The moral conditions for genocide in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1).
In the following pages, I want to demonstrate why the moral interpretation of Conrad's texts is problematic at best and completely misguided at worst. Put simply, to determine whether Conrad's "literary project" is moral or not, the scholar must be strategically positioned to make such a judgment. In other words, the scholar must have an implicit or explicit set of criteria to determine what constitutes a true moral vision. Moreover, this scholar must be in possession of a reliable epistemology that gives him/her access to true moral criteria. Significantly, it was when Conrad was working through the ideas central to Heart of Darkness that he rejected the concept of morality. For instance, in a letter to his dear friend R.B. Cunninghame Graham dated January 31, 1898, approximately one year before Conrad completed the novella, Conrad says: "There is no morality, no knowledge and no hope; there is only the consciousness of ourselves which drives us about a world that whether seen in a convex or a concave mirror is always but a vain and fleeting appearance" (1969, 71). This rejection of morality is not a one-time affair, for only five months after Heart of Darkness had completed serialization with Blackwood's Magazine, Conrad makes a similar observation in a letter to Edward Garnett: "I still have some pretensions to the possession of a conscience though my morality is gone to the dogs. I am like a man who has lost his gods" (1986, 2:198). This is a very curious remark. Conrad is certainly not endorsing an inhumane philosophy rooted in moral nihilism; as a possessor of a conscience, he believes in taking personal and political responsibility for one's actions. The problem is that something intrinsic to morality makes socially responsible and politically just action impossible. So, for Conrad, to have a conscience means rejecting morality; or conversely, being moral conflicts with having a conscience.
Of course, this strict morality/conscience dichotomy begs the question: what is Conrad's definition of morality? As I will argue in this essay, however, such a question is incoherent. For Conrad, the problem is not defining true morality; rather, the problem is that morality is an empty signifier, a semiotic vacuity that dominant political powers can strategically manipulate in order to justify crimes against humanity. Put differently, Conrad rejects morality, not because it is an essential concept that leads necessarily to social injustice, but because it is such an amorphous concept that political powers can so easily exploit in order to justify some of the most heinous crimes against humanity, specifically genocide. Therefore, instead of claiming that Conrad details a clear but extremely negative concept of morality in his fiction, I examine how he portrays a charismatic political figure who appropriates morality in order to justify crimes against humanity. Specifically, I discuss how an intelligent imperialist like Kurtz can strategically construct a political system that makes a crime like genocide a moral imperative.
I. "Mind the Gap"
To illustrate the insurmountable difficulties of the moral interpretation, I examine Heart of Darkness, specifically Kurtz's report to the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs. It is my contention that scholars have consistently misinterpreted what little we have of this document precisely because they have interpreted it through a moral lens. The document begins with an observation about the superior development of white Europeans, who "'must necessarily appear to them [savages] in the nature of supernatural beings--we approach them with the might as of a deity'" (Conrad 1996, 66). Given European "superiority," white colonizers could by "'the simple exercise of'" their "'will ... exert a power for good practically unbounded'" (66). Such "altruistic sentiment" leads Marlow into a state of euphoria, that is, until the concluding postscript, which reads: "'Exterminate all the brutes!'" On reading this line, Marlow is horrified. How could a simple exercise of will exerting a power for good lead to a call for genocide? For Marlow, the problem with Kurtz's call to exterminate the brutes is that it seemingly contradicts the content of the preceding "altruistic sentiment."
Marlow is not alone in thinking that there is an irreconcilable contradiction between the report and its postscript. Let me briefly examine three separate interpretations of this document in order to expose the central assumption governing standard approaches to the novella. In her feminist reading of Heart of Darkness, Johanna M. Smith interrogates the "interrelated ideologies of gender and empire" (1996, 169) in order to expose the contradictions inherent in patriarchal and imperialist ideologies. On this interpretation, Kurtz's report to the International Society embodies "the contradiction between the brutality of conquest and the mystifying 'power for good' of imperialist ideology" (171). In essence, Smith, like Marlow, detects a conceptual "gap" between the "noble" colonizing mission and the call for genocide: "a gap appears between" Kurtz's "early advocacy of the 'new gang' and the end of his report, 'scrawled evidently much later': 'Exterminate all the brutes!'" (171). A virtuous gang of colonizers certainly would not endorse genocide--hence, the contradictory gap.
In Conrad and Impressionism, Peters minds the conceptual gap from a slightly different angle. On his interpretation, adherence to absolute Truths or values is, for Conrad, destructive. In concrete terms, Kurtz's report is based on "an absolute system," but after living in a culture that subscribes to alternative values, Kurtz "comes to believe that his system of values is not the only way to order one's existence and hence cannot be based upon an absolute foundation" (2001, 140). On discovering that European values are not absolute, Kurtz despairs, which leads him to make his plea for genocide: "The scrawled postscript, 'Exterminate all the brutes!' ... is his disillusioned response" (140). Once the "noble" values of the first part of the report are called into question, Kurtz becomes disillusioned, which is to say that the first part of the report is totally out of step with the postscript. Not surprisingly, Peters refers to Kurtz as "immoral" (140).
In his book on Heart of Darkness, Peter Edgerly Firchow has developed the gap interpretation most insistently. For Firchow, there exist two Kurtzes, the original and the sham. According to this reading, the "pious document is clearly the product of the original Kurtz, the bearer of the imperial torch, whereas the note represents equally clearly an afterthought by the sham, or the ruthless maverick entrepreneur" (2000, 83). From this perspective, the Kurtz in the first part of the report is "a kind of imperialist European Everyman" (110), while the genocidal Kurtz is driven by "an aberrant moment of madness" (144). Because Kurtz ultimately succumbs to his basest impulses, Firchow refers to him as "less of a heroic explorer and more of an amoral or even immoral entrepreneur" (78). What ultimately unifies three totally diverse scholars like Smith, Peters, and Firchow is their view that there is a radical gap between Kurtz's report and the postscript, and that the postscript represents Kurtz's moral degeneration.
