Kurtz

“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”.

 

 

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Into the Heart of a Title

Heart of Darkness is by far one of the most suggestive title ever. Darkness is a universal archetype that we naturally associate to death, mystery, evil or a menace, but despite the dangers that we word dark excites, it ultimately attracts us like a magnet. Conrad in this novel takes us to a voyage into the heart of mysterious areas like Africa, the colonizing mission and the self.

Marlow had always been fascinated by Africa, the “dark continent” since he was a child, when he was used to fantasizing over the “blank spaces ” on the map. After returning from a six-year voyage through Asia, he comes across a map of Africa in a London shop window, an event that revives in him those old emotions. Hence, he takes the chance to make his wishes come true accepting the position of captain of a steam boat of the Belgian company which traded on the Congo River. It is metaphorically sunset, when Marlow starts to tell his story to his fellows.They are anchored at the mouth of the Thames, on the Nellie, waiting for the tide to go out.  Yet, as darkness begins to fall, the scene becomes “less brilliant but more profound”, the narrator of novel  warns us, implying that when the blinding effect of the light ceases to be, one could see the heart of things, their dark, secret side.

As the river Thames goes into London, the symbol of the heart of progress and civilization of that time, “the greatest town on earth” for Conrad, the river Congo takes Marlow to the heart of primitiveness. Yet, once there, he witnesses that the sparkling narration of the wonders of colonization hides a very embarrassing and less glorious truth. The dark side of white man’s mission there is made of wild exploitation of people and lands, ill-treatment of the natives and pointless activities. The imperial enterprise appears to his eyes in all its squalor and cruelty and European man’s settlements seem just like tiny islands, white viruses, amidst the vast darkness of the impassive, majestic jungle that surrounds them.

As Marlow penetrates the darkness of Africa, he explores the impenetrable mystery of human nature as well.  He eventually meets Kurtz an ivory dealer, the man he had been sent for,  who is reputed to be the best agent of the Company, but it seems that the wilderness has captured his soul. It is rumored he lives among the natives, shares their rites and is venerated like a god.  Even if he had always been an idealistic man of great abilities, once freed from the conventions of  European society, Kurtz, the white man, reverts to his true self, savage, instinctive, just like that Yahoo, Swift had so brilliantly anticipated. The degree of awareness of that discovery is synthesized by the last two words Kurtz pronounces before dying: “The horror! The horror!”

Yet, any secret should remain so. Nobody likes to be seen for what he really is, that’s why we always wear a mask or more to disguise our “Yahoo” nature. Even a lie may work on this purpose. So, when Marlow returns to Belgium and calls on Kurtz’s fiancée, he doesn’t feel like telling her the truth on what he really was or did in Africa. For what, after all. That’s why, when she wants to know her beloved’s last words before dying, Marlow decides to throw some light over the darkness and answers with a sweet lie: it was her name.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

All Sentiment and Tender Heart

I’m often told I’m not dog friendly or pet friendly in general. Well, on this occasion I would like to say publicly that it is true, I am not, only, I would like to point out that I don’t actually feel this sense of aversion towards animals in particular, but rather towards their owners. I know that for many of them a dog, for example, may represent the company, the friend they need or for somebody even a child. It is family, I understand, but what you have to understand as well that for me it is only a dog: an animal. Therefore, I am annoyed when they are without a leash and run freely in the street: “Don’t you worry, it is harmless” said to me smiling a pit bull owner once, while that delicate beast was on the point of attacking a paralyzed me. Harmless? How should I know it? Furthemore, I don’t like to see dogs in places where food is sold or served like bars, markets or restaurants.

I remember one day Mr Run and I were in a restaurant, when a couple with a beautiful, big, majestic dog arrived. Everybody welcomed it with common deserved admiration and it did receive our praise too, till we saw that the couple and their dog approach the table near ours and sat there. We couldn’t say anything as that restaurant allowed dogs in. By the way, I couldn’t but laugh, when I was saw the hairy tail of the dog at least half a meter long wagging and tickling the head of my husband while he was about to eat. On one side it was hilarious but on the other it was irritating as for the couple that was a normal behaviour. We had been totally ignored. Of course, we had to say to them to place their lovely beast somewhere else far from our heads at least.

