What Does Marlowe learn?

When a novel is written in narrative form like Heart of Darkness it’s easy to forget the narrator is a character, too, because the protagonist of his tale takes center stage. However, if we pay attention carefully enough, we may realize that we can learn as much from the narrator himself. Marlowe introduces the story by telling us that his encounter with Kurtz is a highpoint in his life:

It was the farthest point of navigation and the culminating point of my experience. It seemed somehow to throw a kind of light on everything about me--and into my thoughts. It was sombre enough, too--and pitiful--not extraordinary in any way--not very clear either. No, not very clear. And yet it seemed to throw a kind of light.

As readers we should want to learn what throws “a kind of light on everything about me--and into my thoughts.”

Whatever truth Marlowe found, he actually foresaw it a thousand miles before he saw Kurtz.

I've had to resist and to attack sometimes--that's only one way of resisting--without counting the exact cost, according to the demands of such sort of life as I had blundered into. I've seen the devil of violence, and the devil of greed, and the devil of hot desire; but, by all the stars! these were strong, lusty, red-eyed devils, that swayed and drove men--men, I tell you. But as I stood on this hillside, I foresaw that in the blinding sunshine of that land I would become acquainted with a flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly. How insidious he could be, too, I was only to find out several months later and a thousand miles farther. For a moment I stood appalled, as though by a warning.

Perhaps the reason most of us remain unaware of this kind of folly is precisely because it is so insidious. When we’ve been surrounded by wealth most of our lives we’re probably unaware of the true cost of producing that wealth. I could never have imagined that the neighbor’s beautiful ivory carvings I admired so much as a child came at such a heavy cost. I doubt I could ever see them in quite the same light after reading Conrad’s story.

A thousand miles later Marlowe discovers how greed and absolute power have affected Kurtz, the very embodiment of European culture. We see it clearest when Kurtz, near death, tries to return to the natives in the middle of the night despite his illness and Marlowe’s attempt to stop him:

I tried to break the spell--the heavy, mute spell of the wilderness--that seemed to draw him to its pitiless breast by the awakening of forgotten and brutal instincts, by the memory of gratified and monstrous passions. This alone, I was convinced, had driven him out to the edge of the forest, to the bush, towards the gleam of fires, the throb of drums, the drone of weird incantations; this alone had beguiled his unlawful soul beyond the bounds of permitted aspirations. And, don't you see, the terror of the position was not in being knocked on the head-though I had a very lively sense of that danger, too--but in this, that I had to deal with a being to whom I could not appeal in the name of anything high or low. I had, even like the niggers, to invoke him--himself--his own exalted and incredible degradation. There was nothing either above or below him, and I knew it. He had kicked himself loose of the earth. Confound the man! he had kicked the very earth to pieces. He was alone, and I before him did not know whether I stood on the ground or floated in the air. I've been telling you what we said--repeating the phrases we pronounced--but what's the good? They were common everyday words--the familiar, vague sounds exchanged on every waking day of life. But what of that? They had behind them, to my mind, the terrific suggestiveness of words heard in dreams, of phrases spoken in nightmares. Soul! If anybody ever struggled with a soul, I am the man. And I wasn't arguing with a lunatic either.

Even in death Kurtz seems drawn by the wilderness, by the “awakening of forgotten and brutal instincts, by the memory of gratified and monstrous passions.” The most striking image to me, though, is the one of a man who had “kicked himself loose of the earth. Confound the man! he had kicked the very earth to pieces. He was alone…” As long as Kurtz was in his own society he was the “model” man, conforming to society’s rules. When the natives feared him like a god, though, he indulged his “brutal instincts.”

Marlowe asserts that “being alone in the wilderness” has driven Kurtz’s soul mad.

