Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Joseph Conrad (1857-1924)

Sierra Club


I don't like work... but I like what is in work - the chance to find yourself. Your own reality - for yourself, not for others - which no other man can ever know.


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Lecture: Heart of Darkness
COPAC UK: Joseph Conrad
Library of Canada: Joseph Conrad
Library of Congress: Joseph Conrad
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Born Jozef Teodor Nalecz Konrad Korzeniowski, Joseph Conrad (December 3, 1857 - August 3, 1924) was a Pole who was brought up in Russian-occupied Poland. His father, an impoverished aristocrat, writer, and militant fighter, was arrested by the occupying regime for his patriotic activities, and was sentenced to penal servitude in Siberia. Shortly after this, his mother died of tuberculosis in exile, then his father, despite his being allowed to return to Cracow. Subsequently Conrad was brought up by his uncle. Conrad eventually abandoned his education at the age of 17 to become a seaman in the French merchant navy. He lived adventorous, buccaneerish life sailing off Marseilles, being involved in gunrunning and political conspiracy. In 1878, after attempted suicide, Jozef took service on a British ship in order to avoid French military service. He gained his certificate of Master Mariner, learned English before the age of 21, to finally become naturalized Briton in 1884.

His first novel, Almayer's Folly, a story of Malaysia which was written in English, was published in 1895. It should be remembered that the lingua franca at that time was French, which was Conrad's second language, thus it is altogether remarkable that Conrad should write so fluently and effectively in what was his third language. His literary work bridges the gap between the classical literary tradition of writers such as Charles Dickens and Fyodor Dostoevsky and the emergent modernist schools of writing. He is now best known for the novella, Heart of Darkness, on which Francis Ford Coppola's film, Apocalypse Now, is loosely based. Joseph Conrad died of a heart attack and was buried in Canterbury, UK, with three mistakes in his name on the grave-stone. [This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License and uses material adapted in whole or in part from the Wikipedia article on Joseph Conrad.]

Heart of Darkness
Russell McNeil, PhD (Copyright 2005)
[Logos Exclusive]

This is my first attempt in ten years to respond formally to Conrad. The ideas I have found personally attractive -- I'm sure you who know me sense this -- are those that mirror my own quirks. Give me anything that blends rationality and mysticism and I am content. I've always marched to the tune of Van Morrison's "Into the Mystic." Plato took me to that same place by offering us an intellectual method to cross that same divided line. The Book of Matthew also brought me there. The attraction here being the cool clear possibility of letting Faith aid in our "crossing the line" without having to work at all! I find ideas that use ways of fusing intellect with faith or the possibility of faith most attractive. The intellectual certainty of writers like C. S. Lewis who anchors his moral and intellectuality certainty on faith have been most attractive to me.

I've avoided Nietzsche for what seemed obvious reasons to me. Not only was the free ticket to certainty provided by the possibility of faith missing, he always seemed somehow irrational. But, this is Liberal Studies, and I do have some sort of duty here to take Mr. N. seriously -- I've decided to try it on, through a back door, tentatively. Whether its really tentative or no I'll let you decide. If I end up vilifying Christianity and Norm actually believes that and who must oppose anything I've ever said, about anything, will find himself forced into a difficult and I suspect uncomfortable place. And honestly I have too much residual Christian love to do that to Norm.

The Nietzsche Reading of Conrad

It's interesting to attempt a portrait of Kurtz and especially what is variously described as the "eloquence" of the man and what he represents. Conrad gets at this eloquence as something that had been asserted before by other "conquerors." Rare men indeed these are (these early conquerors), those who can stare into the abyss, accept it as "incomprehensible," able to savor "an abomination and to do what must be done," namely: "to commit robbery with violence; to commit aggravated murder on a great scale, and to go at it blind - as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness...what redeems it -- (this sort of savagery) - is the idea only...an idea you can set up, bow before, offer sacrifice to...in effect "erect monuments to." In his Genealogy of Morality Nietzsche, in offering a justification for actions like these, reminds how Pericles, in his funeral oration, says something about the nobility of cruelty. "Our boldness," says Pericles, "has gained us access to every land and sea, and erected monuments to itself for both good and evil." Who could erect and bow down before a monument to evil as did our Greek forebearers? We of course who have been acculturated under democratic values and Christian virtues are officially repulsed by the so-called virtuosity of Pericles' tribute to the virtue, necessity of evil. But when you turn truth on "her head," as Nietzsche does in Good and Evil and Conrad has in his character Kurtz in Heart of Darkness all values are up for grabs. All meanings invert.

