A journey up the river and into the Heart of Darkness.

kurtz04

A few blogs back, a commenter asked me about the image I used as a graphic in comments and as a thematic livery for this blog. I told them it was Mr Kurtz from Joseph Conrad’s short novel, the Heart of Darkness, which was faithfully and incisively transposed from colonial Africa in the nineteenth century, to the Vietnam conflict in the twentieth by Coppola in the movie Apocalypse Now.

I suppose the unconscious reason for my choice of that image at the time I set up this blog was a mixture of anger and despair, and I freely admit it was not just at what environmentalism had become but nearly more about the part that well-meaning people like myself had played in giving birth to something which has mutated into an all-devouring juggernaut from the simple life-affirming thing we innocently imagined ourselves bringing about.

To understand that mixture of emotions and why I felt Kurtz was appropriate, you have to get an idea of Kurtz. I suppose at this point I have to decide which Kurtz to describe, the Mr Kurtz of the book or the Colonel Kurtz of the movie. On reflection, I see no need to accept my own narrow choice; there’s nobody here but us chickens, so I’ll take the time to sketch them both for you.

The book is mainly about travelling up a river, most probably the Congo River though I don’t think it’s actually named in the book, by the representative of a London trading company, a Mr Marlow. He has the vague task of picking up all the ivory that their local agent, an enigmatic Mr Kurtz, has collected. As the journey progresses, Marlow gradually learns that not only is Kurtz the very epitome of the cultured and civilised European gentleman, but also by far the company’s most successful supplier of ivory. There are one or two disparaging things said of Kurtz by some of Marlow’s fellow passengers travelling upstream on the steamer, but they patently spring from a petty office jealousy of his success.

To gain an understanding the darker context of the book, you’ll have to know about one of the great shocks Victorian Europe received about colonialism; the Belgian Congo. There’d always been this commonly accepted idea that the twin initiatives of Christianity and establishing trade would not only save the souls of Africans but at the same time would improve their material lot.

The revelation of what was actually happening in the Congo under a cloak of hypocritical philanthropy was a brutal awakening. It was the darkest, cruellest and most evil side of ruthless exploitive colonialism. Nobody there gave a damn about the natives or their souls; their overseers routinely hacked the limbs off the worker’s children to make them work harder. That stuff and things a lot worse, actually happened. We’re not talking here about a slightly bad episode in colonialism; the death toll there is estimated to have been ten million people. It was biblical.

It dealt a body blow to any European notion of enlightened colonialism.

The inhumanity of what was happening in the Congo came to widespread public notice four years after the book was published but Conrad, a mariner by profession, had been the captain of a steamer on the Congo River ten years before writing the book. He’d too keen an eye to not have seen first hand what was going on and perhaps the book was his own attempt at warning people or maybe just a personal act of expiation by someone who’d seen the horror and knew they’d simply never be believed. A Pole, even though writing in the most exquisite English, did the best he could.

Conrad the writer edges us into that visceral reality with some subtlety. He takes you one step at a time down into the hell on Earth that Kurtz himself has created. It’s nuanced horror. Marlow absently notices from afar these white round orbs on top of the fence surrounding Kurtz’s trading station when he finally reaches it. It’s only later that Marlow realises they’re human skulls. When he eventually meets him, Mr Kurtz is being carried on a litter and dying, but he’s surrounded by a fanatical and brutal horde of natives he’s gathered around himself to get the ivory.

He’s their charismatic leader, their dark inspiration and their God miraculously dropped to Earth in physical form. Nobody can stand before the force of his tribe’s sheer brutality, which goes clean off any scale of civilised behaviour. To get the ivory, nothing is out of bounds. Men, women or children, slaughter them all, kill anyone who gets in your way of the ivory and display what’s left of them on top of a pole as an example.

The dying Mr Kurtz has come to realise he’s slowly ended up becoming the type of inhuman savage all his original fine ideals would have driven him to fight, and that’s what is really killing him. He’s an unquestioned success in terms of commerce but he’s lost all trace, any fig leaf of even basic morality. Any Christianity is long gone. There’s nothing left; not so much a hollow man but more a hollowed out man, who did it all to himself, leaving behind nothing but a murderous tribe of butchers.

Kurtz expires but he left a message in his journal for Marlow, exterminate the brutes.

In the movie, a Captain Willard is dispatched up the Nung River in the midst of the Vietnam war, with definite orders to terminate a Colonel Kurtz’s command, a euphemism for killing him. Just as in the book, the majority of the movie is the trip up the river and when he arrives at Kurtz’s camp, it’s pretty much the same grizzly situation, except Coppola the director paints the situation much more graphically. There are mutilated corpses everywhere, rotting in bamboo cages and even hung up in the trees over the river.