Believe me or not, his intelligence was perfectly clear--concentrated, it is true, upon himself with horrible intensity, yet clear; and therein was my only chance--barring, of course, the killing him there and then, which wasn't so good, on account of unavoidable noise. But his soul was mad. Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself, and, by heavens! I tell you, it had gone mad. I had--for my sins, I suppose--to go through the ordeal of looking into it myself. No eloquence could have been so withering to one's belief in mankind as his final burst of sincerity. He struggled with himself, too. I saw it--I heard it. I saw the inconceivable mystery of a soul that knew no restraint, no faith, and no fear, yet struggling blindly with itself. I kept my head pretty well; but when I had him at last stretched on the couch, I wiped my forehead, while my legs shook under me as though I had carried half a ton on my back down that hill. And yet I had only supported him, his bony arm clasped round my neck--and he was not much heavier than a child.

I found it interesting that at the climax of the story Marlowe focuses not just on Kurtz but on himself when he says, “I had--for my sins, I suppose--to go through the ordeal of looking into it myself. No eloquence could have been so withering to one's belief in mankind as his final burst of sincerity.” What are Marlowe s sins? Earning a living? Are we all guilty of the same sins? How is Marlowe different from Kurtz? What saves him from the same fate? Marlowe certainly seems to imply that without the restraints of society, faith and fear (of legal punishment), the human soul cannot resist greed and hatred of those who oppose it.

When we look at Kurtz, we have to ask if we are subject to the same ambitions that he was:

Oh, he struggled! he struggled! The wastes of his weary brain were haunted by shadowy images now--images of wealth and fame revolving obsequiously round his unextinguishable gift of noble and lofty expression. My Intended, my station, my career, my ideas--these were the subjects for the occasional utterances of elevated sentiments. The shade of the original Kurtz frequented the bedside of the hollow sham, whose fate it was to be buried presently in the mould of primeval earth. But both the diabolic love and the unearthly hate of the mysteries it had penetrated fought for the possession of that soul satiated with primitive emotions, avid of lying fame, of sham distinction, of all the appearances of success and power.

It’s hard to imagine any society putting more focus on wealth and fame than ours does. Kurtz had apparently been rejected by his intended’s family because he wasn’t wealthy enough, and originally he had gone to Africa to earn his fortune. In that sense, he reminds me of The Great Gatsby who pursued wealth in the vain hope that Daisy would love him then. In the end, even the noblest goals can be debased when they rely on greed or hatred for their fulfillment.

At first glance, it seems quite strange that Marlowe can find anything to admire in Kurtz. Unlike many, Marlowe’s not impressed by the fortune in ivory that Kurtz managed to accumulate. No, what Marlowe admires is Kurtz’s final insight when faced with death:

I was within a hair's breadth of the last opportunity for pronouncement, and I found with humiliation that probably I would have nothing to say. This is the reason why I affirm that Kurtz was a remarkable man. He had something to say. He said it. Since I had peeped over the edge myself, I understand better the meaning of his stare, that could not see the flame of the candle, but was wide enough to embrace the whole universe, piercing enough to penetrate all the hearts that beat in the darkness. He had summed up--he had judged. 'The horror!' He was a remarkable man. After all, this was the expression of some sort of belief; it had candour, it had conviction, it had a vibrating note of revolt in its whisper, it had the appalling face of a glimpsed truth--the strange commingling of desire and hate.

Simply put, Marlowe seems to admire Kurtz’s ability to look into the human soul, the human predicament and see “The horror,” the horror of “the strange commingling of desire and hate” that is at the heart of man.

With this knowledge, Marlowe suddenly sees members of the company in a new light:

Their bearing, which was simply the bearing of commonplace individuals going about their business in the assurance of perfect safety, was offensive to me like the outrageous flauntings of folly in the face of a danger it is unable to comprehend. I had no particular desire to enlighten them, but I had some difficulty in restraining myself from laughing in their faces so full of stupid importance. I daresay I was not very well at that time.

Unlike Marlowe, these people didn’t see the danger they were facing, didn’t realize they were only an opportunity away from Kurtz’s fate.