By contrast, I intend to argue 1) that the postscript to the report is internally consistent with the preceding "altruistic sentiment," 2) that Kurtz is moral precisely because he follows through with the logic of the document, which culminates in genocide and 3) that Conrad rejects morality because it makes crimes against humanity, like genocide, possible. There are three stages to my argument. In the first, I examine the biblical logic that makes genocide a moral obligation. In the second, I argue that Conrad was aware of the biblical conditions that justified genocide. Finally, I use this analysis to interpret Kurtz's report.
"My problem: What harm has come to mankind through morals and through its morality." (Friedrich Nietzsche 1968, 169)
There is a seeming contradiction throughout the Bible. On the one hand, God commands His Chosen People not to kill, but on the other hand, He commands them to kill others with tenacious regularity. (3) Unmarried but sexually active women (Deuteronomy 22:21-22), Sabbath breakers (Numbers 15:35), disobedient sons (Deuteronomy 21:18-21), and homosexuals (Leviticus 20:13) are just a few groups that should be put to death. Indeed, in Deuteronomy and first Samuel, God even sanctions genocide, telling his people to wipe out whole races of people, which includes "men and women, children and infants" (I Samuel 15:3). How is it possible for the Chosen People to accept the Ten Commandments, but not, at the same time, recognize that God commands them to violate one of those commandments quite regularly? There is a way to answer this question, but to do so, we must abandon our current understanding of the commandment, "Thou shalt not kill!" as we raise a more fundamental question: who, according to a theological worldview, would be considered human? The answer to this question lies in the Judeo-Christian tradition of the Chosen People.
According to one interpretation of the Bible, it is possible to determine who is a chosen person on the basis of an individual's capacity to see spiritual things. Paul develops this idea in first Corinthians when he makes a distinction between the natural and the spiritual person:
We speak of these, not in words of human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, thus interpreting things in spiritual terms. The natural man does not accept what is taught by the Spirit of God. For him, that is absurdity. He cannot come to know such teaching because it must be appraised in a spiritual way. The spiritual man, on the other hand, can appraise everything, though he himself can be appraised by no one. (I Corinthians 2:13-15)
The believer stands on a different epistemological plane than unbelievers. Because believers can see both material and spiritual things, they can appraise all things. The infidel, by contrast, can only see material realities, so the believer's life is beyond the unbeliever's epistemological reach. Paul examines the distinctions between the natural and the spiritual person again in the penultimate chapter of Corinthians, this time clarifying more carefully the ontological distinctions between two types of people: "Earthly men are like the man of earth, heavenly men are like the man of heaven" (I Corinthians 15:48). Through faith, the believer is ontologically transformed, existing no longer just as a person created out of earth, but now existing as a being created out of spirit. According to this view, the community can determine whether a person is a spiritual being or not through his or her epistemological capacity. If a person can see spiritual things (has faith), then the person is (ontologically) a spiritual being, like Christ, "the man of heaven." But if a person cannot see spiritual things (lacks faith), then we can infer that this person is just an earthly being, lacking spirit.
The ontological distinction between the natural and the spiritual person is crucial, because a natural being, which is like an animal, has no human rights. This is made clear in the first letter of Peter:
You, however, are 'a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people he claims for his own to proclaim the glorious work' of the One who called you from darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were no people, but now you are God's people; once there was no mercy for you, but now you have found mercy. (I Peter 2:9-11)
If you are chosen by God, you can expect mercy, but if you are not, the consequences can be dire. Not surprisingly, with regard to the treatment of non-chosen people, neither the Ten Commandments nor Christ's Golden Rule necessarily applies, since the non-chosen do not rise to the level of a people ("Once you were no people"). Therefore, were the Chosen People to steal from or kill the non-chosen, they would not be violating one of the Ten Commandments, for mercy is accorded only to people. This subtle qualification explains why the Chosen People can ruthlessly kill so many people in the Old Testament without contradicting God's command not to kill.
To bring this section to a close, let me make some very clear points about the theological conditions for genocide. Not only are believers allowed to kill infidels, they are actually commanded to do so. But there are a few conditions. Because infidels can only see material realities, they are not allowed to question or challenge the Chosen People's system of belief, for as it says in second Peter: "These men pour abuse on things of which they are ignorant." Given the natural person's presumptuous behavior, Peter details what should happen to these non-spiritual beings: "They act like creatures of instinct, brute animals born to be caught and destroyed" (II Peter 2:12). This claim does not necessarily imply that believers should seek out and destroy non-believers. It is only when we read Deuteronomy, first Corinthians, and first and second Peter that the conditions for genocide become clear. When the infidel not only questions and challenges the believer's system, but also has a negative impact on the spiritual community, then the believers must exterminate the infidels, "lest they teach you to make any such abominable offerings as they make to their gods, and you thus sin against the Lord, your God" (Deuteronomy 20:18). Given this logic, if believers do not exterminate infidels, they are in danger of sinning against God. Moreover, because offending infidels are not people in the strict sense of the word (a "no people"), the chosen people need not worry that they are violating a divine mandate when they kill them.
"I take it that Jahweh was little taken up with any of his creatures, except the people who inhabited the countries from which the Aryans came." (Cunninghame Graham 1981, 62)
Surely this is a rather uncharitable and idiosyncratic interpretation of the Bible. So why should anyone suppose that Conrad would have read the Bible in this way? (4) The answer lies in Conrad's relationship with Graham, a vocal socialist and atheist who was extremely critical of British imperialism and religious belief. (5) Conrad had profound respect for Graham. Indeed, in a letter Conrad calls him "the most alive man of the century" (1969, 135). So much did Conrad admire Graham that he asked the conservative publisher, William Blackwood, if he could dedicate a volume that included Youth, Heart of Darkness, and Lord Jim to his extremely liberal friend. (6) Although the volume was eventually dedicated to Conrad's wife, Conrad did dedicate Typhoon to his friend, and in a letter, Conrad says to Graham: "It is a public declaration of our communion in more, perhaps, than mere letters and I don't mind owning to my pride in it" (143).
