Conrad’s Mr Kurtz and the modern heart of darkness

Dear Tingasiga,
I have just finished my fourth reading of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, one of my top 10 indispensible literary works.

The novel, published in 1902, is a narrative based on Conrad’s own experience in the Congo Free State a few years earlier, in which he had witnessed some of the most barbaric acts visited upon humanity.
Charles Marlow, the fictitious narrator of the story, recounts his journey up “a mighty big river” (The Congo) with the chief mission of discovering and rescuing a lost Belgian trading company agent called Mr Kurtz. This extraordinary agent has earned fame for his limitless capacity to get rubber and ivory.
Marlow tells us that Kurtz, worshipped by the natives as some kind of a god, has witnessed and participated in barbaric behaviour, using extremely unsavory means such as multiple beheadings of the locals in order to get the rubber and ivory.

The journey is dangerous, complete with attacks by “the savages”, but ultimately yields the great discovery of an ailing Mr Kurtz whom the powers of darkness “have claimed for their own.” Kurtz dies as he is being repatriated from the inner reaches of the River Congo and is buried in “a muddy hole”.

My initial reading of Heart of Darkness many years ago left me persuaded that Conrad’s reference to Africans in Congo as “savages” and the area as the heart of darkness was racist.

One readily agreed with Chinua Achebe’s view, very well articulated in his 1975 critique of the novel, that “Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as the other world, the antithesis of Europe and, therefore, of civilisation, a place where man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality.”

My view has evolved over subsequent readings. Heart of Darkness exposes the evil, exploitative and murderous nature of European conquest and colonisation of Africa. It challenges the notion that there is a difference between the European and the African in their capacity to do evil.

Take anyone to the heart of darkness and he will become like Mr Kurtz. A supporting crew of hero worshippers – victims really – who are too gullible to question the motives and control methods of their “god” hasten the process.

Mr Kurtz is alive and well today, living in the state houses and presidential palaces of Africa. He is a former idealist who captured power promising to restore the human and other democratic rights of citizens but became a classic autocrat who holds onto the presidency through coercion, not persuasion.

He is an educated, churchgoing ruler, church leader and other public servants and their courtiers who encounter the powers of darkness that claim them for their own.
However, we who criticise and judge the corrupt and ruthless men and women in power today need to be humble lest we believe the illusion that we would behave differently if we got unfettered access to the immense, unchecked power of many of the rulers of Africa.
Conrad’s Mr Kurtz had an empire built on theft and terror that was sustained by locals who did most of his dirty work and worshipped him as a “god”.

The modern Mr Kurtz has no shortage of fawning worshippers who are ready to betray, destroy and even kill their neighbour in exchange for a share of the loot.

Clearly, many today live in the heart of darkness but remain blind to the horror of their souls. To those who think they are too strong to be claimed by the heart of darkness should remember that it was not Mr Kurtz that was the problem. He was the product of his environment, of his fawning subjects.

Mr Kurtz’s last words – “The horror! The horror!”– summarised the dark and evil nature of untamed power where theft, corruption, inefficiency, torture and lies become the norm, transforming even the most well-meaning leaders into rulers that are prepared to use any means necessary to retain political control.

Dr Mulera is based in Toronto, Canada.

SOURCE: Daily Monitor

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