In the end, I think it’s that knowledge that makes Marlowe appear like a “meditating Buddha:”

Marlowe ceased, and sat apart, indistinct and silent, in the pose of a meditating Buddha. Nobody moved for a time. "We have lost the first of the ebb," said the Director suddenly. I raised my head. The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky--seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.

He sits “apart,” not just because his listeners are shocked by his tale but because he’s the only one that realizes the full import of the tale. Notice the Director’s reaction to the tale, “We have lost the first of the ebb,” we’re missing work. That greed still seems “ to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.”

I’ll have to admit I’ve always been more optimistic than Conrad seems to be — I’ve wanted to believe humans are more benevolent than he reveals them to be.

Unfortunately, recent political trends in America have made me question much of what I used to, and want to, believe. It seems incredible to me that so many people have so little regard for those who have less than them. Incredibly, even those who claim to be Christians seem to have turned on the poor, denying them medical care, even food stamps “because they are all selling their food stamps to buy drugs.” The rich protest they’re overtaxed, though an executive who makes 53 million in stock options will end up, a year, later paying a lower tax rate than my wife and I do because he’ll be taxed at 15% under capital gain rules. Greed is in the saddle and rides our society!

The Price of Ivory

I didn’t realize that Europe and England were exploiting Africa nearly to the extent described in The Heart of Darkness as late as 1900, though if this article is accurate, Conrad may actually have been sugarcoating the treatment of Africans. Conrad makes it clear from the very beginning of the novel, long before we meet Kurtz, that the natives are literally being worked to death by their European employers.

Conrad begins subtly with a bookkeeper complaining,

'The groans of this sick person,' he said, 'distract my attention. And without that it is extremely difficult to guard against clerical errors in this climate.'

and later,

"He turned to his work. The noise outside had ceased, and presently in going out I stopped at the door. In the steady buzz of flies the homeward-bound agent was lying finished and insensible; the other, bent over his books, was making correct entries of perfectly correct transactions; and fifty feet below the doorstep I could see the still tree-tops of the grove of death.

Despite all the hypocritical talk about lifting the natives up, it’s clear whites are in Africa purely to make money:

I had a white companion, too, not a bad chap, but rather too fleshy and with the exasperating habit of fainting on the hot hillsides, miles away from the least bit of shade and water. Annoying, you know, to hold your own coat like a parasol over a man's head while he is coming to. I couldn't help asking him once what he meant by coming there at all. 'To make money, of course. What do you think?' he said, scornfully.

Ivory makes an interesting symbol for this greed since it provides a natural contrast to the darkness of the wilderness:

The word 'ivory' rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it. A taint of imbecile rapacity blew through it all, like a whiff from some corpse. By Jove! I've never seen anything so unreal in my life. And outside, the silent wilderness surrounding this cleared speck on the earth struck me as something great and invincible, like evil or truth, waiting patiently for the passing away of this fantastic invasion.

I particularly liked, “You would think they were praying to it,” and phrases “like a whiff from some corpse” and “like evil or truth.” Makes you wonder how “evil” and “truth” are similar, doesn’t it? Though one suspects you don’t have to look much further than Kurtz to see similarities.

Kurtz had supposedly be sent to trade with the natives for ivory, but when he runs out of trade goods he turns to more effective means of getting it:

… mostly his expeditions had been for ivory. 'But he had no goods to trade with by that time,’ I objected. ‘There’s a good lot of cartridges left even yet,' he answered, looking away. 'To speak plainly, he raided the country,' I said. He nodded. 'Not alone, surely!' He muttered something about the villages round that lake. 'Kurtz got the tribe to follow him, did he?' I suggested. He fidgeted a little. 'They adored him,' he said. The tone of these words was so extraordinary that I looked at him searchingly. It was curious to see his mingled eagerness and reluctance to speak of Kurtz. The man filled his life, occupied his thoughts, swayed his emotions. 'What can you expect?' he burst out; 'he came to them with thunder and lightning, you know--and they had never seen anything like it--and very terrible. He could be very terrible.

