaded England, synchronically it was perceived as a disaster, and it was, they were brutal and destroyed the staus quo, eventually, it turned out to be a stroke of luck as they were more advanced than the Saxons. Today, we may rightly say that the colonizers brought some benefits , but at what price!

      • I take the point, but perhaps a safer example is the Romans, because I have seen hot debates around a premise that the Norman culture was inferior to that of the Saxons and that they set things back a century or so, One certainly must deplore their love of hunting.

      • The Normans introduced the Feudal system in England, new ways of farming and usage of plough and more .The Normans had invaded the South of Italy , Sicily as well and it is possible to see even there how grand their culture was.The couldn’t conquer the entire peninsula because of the Church of Rome. We had to wait 700 hundred years more to be united.

  4. Fascinating comments, and I cannot resist responding. On a greater time line, consider how hunter-gatherers were squeezed out by agricultural communities over time, even though in the short-term the farmers suffered poorer health that the hunter-gatherers due to their very limited diet (as I understand it, they ate little more than their own crop for some time until they were able to trade with others, grow a variety of plants/raise animals, etc. later on).

    There is a temptation to align this with what happened with colonization, short term pain- long term gain-wise. Yet this cannot excuse the absolute horrors committed by colonizers whose practices flew in the face of an era of Enlightenment. The treatment of slaves and aboriginal populations will always be problematic no matter how you try to skew it; the trauma colonizers inflicted was never fully reconciled, and their remain many aggrieved people- much like the post-war Japanese never full owning their barbarity in WWII (while Germany has, to their credit). I know these are very broad strokes, but I hope you take my point that we have still yet to fully understand or realize the fallout of colonization.

    While I think Diamond’s book is excellent, I would encourage anyone who reads this to get their hands of Yuval Noah Harari’s excellent “21 Lessons for the 21st Century” (as well as “Sapiens” and “Homo Deus”) for a fresh perspective of best practices shared by the cultures and nations of the world, that once someone has a really good idea (like civil engineering, advanced medicine and practical fabrics to ear as clothes), the ideas are widely adopted.

    • It seems no matter how often it’s repeated, it’s always brought up so let me be clearer: no one is making the case (that I know of) as a way of excusing the atrocities.

      What most people point out is that the lens of history is long.

      But just to drive in the point, pacifists arguably made things worst in world war two (meaning, we might not have had a world war) and things would have been different had Japan or Nazi Germany won.

      In that regard, we can find a somewhat moral justification for the atrocities of war because we deem the results “better” than the alternative.

      Not quite analogous situations to colonialism but pointed out as an example of long term consequences still being judged.

      And judged under different lenses as we evolve as a society.

      Within short past history we’ve seen gay marriage being legalized. Most people never even thought about it until it was pointed out to them and they were subsequent educated in matters of fairness, compassion, and common human decency.

      Can we now go back and blame the collective as being homophobic? Or, just ignorant?

      Slavery was an “accepted” part of human conquest and expansion . . . until it wasn’t.

      It’s not excusable by any sense or argument . . . but . . . there’s always a but. How many African Americans would gladly give up their life here in the US so as to spare the suffering if their ancestors?

      Again, not offering it as justification or excuse, just pointing out that what we often look through selective filters was never planned and culpability is difficult to asses because, often, . . . Things just happen until they don’t.

      • I don’t think anyone is implying that anyone else is trying to excuse atrocities; rather, I think that there are many nuances to our colonial history, and we have yet to really fully realize their full impact, as they still reverberate through our current generations. That is all. If you agree, great; if not, please share your thoughts.

        With regard to “…pacifists arguably made things worst in world war two (meaning, we might not have had a world war) and things would have been different had Japan or Nazi Germany won,” in my humble opinion, is not taking into account how it was more the people who had lived through the first-hand horror World War One doing everything humanly possible to avoid having to live through another one. Dan Carlin makes this point much better than I do in his most-recent podcast, “Supernova in the East,” part 2. Worth checking out.

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