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Monday, August 24, 2020

Burton, Mungo Park, Conrad, And The African Heart Of Darkness–‘The Horror…The Horror’

The Nineteenth Century was a time of exploration, and the Royal Geographical Society established in 1830 sponsored many African adventurers like Burton, Speke, and Livingstone; but Britishers had travelled to unknown parts of Africa long before.  Mungo Park was a Scottish explorer of West Africa. After an exploration of the upper Niger River around 1796, he wrote a popular and influential travel book titled Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa in which he theorized the Niger and Congo merged to become the same river. He was killed during a second expedition, having successfully traveled about two-thirds of the way down the Niger. 

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Paul du Chaillu, a French-American explorer, was sent in 1855 by the American Academy of Natural Sciences to Africa; and for four years explored then unknown regions of equatorial West Africa  especially the delta of the Ogooué River and the estuary of the Gabon. During his travels  he observed gorillas ,until then known to Europeans only from an unreliable and ambiguous report credited to Hanno the Navigator of Carthage in the 5th century BC and known to scientists in the preceding years only by a few skeletons. He brought back dead specimens and presented himself as the first white European person to have seen them.  On the basis of a subsequent expedition he was able to confirm the accounts given by the ancients of a pygmy people inhabiting the African forests.

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The factual accounts of these journeys – Burton and Speke’s travels through Tanganyika to the source of the Nile; Park’s expeditions along the Niger; and du Chaillu’s voyages to the equatorial interior of the continent – were only the beginning.   Mungo Park in his journals wrote of being captured by African tribes, enslaved, and sold to other tribes for food, women, or land.  He was kept alive only because of his value – an oddity, a freakish white man in Africa to be displayed and tortured.  He brought back no Margaret Mead stories of tribes living simply, harmoniously, in tune with nature, the gods, and themselves.  He found only a barbaric primitivism with not an inkling of civilized behavior.  These were not simple hunter-gatherers but savages who lived short, brutish, and cruel lives in the forest.  He returned to Europe to confirm what others suspected – Africa was indeed a dark, primitive, dangerous place.

Graham Greene traveled with his cousin from Freetown to the coast of Sierra Leone, through the heart of the White Man’s Grave – a pestilential place of tropical disease, impenetrable jungle, venomous serpents and insects.  Greene, who in his memoirs wrote about his desire to defy death and who admitted to Russian Roulette, felt that such a journey would be just short of suicide and far more adventurous.  The journey was so difficult, so life-threatening, and so frighteningly dangerous, that it resulted in an epiphany.  Life was not the boring penury he had assumed, but something frail, unique and valuable.

It seemed to me an important discovery.  it was like a conversion, and i had never experienced a conversion before.  if the experience had not been so new to me, i should have known that conversions don’t last, or if they last at all it is only a little sediment at the bottom of the brain.  Perhaps the sediment has value, the memory of a conversion may have some force in time of emergency; I may be able to strengthen myself with the intellectual idea that once in Zigi’s Town, I had been completely convinced of the beauty and desirability of the mere act of living.

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Joseph Conrad also wrote about Africa, its threatening primitivism, and its hostility to the European traveler. In The Heart of Darkness, Conrad tells the story of Kurtz, who according to the manger of the Central Station, was one of the new breed of colonists sent out by the Company, charged with both dominating the ivory trade and bringing civilization to the natives.  Yet in his tragic end he became more African than the Africans. In arrogating divinity to himself through a manipulation of tribal beliefs; and by maintaining complete control over the natives because of this assumed power, he rules absolutely, amasses a fortune in ivory, and becomes an authoritarian ruler.  Yet his assumption of African demonic spiritualism has a price.

As he speaks his last words, ‘The horror…the horror’, he finally understands that having descended completely into the primitive, having abandoned all traces of Western moral civilization, he is far worse than the natives of the jungle..  While the Africans who carry out ritual sacrifice are doing so as part of a sophisticated cosmology, Kurtz, when he encourages such sacrifice and ritual cannibalism only to promote his own longevity and power, descends into a completely amoral universe.

Marlowe, the narrator of the story, sees Kurtz as a courageous man willing to abandon his Christian beliefs and to consider the power and primitive glory of African animism.

“The earth seemed unearthly”, Marlowe says. We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there—there you could look at a thing monstrous and free. It was unearthly, and the men were—No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it—this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one.

They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity—like yours—the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough; but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you—you so remote from the night of first ages—could comprehend.

And why not? The mind of man is capable of anything—because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future. What was there after all? Joy, fear, sorrow, devotion, valor, rage—who can tell?—but truth—truth stripped of its cloak of time. Let the fool gape and shudder—the man knows, and can look on without a wink. But he must at least be as much of a man as these on the shore.

