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Monday, November 6, 2023

The Heart Of Darkness In All Of Us - Unspeakable Rites And Human Savagery

 Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ is a haunting story of the darkness of the human soul; but also one which admits its profoundly moral nature.  Most importantly it is a story of a man who embraced man’s primitive side but who could never rid himself of his civilized moral values.  His last words are ‘The Horror…The Horror’ – his final vision of the terrifying nature of humanity which, while given to moral justice, is more often compelled by evil. 

Marlow, the narrator of the story, refers to ‘unspeakable rites’, primitive ceremonies in which Kurtz took part.  Although Conrad never says what these rites are, some critics, most notably Stephen A. Reid, suggests that they are ritual sacrifices in which young men are sacrificed to ensure the longevity of the tribe’s increasingly old and infirm god, Kurtz.  Ethnologist Sir George James Frazer, based on his study of isolated tribes in the Congo, wrote that such spiritual investiture was important:
For if the man-god dies of what we call a natural death, it means…that his soul has either voluntarily departed from the body and refuses to return; or more commonly that it has been extracted or at least detained in its wanderings, by a demon or sorcerer.  In any of these cases the soul of the dying god is lost to his worshippers, and with it their prosperity is gone  and their very existence endangered. 
Stephen Reid writes:
Kurtz’s position as man-god, however is significantly different from the usual one….That is, he comes from the outside, and is, naturally, unwilling to play the game of submitting to death when his strength fails.  And thus we have the anomalous situation of the prolonged and acute anxieties of the natives (as Kurtz grows older and suffers severe illnesses) and of Kurtz’s continued power.  To account for this anomalous situation, I believe that Kurtz has been able to establish a ritual which would allay the anxieties of the natives and therefore maintain his own position.  This ritual – the sacrifice of a young, vigorous man, and the consuming of a portion of his body – has sufficient precedence. 
Sir Frazer provides the ethnological foundation for this conclusion:
When the king first succeeded in getting the life of another accepted as a sacrifice instead of his own, he would have to show that the death of that other would serve the purpose quite well as his own would have done.  Now it was a god or demi-god that the king had to die; therefore the substitute who died for him had to be invested, at least for the occasion, with the divine attributes of the king.

Reid suggests that Kurtz at these midnight rituals had been able to have the native accept the most temporary of man-gods in the form of a young and vigorous man, invest him with all the trappings of his position, worship him, and finally slay him. “Kurtz would succeed”, Reid goes on, “once again to the high position, but having partaken of the body of the newly slain man-god, succeed reinvigorated and revived.”

Reid further suggests that these rituals must have increased in frequency as Kurtz grew sicker and closer to death.  In a striking scene near the end of the story, Kurtz crawls on all fours to such a ceremony.

Kurtz, however, is aware of the moral implications of his actions.  He cannot simply dismiss the moral implications of his actions – his deliberate incitement to human sacrifice – by simply dismissing them as an already existing part of the savagery of the jungle.  Nor can he dismiss his actions by assuming the natives’ moral posture.  To the natives such ritual sacrifices were necessary and proper acts. Without them the world would be annihilated.  Reid concludes that Kurtz must have considered them morally repugnant because he could never possibly feel  the same urgent necessity of the natives.

Yet, Kurtz performed them anyway:
He remains sharply aware of his cold-blooded exploitation of the natives’ trust.  What other meaning can his desperate cry – ‘Oh, but I will wring your heart yet!’ – have but this? It is an expression of extreme guilt. Kurtz is saying to the natives, ‘When will you understand that I had to exploit you – when you understand the unequaled cause (the ‘immense plans’) that necessitated my actions, you will forgive and pity me’.
Marlow admires Kurtz.  He is a great man, he says.  A man of accomplishment, vision, competence, and creativity.  A man of arts and letters, compelling oratory, and philosophical insight.  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.

Angola (LA) Maximum Security Prison up until recent, modest reforms, was as savage and primitive as Conrad’s jungle. It was an an inversion of society.  While same rules of human nature apply among inmates – survival, self-interest, and territorialism – since Angola is a maximum security facility where many inmates are serving multiple life sentences for murder, there are fewer consequences to the violent expressions of it.  In such a lawless environment, there is even more reason to lose whatever socialized patterns of regularized life on the outside. 


It is hard to imagine the brutality of a society without consequences.  The inversion is even more twisted, since the guards, faced with the pure, hateful menace of violent inmates who long ago shed the last vestiges of usual morality, also lose theirs:
In a remarkable hearing that explored torture practices at Angola, twenty-five inmates testified…to facing overwhelming violence in the aftermath of an escape attempt at the prison nearly a decade ago.   These twenty-five inmates -- who were not involved in the escape attempt -- testified to being kicked, punched, beaten with batons and with fists, stepped on, left naked in a freezing cell, and threatened that they would be killed. 
They were also threatened by guards that they would be sexually assaulted with batons.  They were forced to urinate and defecate on themselves.  They were bloodied, had teeth knocked out, were beaten until they lost control of bodily functions, and beaten until they signed statements or confessions presented to them by prison officials.  One inmate had a broken jaw, and another was placed in solitary confinement for eight years. (MR Magazine)
Not only did inmates subject each other to ‘unspeakable rites’, the prison guards were complicit in the amoral mayhem.

Although one might be quick to dismiss Angola prison as an exception –the violent, amoral men incarcerated there must be an exception – serious philosophers have doubted the essential goodness of human nature.

David Brooks wrote an interesting article a few years ago (3.20.12)about this issue. “Why”, he asked, “Do good people do bad?”; and perhaps more importantly, why doesn’t this happen more often ? We are programmed from birth and down the millennia of human existence to be self-protective and aggressive and to expand our perimeters and secure our interests – all of which has led inevitably to violence among people, families, and nations.

Brooks wrote:
John Calvin believed that babies come out depraved (he was sort of right; the most violent stage of life is age 2). G. K. Chesterton wrote that the doctrine of original sin is the only part of Christian theology that can be proved. This worldview held that people are a problem to themselves. The inner world is a battlefield between light and dark, and life is a struggle against the destructive forces inside. 
This worldview was both darker and brighter than the one prevailing today. It held, as C. S. Lewis put it, that there is no such thing as an ordinary person. Each person you sit next to on the bus is capable of extraordinary horrors and extraordinary heroism.

Frank Bales, the subject of Brooks’ article is a young soldier who massacred 16 people in Afghanistan recently.
Friends and teachers describe him as caring, gregarious and self-confident before he — in the vague metaphor of common usage — apparently “snapped.” As one childhood friend told The Times “That’s not our Bobby. Something horrible, horrible had to happen to him.”
This is a normal reaction, affirms Brooks:
According to [the worldview that prevails in our culture], most people are naturally good, because nature is good. The monstrosities of the world are caused by the few people (like Hitler or Idi Amin) who are fundamentally warped and evil.  This worldview gives us an easy conscience, because we don’t have to contemplate the evil in ourselves.
Literature is filled with ‘evil’ characters.  Shakespeare was a particular master, having created Iago, Goneril, Regan, Tamora, Dionyza, Edmund, and many others.  Ibsen chose to feature the manipulative, self-centered, domineering, and essentially amoral side of human nature in his characters.

The genius of ‘Heart of Darkness’ is that Conrad explores the extremes of human nature.  Kurtz is brilliant, essentially moral, creative, and purposeful; and yet he falls easily prey to the forces of the dark side.  How and why? Conrad offers no answers, but simply acknowledges the essential and eternal conflict in all of us.

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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