Pipes On A Prehistoric Earth

October 15, 2013

Drainage Pipes On A Prehistoric Earth

If assigned a daunting task -- taming the overgrown interior of an inhospitable continent, for example -- making a “To Do” list is a perfectly respectable first step. And if, while jotting down a numbered list of priorities, laying down plumbing and dynamiting mountains somehow slips into the top two spots, there is a good chance that Responsibility has visited the wrong person.  

One overarching question raised by Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness targets the very nature of Eurocentrism: is European civilization a purified light that can be shined into the dark places of the Earth?  Or is Europe itself the Heart of Darkness to which the title refers -- is Brussels just projecting the blackness of its own soul onto remote parts of the planet? To understand whether or not European civilization belongs in Africa, and to evaluate its presence as either evil exploitation or bland humanitarianism, Conrad explores the theme of “civilization in the jungle.” In Heart of Darkness, the jungle erodes all bastions of European civilization. The jungle’s corrosive nature is revealed through depictions of European technologies and the uncivilized behaviors of Charlie Marlow and Mr. Kurtz.

Marlow’s descriptions of the jungle’s effect on European technologies provide one of the only definitive philosophical statements of the novel, unobscured by contradictory symbolism or narrative hesitations. After several encounters with European technologies, it becomes clear that no mechanisms of progress or tokens of civilization can survive in the jungle -- all attempts at modernizing or taming the continent are pointless, and all victories are fleeting. First, Marlow describes a French man-o-war engaged in a delusional conflict, shelling an empty coastline (p. 11). Soon after, he describes the pointless dynamiting of a mountain, “The cliff was not in the way or anything; but this objectless blasting was all the work going on” (p.12). These illustrations paint an almost comical portrait of European colonization; the classic symbol of European superiority, military technology, is being wasted on senseless destruction. Marlow references the symbolic set soon after, pointing out that the imposition of western laws on the natives seems as disconnected as the French bombardment, “…but these men could by no stretch of imagination be called enemies. They were called criminals, and the outraged law, like the bursting shells, had come to them, an insoluble mystery from the sea.” The choice of the word “insoluble” underscores the point that European values cannot be forcefully stirred into jungle culture and that attempts to do so seem childish and unproductive. The European landmarks that Marlow encounters in the jungle follow a similar theme of childish inefficiency. A steamboat appears “wretched, old, mangled” (p. X) the pipes strewn across the valley are “broken…a wanton smashup” (p.13). Eventually, Marlow becomes cynical towards the very idea of structural progress, “Can’t say I saw any road or any upkeep, unless the body of a middle-aged Negro, with a bullethole in the forehead…may be considered as permanent improvement” (p.17).

European technologies and improvements rot and collapse when dropped in the ancient Jungle. It seems as if imperialists cannot even recognize the difference between the British countryside and the Congo. From these descriptions, the conclusion that can be drawn about European civilization is simply that it appears comically out-of-place in the jungle -- socially awkward, in a way. European “improvements” become alien landmarks and attempts at taming the landscapes and the locals seem more insane and immature than enlightening or efficient.

After the introduction of Kurtz, it becomes clear that the jungle’s corrosive properties do not only apply in the physical sphere; prolonged exposure to jungle culture seems to exacerbate the darkest qualities of all emotionally complex Europeans. Conrad demonstrates this phenomenon most concretely through the remarkably wicked Mr. Kurtz and more subtly through psychological changes in the protagonist, Charlie Marlow. The presence of moral absolutism in Heart of Darkness manifests itself entirely in the character of Mr. Kurtz. The theory of moral absolutism proudly disregards situational ethics and professes instead that some actions, intentions, and individuals are objectively evil. The novel’s famous title is itself an extreme moral declaration; the heart is not confused – it does not struggle with the forces of good and evil - this particular organ is objectively dark and malevolent. Kurtz suffers from this cardiac malevolence. Kurtz is the Christian devil-figure in the novel, his nature and actions operate at the darkest end of the ethical spectrum. Marlow seems to partially recognize this, and he articulates a critical question raised by Kurtz’ depravity: “The thing was to know what he belonged to, how many powers of darkness claimed him for their own” (p. 44). He answers his own question soon after, explaining, “His mother was half-English, his father was half-French. All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz” (p.45). Kurtz is an embodiment of European civilization, he is “an emissary of pity, and science, and progress, and devil knows what else…” (p. 22). If Kurtz becomes a one-dimensional character in the jungle, an eloquent monster, than surely European civilization should not germinate on the African continent. Kurtz’s only redeeming characteristic seems to be that he stands in polar opposition to the building themes of inefficiency and pointlessness -- he accomplishes something, produces something, garners substantial quantities of this meaningless luxury item, ivory.