Colonel Kurtz was once a high flier in the military establishment, destined one day for something like a seat on the General Staff. A top graduate of West Point, a natural leader, a succession of prestigious postings; being groomed for a top spot in the corporation, as Willard expresses it, but the Colonel’s experiences in Vietnam had convinced him that the only way of winning it, was to abandon completely any notion about the rules of war.

The Colonel, despising a military command structure which could never condone what he wanted to do, went rogue and disappeared into the jungle, assembling his own army of Montagnard tribesmen who worship him. From there, he wages a war of terror. Pure, bloody, simple terror.

Willard gets taken captive, and although mistreated, kept alive. It’s obvious the order has gone out, nobody is allowed to kill Captain Willard. Kurtz, knowing well why Willard has been sent, seems to toy with him as a prisoner but that’s because Kurtz needs him alive to complete his mission and he wants to get him well up for it.

When Willard is tied cross-legged to the base of a tree in the night-time drizzle, Kurtz silently walks up behind him in the darkness and deftly drops the severed head of the chef, possibly the most innocent character in the movie, in his lap. Of all the people who came up the river with Willard on the boat, the harmless chef was the one he genuinely liked.

Willard screams in terror and then howls disconsolately on and on, because he’s saying goodbye to any idea of a world with civilised limits. He knows he’ll live but also that he’ll never quite make it home after this mission and accepts what Kurtz always wanted of him. Kurtz has smashed through Willard’s respect of him to get what’s needed done. The previous assassins sent to kill him had all fallen under Kurtz’s spell.

Kurtz is rotted out from the inside; in deep despair, a once noble but fallen man who needs the services of a proficient assassin to release him from his agony, because he just can’t do it for himself. There’s too much survivor in him to take his own life, but still enough fortitude to stand still like a once proud soldier and let someone else hack him to death. A freed to wander around the camp Willard does the deed, because he knows exactly what’s expected of him and does it with the savage love that only one warrior can do for another.

Kurtz had previously left him a similar scrawled message to find, “drop the bomb, exterminate them all.” As Willard leaves on the boat, it’s left open whether he will call in the airstrike to destroy the monstrous force Kurtz created.

I’m not Kurtz but like him started off with a simple ideal; in his case to win a war, in mine the more modest ambition that we can live in a more kindly way with the Earth. That’s now been perverted into saving the Earth from us, a plague on the face of it, according to David Attenborough.

To that end, millions of fine creatures get chopped up by windmills that do nothing more than defile the landscape and generate money for the rich, the very Earth is poisoned to manufacture solar panels which will in turn poison the soil even more to produce intermittent electricity nobody can afford, billions of the world’s population are determinedly kept from electricity, the most poverty-stricken still die of diseases we no longer suffer from and could eliminate in a few years, we now grow crops for fuel rather than food to starve the already hungry who get killed in food riots, the rich and greedy fill their already bulging bank accounts from out of the pockets of our own poor struggling with utility bills and the elderly freeze to death in their beds, because they can no longer afford to heat their homes.

When you get past the touchy feely caring surface of how it’s presented, that’s the terrible world which the child we innocently birthed in our youth has now created. In my darker moments, I sometimes think we should have strangled it at birth.

I’ve known, admired and quite honestly loved with all my heart a few people like Kurtz. Sometimes it was a person but more often a pristine idea, a noble ideal that we could all strive to, give every damn thing of yourself to, sacrifice our last best gasp of everything we’d got to somehow bring on a better thing. So often, but not always, the men failed but the central idea still lingers on down the years. As Dylan Thomas expressed it, though lovers be lost, love shall not.

You see, as Conrad well knew, what’s so often at the heart of darkness is not evil, cruelty, callousness or even simple everyday brutality but the tired, exhausted and fucked over wreckage of our most noble intentions. That’s what totally corrupts in the end and the realisation of that elemental truth is why Kurtz’s last words are – the horror, the horror.

I got off the trip that Kurtz went on and like more than a few of my generation, resolved to get on that boat coming up the river to put an end to him, because we know he’s become a monster.

©Pointman

Related articles by Pointman:

Click for all articles in the Big Green Killing Machine series.

The big green killing machine: They sit with God in paradise.

The big green killing machine: What is VAD?

How environmentalism turned to the dark side.

You can get a free and legal copy of the book here.

Click for a list of other articles.

Comments
20 Responses to “A journey up the river and into the Heart of Darkness.”
  1. nzrobin says:

    Thanks for sharing that. Powerful words. I feel like I am just beginning to understand enough to challenge my own motivations.

  2. Martin A says:

    When I came across the following some time back, it occurred to me that Met Office “climate scientists” would find it very hard to see any link between their activity and thousands of already poor people being thrown into destitution.

