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