Marlowe is right, and Kurtz is a Nietzschean Superman, one who has been able to look over the edge of humanity and see what it really is.  Yet as much as Marlowe rightly acknowledges Kurtz’s search for understanding and meaning in the most unlikely and threatening places – it indeed takes courage to peer over the edge and to look into one’s own ‘heart of darkness’ -  he does not see the frightening, existential horror that might come of this search.  Kurtz looked over the edge but died with the terrifying notion that not only he but all of mankind was indeed primitive; that ‘civilization’ was nothing more than a balm, a protective veneer, or at best a restraining order to violence.

Marlow forgives Kurtz for his ‘unspeakable rites’, whatever they might be and he chooses not to know.  He overlooks his arrogance and delusional conceits; but he admires his indomitable will.  Not only has Kurtz survived in the savage, primitive jungle, he has thrived.  Unlike most Westerners, he not only has adapted to the jungle, but adopted, manipulated, and used its ways.

Most of all Marlow – and of course Conrad – admire his unflinching look into his own heart of darkness.  He knows what he has done and feels no remorse.  He only feels the terrifying horror of realizing what all men are capable of.  Kurtz has never looked away, accepted his vision, and died with its horror on his lips.

Kurtz’s vision is an uncomfortable one, for most of us are unwilling to accept the human potential for primitive, savage acts.

Are we good, but given to evil? Evil but constrained by good? Or neither, only subject to a human nature which dictates behavior? Can or should one admire amoral, willful men like Kurtz?  Marlow, Nietzsche, and Shakespeare did.

Few people, say Conrad in all his writings, are even willing to contemplate the question, let alone step over the edge like Kurtz.  No one could have said it better.

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“The horror, the horror’, whispered by Kurtz just before his death, was his final acceptance of his untamed, primitive soul and the inescapable barbarity of it.   The wilderness was not just an environment, but something alive, a complete, integral organism both prehistoric and terrifying in which men who, equally primeval  and uncivilized, were reminders of humanity’s savage beginnings.

Kurtz never tamed the men or the jungle but ruled over both through fear, intimidation, and an expression of absolute and indomitable will.  As death approached he understood that he had neither civilized, nor exploited, nor governed; but by means of the same primitive savagery, he expressed the same  amorality of a universally violent, aggressive, and insatiable human nature as he found in the natives.

The discovery was not one of moral redemption but tragedy.  Not only had his life of brutal rule, greed, and arrogation of supreme and divine authority meant nothing in face of its similarity to so many others; but although he had “come out with moral ideas of some sort”, at his end he could only conclude that a life of such universal barbaric similarity had to be both horrific and meaningless.

Africa has always been a difficult place for Europeans.  The Romans had extended their empire into Africa as far south as the northern limits of the Sahara and relied on Arab traders for slaves, salt, and natural resources from the interior.  Most of Sub-Saharan Africa was terra incognita, a place unexplored until many centuries later, but from whom came often fantastical tales of the jungle.   Because of the fertility of Egypt and the Maghreb and successful reliance on Arab trans-continental traders; and because of the impenetrability and reported mortal diseases endemic there, the Romans stayed north of the desert.

Beginning with the African slave trade in the early 16th century, Europeans became more familiar with Africa, but only as third party observers.  British, Spanish, French, and Portuguese slavers relied on Arab middlemen and the ongoing rich, profitable inter-tribal warfare and slave markets; and never went themselves into the interior.

While certainly no longer the heart of darkness, the legacy of tribalism, slavery, colonialism, and the consequent rise of authoritarian rule has kept Africa from its hoped-for progress.  It is now more than ever a place to be avoided, one of endemic, violent crime, civil war, political venality and abuse, disease, and corruption.

A World Bank colleague who had travelled to Africa since the late 70s and spoke enthusiastically about them, retired because the threat of assault, kidnapping, terror, civil disruption, and uncontrollable disease was increasing.   Paul Theroux wrote about his stay in Africa as a young teacher in a small village.  It was a time of perfect harmony – of sexual generosity, an ease of social interaction, communal peace, music, dance, and calm.  Many of those Americans and Europeans who lived in Africa at that time, were as enthusiastic. 

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Years later, Theroux wrote The Lower River, a fictionalized account of his return to his Peace Corps village which had become criminal, corrupt, threatening and murderous.  It was Theroux’s unhappy metaphor for what had happened to Africa.  He stopped short of suggesting that he in his post-colonial innocence he had ignored the realities of tribal life and seen only what he wanted to see – that the primitivism that Conrad observed was still and always there – but the intimation is there.

Africa will eventually emerge from its underdevelopment and gain full economic, social, and political partnership in the world of nations; and will inevitably lose those particular, often intimidating and frightening aspects of its history.  There will be no more epiphanies, no more personal or geographic discoveries, and certainly few revelations.  Africa has always been a place of wonder, suspicion, and fear – a romantic place in many ways; a desperate place in many others.  Its eventual and final flow into universal cultural streams will be appreciated; but for those who have lived through its challenging, unforgiving, but emotional history will not.

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