    When you think about the effects of global warming hysteria, you might think of higher electricity prices, not people being thrown off their land and having their homes burned down. But that is exactly what’s been happening in the East African country of Uganda, where a British company called New Forests has been seizing land to grow trees and then sell the so-called “carbon credits” for a profit that could reach nearly $2 million per year. According to reports published in the New York Times and Telegraph of London, New Forests is backed by the World Bank and has been using armed troops, with the government’s permission, to forcibly evict over 20,000 poor people from their homes. This certainly gives terrible new meaning to the concept of Green neo-colonialism.

    http://www.cfact.org/2013/04/24/poor-being-thrown-off-ugandan-land-for-carbon-credits/

    • nzrobin says:

      Indeed Martin A, and let’s not forget the attacks to silence dissenting voices, the disgusting 10.10 propaganda fed to children, doctors in India being paid bonuses from UK climate money to complete involuntary sterilisations … all to protect the climate as they would say … This is noble cause corruption gone crazy. The scariest two things to me are that the majority of our society is blissfully unaware of the war for their minds and motivations, while the motivation of most of the useful idiots on the other side are so genuine in their view, that changing their mind is more difficult than leaving a religious cult.

  3. Hamish McCallum says:

    A brilliant piece: the penultimate paragraph particularly.

  4. Blackswan says:

    Whatever else he may be, the Pointman is a master of his craft.

    You’ve held a mirror up to our generation of free love, drug abuse, feminism, idealism, consumerism, Socialism, materialism – and it’s not a pretty sight. In fact it’s more like a sharp left jab to the solar plexus to be confronted with the “exhausted and fucked over wreckage of our most noble intentions”.

    Gaia has become more like Medusa – every time we think we’ve lopped off one of the Hysterics spurious assertions, another viper rears its ugly head. The only response they have is to pour more of our money into increasing their propaganda. Maybe our Kurtz could be the Perseus we need to rid us of the monster forever.

  5. Keitho says:

    When I too contemplate the fervour with which I pursued ideals in my younger days I feel that whoever I was was a good person but unbelievably stupid. All of my efforts were motivated by an unselfish wish to make things better for those around me, but they really didn’t and it took many years for me to man up and admit that fact.

    As somebody once said “there is nothing more destructive than well intentioned ignorance on the march”.

    This article by Pointman underlines that in spades. All I do now is try and apply sense and experience to my thoughts and acts. I try everyday to stop the insanity that is AGW, socialism and the concept that rights exist separate from obligations.

    I am not yet at the point that Kurtz got to of wanting death to free me from the horrors of what I have done and I hope I never do. If I do it will be a Pointman that puts the blade down between my collar bone and my clavicle.

  6. ossqss says:

    Nice job PM!

    In the immortal words of my long lost grandmother: “If you don’t stand for something, you will go for anything”.

    I feel a “good vibration”. A journey in the changing climate of climate science as we know more of how it’s legacy promotes such fallacy.

    In the words of Markey Mark if you will :^}

  7. johanna says:

    Lovely piece of writing, Pointman. I re-read Heart of Darkness recently, and it is an astonishing and powerful book (and quite readable, for those who are thinking of checking it out). The fact that Conrad wrote in a language other than his own to such effect places him in the ranks of genius, IMO.

    We often hear people decrying the political apathy of the masses. Thank goodness for it, I say. Those who want to transform society – usually with the best of intentions – have an ugly and consistent history of making things worse.

    The English concept of “muddling along” has a lot going for it.

    • johanna says:

      Meant to include:

      “The best lack all conviction, while the worst
      Are full of passionate intensity.”

      (Yeats – The Second Coming)

      • nzrobin says:

        How about being passionate about being dispassionate?

      • johanna says:

        nz robin, now we get into Weber and bureaucracy.

        I know that “bureaucracy” is a synoym for all that is evil these days, but consider the alternatives. It would require a whole new blog.

        Of course, readings of Weber should be considered in conjunction with the invaluable insights of Parkinson.

  8. Konrad says:

    Pointman,
    tiring as the fight may sometimes be, it will have rewards as few political battles have had before. The lame stream media are no longer the gatekeepers of opinion or record. The Internet now rules, a force for democracy and freedom like no other. For most of the global warming fellow travellers, losing in the current environment means losing forever, because the Internet will remember forever. Or as I often put it –

    “Global warming was in effect a global IQ test, with results permanently recorded on the Internet.”

    The Professional Left imagine themselves as “intellectuals”, caring and more moral than other people. The Internet now records that every last one of them was a snivelling idiot who vilified sceptics to silence them. The collapse of the global warming hoax will prove beyond a shadow of a doubt how intellectually vacuous and ethically depraved these parasites really are.

