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.

Another Brick in the Wall?

Since the dawn of humanity, when the first men started to colonize this planet , there is one thing that we have never ceased to do: move. Peoples have always moved from one place to another, driven by the need to find better areas where to find or grow food or even by that innate curiosity to explore and break any limit reason places, whatever its nature might be. Peoples have always moved; and whether you like it or not, they’ll keep on doing so, despite the walls short-sighted government mean to erect. These walls will be destroyed, this is what any history book has taught us.

Even the strongest wall cannot resist the blows of the most powerful, dangerous drive: survival instinct. If we, western cultures, accustomed to live such a pampered life where it has become hard for most of us to distinguish our needs from our wants, weakened by the certainty of our welfare, dazzled by the superiority of our technology, believe to keep our status erecting walls, I’m afraid we are just deluding ourselves.Think about the Romans, for example, they had power, armies, technology, a very refined culture, but their rich, sophisticated world fell under the blows of the rude, illiterate tribes of the barbarians, who were driven by stronger needs.

It cannot be denied that immigration is a great issue of our times and for this reason governments had better avoid selfish policies and work hard on shared solutions.The majority of those who eventually manage to land on our coasts are driven by that kind desperation that makes them stronger despite their physical weakness and slight statures, as they are ready to defy any danger even death to change their lives. We, fortunately, have lost memory of what that means, but this makes us vulnerable. Furthemore, they are many and they will be more as they make children, so in a possible conflict among races even mathematics is on their side.

Hence, what can be done if we don’t want to end up just like the Romans? Since walls are no effective solution, I can only see two possible reasonable ways:

1. developing genuine integration policies thus making of immigration a resource;

2. helping them make a productive system in their own countries. Very difficult to be achieved in the short-term, by the way, as it should be planned with the local powers.

However, now that I think of it, there would be another way to go in the case the two solutions I mentioned above could not be effectively pursued, only, that would not be a choice, but a consequence of myopic policies. As immigration cannot and will not ever be stopped, the only thing left to do it to “exterminate the brutes“. (Conrad, Heart of Darkness)