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”.

 

 

Make the right wish

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Wish_List_(Magic_Lamp)If you could rub the Lamp of Aladdin and ask the genius to make one wish to come true, but only one, what would you choose? Love, success, fortune, health or what else? Are you sure you will be able to take the right decision with no regrets afterwards? I actually wouldn’t know what to pick, maybe health, however, I’m going to give you a couple of examples in literature to demonstrate that this is a question that has to be pondered carefully, before giving an answer, otherwise the consequences could be devastating.

cumaeSibyl of Cumae was a prophetess in service to Apollo and a renowned beauty. Apollo wished to take her as his lover and was ready to offer her anything she desired. Unfortunately she didn’t ponder on her answer and instinctively asked to defy death: she wanted to live forever. It was easy for Apollo to grant her wish, he was a powerful god after all, but still she refused to become his lover. Greek gods were usually of a revengeful kind, and Apollo’s revenge consisted in granting Sibyl’s wish anyway, as he knew that giving that answer she had doomed herself to misery. In fact the boon Sybil had chosen was one of a cruellest kind. She wouldn’t have died just like anybody else but she would have kept growing older and older and older.

imagesVC9Q2RUJShe lived for hundreds of years, each year becoming smaller and frailer. When Trimalchio speaks of her in the Satyricon, she is little more than a tourist attraction, tiny, ancient, confined:I saw with my own eyes the Sibyl at Cumae hanging in a cage, and when the boys said to her: “Sibyl, what do you want?” she answered: “I want to die.” This is the scene Eliot quotes at the beginning of the Waste Land. The Sybil had given the wrong answer. Immortality doesn’t actually mean eternal happiness because time keeps on reminding its presence painfully “wasting” our bodies. But, had she asked for eternal beauty?

imagesUR2ZX0G4The moment  Dorian Gray may see the picture that celebrates his remarkable beauty, suddenly realizes that his charm very soon will slip away. He will never be as attractive as the portrait which stands in front of him. That picture will keep on reminding his inevitable decay. There are no gods or devils here, but his intense wish of eternal beauty is granted, therefore magically Dorian will remain young while the portrait grows old and ugly in his place. Time won’t touch his features but it will still be able to “waste”  his soul. In fact the portrait, which stands for Dorian’s conscience, will record the consequences of a life of debauchery, and every sin or crime committed will result in the disfigurement of its form. Dorian won’t bear to look at the picture any longer and he will destroy it, thus killing his true self. Therefore neither eternal youth nor immortality are the key to happiness. Ergo, what could the right answer be?

The aesthetic surrender

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Aestheticism and Romanticism have a lot in common, rejection of the material world and materialism in general, emphasis on sensibility and imagination, the quest for that striking, unforgettable emotion that gives meaning to your life. There are many similarities, but one thing is certainly different: the role of the artist. For Wordsworth the artist was the super sensitive genius, that has a mission to accomplish: defending man’s innate, natural sensibility which was about to be worn away by the values expressed by the new industrial society. On this purpose he had created a new “bourgeois poetry”, purged of all classic refinements, a new artistic language accessible to everybody which should have made the poet’s message easily attain man’s soul. They were great communicators and dreamers: art may change the world and its message should be available for all people. But for the aesthetes all the beautiful people of the world were just like the crew of Baudelaire‘s Albatros: hopelessly rude, ignorant, insensitive.The artist had nothing to say these people, whatever his choice of language was; they couldn’t and wouldn’t have understood. Therefore he decided interrupt the Romantic communicative effort and kept on flying in their sky made of taste and beauty. Art is for art’s sake and not for the sake of morality. The two opposite communicative intents can be clearly seen if we just compare the layout of the preface of the Lyrical Ballads to Wilde‘s preface of the Picture of Dorian Gray. The former is an extensive text, where Wordsworth explains his poetical project outlining methods and objectives, the latter is only a list of thought that don’t aim at being discussed. The artist is the creator of beautiful things. Full stop. The critic should judge the form rather than the content of an artistic product. Full stop. An artist should not have a didactic or moral aim. Full stop,  All art is quite useless. The end.