The strength of the bond between Graham and Conrad is more than just fraternal sentiment; it is intellectual. In a letter to Graham, Conrad says: "I can assure you that I never wrote a book since [the beginning of their friendship] without many mental references to you of whom alone amongst my readers I always thought that He will understand" (1969, 191). To understand more clearly what makes Graham the ideal reader of Conrad's fiction, I want to briefly examine Graham's essay "Bloody Niggers," which Conrad read in mid-June of 1898, just six months before he started writing Heart of Darkness. (7) Both the essay and Conrad's response shed considerable light on Heart of Darkness in that they expose the social, political, and individual psychology that has made colonization an historical reality.
To open the essay, Graham locates himself within a tradition of atheist writers who consider the God-concept a psychological projection, the seething product of an overheated imagination: "That the all-wise and omnipresent God, to whom good people address their prayers,... is really but a poor, anthropomorphous animal, is day by day becoming plainer and more manifest" (1981, 58). (8) This observation is certainly not original--William Blake ("The Marriage of Heaven and Hell"), Percy Shelley ("The Necessity of Atheism"), Ludwig Feuerbach (The Essence of Christianity), Karl Marx (Towards a Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right), and Friedrich Nietzsche (Twilight of the Idols and Anti-Christ) are just a few who had already observed that humans psychologically project the God-concept into being. What makes Graham's work so uniquely insightful is his analysis of the way the God-concept functions to justify and sanction colonization and its most ruthless practices of exploitation, a project that anticipates the writings of Frantz Fanon. (9)
Central to the theology of colonization is establishing epistemological superiority, which thereby allows those in control of the intellectual means of production to ontologize themselves as God's Chosen People and to ontologize the non-chosen "other" as sub-human. For Europeans, epistemological superiority enables them to control the interpretation of the Bible, and not surprisingly, white Europeans have concluded that "the first man in the fair garden by the Euphrates was white" (Graham 1981, 61). Of course, Graham continues, "we have no information" (61) to verify this claim, but since white people "have entered, so to speak, into a tacit compact with the creator" (62), they are in an epistemological position to make such a claim. Non-white peoples may want to challenge this assertion, but since they are mere infidels who look but cannot see, who listen but cannot hear, they are, as Paul says, unable to comment on the spiritual reality that exceeds their epistemological grasp. So when whites use the Bible to ontologize themselves as superior, non-whites can neither verify nor challenge this claim.
Significantly, of all the white nations in the world, the British are, as Graham ironically observes, specifically chosen, "God's favoured nation" (1981, 65). In fact, the British gentleman is the apex of creation, the being that gives God most joy: "Thus, through the mist of time, the Celto-Saxon race emerged from heathendom and woad and, in the fullness of the creator's pleasure, became the tweed-clad Englishman" (64). Given their status as "God's own Englishmen" (63), the British have a right, nay, an obligation to colonize the world:
Much of the earth was his [the Englishman's], and in the skies he had his mansion ready, well aired, with every appliance known to modern sanitary science waiting for him with a large bible on the chest of drawers in every room. Australia, New Zealand, Canada, India, and countless islands, useful as coaling stations and depots amongst the heathen, all owned his sway. (Graham 1981, 64-5)
The British have been charged with building the city of God on earth. Therefore, they can take whatever land on the planet they deem fit.
As for non-white, non-chosen races, specifically "bloody niggers," they must submit themselves to the British. At this point, Graham underscores how Europeans have exploited the word "nigger" to inspire hatred and to vindicate violence: "In the consideration of the 'nigger' races which God sent into the world for whites (and chiefly Englishmen) to rule, 'niggers' of Africa occupy first place" (1981, 66). Graham's indignant tone, while certainly justified, is unfortunate, because it fails to connote the subtle theological distinctions that have made violence against non-whites psychologically and politically possible. However, the content of his claim is right on the mark. In keeping with Paul's theology of the Chosen People, "God's own Englishmen" are human in the strict sense of the word, while those of African descent are not really human. Therefore, when the British violate Africans, they are not committing crimes: "'Niggers' who have no cannons, and cannot construct a reasonable torpedo, have no rights. 'Niggers' whose lot is placed outside our flag, whose lives are given over to a band of moneygrubbing miscreants (chartered or not) have neither rights nor wrongs" (66-67). Humans have rights, not animals, and because Africans do not have epistemological access to the one true God, they cannot be considered human in the strict sense of the word--they are a "no people" who can expect "no mercy." Just in case Graham's reader may have failed to understand how the God-concept legitimates genocidal action against Africans, he states his point directly: "Better, by far, to have made the 'niggers' white and let them by degrees all become Englishmen, than put us to the trouble of exterminating whole tribes of them, to carry out his plan" (66). Exterminating Africans is legitimate so long as the British are carrying "out his [God's] plan." And how can Europeans know God's plan? The answer is the Bible, for as Graham says, "our own exploits amongst the 'niggers' of to-day" resemble "the record of crimes, of violence" in the Old Testament (62).
There are specifically two ideas in this document that are of particular relevance for my interpretation of Conrad. First, since the British control the God-concept, they can ontologize themselves as Chosen People and Africans as sub-human. By making this distinction, the British could perpetrate extreme acts of violence on Africans without violating either the Ten Commandments or Christ's Golden Rule--only humans have rights, so killing an African (animal) would not be immoral. Second, and more importantly, by making colonization part of God's "plan," Graham illustrates how it could be moral to kill Africans. This is a much stronger claim than my first point. To say that it is not immoral to kill Africans does not imply that British colonizers should seek out and kill Africans; it just means that the prohibition against killing has been removed. The second claim makes killing ("exterminating whole tribes of them") a moral obligation, a necessary act "to carry out his plan." While Graham understands that genocidal action against Africans could be a moral obligation that is part of God's plan, his essay fails to make clear the logic that justifies such action. But where Graham fails, Conrad succeeds.