It seems pretty clear that this is Kurt’s “strange commingling of desire and hate” referred to at the end of yesterday’s entry. Kurtz’s desire for wealth, combined with his hatred of the natives has created a true “savage.” This paragon of European culture has been so transformed by his greed that he even feels justified in stealing from his own people

:

You can't judge Mr. Kurtz as you would an ordinary man. No, no, no! Now--just to give you an idea--I don't mind telling you, he wanted to shoot me, too, one day--but I don't judge him.' 'Shoot you!' I cried 'What for?' 'Well, I had a small lot of ivory the chief of that village near my house gave me. You see I used to shoot game for them. Well, he wanted it, and wouldn't hear reason. He declared he would shoot me unless I gave him the ivory and then cleared out of the country, because he could do so, and had a fancy for it, and there was nothing on earth to prevent him killing whom he jolly well pleased. And it was true, too.

Conrad must have believed that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Even in death Kurtz is synonymous with “old ivory:”

It was as though an animated image of death carved out of old ivory had been shaking its hand with menaces at a motionless crowd of men made of dark and glittering bronze. I saw him open his mouth wide--it gave him a weirdly voracious aspect, as though he had wanted to swallow all the air, all the earth, all the men before him. A deep voice reached me faintly. He must have been shouting. He fell back suddenly. The stretcher shook as the bearers staggered forward again, and almost at the same time I noticed that the crowd of savages was vanishing without any perceptible movement of retreat, as if the forest that had ejected these beings so suddenly had drawn them in again as the breath is drawn in a long aspiration.

"Some of the pilgrims behind the stretcher carried his arms--two shot-guns, a heavy rifle, and a light revolver-carbine--the thunderbolts of that pitiful Jupiter.

I find myself haunted by that final image: “I saw him open his mouth wide--it gave him a weirdly voracious aspect, as though he had wanted to swallow all the air, all the earth, all the men before him.” Even in death his greed seems unquenchable.

The Darkness

If I wasn’t sure that Conrad intended the title of his story to be ambiguous, I’d be embarrassed by how hard I’m finding it to write about the Darkness in the story. On the simplest level the title seems to simply indicate Marlowe’s trip to the interior of Africa on the river boat since Africa was know as The Dark Continent in his time. By extension, darkness seems to represent the wilderness, and, thus, the savagery associated with wilderness ( a connection I find difficult to make since I’ve always thought of wilderness as an idyllic escape from civilization and city life). But, ultimately, it’s the darkness of the human heart that seems his main focus.

We find all three levels at the very beginning of the novel as Marlowe begins his tale:

Land in a swamp, march through the woods, and in some inland post feel the savagery, the utter savagery, had closed round him-all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men. There’s no initiation either into such mysteries. He has to live in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is also detestable. And it has a fascination, too, that goes to work upon him. The fascination of the abomination–you know, imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate.”

Though I think the novel has much more to do with the greed that drives colonialism than with war itself, conquest almost invariably plays a part in colonialism. Countries seldom willingly give up their most valuable assets without persuasion. It’s not without reason that Conrad compares Kurtz’s “trade” efforts with an invading army. Historically, armies have opened up new trade opportunities, or, in the modern era, ensured that trade companies’ interests are protected.

Such invasions seem as old as history itself. Military superiority has historically allowed one group to exploit another, less-advanced group. Such advances also allow people to imagine that they are superior to cultures without matching weapons, and, thus, somehow justified in exploiting them.

Though Marlowe sees himself merely as a boat captain, his trip up the river recreates Kurtz’s voyage, and many of the same feelings:

“Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish. There was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine. The long stretches of the waterway ran on, deserted, into the gloom of overshadowed distances.

And this stillness of life did not in the least resemble a peace. It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention. It looked at you with a vengeful aspect.

It’s hard for me not to identify this with the feelings I had in Vietnam. I’d never seen a jungle before and knowing the Viet Cong controlled the jungles made them ominous. With barely a hundred yards between our tracks and the jungle, every night that jungle became “an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention.” It was our enemy as surely as the Viet Cong was our enemy.

