Masters and Fridays

Robinson is by no means the forerunner of that model colonizer Kipling had in mind in his “White Man’s Burden” and certainly the one who actually demonstrates how right and natural the superiority of the white man can be. After many years of permanence on the desert island Robinson is eventually allowed to enjoy the pleasure of society again, well, a small society, as his new companion is a Carib cannibal he had rescued from being murdered and eaten by two of his mates.

Now, even if we have one big island for two people only, it is interesting to point out that the relationship between the two belongs, from the beginning, to the master and servant kind and, mind, it is not only a matter of gratitude as Robinson had saved the native’s life, it is natural:

“..he came running to me, laying himself down again upon the ground, with all the possible signs of an humble, thankful disposition, making a many antick gestures to show it.(…..)At last he lays his head flat upon the ground, close to my foot, and sets my other foot upon his head, as he had done before; and after this, made all the signs to me of subjection, servitude, and submission imaginable, to let me know how he would serve me as long as he lived.”

So Robinson doesn’t even need weapons to subjugate and submit him, he finds himself with his foot on the native’s head as he instinctively understands the white man’s superiority. This act is very potent in effect and inhuman in some way, but Robinson doesn’t feel uncomfortable with it at all, and he doesn’t even attempt to remove his foot from the native’s head. That foot is exactly where it ought to be.

It is also interesting to spend a few words of the choice of proper names. The native must have his own name, but Robinson is not interested in the least in knowing it, and let alone, learn it, so, he calls him Friday, because that was the day he had saved his life. Yet, as soon as Friday can understand him, he teaches him to call  him “Master”, rather than “Robinson”, just to underline that they will never be equal on that island.

Now that the rules of cohabitation are set, Robinson proceeds with putting successfully in place that colonizing model Kipling will outline one day. Subjugate first and then educate. Robinson starts teaching him good manners. If they had to share their meals, well, it should be done properly:

“..I gave him some milk in an earthen pot, and let him see me drink it before him, and sop my bread in it; and I gave him a cake of bread to do the like, which he quickly comply’d with, and made signs that it was very good for him.”

Of course, we teachers know that it takes a certain amount of time to learn rules and procedures properly, in fact, even if Friday seems sincerely to enjoy his bread and milk, he is still a cannibal at heart and candidly takes Robinson to the place where the two dead bodies of his captors were buried with the aim of, well, eating them, with Robinson of course:

“….at this I appeared very angry, expressed my abhorrence of it, made as if I would vomit at the thoughts of it, and beckoned with my hand to him to come away, which he did immediately, with great submission.”

What a waste of good meat, Friday must have thought, but having understood to have done something his master considers wrong, he regards wiser to keep on with those acts of submission which worked so well.

Afterwards, Robinson decides to cover Friday’s nakedness giving him some clothes ” at which he seemed very glad, for he was stark naked” he presumes. Now, I suppose, being in the Caribbean, that is, very hot, Friday must always have enjoyed his nudity, as he had never associated it to sin as white men do, so there is no real reason why he should truly be very glad, but of course, Defoe couldn’t have written otherwise. The last and final step is Friday’s conversion to Christianity. Thus, Robinson accomplishes with the task of the “White Man’s Burden”, which eventually consists in wiping out the culture of the subjugated peoples, which is wrong and evil, and replacing it with the right and good one of the white rulers.

Robinson doesn’t even undergo Kurtz’s transformation once surrounded by the power of nature and the contact with the natives. He is a son of the Enlightenment ,after all, which boasted the excellence of man and the power of his reason, rather than the weakness of his soul. Robinson sees no horror, as Kurtz eventually does. The world for him is rightly divided into two categories: Masters and Fridays.

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”.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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)