Conrad read "Bloody Niggers," which he considered "very good, very telling" (1969, 89). However, he did have some objections. The essay lacks subtlety, and as a consequence, Graham ends up preaching to the converted. To make the essay more poignant and more effective, Conrad encourages Graham to hold his thoughts back, letting them gather "together to form a solid and penetrating phalanx" so that they could become "perhaps victorious" (1986, 2:70). (10) Put differently, to reach an audience that might not be critical of theology or imperialism, Conrad urges Graham to write more cogently.
"Bloody Niggers" certainly helped Conrad explain the theological mentality that justified "exterminating whole tribes of" Africans, or, as Kurtz puts it, to "[e]xterminate all the brutes!" What makes Heart of Darkness more effective, however, is Conrad's aesthetic control, his ability to frame the issues within a more comprehensive context and to maximize the emotional impact on his reader. The downside of Conrad's call for subtlety is that his "idea" could so easily be lost upon his reader. In fact, Conrad mentions this problem in a letter to Graham. After Graham read the first installment of the novella which appeared in Blackwood's Magazine in 1899, Conrad told Graham that "the idea [of the novella] is so wrapped up in secondary notions that You--even You!--may miss it" (1969, 116). Here we return to Graham as the ideal reader of Conrad's texts. If Graham, who is Conrad's ideal reader ("I always thought that He will understand"), could potentially miss the "idea" of the novella, how much more apt is the average reader to miss it? Conrad's subtlety has, no doubt, been the occasion for much interpretive ambiguity. But if we can specify what it is about Graham that makes him Conrad's ideal reader, then we might be more strategically positioned to interpret the "idea" of Heart of Darkness. For the sake of clarity, let me specify what I consider the crucial links between Graham and Conrad.
Conrad, like Graham, had very little respect for Christianity. In fact, Conrad tells Edward Garnett how he, "from the age of fourteen, disliked the Christian religion, its doctrines, ceremonies and festivals" (1986, 2:468). To Conrad's mind, something in Christianity lends "itself with amazing facility to cruel distortion," and consequently, Christianity "has brought an infinity of anguish to innumerable souls--on this earth" (5:358). Not surprisingly, when an evangelist presented Conrad "with a pocket copy of the English Bible," Conrad, who noticed that the book "was printed on rice paper," "used the leaves for rolling cigarettes" (1924, 96). (11) While Conrad had just as little respect for Christianity as Graham, his critique of Christianity was much more subtle. Therefore, in Heart of Darkness, while Conrad exposes the theology of colonization, he resists the temptation to be as overt as Graham, though Graham, who understands how British Imperialism has its roots in Christian theology, is in a position to understand precisely how the theological mentality of Heart of Darkness has been used to justify the European exploitation of Africa. (12)
More specifically, Conrad, again like Graham, understands that the theological mentality makes genocide not just permissible, but, under certain conditions, a moral obligation. But Conrad's analysis of the dangers of the theological mentality is more comprehensive than Graham's, and as a consequence, his critique is much more convincing. The task at this point is to demonstrate how the theological mentality functions to legitimate genocide as a moral obligation in Heart of Darkness.
"it is the highest importance to know whether we are not duped by morality." (Emmanuel Levinas, 1969, 21)
Establishing epistemological superiority is the first step toward justifying genocide as moral. As Marlow claims, "[t]he inner truth is hidden" (Conrad 1996, 50), so a person must have cultivated a superior epistemological faculty in order to access the hidden truth. (13) The average person will look but not see, listen but not hear, for the material world looks at us with an "air of hidden knowledge" (73). (14) But for those who are in possession of a "higher intelligence" (40), the secret truth can be known. At this point, I want to examine specifically how Marlow and Kurtz construct an invulnerable and impenetrable epistemology similar to Paul's, one that they can use to ontologize themselves as superior and others as inferior. (15)
As Paul claims, to see spiritual things, one must be spiritual. Consequently, the spiritual person can appraise everything, including the non-spiritual person's life, whereas the spiritual person's life can be appraised by no one. Significantly, a spiritual discourse is frequently used throughout Heart of Darkness to illustrate white European superiority and black African inferiority. For instance, in his report, Kurtz claims that white Europeans must appear to "savage" Africans as "supernatural beings," individuals who could wield the might "of a deity" (Conrad 1996, 66). Given Kurtz's uncanny power to influence people's minds, it should come as no surprise that Marlow adopts his rhetoric when he describes Fresleven, the mild-mannered Dane who was killed: "The supernatural being had not been touched after he fell" (24). For Marlow, Kurtz is an incarnational bridge to the highest realities, for it is through Kurtz's "burning noble words" (66) that Marlow gets "the notion of an exotic Immensity ruled by an august Benevolence" (66). The reason why Kurtz can supposedly access higher realities is because he is specifically chosen. Marlow indicates exactly this when he asks Kurtz if he understands the "roaring chorus" of natives shouting. Notice how Kurtz and then Marlow replies: "'Do I not?' he said slowly, gasping, as if the words had been torn out of him by a supernatural power" (84). Kurtz can see what others cannot, and this is the case, Marlow suggests, because a "supernatural power" has been assisting him, tearing the words out of him like Jeremiah's God in the Old Testament and Paul's God in the New Testament. In essence, Kurtz is in the same epistemological position as Paul's spiritual man.
These references to the supernatural are important, because for humans, the world cannot be known--it is "impenetrable to human thought" (Conrad 1996, 72). To know an ultimate truth or a spiritual reality about the world, one must be more than human, a supernatural being of sorts. Significantly, both Marlow and Kurtz possess this supernatural capacity, which is clear from their ability to see spiritual things, especially truth. That Kurtz is supposedly capable of disclosing truth is one of the central points running throughout the text. For instance, the Russian tells Marlow about Kurtz's epistemological superiority ("'He [Kurtz] made me see things--things.'" ), which leads the Russian to conclude that Kurtz is an extraordinary man who is not bound by ordinary laws: "'You can't judge Mr. Kurtz as you would an ordinary man'" (72). As for Marlow, Kurtz has helped him to see "the appalling face of a glimpsed truth" (87), which makes Marlow rush through the streets of the Sepulchral City spitting contempt on those who do not possess his privileged knowledge: "They [ordinary people] were intruders whose knowledge of life was to me an irritating presence, because I felt so sure they could not possibly know the things I knew" (88). Although it is through Kurtz that Marlow gains special knowledge of the world, Marlow flaunts his ability to access truth throughout the narrative. He knows about the "inner truth" (50), the "truth stripped of its cloak of time" (52), the "truth" that one "must meet ... with his own true stuff" (52), and the "surface-truth" (52). (16) Obviously, Marlow and Kurtz are ontologically superior to ordinary humans because of their more-than-human ability to know what is "impenetrable to human thought."
