Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Saturday, January 07, 2012

CONRAD: Heart of Darkness, 2 (2012)

In the second part of Heart of Darkness we begin the journey down river. The mysterious Kurtz waits deep in the interior. As Marlowe and the reader leave the station behind we also leave civilization behind. Giant trees and lush vegetation and the unending river rule this part of the world. On the river you’re more likely to meet a hippopotamus than a human being. Books are out of place here. Philosophy may also be out of place here. It can be enlightening when Socrates stands in the marketplace of bustling Athens and proclaims that the unexamined life is not worth living. But out here among the giant trees and sluggish river there’s not a philosopher to be found. Who would Socrates debate with? A hippopotamus? On the other hand, philosophy may be the only thing that can preserve sanity in the backwaters of this primeval environment. Civilized behavior is an acquired habit, not a natural inclination. What seems perfectly natural out in the bush isn’t normal in civilized society; what’s normal in the city would seem ridiculous out in the bush. Aristotle says human beings are social creatures. We naturally gravitate toward towns and cities because that’s where other people are. But Kurtz is different from most people. Marlowe has already shown that Kurtz is a highly civilized man. No doubt Kurtz was familiar with Socrates and Aristotle. He had been hand-picked by the elite of Europe for this important company station. Kurtz’s future with the company was bright. But something has gone wrong and thrown all these fine plans off course. A large shipment of ivory arrived for the company in good order, but no Kurtz. What happened? Kurtz had apparently intended to return himself, the station being by that time bare of goods and stores, but after coming three hundred miles, had suddenly decided to go back, which he started to do alone in a small dugout with four paddlers, leaving the half-caste to continue down the river with the ivory. This is a critical part of Marlowe’s story because: I seemed to see Kurtz for the first time. It was a distinct glimpse: the dugout, four paddling savages, and the lone white man turning his back suddenly on the headquarters, on relief, on thoughts of home perhaps; setting his face towards the depths of the wilderness, towards his empty and desolate station. Why did Kurtz turn back? Marlowe wants us to mentally see the image of a dugout canoe, four paddling “savages” and Kurtz. It’s almost as if Kurtz made a momentous decision on the long journey up the river with the ivory. He wasn’t just heading back to his station down the river. It wasn’t like he had forgotten something and was going back to pick it up. No. He was literally turning his back on civilization. Why? Why would anyone in his right mind give up all the social advantages to voluntarily live in a place so desolate and empty? Marlowe explains: You can't understand. How could you? With solid pavement under your feet, surrounded by kind neighbors ready to cheer you… stepping delicately between the butcher and the policeman… How could we possibly understand the motivations of a man like Kurtz? We live safe and sound in a society with grocery stores when we need food and police when we need help. We learn to adapt. In society we learn civil behavior from family, friends and neighbors. What would happen if there were no family, no friends no neighbors to help us? What if we were suddenly thrown out on our own, far away from help? Kurtz had to learn to adapt on his own by the way of silence; utter silence, where no warning voice of a kind neighbor can be heard whispering of public opinion? These little things make all the great difference. When they are gone you must fall back upon your own innate strength, upon your own capacity for faithfulness. Of course you may be too much of a fool to go wrong; too dull even to know you are being assaulted by the powers of darkness. Marlowe seems to be asking: can you hear the power of darkness? Utter silence; no warning voice of a kind neighbor. Can you see it? How could you with solid pavement under your feet? Kurtz heard and saw the darkness.


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