These feelings are impossible to ignore, but the inner feelings they evoke are much harder to define:

The inner truth is hidden-luckily, luckily. But I felt it all the same; I felt often its mysterious stillness watching me at my monkey tricks, just as it watches you fellows performing on your respective tight-ropes for–what is it?

We were wanderers on a prehistoric earth, on an earth that wore the aspect of an unknown planet. We could have fancied ourselves the first of men taking possession of an accursed inheritance, to be subdued at the cost of profound anguish and of excessive toil. But suddenly, as we struggled round a bend, there would be a glimpse of rush walls, of peaked grass-roofs, a burst of yells, a whirl of black limbs, a mass of hands clapping of feet stamping, of bodies swaying, of eyes rolling, under the droop of heavy and motionless foliage. The steamer toiled along slowly on the edge of a black and incomprehensible frenzy.

Whatever feelings the jungle evokes, those feelings are inextricably linked to the natives who inhabit the jungle. Whether the jungle calls to or evokes a savage response is never quite clear (the inner truth is hidden-luckily, luckily), but the invaders’ response seems to be more savage than would be allowed in a “civilized” war. One wonders if Conrad could have held the same view if he’d written after World War II, as savage a war as I could imagine.

Kurtz, the very symbol of European civilization, responds with a savagery that goes far beyond anything Marlowe or his employers ever imagined:

These round knobs were not ornamental but symbolic; they were expressive and puzzling, striking and disturbing–food for thought and also for vultures if there had been any looking down from the sky; but at all events for such ants as were industrious enough to ascend the pole. They would have been even more impressive, those heads on the stakes, if their faces had not been turned to the house.

“I am not disclosing any trade secrets. In fact, the manager said afterwards that Mr. Kurtz’s methods had ruined the district. I have no opinion on that point, but I want you clearly to understand that there was nothing exactly profitable in these heads being there. They only showed that Mr. Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts, that there was something wanting in him–some small matter which, when the pressing need arose, could not be found under his magnificent eloquence. Whether he knew of this deficiency himself I can’t say. I think the knowledge came to him at last–only at the very last. But the wilderness had found him out early, and had taken on him a terrible vengeance for the fantastic invasion. I think it had whispered to him things about himself which he did not know, things of which he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitude–and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating. It echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core . . .. I put down the glass, and the head that had appeared near enough to be spoken to seemed at once to have leaped away from me into inaccessible distance.

Since it’s obvious that Kurtz was obsessed with ivory, it’s significant that Marlowe notes that there was “nothing exactly profitable in these heads being there.” In fact the manager argues that this violence has destroyed the trade potential of the district. What then has the wilderness whispered that had “proved irresistibly fascinating?” What was “wanting in him?”

The temptation is to blame what happened to Kurtz on the jungle, the wilderness, but Conrad seems to believe that his soul had gone mad because it had been alone in the wilderness and had looked within itself:

But his soul was mad. Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself, and, by heavens! I tell you, it had gone mad. I had–for my sins, I suppose–to go through the ordeal of looking into it myself. No eloquence could have been so withering to one’s belief in mankind as his final burst of sincerity. He struggled with himself, too. I saw it–I heard it. I saw the inconceivable mystery of a soul that knew no restraint, no faith, and no fear, yet struggling blindly with itself. I kept my head pretty well; but when I had him at last stretched on the couch, I wiped my forehead, while my legs shook under me as though I had carried half a ton on my back down that hill. And yet I had only supported him, his bony arm clasped round my neck–and he was not much heavier than a child.

For Marlowe, and, thus, Conrad, the key to Kurtz’s violent behavior seems to have been that his soul “knew no restraint, no faith, and no fear.”