By claiming access to truth, Marlow and Kurtz can ontologize others as they will, and not surprisingly, Africans are ontologized as more animal than human, which makes them non-spiritual beings. Let me provide just a few examples to illustrate how the African's animality is underscored throughout Heart of Darkness. Marlow has to supervise a "savage who was fireman." This "improved specimen," instead of belonging to a Kantian Kingdom of Ends, is merely a means to a European's end:
He ought to have been clapping his hands and stamping his feet on the bank, instead of which he was hard at work, a thrall to strange witchcraft, full of improving knowledge. He was useful because he had been instructed; and what he knew was this--that should the water in that transparent thing disappear, the evil spirit inside the boiler would get angry through the greatness of his thirst, and take a terrible vengeance. (Conrad 1996, 52)
What is the implicit definition of "improving knowledge" in this passage? It is not a recognition of oneself as capable of negative freedom, which is the ability to overcome animal inclinations and physical impulses, nor it is an understanding of positive freedom, which is the ability to legislate to oneself the moral law. It is a superstitious belief that terrifies the "improved specimen" into filling a boiler with water. In essence, the improving knowledge is that which makes Africans an effective instrument of a white European. The African is a mere means, like an animal. Not coincidentally, Marlow uses an animal discourse to describe the fireman: "to look at him was as edifying as seeing a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat, walking on his hind legs" (Conrad 1996, 52). By ontologizing the African as an animal, Marlow effectively converts him into a means (humans are ends in and of themselves, while animals, in relation to humans, can be used as a mere means to human well-being) and thereby divests him of human rights (humans have rights, animals do not).
Consequently, when Marlow's helmsman dies later in the text, Marlow does not mourn the loss of a full-fledged human being; he laments the death of a deficient tool:
Perhaps you will think it passing strange this regret for a savage who was no more account than a grain of sand in a black Sahara. Well, don't you see, he had done something, he had steered; for months I had him at my back--a help--an instrument. It was a kind of partnership. He steered for me--I had to look after him, I worried about his deficiencies, and thus a subtle bond had been created, of which I only became aware when it was suddenly broken. (Conrad 1996, 67)
Marlow thinks of this little-account savage in terms of his utility; he is a deficient instrument who must be looked after (the sub-"human" is not an independent agent that can govern itself) and who enables (serves as an "instrument") chosen superiors to achieve their ends.
Africans can be converted into instruments because of their inability to be governed by noble principles. Such is the implicit view Marlow betrays when he discusses how the thirty starving Africans on his steamboat resist the temptation to revolt against the five whites on board. On noting the Africans' restraint, Marlow responds, "And these chaps too had no earthly reason for any kind of scruple. Restraint! I would just as soon have expected restraint from a hyena prowling amongst the corpses of a battlefield" (Conrad 1996, 58). For Marlow, hungry animals do not forgo a feast in the name of a higher principle; in fact, their most basic needs determine their behavior. Humans, by contrast, cultivate values and principles that transcend animal needs, so they can resist the temptation to satisfy an animal need in the name of a higher principle. Because Marlow considers Africans more animal than human, he is surprised by the restraint of the Africans in his steamboat. Such self-control is obviously inconsistent with his view of the African. More importantly, by likening Africans to hyenas, Marlow does more than just ontologize the natives as animals; he implicitly specifies why they are more animal than human--animals are governed exclusively by animal appetites, whereas humans can be governed by a moral precept. And Marlow's observation that the natives on his steamboat show restraint does nothing to mitigate his racist view; these Africans are an anomaly, an exception to what he considers the African/hyena rule. The last example, while the least overt and offensive, is the most significant in terms of the genocidal mentality in Heart of Darkness. Kurtz's Russian disciple tells Marlow about the unspeakable rites that the natives offered up to Kurtz. In his brief narrative, the Russian specifies that the natives "would crawl" (74). From a white European perspective, this act of crawling justifies labeling Africans as sub-human savages. For instance, when talking to the Russian, Marlow cannot tolerate the harlequin's obsequious relationship to Kurtz. To condemn the Russian, Marlow likens his fawning behavior to an act of crawling, which he links with the "savages": "If it had come to crawling before Mr. Kurtz, he crawled as much as the veriest savage of them all" (109). The more deferential the crawling behavior, the more savage one is.
Significantly, this animalization of the African has a very specific function in relation to Kurtz's and Marlow's spiritual discourse. Specifically, humans can know spiritual truth and they can live their lives according to these truths. As rational beings with free will, they are independent agents who cannot be reduced to a means. On the basis of their God-given faculties and abilities, they possess certain inalienable rights, which include being treated as an end. By contrast, animals cannot reason, and as a consequence, they cannot act responsibly. For this reason, they must be "looked after." Moreover, given their underdeveloped faculties and abilities, they do not possess human rights, which means that they can be used as a means, "an instrument." According to Graham's model in "Bloody Niggers," ontologizing Africans as animals has been enough for the British to justify exterminating them. But on a psychological level, there is something lacking in Graham's system. If I could demonstrate that an African is the ontological equal of a dog, this does not give me the right to kill either the African or the dog. Another condition must be met in order to justify genocidal action. According to the Bible, that condition is the adulteration of the Chosen People's spiritual life. In The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon describes this process incisively. The native "is the corrosive element, destroying all that comes near him; he is the deforming element, disfiguring all that has to do with beauty and morality" (1968, 41). Contact with the native can only have debilitating consequences for the Chosen People: "All values, in fact, are irrevocably poisoned and diseased as soon as they are allowed in contact with the colonized race. The customs of the colonized people, their traditions, their myths--above all, their myths--are the very sign of that poverty of spirit and of their constitutional depravity" (42). If it can be shown that Africans adulterate the spiritual life of the Chosen People, then genocide becomes not just permissible; it becomes a moral obligation. This is where Conrad goes beyond Graham.
