“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”.




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.