The Horror

I asked our seminar on Tuesday for an opposite meaning for "horror." "Bliss" came to mind. Horror and bliss are opposites of course only in reference to our and masked Platonic-Judaic-Christian & Democratic virtues. Nietzsche will call these "herd values." Values imposed on us for the benefit not of those who practice them, but for the benefit of those who proclaim them. And it has worked. We in the West have been seduced and narcotized for two millennia. But, Nietzsche will argue, the "stink" of Christian "comedy" masquerading as freedom exacted a horrible price. It bought the present by sacrificing the future. Its legacy is HIV, Mad Cow, Ozone depletion, and economic, social, and environmental decay. The legacy is the modern world. Did Kurtz somehow know this. "Kill the brutes," he scrawled somewhere. I will discuss a bit later what I think is meant by this expression.

Kurtz's Heart is in the Right Place

It's enough now to say that Kurtz' "heart" is in the right place -- as far as one can imagine from the contamination of mamby pamby Christian altruism. Right where it belongs commingled with something more closely resembling what Nietzsche would identify as a more authentic representation of truly human experience -- smack dab in the midst of an abomination, of a darkness. And like a madman, at least from the point of view of our values, Kurtz revels in, and, in death, characterized "this" as "the horror," not once, but twice. Of course in this incommensurate place where it is permissible to invert both values and the words we use to describe those values, evil is good, horror, bliss. There is no repentance in this exclamation. It is rather, or can be seen in a Nietzschian interpretation as the gleeful, blissful, crowning exclamation of a man as he crosses the threshold of redemption. The suffering Christ on the cross of Calvary cries "My God, my god, why hast thou forsaken me?" Kurtz experiences no such delusion. "My God" is "the horror." And by god the revelation is sweet. This is no "cheap" vision. This is experience in the raw -- truth unmasked. The "horror" of Kurtz, is the reality equivalent behind Hildegard's deluded migraine induced visions of blinding light. If Kurtz indeed does peer into the "void" at that moment of death, that triumphant exclamation of bliss, is also an exclamation of certainty and justification for a life done well. As Nietzsche says man would rather have the "void" as purpose, than to be "void of purpose." For Kurtz this moment of cold clear insight, as he slides into oblivion would, for him, is worth more than an eternity in any Christian heaven.

The Nietzsche "virtues"

I like Conrad. He creates his "eloquent" Uberman Kurtz, inserts him quite snugly into a Nietzschian mold, yet never really reveals anything about the nature of the eloquence, unless it is simply: "the horror," Kurtz does manifest Uberman virtues we read of in "Beyond Good and Evil."


Courage? The man has no fear.


Solitude? Kurtz is as far removed in both the physical and moral plane as any prodigy new philosopher or conqueror could be.


His understanding is cosmic -- he may be the first man to fully understand and to celebrate the nature of good and evil.


... or some such jolly variation on this theme. We know only that Kurtz "knows" something about the nature of experience that only a superman with the right blend of virtues could acquire. What Conrad allows us to observe in Kurtz is however seen second or third hand, through the filter of the witness, Marlow, who by the end of the novella seems himself moving toward his own conversion.

Sympathy and the Godhead

The fourth virtue after courage, solitude and insight, is sympathy. Sympathy, rightly understood, is to be "tuned in." But what does Kurtz tune in to? I see this virtue as dissimilar to but performing the function of the Christian virtue of altruistic "love." Something that would be impossible, because we are not selfless, without the gift of becoming one with the Christian god. "Love" is possible only because "God" or "Christ" enters our lives and provides the strength to become super-human, to deny the will, and to direct our energies outward, towards others. For Nietzsche energy is directed not out, but inwards. The tuning in is not a tuning into the god, or gods, but a tuning into self. That's where the energy and will reside. That's where the god and the only god resides. The metaphor for this as I read Conrad, is the image of that "barbarous and superb" woman -- superwoman -- on the shore. Superman, superwoman. Is this Kurtz transfigured, god made flesh? Is this Kurtz rising from the dead? Is this fearless woman, and fearful image the godhead of Kurtz' godless horror? She is nothing like the god of Moses demanding self-denial for the benefit of communal harmony. But, she might well represent the source of Kurtz's will to power, a god-mother emerging from, and created by the all powerful god the son. There she stands, power itself, prepared for her/his ascent/decent into heaven/hell. God the mother and God the son-bound in Perfect sympathy. This godhead -- like all "good" gods do - inspires extreme fear. All religious systems do. All religions, says Nietzsche, are systems of cruelty. These systems force us to submit to the "good" under threat of castration, stoning, crucifixion, burning, flaying, and eternal damnation. Blood and horror lies behind all "good things" as Nietzsche says. The difference between the Kurtzian or Nietzschian godhead and the Judeo/Platonic/Christian delusion is it's stark unmasked honesty. Here cruelty is its own reward.