Graham suggests that Africans, because they are considered less than human, have no rights ("'Niggers' ... have no rights"), which makes genocide permissible. Aside from suggesting that "exterminating whole tribes of them" is part of God's plan ("to carry out his plan"), Graham offers no explanation that necessarily links the Chosen People's epistemological and ontological superiority with a moral obligation for genocide. He only demonstrates that it is not immoral for chosen Europeans to exterminate whole tribes of Africans.
Conrad, however, is much more thorough. Let us see how the final condition for making genocide moral is met in Heart of Darkness. When Kurtz first enters the "God-forsaken wilderness" (1996, 28) of Africa, he goes, like a typical Christian missionary, as a minister of light, Truth, and civilization; he must elevate the "savages." But instead of his transforming the natives, they transform him. At first, Marlow, who frequently lives in a state of denial, refuses to acknowledge Kurtz's "fallen" condition. For instance, when Kurtz's Russian disciple intimates that Kurtz has participated in unspeakable rites, Marlow says: '"I don't want to know anything of the ceremonies used when approaching Mr. Kurtz'" (74). But after seeing impaled heads on stakes in front of Kurtz's house, Marlow can no longer deny the facts. The most damning evidence confirming Kurtz's spiritual degeneration, however, comes when Marlow finds Kurtz "crawling on all-fours" (81). Kurtz has become one of "them." In essence, "crawling on all-fours" suggests that Kurtz has become "a veriest savage," a brute that cannot see or experience the higher realities of the spiritual life.
Given the logic of Heart of Darkness, becoming an animal has very specific connotations. Supernatural humans can know a hidden truth that is "impenetrable to human thought." Moreover, they can overcome their animalistic urges and live according to noble principles. When Kurtz becomes an animal, he implicitly loses two more-than-animal capacities: he would no longer be able to know a hidden, more-than-human truth and he would no longer be able to conform his life to a spiritual principle. In essence, he would be like a hyena who is governed solely by animal appetites, so the idea of being a moral agent would be out of the question. Given this animalistic nature, Kurtz would no longer belong to a Kantian Kingdom of Ends; he would become "an instrument," a mere means to the true human community's end. So by becoming an animal, Kurtz could no longer justify his position of superiority.
Since it is the natives (those who "would crawl") who have degraded Kurtz ("he is crawling on all-fours"), Kurtz must "[e]xterminate all the brutes," "lest they teach" other Chosen Europeans "to make any such abominable offerings as they [the Africans] make to their gods, and you thus sin against the Lord, your God." Kurtz's decision to use the word "brutes" is important. In "An Outpost of Progress," which Conrad published before Heart of Darkness, one of the main characters, Carlier, talks "about the necessity of exterminating all the niggers" (1987, 102). Had Kurtz said "Exterminate all the niggers!," the report on the Suppression of Savage Customs would not have been nearly as internally consistent as it is when he says: "Exterminate all the brutes!" Because animals ("brutes") do not have rights, Kurtz can endorse genocide with emotional, psychological, and spiritual impunity--most people have reservations about killing humans, but most have no problem with the killing of animals. This is doubly the case since the natives have already begun to corrupt the spiritual life of a Chosen Person and to transform him into a brute. From a traditional Judeo-Christian perspective, therefore, committing genocide is Kurtz's only moral choice. To state this more strongly, were Kurtz not to endorse genocide, he would be in danger of allowing others to become animalized, which would lead to spiritual degeneration on a massive scale. So to achieve a moral victory, Kurtz must make a moral call for genocide. To put this in Marlow's words, "It was an affirmation, a moral victory paid for by innumerable defeats, by abominable terrors, by abominable satisfactions. But it was a victory! That is why I have remained loyal to Kurtz to the last" (1996, 88). Kurtz's vision is a moral victory. Of course, scholars could argue, as does Firchow, that Marlow endorses only Kurtz's noble vision, the desire to "exert a power for good practically unbounded." But if my intuitions are right, that the underbelly of the "altruistic sentiment" document implies genocide, then it does not matter whether Marlow endorses the report minus the postscript. In fact, Marlow endorsing the report minus the postscript is all the more dangerous, because it is the altruistic sentiment that effectively conceals the genocidal impulse implicit in the document's philosophy.
To conclude, let me briefly discuss the aesthetic challenge in Heart of Darkness. Like Graham, Conrad realizes that it is not incarnate devils who have formulated the political doctrine of colonization or the theological justification of genocide. On the contrary, the individuals who have originated and perpetrated oppressive systems have belonged to a veritable gang of virtue. As Conrad says in a letter to Graham: "Posterity shall be busy thieving, lying, selling its little soul for sixpence (from the noblest motives) and shall remember no one except perhaps one or two quite too atrocious mountebanks" (1969, 47-48). For Conrad, heinous crimes against humanity are not inconsistent with noble and moral discourses. In fact, some of the worst atrocities are committed in the name of the "noblest motives" like morality.