Animal lovers are used to flooding their Facebook walls with lovely pictures of their pets which usually receive hundreds of likes and sweet, heartwarming comments. These people are loving and caring indeed, in fact, every time they come across some little foundlings they are organised in a way to find the little creatures nurturing and a house as soon as possible. That is why I felt enraged when on one of these walls I read this post :

“If I land in any foreign airport and I do not have the documents in order I cannot put my feet out of the airport. Nobody tells me that I am held prisoner. You cannot enter any foreign country ignoring the rules. This must also be applied to the illegal migrants of the ship”Diciotti”.

Wow, so the fact that nearly 200 people, who had been rescued from the Mediterranean on 15 August and trapped on the Italian ship Diciotti in Catania in terrible unhealthy conditions, as Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini had denied the coastguard vessel permission to disembark the majority of them until the EU would agree to distribute the migrants across other countries, could not arouse any feeling of compassion in them or shame, because as Italian I feel deeply ashamed .

This reminded me or some lines from the Prologue of The Canterbury Tales when Chaucer describes the moves and the attitude of the Prioress:

“As for her sympathies and tender feelings,
She was so charitably solicitous
She used to weep if she but saw a mouse
Caught in a trap, if it were dead or bleeding.
And she had little dogs she would be feeding
With roasted flesh, or milk, or fine white bread.
And bitterly she wept if one were dead
Or someone took a stick and made it smart,
She -was all sentiment and tender heart”

Of course “She -was all sentiment and tender heart” with her animals, but Chaucer doesn’t say anything about human beings. Maybe he forgot about it.

Does conscience make cowards of us all?

Hamlet is a loser. He turns out to be completely inadequate to the call to action of his father’s ghost, who wants to be rightfully revenged by his son. Yet, he had accurately chosen the most effective words to describe how his brother Claudius had atrociously murdered him and the “horrible“consequences on his body in order to stir Hamlet’s sense of indignation. Eventually, as if he doubted his son’s inclination to action, the ghost even warns him saying: “If thou hast nature in thee, bear it not“. If. He was not wrong in mistrusting his son, in fact, once alone on stage and soon after a first flame of rage Hamlet hesitates and ponders :”The time is out of joint. O cursèd spite,That ever I was born to set it right!”

Can the words of a ghost, even if in the shape of a beloved father, be trusted thus becoming a murderer in turn? Can it be easily accepted that an uncle, a man who Hamlet had instinctively always despised, of course, but who had recently married his mother and become the King of Denmark, might be a criminal? He wants to do what is right, which means finding evidence to his father’s words and only then planning his revenge.

To set everything right he needs time, but time could be the worst enemy of action. At first he pretends to have become mad, in order to act more freely and then he organizes  “the mouse’s trap”, that is a play to be shown at court which displays the way his father had been murdered as the ghost had told him, thus being able to check his uncle’s response at the sight of the faithful reproduction on stage of his foul crime.

Claudius cannot disguise his agitation. He had been unmasked by that nephew he had always distrusted, but how could he know it? It doesn’t matter and runs away to find refuge in the quietness of the chapel in the castle. Now Hamlet has his proof, he could accomplish his father’s task and follows Claudius to the chapel determined to kill him. He is right behind his uncle’s back  while he is in the act of praying, when he hesitates again. Is it right to murder even a criminal, while the latter is purging his soul thus having the gates to heaven open , while his fathers fasts in hell as he died unconfessed? It is not.

His forced inaction arises a bitter sense of frustration that makes him lose focus. He kills Polonius by mistake and then violently takes it out on his mother for having yielded to his uncle and married him. He behaves as a headless fly in a jar and exactly in that moment the ghost re-appears to remind his son the true object of his revenge. But it is too late. Claudius is now aware of how dangerous that nephew might be for him and quickly entraps him in a final duel. Only on that occasion, when he realizes that there no way out and nothing to lose Hamlets eventually acts and kills Claudius.