Marlow, like Kurtz, does not emerge from the jungle without ethical scars. As he penetrates deeper and deeper into the jungle we witness a kind of moral dimming.  

The tragedy in Heart of Darkness may very well be the moral downfall of Marlow, who becomes corrupted by Kurtz’ contagious nature. At first, Marlow seems indifferent to all events in the Congo.  He displays a kind of existential boredom with everything – except Kurtz. Marlow has an obsession with Kurtz, he picks out trees to measure the progress towards Kurtz’s station (p. 34) and he expresses his life’s most profound disappointment after believing Kurtz may have been killed in an inland attack (p. 42). As Marlow sails deeper into the jungle, his moral decay accelerates.  After the death of a shipmate, for example, Marlow muses, “I had made up my mind that if my late helmsman was to be eaten, the fishes alone should have him. He had been a very second-rate helmsman while alive, but now that he was dead he might become a first-class temptation, and possibly cause some startling trouble. Besides, I was anxious to take the wheel…” (p.47). Marlow seems remarkably insensitive here, disregarding the basic value of human life and placing the emphasis on his own ambitions. The culmination of this moral decline appears after Marlow encounters the decapitated heads. Marlow reacts, “In fact, the manager said afterwards that Mr. Kurtz’s methods had ruined the district. I have no opinion on that point, but I want you clearly to understand that there was nothing exactly profitable in these heads being there. They only showed that Mr. Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts, that there was something wanting in him – some small matter which, when the pressing need arose, could not be found under his magnificent eloquence” (p 53). Marlow does identify Kurtz’ lack of restraint as a serious character flaw, but his criticism of the action seems like a disturbingly understated response to decapitations. The only moral declaration Marlow manages in retrospect is that it was not “exactly profitable.” Though Marlow may be hiding behind his standard defense mechanisms of satire and sarcasm in these two instances, some kind of ethical regression seems apparent.

From the examples of Marlow and Kurtz, who both seem to represent European civilization, at least as cultural arbiters, we see that too much time spent in the jungle can result in absolute evil, like Kurtz, described as a walking plague, a skeletal monster. We also learn that even a trip down the river into through this prehistoric earth can compromise one’s ethics, as is the case with Marlow.

In response to the overarching question, Conrad does not seem to be arguing that civilization is the Heart of Darkness. In its element, civilization is presented less as evil than as philosophically immature with delusions of grandeur. The “whited sepulcher” description of Brussels best illustrates this theme: European cities may seem like beacons of purity and enlightenment, but on the inside they contain a darkness much the same shade as the other supposedly unenlightened places of the Earth. 

In terms of re-creating European society on foreign continents, Conrad makes a thoroughly convincing argument that the imperial approach needs to be reconsidered. For Marlow, making domestic improvements seems ridiculous and meaningless, even if driven by a purpose, such as harvesting ivory. Imperialism stops being comically idiotic, however, when ambitious Europeans are sent into the jungle. At that moment, the dormant evil of civilization leaks out of the interior into the exterior, and a plague, “the germs of empire” (p.2) can ravage the globe. “Warning, Stay Out” seems to be the blunt moral of the story.


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