But how can a writer expose a culture's sacred idol, like morality, as the most effective weapon for perpetrating crimes against humanity? After all, morality is inviolable; it is beyond reproach, beyond critique. (17) But that is precisely why it is so dangerous. In short, the culture's noblest motives create an epistemological blind spot; we can criticize certain moralities, but never morality as such, and as a consequence, we can critically interrogate degrading moralities, but never morality as such. For a writer like Conrad, who considers morality so dangerous, morality's seeming inviolability creates a formidable aesthetic dilemma. On the one hand, were he to critique a sacred idol like morality too overtly, he would fail to replicate the subtle psychology that makes morality so effective in persuading a liberal man of virtue to commit or conceal atrocities. On the other hand, were he to critique morality too subtly, he would run the risk of sounding at a frequency too low to be heard. It is this dimension of Marlow's narratorial complexity that has so often baffled even the most astute scholars. For instance, in Gone Primitive, Marianna Torgovnick fails to understand the significance of Marlow's epistemological limitations:
Heart of Darkness is narrated by Marlow and shares many of his limitations. The narrative is willing to approach, but finally backs away from, really radical themes--about modern Europe, about the human mind in an indifferent universe, about sacrificial and violent rituals as a charm against death, about the degree to which men are driven to affirm their essentiality and identity. (Torgovnick 1990, 152)
For Torgovnick, Conrad and Marlow (as if the two are one and the same) would successfully address Europe's problematic politics only through a more overt and direct critique. But for Conrad, Europeans have been able to justify their atrocities to self and others through a beneficent discourse, like morality, that effectively conceals its dark underside. Put differently, were Conrad to make Marlow more critical and aware, were he to make Heart of Darkness more direct and overt, he would have failed to depict the very mindset that makes a Marlow incapable of recognizing the genocidal dangers implicit in the altruistic sentiment part of Kurtz's report on the Suppression of Savage Customs. Put another way, were a Marlow to understand and expose the logical connection between the altruistic sentiment and the call for genocide, he would have been less inclined to admire the seemingly original or sham Kurtz or to conceal Kurtz's crimes against humanity. But it is precisely this lack of critical awareness that has made so many decent, lawabiding, moral subjects of the empire capable of committing (Kurtz) and/or concealing (Marlow) atrocities against others with impunity. Lack of awareness and inability to make logical connections, therefore, are, contra Torgovnick, the "radical themes" of Heart of Darkness; they are the very things that make Kurtz and Marlow fail to realize how they have been duped by morality into participating in a large-scale project of degrading and violating another culture and race.
Significantly, understanding Marlow's complex position as narrator is crucial for making sense of Kurtz. Marlow does not wholeheartedly support Kurtz. He is horrified by what he perceives as Kurtz's moments of madness. In essence, Marlow detects a conceptual gap in Kurtz's report. On my interpretation, however, there is no such gap. The report is so horrifying because it is logically and internally consistent. Kurtz merely articulates in the postscript what the report logically implies. From this perspective, Kurtz's crime is not genocide; his crime is stating overtly the usually hidden genocidal logic of Western morality, a logic that the west has felt comfortable implementing ("Exterminate all the brutes!"), but never admitting (Marlow offers a representative "the report of the 'Suppression of Savage Customs,' with the postscriptum torn off" [Conrad 1996, 89]) to others or itself. Marlow may not approve of Kurtz's call to exterminate the brutes, but he does not have to. By endorsing the first part of Kurtz's report, Marlow implicitly endorses the postscript, whether he knows it or not. What differentiates Kurtz and Marlow is that Kurtz, having been forced to follow his altruistic-sentiment moral ideology to its logical end, ultimately acknowledges what his philosophy implies. Marlow, on the other hand, lives in a state of denial. But this state of denial is precisely why he is so dangerous. Were people to understand how Kurtz's moral system logically leads to genocide, they would be less apt to accept it. By concealing the logical end of Kurtz's moral philosophy, Marlow effectively prevents himself and others from seeing the justificatory foundation of Europe's crimes against humanity in Africa.
Of course, many contemporary scholars could reject this critical interpretation of morality in Heart of Darkness by claiming that they use true morality to interpret Conrad's texts, not the sham moralities that have conveniently justified human rights abuses. But, for Conrad, such a view indicates a naive understanding of the way morality is constructed. To my mind, Conrad was not being a sloppy, irresponsible, or nihilistic intellectual when he rejected morality; to the contrary, he was being unabashedly honest and politically realistic. For those scholars who would import a moral discourse into Conrad's texts, their moral gesture puts them at odds with Conrad, not just in terms of morality, but also in terms of epistemology. But just because Conrad rejects morality, it does not follow that he lacks a vision of social justice. Paradoxically, to establish a more politically just society, Conrad seeks to banish morality. As a man with a conscience and a subtle ear for the logic of oppression, Conrad would have us call into question the moral mechanism that makes the atrocity against humanity a nightmare from which we are still trying to awake.
(1) I would like to thank John G. Peters, John Lestat, and the readers of College Literature for making valuable suggestions for revising this essay. I would also like to thank the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation for the generous financial assistance that made this project possible.
(2) There have been many excellent studies of Conrad's epistemology, but for the sake of this essay, I mention only those that have influenced my reading of Conrad most: Watt (1980), Wollaeger (1990), Peters (2001), and Roberts (2000).
(3) In The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism (1997), Regina M. Schwartz does a first-rate study of the theological psychology that so consistently leads to ruthless acts of violence. My work is in the same tradition as Schwartz's, but I offer a different model to explain this psychology.
(4) For an excellent study of Conrad's extensive knowledge and use of the Bible, see Purdy (1984).
(5) In the "Introduction" to Joseph Conrad's Letters to R.B. Cunninghame Graham, C.T. Watts sheds much light on Conrad's close friendship with Graham.
(6) Watts mentions the dedication debate in his commentary on Conrad's letters (1969, 136-37).
(7) Watts claims that "Graham seems to have noted Conrad's criticisms, because he made uncharacteristically large excisions and alterations to this article before it was republished: the digressions and topical references were curtailed" (1969, 90).
(8) There were many varieties of atheism emerging in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Some useful studies about the emergence of atheism include: Berman (1988), Miller (1963), Thrower (2000), Wilson (1999), and Nielsen (2001).
(9) For a discussion of Frantz Fanon's scathing critique of theology, see my essay (Lackey 2002).
(10) This quotation comes from The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad. The passage I quoted is in French in the original. The Watts version does not have an English translation.
(11) This incident is documented in Ford (1924), but I first came upon it in Purdy (1984, 8-9).