Hence, Hamlet is a loser and maybe a coward too. However, the feeling of powerlessness that pervades him and causes the delay of any action has a name: conscience. That’s why:
“………………….. the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry

And lose the name of action.”

In short that means that the noble effort of following the principle of morality, trying to pursue what is right, pondering the consequences of any decision undertaken cannot but weaken our determination and expose ouselves to other’s resolutions. Hamlet once again embodies very well our sense of helplessness of this age which I perceive so “out of joint“.

 

A Bowler Hat

At the dawn of the golden era of cinema at the beginning of the twentieth century one of the most popular on-screen character was: “the tramp”. Charlie Chaplin, Stanley Laurel and Oliver Hardy and also the Italian comedianTotò, who often played  this role ( he was actually a Neapolitan nobleman: Prince Antonio De Curtis), were those who gave life to the most memorable ones. Being no longer part of the productive system of society “the tramp” endeavours to survive taking whatever paying work is available or using cunning either to get what he needs or to escape the authority figures who wouldn’t tolerate his behaviour. Somehow, he is modelled on the Spanish pícaro, a roguish character whose travels and adventures are used as a vehicle for social satire, but “the tramp” is a more clumsy, generally a good-hearted sort of man, who looks at the world with the innocent eyes of a child. Even if he has been relegated to the margin of society he endeavors to behave as much as possible with the manners and dignity of a gentleman.

The clothes he wears are the sign of his marginalization. They never fit properly as to symbolize that tramps are no longer fit to be part of the system. The jackets may be too loose or too tight, the  trousers too long or too short and the shoes are often clownish. However, there is an accessory it seems they cannot do without: the bowler hat. It is that hat that makes those characters comic and tragic at the same time. The bowler had become one of the most popular hats in the early 20th century as it was more informal and practical than the top hat, thus becoming a distinctive symbol of the middle upper class of the time. The Belgian painter Magritte, who had made bowlers the protagonists of many of his paintings said:

“It is a headdress that is not original. The man with the bowler is just middle-class man in his anonymity.”

On the head of those outsiders bowlers represented the memory of a more dignified past, what they used to be: middle class men, that is, part of that “anonymity” that now rejects them. Uprooted and hopeless they are doomed to try and survive in an inhospitable world. This kind of humanity thus represented fitted perfectly Beckett’s idea of the Absurd of living, that’s why he chose to model Vladimir and Estragon, the main characters of ” Waiting for Godot”, on Stanley Laurel and Oliver Hardy .

Beckett was an enthusiast of cinema, silent films and of Stan and Ollie, in particular. He borrows, in fact, many distinctive elements of the two comedians, along with their gags and routines. Apart from wearing bowler hats, Vladimir and Estragon are known by their Christian names, just like Stanley and Oliver, and use their nicknames Didi and Gogo as Stan and Ollie. We also understand from Vladimir’s statement to Estragon: “I’m lighter than you” that Beckett intended a noticeable difference in weight between the characters playing his lead roles, just like Laurel and Hardy. Many of the play’s stage directions and the slapstick routines concerning their hats or boots sound as though Beckett is quoting from a Laurel and Hardy shooting script. Even the theme of suicide by hanging  which appears at the end of each act echoes a similar scene from Laurel and Hardy’s 1939 motion picture: The Flying Deuces. Hardy is heartbroken because the woman he loves has rejected his marriage proposal, so he decides to drown himself, and expects that Laurel to do the same :

LAUREL: What do I have to jump in there for? I’m not in love!

HARDY: So that’s the kind of a guy you are? After all I’ve done for you, you’d let me jump in there alone! Do you realise that after I’m gone that you’d just go on living by yourself? People would stare at you and wonder what you are, and I wouldn’t be here to tell them. There’d be no one to protect you! Do you want that to happen to you?

LAUREL: I hadn’t thought of that. I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings, Ollie. I didn’t mean to be so dis-polite.

HARDY: There, there, Stanley. Let bygones be bygones. This is going to be easier than you think.