The logic

It's helpful to remember here that although Kurtz inverts the meanings we good democrats attach to all that is "good" and fuzzy -- the logic isn't necessarily insane. Kurtz may appear irrational, illogical, perverse, cruel and insane. But is he, really? If the paradigm Kurtz marches to is indeed one of a Nietzschian superman, Kurtz can be seen as the most rational and well adjusted man alive. To see it this way might require substituting "irrational" for "rational", and "mal-adjusted" for "well-adjusted." But it does not require that we substitute logic for illogic. Nietzsche and Aristotle see eye to eye as far as the rules of formal logic go. Neither Nietzsche nor the Conradian projection of a Nietzschian Uberman violate those rules. The thesis underlying Kurtz's justification of his way of being would earn an A+ in any class in formal logic.

Parallels between Kurtz and the Nietzsche Superman

Let's try on some of the syllogisms Nietzsche expresses and apply them to Kurtz. Nietzsche says there is no a priori reason that altruism, Christian or otherwise, should be the basis for good. The "good" as we democrats embrace the notion is therefore historically untenable and bad psychology. Nietzsche thus searches in his etymology for the value behind the word good in the notion of nobility, and purity and high. The value for this Nietzschian basis for good comes not from a "denial" of self, or saying "no" to ourselves and the flesh, but rather through the celebration and affirmation of self -- which is the source of a truly noble morality. Much emerges from this self affirmation. Altruism as manifest in the "stinking" Europe of Nietzsche's day, In repelling altruism and embracing "self," we embrace that which is really human. That includes instinctive pleasures. In particular the pleasure of seeing others suffer. To cause suffering gives even greater pleasure, free from the conscience and guilt imposed on us by traditional slave morality. As we free ourselves of our "gods," the atheism that fills the void produces what Nietzsche calls a second "innocence." And it is in this innocence that we recover or discover our true humanity-the humanity of being the beast of prey. That's freedom. The freedom of expressing our pure, unbridled and urges: Urges that Christianity and democracy have suppressed and repressed. "We can imagine" says Nietzsche, "such noble ones returning from an orgy of murder, arson, rape and torture, jubilant and at peace with themselves- confident that the poets (like Pericles in his funeral oration) -- will sing their praise.

Textual evidence

What do we actually learn of Kurtz "in" the text. Through the eyes of the Russian, he is a "prodigy, a "universal genius" (a superman)," a man of "wide intelligence (insight?)," "wide sympathies (sympathy)," and "singleness of purpose (as only solitude will allow)." He is, like you Marlow, of the "new gang, - the gang of virtue." Or perhaps we could read: "gang of new virtues?"

1. Marlow hints that he too has begun to see glimpses of world behind the mask, under precisely those conditions where masks are inconvenient. In one of those situations Marlow confesses that "the reality -- the reality, I tell you -- fades. The inner truth is hidden -- luckily, luckily."

2. The mysterious response of the natives also provides more evidence of the influence of Nietzsche. The native response to the colonizer is far from defensive or aggressive; it is protective -- expressed by Conrad as "an act of grief." But grief for what??? "From the depths of the woods went out such a tremulous and prolonged wail of mournful fear and utter despair as may be imagined to follow the flight of the of the last hope from earth." Through the filter of European values, the native appears a blend of childlike, untamed, savage, and innocent qualities. The native is dangerous, true...but dangerous in the way a child would be if handed a loaded gun. The uncivilized native and the native's uncivilized values are sorely in need of civilizing. And that is precisely the mandate of the "Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs" -- an agency designed to bring the Good News of Christian Salvation and democratic values into the heart of darkness. Kurtz and Marlow are its civil representatives. The missionaries would do the field work. In time the colonizers might get somewhere. All that needs to be done is to instill a healthy dose of Christian guilt into the native soul - at which point the Congo like Europe would be tamed as we have been tamed, leaving its precious resources, as we have left ours, ripe for exploitation and unchallenged by its newly converted populace. Projecting into the future the taming influence provided by a strong dose of Judeo-Christian conscience would rob the Congo, like Europe and North America before it, of its true soul. In the short term the "good" as we perceive the good, would create enormous commercial dividends. Sadly, the rape of the Congo would surely leave it too, one day, in the same state our predecessors have left ours.

Kill the Brutes

Read in this way, the savage can be seem as more fully human than the colonizers. More fully human because that truly human drive -- that "will to power" -- had never been corrupted by the "stink" of the Judeo-Christian ethic. Kurtz surely has seen that. He recognizes who the brutes really are. And they are not the natives whose customs he has subsumed as he surrounds himself with shrunken heads. "Kill the brutes" takes on new meaning in this light.

Books from Alibris: Joseph Conrad

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