Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Wednesday, October 14, 2015

CONRAD: An Outpost of Progress (Kayerts and Kurtz)

An Outpost of Progress makes a good counter-balance for Joseph Conrad’s other story in the Great Books series: Heart of Darkness (GB1).  In Outpost of Progress we meet a weak man named Kayerts. In Heart of Darkness we meet a strong character named Kurtz.  If Kurtz represents the flower of Western civilization then Kayerts represents the weed of Western civilization.  Kurtz is well-educated, confident and independent.  All he needs to survive in the wilderness is his rifle and a canoe.  Kayerts is just the opposite.  He has no business being so far away from home in a remote outpost in a country that’s so foreign and so alien to him.  And yet in one crucial way these two very different men are alike.  The wilderness destroys their souls.  In Heart of Darkness we read about Kurtz: “The wilderness…had caressed him, and lo! He had withered; it had taken him, loved him, embraced him, got into his veins, consumed his flesh, and sealed his soul to its own by the inconceivable ceremonies of some devilish initiation.”  In Outpost of Progress Kayerts hears “the great silence of the surrounding wilderness, its very hopelessness and savagery seemed to approach them nearer, to draw them gently, to look upon them, to envelop them with a solicitude irresistible, familiar, and disgusting.”

Kayerts and Kurtz have this much in common: they’ve both come to the wilderness to make money because of women back home.  Kurtz to build a nest egg so he can marry his fiancé in proper style; Kayerts so he can support his daughter financially.  But after they’ve been in the wilderness awhile money and women fade into the background.  Then they come face to face with who they really are; what Aristotle calls Character.  The result is not pleasant.  In The Social Contract (GB1) Rousseau theorizes that man is naturally good.  Conrad doesn’t agree.  Conrad sees man as a dark and dangerous creature.  In a state of Nature men aren’t noble savages; they’re just plain old savages.  Civilization for Conrad is merely a thin veneer covering the natural savagery of men.  Once they’re away from the safety and comforts of home their savagery is let loose.  Conrad’s view of the world is therefore dark and pessimistic.

The world can be a dark place.  But that’s not the whole story.  Great Books offers a broad range of alternative views and we can see the contrast most clearly in Plato (GB 1,2,4,5) and The Gospel of Mark (GB 3).  Socrates and Jesus were very different men than Kayerts and Kurtz.  Money wasn’t much of a factor in the lives of Socrates and Jesus.  And they never travelled very far from home, much less venturing deep into barbarian or pagan territories.  Their mission was not to bring the light of civilization and transform the darkness of ignorance in foreign peoples.  Their mission was to transform the darkness of their own people.  In some ways this was a much harder task and it ended up getting them both killed.  But Socrates and Jesus knew that the real darkness isn’t “out there” somewhere; it’s closer to home, in the human mind and heart.  Kayerts and Kurtz didn’t bring the light of civilization to an uncivilized people. They brought their own personal darkness along with them but didn’t know it until the very end.  Socrates believed the worst kind of ignorance is thinking you know something you really don’t know.  Kayerts thought he would make a good station manager at a remote trading outpost.  He was wrong.  Ten of his employees were sold into slavery and he killed the assistant manager himself.  Jesus’ worst enemies weren’t ignorant fishermen; it was the highly educated Pharisees.  Kurtz thought he had an enlightened view of the world and could use commerce and law to enlighten others.  He was wrong.  Kurtz used commerce as a means to gain personal power and became a brutal tyrant without regard for law, justice or even basic human decency.  Great Books tell all; the good, the bad and the ugly.  Conrad tells good stories with bad endings about people living ugly lives.


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