Just like in Waiting for Godot, the two fear that one of them may live while the other dies. In this tragicomic vision Laurel and Hardy provided Beckett the key to express on stage the fear of remaining lonely in an absurd world where the presence of a companion is the only real comfort and certainty that can give you the impression of being rooted somehow. With a laughter they could exorcise for a moment the fears and the doubts of those post war generations who felt marginalized just like them and were unable to find meaning in the world they lived. Without a real prospect of a future but the illusion that a Godot one day may show up, they could not but long for that “anonymity” represented by the bowler hat they don’t want to part with.

 

 

 

 

El Diablo

Just at the end of winter, when I thought I had escaped for once the
fatal meeting with the haunting ghost of flu, there it came with its infected touch. Of course, since it was the end of the season and I was very likely one of the very last left with whom it could have a little more fun, it arrived with its best repertoire of symptoms, whatever it was necessary to make me yield. And I did yield. Therefore, in such a state, unable to do anything but lying lazily on my couch, with nothing to do but waiting for my husband Mr Run to attend me, I attempted to find entertainment watching some series on my iPad. By the way, Mr Algorithm seemed a little annoyed at my request this time, as he was too well aware that I enjoy watching the series set in the nineteenth century England, but I had practically seen them all very likely. Then, he made a try anyway: let’s keep the century and change the country. What about Mexico this time? So big brother You Tube came up with this shot saying: “We think you may like this“:

How do you know? Well, I do or better I did. It was 1993 and this picture reminds me of  my mother and my aunt eagerly looking forward to the evenings when, Corazon Salvaje, a telenovela produced by José Rendón for Televisa was on tv. This third adaptation of the novel written by the Mexican authoress Caridad Bravo Adams was an absolute hit world-wide and the very first one to be aired in prime time in Italy. Those were the happy evenings when men could safely go and play five-a-side and have a beer with their friends, as no woman entrapped in this “novela” would have ever noticed their absence. I was not one of them at first and I remember how I enjoyed mocking my mother and my aunt any time I could, till, I don’t even know how, I fell under the spell. I had watched only the last episodes of the saga, by the way, and now I had the chance and the time to view them all. And this is what I did. I watched 80 episodes for almost 70 hours in six days and then I started from the beginning again when I found the “novela” in the orignal language on DailyMotion. Now I can confess it, I am addicted.

I won’t attempt to draw a plot as there are too many twists and turns, but I can say that this is legendary story of a love triangle between two young countesses, Monica and Aimée de Altamira with the illegitimate son of a wealthy landowner, named Juan del Diablo. The character of Juan del Diablo is actually the reason of the heartbeats and sighs of all the female viewers of this saga. Caridad Bravo Adams succeeded, in fact, in giving life to the most amazing Alpha male of the Alpha males we have met on books or movies. He is a living oxymoron. He is a smuggler, womanizer, wild, impulsive,rude, a devil as his name suggests and the name of his ship too: Satan. But on the other side, we discover he is noble, good-hearted, a gentleman (if he wishes), terribly handsome and ready to put on slippers and make a family. He is a sort Heathcliff, Othello, Mr Rochester, Mr Thornton and even Mr Darcy in one character alone. Incredibly indeed, the fortunate lady, Monica, who eventually wins his heart, won’t use any seduction technique but true love and a rosary (never underestimate the power of the Almighty).

Good plots are never enough to make a series a hit, if there is not a great cast of actors and I have to say that, having also been able to enjoy it in the original language, they were all amazing. Eduardo Palomo as Juan and Edith Gonzales as Monica gave a super intense interpretation, that made us all dream, but also Enrique Lizalde with his awesome  baritone voice, who is Noel Mancera, the father figure who helps Juan grow and control his impulses, stands out. It is interesting to know that Enrique Lizalde acted as Juan del Diablo in the first adaptation of this “novela” in 1957.The sudden death of Eduardo Palomo only few years after Corazon Salvaje had become a global success, turned the series into myth. After 25 years there are still thousands of pages dedicated to him and to the series, that keep his memory well alive.

While I am writing this, my good friend Oscar Wilde mockingly cames to mind and keeps  whispering in my ear “All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.” You are right, this is what I have become after 25 years, like my mother, but, is this really a tragedy, my friend?