    Some have gotten wind of the coming disaster. The most stupid or most compromised shriek their message of doom louder and pray for an El Nino to save their sorry scam. The slightly smarter ones are thrashing about looking for any “sciencey” sounding exit strategy they can find. Heat hiding, trade winds blowing, aerosols masking, anything that won’t brand them as idiots forever.

    But in the end, for the Professional Left, none of it will work.

    Firstly, they vilified sceptics to silence them. You don’t get to claim “noble cause” after that.

    Secondly, the answer to why they got it wrong is too simple and no amount of “sciencey” bafflegab can ever hide it. They have gone and claimed that adding radiative gases to the atmosphere will reduce the atmospheres radiative cooling ability. But worse that that, the most “basic physics” of the “settled science” has the atmosphere acting to warm the oceans! Climastrologists claimed that the oceans would be at -18C without atmospheric cooling or atmospheric radiation. It truly is inane. When school kids can understand the answer –

    The sun heats the oceans.
    The atmosphere cools the oceans.
    Radiative gases cool the atmosphere.

    – then there is no hope of a “sciencey” sounding excuse that will remove the noose of the Internet from around the necks of the blathering class. What was supposed to be the most glorious “gotcha” moment against free-market democracy is about to blow up in the faces of the Professional Left from one side of the planet to the other. For every activist, journalist or politician involved in this vile assault on science, reason, freedom and democracy, all that awaits is the outer darkness where there will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth.

    • Blackswan says:

      Bravo Konrad – my favourite part….. “The Internet now records that every last one of them was a snivelling idiot who vilified sceptics to silence them. The collapse of the global warming hoax will prove beyond a shadow of a doubt how intellectually vacuous and ethically depraved these parasites really are.” Perfect.

      • nigelf says:

        Konrad, while I would sincerely love to see your outcome bear fruit one only has to look where one of the more vocal idiots ended up. John Holdren within the inner circle of the POTUS. He should have been silenced by facts decades ago but kept at it and it’s been very good to him. My fear is that these same maniacs will just be allowed to fade away and not be made an example of by long jail terms. By not thoroughly destroying them and their ideas they will just be back to torment humanity once again.

  9. nofixedaddress says:

    Dear Pointman,

    Although I think we have entered the modern ‘dark ages’ I think it behoves on true believers to just keep on keeping on.

    Sorry.

    The internet was created by war mongers. They have been studying ‘us’ for years (Cobol is great).

    Information is the key to stop the cargo cult mentality of all peoples.

  10. PaleoSapiens says:

    Every problem has infinite solutions. Consider the following unique insights and know-how…

    For 80% of the credit due, see Internet links to Karl Lentz,
    http://broadmind.org/
    http://www.myprivateaudio.com/Karl-Lentz.html

    What is the hierarchy of Law, i.e. which form of law is the highest; lowest? (hint: Who created Man? Who created government?)

    What is really the highest ‘law of the land’ in/on, the majority of, North America? (hint: It’s NOT a Constitution)

    What is a constitution meant to bind and limit? Why?

    What’s the difference between a constitutional right, a constitutionally protected right/freedom, and an inherent or natural
    right/freedom?

    What’s the difference between code & law?

    Does following a government ‘code/regulation/rule’ absolve, or pardon, you from harming a man or a man’s property?

    What’s the difference between procedure & substance?

    What’s the difference between legal & lawful?

    What does it mean, “knowing how to be a man,” in law? (note: man is short for human, humankind, or mankind – it’s gender neutral)

    What’s the difference of morally versus culturally versus technologically superior? (hint: trick question)

    -Answers are found in ‘The Bible,’ in the ‘Federalist Papers’ by the founding fathers of the United States, a knowledge of Earth’s past, and on the Internet…
    [for Canadians, plus, other Commonwealth of Nations, more direct influences than the ‘Federalist Papers’ are: ‘The Magna Carta,’ ‘Cestui que Vie(person for whom a benefit exists) Act 1666’ {see Great Fire of London 1666}, and ‘Habeas Corpus(you have the body) Act 1679’]

  11. hoppers says:

    Having witnessed a noble intention result in the loss of over 1,000 souls at sea in recent years to barely a peep, and it’s revocation being met with howls of outrage, I’m firmly on the boat with you.

  12. Canman says:

    For those interested in Joseph Conrad’s story, you might want to check out the book, King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild:

    http://www.amazon.com/King-Leopolds-Ghost-Heroism-Colonial/dp/0618001905

    It’s an amazing story and would probably make a good Quentin Tarantino movie.

  13. beththeserf says:

    The older I get, the more I prefer Socrates’ intellectual modesty to the authority of
    Plato and the shaman.

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