Despite all he’s seen of Kurtz’s behavior, Marlowe still sees Kurtz as a “remarkable man”

The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself–that comes too late–a crop of unextinguishable regrets. I have wrestled with death. It is the most unexciting contest you can imagine. It takes place in an impalpable greyness, with nothing underfoot, with nothing around, without spectators, without clamour, without glory, without the great desire of victory, without the great fear of defeat, in a sickly atmosphere of tepid scepticism, without much belief in your own right, and still less in that of your adversary. If such is the form of ultimate wisdom, then life is a greater riddle than some of us think it to be. I was within a hair’s breadth of the last opportunity for pronouncement, and I found with humiliation that probably I would have nothing to say. This is the reason why I affirm that Kurtz was a remarkable man. He had something to say. He said it. Since I had peeped over the edge myself, I understand better the meaning of his stare, that could not see the flame of the candle, but was wide enough to embrace the whole universe, piercing enough to penetrate all the hearts that beat in the darkness. He had summed up–he had judged. ‘The horror!’ He was a remarkable man. After all, this was the expression of some sort of belief; it had candour, it had conviction, it had a vibrating note of revolt in its whisper, it had the appalling face of a glimpsed truth–the strange commingling of desire and hate.

because he was able to see inside himself and see “the horror.” Though it’s never clear what Kurtz glimpsed, we are told it consisted of a “strange commingling of desire and hate.”

Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

As I re-read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, it occurred to me once again that education often seems wasted on young people. I read the book too early in my life to realize just how insightful it was. The first time I read it, right after I’d returned from Vietnam, I focused on the savagery and darkness of the human heart, not on the greed that undermined colonialism. Heck, as an American, I really hadn’t thought of capitalism’s spread as our own form of colonialism. Written in 1899, at the peak of The British Colonial Empire, I wonder how many British readers would have missed the message, too.

This motif is introduced at the very beginning of the novel when Marlowe says,

Hunters for gold or pursuers of fame, they all had gone out on that stream, bearing the sword, and often the torch, messengers of the might within the land, bearers of a spark from the sacred fire. What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth! . The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires.

the sword may have led the way, but most countries wanted to believe that they were carrying “the sacred fire” through their conquests. Often countries actually seem to believe their own lies, as evidenced by Spanish attempts to spread Catholicism in the Americas.

Even early on, though, Marlowe has reservations about that idea:

The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretense but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea--something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to .... "

I can remember how I excited I was about visiting my first mission in California after learning how the Spanish had set up a series of them a day’s journey apart. After guides explained that the mission Indians were locked up each night to ensure that they didn’t run away, I lost my desire to visit the rest of the Catholic Missions.

In fact, one of the major differences between Marlowe and other in the story is that he is aware that he’s in Africa to make money:

It appeared, however, I was also one of the Workers, with a capital--you know. Something like an emissary of light, something like a lower sort of apostle. There had been a lot of such rot let loose in print and talk just about that time, and the excellent woman, living right in the rush of all that humbug, got carried off her feet. She talked about weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways,' till, upon my word, she made me quite uncomfortable. I ventured to hint that the Company was run for profit.

Some people may have “got carried off” their feet, but Marlowe keeps his firmly on the ground, unpersuaded by “such rot.”

That’s quite a contrast to Kurtz, who is regarded by nearly everyone Marlowe meets as “a special being:”

'He is a prodigy,' he said at last. 'He is an emissary of pity and science and progress, and devil knows what else. We want,' he began to declaim suddenly, 'for the guidance of the cause entrusted to us by Europe, so to speak, higher intelligence, wide sympathies, a singleness of purpose.' 'Who says that?' I asked. 'Lots of them,' he replied. 'Some even write that; and so he comes here, a special being, as you ought to know.' 'Why ought I to know?' I interrupted, really surprised. He paid no attention. 'Yes. Today he is chief of the best station, next year he will be assistant-manager, two years more and ... but I dare-say you know what he will be in two years' time. You are of the new gang--the gang of virtue. The same people who sent him specially also recommended you. Oh, don't say no. I've my own eyes to trust.' Light dawned upon me.

