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.