(12) It is worth noting that Conrad does not savage just Christianity. In Almayer's Folly, the Arabs refer to Almayer as "that Unbeliever" (1936, 29), and they use the same kind of psychological tactics as Christians to justify acts of cruelty and violence towards unbelievers. We see this same dynamic in Lord Jim. I suspect that Conrad, like Nietzsche and Freud, was less interested in the shortcomings of any particular religion than the common failings of all religious belief. As Nietzsche claims in On the Genealogy of Morals, "all religions are at the deepest level systems of cruelties" (1989, 61), or as Freud claims, "every religion is in this same way a religion of love for all those whom it embraces; while cruelty and intolerance towards those who do not belong to it are natural to every religion" (1959, 39).
(13) For an excellent discussion of the epistemology of Heart of Darkness within the context of the emergent social Darwinism of the late-nineteenth century, see Lindquist (1996).
(14) Susan E. Lorsch has written an excellent study documenting the reasons why nature and the world could no longer be signified after the death of God. For Lorsch, since there is no God, according to many late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century writers, there can be no ideal language to signify the world. For this reason, both Victorians and modernists wrote extensively about their inability to find a language that adequately signified nature or the world.
(15) In a sense, this essay is an attempt to expand on and to rework Edward Said's interpretation of Heart of Darkness (1993). Here specifically is the quote that has motivated me to write this essay: "For if we cannot truly understand someone else's experience and if we must therefore depend upon the assertive authority of the sort of power that Kurtz wields as a white man in the jungle or that Marlow, another white man, wields as a narrator, there is no use looking for other, non-imperialist alternatives; the system has simply eliminated them and made them unthinkable. The circularity, the perfect closure of the whole thing is not only aesthetically but also mentally unassailable" (24). My task has been to demonstrate how this invulnerable system is based on a theological mentality.
(16) It is worth noting that Conrad did not share Marlow's or Kurtz's epistemological optimism regarding truth, which is clear from the following remark to Graham: "And suppose Truth is just round the corner like the elusive and useless loafer it is? I can't tell. No one can tell. It is impossible to know. It is impossible to know anything tho' it is possible to believe a thing or two" (1969, 45). Scholars like Chinua Achebe, Firchow, and Brantlinger fail to distinguish Marlow's view from Conrad's, which results in very clumsy interpretations of the novella.
(17) Nietzsche makes a similar observation about morality in Twilight of the Idols (1989, 80).
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Brantlinger, Patrick. 1996. "Heart of Darkness: Anti-Imperialism, Racism, or Impressionism?" In Heart of Darkness, ed. Ross C. Murfin. Boston and New York: Bedford/St. Martin's.
Conrad, Joseph. 1936. Almayer's Folly. New York and London: Penguin Books.
______. 1969. Joseph Conrad's Letters to R. B. Cunninghame Graham. Ed. C.T. Watts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
______. 1986. The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad. Ed. Frederick R. Karl. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
______. 1987. "An Outpost of Progress." In Tales of Unrest. New York: Penguin Books.
______. 1996. Heart of Darkness. Ed. Ross C. Murfin. Boston and New York: Bedford/St.Martin's.
Daleski, H.M. 1977. Joseph Conrad: The Way of Dispossession. New York: Holmes and Meier.
Fanon, Frantz. 1968. The Wretched of the Earth. Trans. Constance Farrington. New York: Grove Press, Inc.
Firchow, Peter Edgerly. 2000. Envisioning Africa: Racism and Imperialism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Lexington: The University of Kentucky Press.
Ford, Ford Madox. 1924. Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company.
Freud, Sigmund. 1959. Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. Trans. James Strachey. New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company.
Graham, R. B. Cunningham. 1981. "Bloody Niggers," Selected Writings of Cunninghame Graham. London and Toronto: Associated University Presses.
Holy Bible: The New American Bible. 1971. Nashville, Camden, and New York: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
Lackey, Michael. 2002. "Frantz Fanon on the Theology of Colonization," Journal of Colonialism & Colonial History. 3.2:1-29.
Levinas, Emmanuel. 1969. Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Trans. Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.
Lindquist, Sven. 1996. Exterminate all the Brutes. New York: New Press.
Lorsch, Susan E. 1983. Where Nature Ends: Literary Responses to the Designification of the Landscape. London and Toronto: Associated University Presses.
Miller, J. Hillis. 1963. The Disappearance of God: Five Nineteenth-Century Writers. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Nielsen, Kai. 2001. Naturalism and Religion. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1968. The Will to Power. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage Books.
______. 1989a. On the Genealogy of Morals. Trans. Walter Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale. New York: Random House.
______. 1989b. Twilight of the Idols Trans. R.J. Hollingdale. New York: Random House.
Peters, John G. 2001. Conrad and Impressionism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Purdy, Dwight H. 1984. Joseph Conrad's Bible. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
Roberts, Andrew Michael. 2000. Conrad and Masculinity. New York: St. Martin's Press.
Said, Edward W. 1993. "Two Visions in Heart of Darkness." In Culture and Imperialism. New York: Vintage Books.
Schwartz, Regina M. 1997. The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Smith, Johanna M. 1996. "'Too Beautiful Altogether': Ideologies of Gender and Empire in Heart of Darkness." In Heart of Darkness, ed. Ross C. Murfin. Boston and New York: Bedford/St. Martin's.
Thrower, James. 2000. Western Atheism: A Short History. Amherst: Prometheus Books.
Torgovnick, Marianna. 1990. Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Lives. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.
Watt, Ian. 1980. Conrad in the Nineteenth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Watts, C.T. 1969. "Introduction." In Joseph Conrad's Letters to R.B. Cunninghame Graham, ed. C.T. Watts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Wilson, A.N. 1999. God's Funeral. New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company.
Wollaeger, Mark. 1990. Joseph Conrad and the Fictions of Skepticism. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Michael Lackey is assistant professor of English at SUNY-Brockport and a visiting assistant professor at Wellesley College. He has published articles on Virginia Woolf, Friedrich Nietzsche, Nella Larsen, Mark Twain, Paul Celan, Frantz Fanon, T.S. Eliot, and Gerald Manley Hopkins.
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|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2005|
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