Although Marlowe resists the idea that Europeans are of “higher intelligence” and have a special “cause entrusted to us by Europe,” he finds that he, too, has gotten work there because he is viewed in the same light, and has been referred by the same people that recommended Kurtz.

So, despite his reservations, he was curious how successful Kurtz would carry the sacred fire:

I had plenty of time for meditation, and now and then I would give some thought to Kurtz. I wasn't very interested in him. No. Still, I was curious to see whether this man, who had come out equipped with moral ideas of some sort, would climb to the top after all and how he would set about his work when there."

Most of us would like to believe that businessmen with “moral ideas” will conduct business on a higher plane, especially when even Kurtz’s boss felt that:

"Each station should be like a beacon on the road towards better things, a centre for trade of course, but also for humanizing, improving, instructing.'

Perhaps most importantly of all, at least to an author, Kurtz was a master of language:

The man presented himself as a voice. Not of course that I did not connect him with some sort of action. Hadn't I been told in all the tones of jealousy and admiration that he had collected, bartered, swindled, or stolen more ivory than all the other agents together? That was not the point. The point was in his being a gifted creature, and that of all his gifts the one that stood out preeminently, that carried with it a sense of real presence, was his ability to talk, his words-the gift of expression, the bewildering, the illuminating, the most exalted and the most contemptible, the pulsating stream of light, or the deceitful flow from the heart of an impenetrable darkness.

Of course, this revelation doesn’t come as a surprise to those of us who can look back at how Hitler’s powerful speeches fueled the Nazis, while Churchill’s sustained the British resistance. Unfortunately, neither a great education or personal eloquence guarantees that a person’s goals are just.

In a final irony, Marlowe discovers the report that Kurtz has written for the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs:

His mother was half-English, his father was half-French. All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz; and by and by I learned that, most appropriately, the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs had entrusted him with the making of a report, for its future guidance. And he had written it, too.

I've seen it. I've read it. It was eloquent, vibrating with eloquence, but too high-strung, I think. Seventeen pages of close writing he had found time for! But this must have been before his--let us say--nerves, went wrong, and caused him to preside at certain midnight dances ending with unspeakable rites, which--as far as I reluctantly gathered from what I heard at various times-were offered up to him--do you understand?--to Mr. Kurtz himself. But it was a beautiful piece of writing. The opening paragraph, however, in the light of later information, strikes me now as ominous. He began with the argument that we whites, from the point of development we had arrived at, 'must necessarily appear to them [savages] in the nature of supernatural beings-we approach them with the might of a deity,' and so on, and so on. 'By the simple exercise of our will we can exert a power for good practically unbounded,' etc., etc. From that point he soared and took me with him. The peroration was magnificent, though difficult to remember, you know. It gave me the notion of an exotic Immensity ruled by an august Benevolence. It made me tingle with enthusiasm. This was the unbounded power of eloquence--of words--of burning noble words. There were no practical hints to interrupt the magic current of phrases, unless a kind of note at the foot of the last page, scrawled evidently much later, in an unsteady hand, may be regarded as the exposition of a method. It was very simple, and at the end of that moving appeal to every altruistic sentiment it blazed at you, luminous and terrifying, like a flash of lightning in a serene sky: 'Exterminate all the brutes!' The curious part was that he had apparently forgotten all about that valuable postscriptum, because, later on, when he in a sense came to himself, he repeatedly entreated me to take good care of 'my pamphlet' (he called it), as it was sure to have in the future a good influence upon his career.

Even without the scrawled message, it would be impossible to ignore Kurtz’s hypocrisy. After all, he’s used his “supernatural” nature not to help the Africans but to rob them of their ivory, the only thing he really seems to value and, in doing so, has become more savage than they themselves.

The story takes on additional meaning, however, when we realize that this almost precisely the same argument that Americans have used to spread our form of democracy and capitalism to the rest of the world. Even in China where the government has made it clear that they will not allow political change, politicians and business leaders have argued that opening businesses in their country will lead to their gradual democratization — and at the very least it will lead to very profitable margins in the meantime.