Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Heart of An American/ Imperialist Psycho

For the past few weeks, I have been teaching Conrad's Heart of Darkness, arguably a (muddled) critique of the European Imperialist mindset. Of course, the journey down the river with Marlow to find the mysterious, feared, and adored Kurtz is the heart of the novel. But Conrad's novel intentionally has no heart. We long for it, we go on Marlow's journey hoping to find the answer in the person of Kurtz at the end of the river journey, but the reader and Marlow are both left wanting because the man, Kurtz, is "hollow at the core."While listening to Marlow on the deck of a boat going down the Thames, the novella's unnamed narrator tells us that this storytellers' yarns are not like those of "other seamen" who tell simple stories, the "whole meaning of which lies within the shell of a cracked nut."In fact, the only meaning in Marlow's storytelling is not to be found at the end of the tale, projecting meaning and sense onto everything leading up to it, but in the actual telling which might provide us with very "hazy" snippets of information and, at best, some moments of devastating self realizations.

Traditional narratives are formed around character change, a moment of epiphany and transition, but there is no such moment in this novel. When Marlow meets Kurtz we see that he, like the story, only causes us to ask questions about our own depravity but provides us with no nuggets of revelation about the meaning of the story itself.

We do find out that Kurtz is, if anything, a consumer. THE consumer. Working for a Belgian company, he has found a home deep in the Congo in order to acquire ivory by any means necessary. Like many involved in similar colonialist "projects," he sees the Africans themselves simply as cogs in the imperialist machine. His quest to, as he says, "exterminate all the brutes" simply because he has the strength, rhetorical skills, and brilliance to do so is almost completely justified by much of the (very disturbing) Social Darwinist rhetoric of the time.

But Kurtz goes even beyond using the local people as tools and commodities; their awe of his power and brilliance propels them to set him up as a god to be worshiped, and he, naturally, concedes. Marlow tells us that "everything belonged to him"... that he would speak of "my intended, my ivory, my river...". Kurtz's lust to consume is never satisfied; interestingly, he is physically emaciated and weak when Marlow finds him. This visual depiction is a profound indication of his hollow spiritual state, a picture of one who consumes, consumes, consumes while getting less and less nourished, never recognizing his own illness. Many of Conrad's insights hold complex theological resonances, including this poignant image of an inner vacuum that, as Pascal argues, can only be filled with the infinite but is continually stuffed with finite things that never provide fullness.

Marlow tells us that "all of Europe" went into the making of Kurtz. He IS Imperialism. He IS the Nietzschean Superman. He IS the Social Darwinist. He IS the ultimate consumer. He IS a philosophical materialist. He is the logical conclusion of a Western mindset that is driven by progress and efficiency at all costs.

And he is just  not a shadowy figure from our distant literary past. In class, I mentioned how Bret Easton Ellis's novel (and the film) American Psycho is about many of the same values (or the negation of all values in the name of self serving consumption). Patrick Bateman, the novel's central character, is an acquisitions specialist on Wall Street; like Kurtz, he is in the business of taking, taking, taking. Everything is an object to be consumed, including people.

Also like Kurtz, Bateman, a young, attractive yuppie with a large inheritance, has everything he needs but constantly wants more. His desires are never satiated. And these desires become more and more dehumanizing and cruel as he lives a double life  as venture capitalist and serial killer. Ellis clearly makes the point that this connection, like the connections between Kurtz's cruelty and the Imperialist project, are not incidental. Bateman is the logical end result of the American religion of consumption, the worship of greed and pleasure, the desire for progress, and efficiency at all costs.

I will spare you too many gory details, but both Bateman and Kurtz enjoy the lustful power they experience when they maim and kill others; Kurtz puts heads on stakes to decorate his compound while Bateman keeps them in his refrigerator. They are trophies of power, reminders of the the sick thrill of playing God. At one point in American Psycho, Batemen tells us that "there are no more barriers to cross," words that could also be one of Marlow's many descriptions of Kurtz.

My main interest in the comparisons between these two sinister literary figures is that their existence is a metaphor for the logical end result of worship at the altar of modernity. There is something deeply moral in the depiction of both of these characters, a reminder that Nietzsche's Overman who desires "not contentment but more power...not virtue but efficiency "will end up imploding, only after destroying anyone who challenges his delusional authority. There is no character change, no epiphany, no real "story" in the traditional sense.

Interestingly, BEE's novel makes a much more obvious, darkly satirical point than Conrad's hazy novel; but I trust Ellis's intentions less. He lingers far too long on the descriptions of sadism and masochism, perhaps enjoying them. Because of this, I cannot whole heartedly recommend reading his novel. Conrad's novel is far less gratuitous, but more ambiguous.

But both can be seen as a warning of the dangers of consumption, objectification, materialism--critiques of the dark corners of the "progressive, efficient" Western mindset.

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