Sunday, July 31, 2011

HD11: Marlow’s Calculation

Or, the Incommensurability of Competence and Affection

I want to take a last look at the Nexus, where Marlow poses something very like a calculation, or a weighing. He’s talking of Kurtz:
He won't be forgotten. Whatever he was, he was not common. He had the power to charm or frighten rudimentary souls into an aggravated witch-dance in his honor; he could also fill the small souls of the pilgrims with bitter misgivings: he had one devoted friend at least, and he had conquered one soul in the world that was neither rudimentary nor tainted with self-seeking. No; I can't forget him, though I am not prepared to affirm the fellow was exactly worth the life we lost in getting to him.
It’s that last phrase I’m thinking about: “I am not prepared to affirm the fellow was exactly worth the life we lost in getting to him.” How does one do that, weigh one man against another? Though we rarely have cause to weigh individuals in their totality, as Marlow apparently is doing here, we do evaluate others constantly. The most subtle evaluations are about personal relationships and social interactions.

Indeed, that is one of the themes of evolutionary psychology, that our large brain is fundamentally a social brain, that we evolved the brain as a means of conducting a rich social life. As far as I know, no one has proposed explicit mechanisms by which we evaluate or calculate about interpersonal relationships, though Alan Fiske, for example, has interesting things to say on the subject. Nor do I intend to propose mechanisms here. I wish simply to make the point that such mechanisms must exist, and that we are, in effect, observing the traces of their operations as we examine such passages.

So, let us consider that problem Marlow has posed to himself, and by implication, to us: how weigh the life of the helmsman against that of Kurtz? It is, of course, a different problem for (the imaginary) Marlow than it is for (the real) us. He is telling us of something that happened to him long ago and far away. Whatever knowledge and experience went into calculating the balance between the two, Marlow has long since do so, and on the basis of far wider information than that available to us.

So, when he implies that the helmsman is neck-and-neck with or even ahead of Kurtz—who was “not exactly worth” the helmsman’s like, notice that exactly—he’s doing so with fuller knowledge of both the helmsman and of Kurtz than we have. But, do we have enough information at this point to make Marlow’s valuation credible? What do we know about Kurtz? Until the beginning of the paragraph we knew almost nothing about him. He was a name, attached to a position, Chief of the Inner Station, and associated with incredible talent and murky events. That’s pretty much it. But now, thanks to what Marlow has told us in this paragraph (though I assume that the paragraphing was supplied by the unnamed narrator of the frame tale) we know a great deal about him, though the nature of his transgressions is still somewhat murky. So we have at least something to put in the balance as we consider Marlow’s calculation.

What do we know of the helmsman? First of all, we do not even know his name. We know only his position in the boat’s crew. We have statements that Marlow has made about the crew in general, including their apparent propensity for cannibalism (see paragraph 88 where there’s talk of eating one of the attackers), but we also know how the helmsman specifically behaved when the boat came under attack: not terribly well.

The boat was near the bank and headed toward a snag when the attack started (paragraph 95):
We were being shot at! I stepped in quickly to close the shutter on the land side. That fool-helmsman, his hands on the spokes, was lifting his knees high, stamping his feet, champing his mouth, like a reined-in horse. Confound him! And we were staggering within ten feet of the bank. I had to lean right out to swing the heavy shutter, and I saw a face amongst the leaves on the level with my own, looking at me very fierce and steady; and then suddenly, as though a veil had been removed from my eyes, I made out, deep in the tangled gloom, naked breasts, arms, legs, glaring eyes,—the bush was swarming with human limbs in movement, glistening, of bronze color. The twigs shook, swayed, and rustled, the arrows flew out of them, and then the shutter came to. 'Steer her straight,' I said to the helmsman. He held his head rigid, face forward; but his eyes rolled, he kept on lifting and setting down his feet gently, his mouth foamed a little. 'Keep quiet!' I said in a fury. I might just as well have ordered a tree not to sway in the wind. I darted out.
The helmsman was not doing his job. And it gets worse:
Our wood-cutters raised a warlike whoop; the report of a rifle just at my back deafened me. I glanced over my shoulder, and the pilot-house was yet full of noise and smoke when I made a dash at the wheel. The fool-nigger had dropped everything, to throw the shutter open and let off that Martini-Henry. He stood before the wide opening, glaring, and I yelled at him to come back, while I straightened the sudden twist out of that steamboat. There was no room to turn even if I had wanted to, the snag was somewhere very near ahead in that confounded smoke, there was no time to lose, so I just crowded her into the bank—right into the bank, where I knew the water was deep.
It is only then, after he’d panicked under the attack, left his post, and started firing a rifle (to little avail), that the helmsman gets killed. So he’s dead, and his performance under fire has not been the sort that leads to a good job evaluation.

Now, let us return to the nexus and to Marlow’s evaluation. Having stated the question of the equivalence between the remarkable Mr. Kurtz and the incompetent Mr. Helmsman, Marlow observes:
I missed my late helmsman awfully,—I missed him even while his body was still lying in the pilot-house. 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.
He missed him, missed him even as he’d just died. That’s not a sentiment that has much of anything to do with performance review. Marlow had formed a bond with him the helmsman, and that bond is what went into the scale to be weighed against all the accomplishments of the remarkable Kurtz.

The reader will take that bond into the remainder of the story, in effect, reading subsequent events through and against that bond: the man himself, of course, but also the Russian and his account of Kurtz, and finally, the Intended.

What if Marlow’s bond with the incompetent helmsman was, in some meaningful sense, more substantial than the bond between Kurtz and the Intended? What if that latter bond was of the type between Dante and his Beatrice, or say, between Humbert Humbert and his Lolita? A strong bond, yes, one with considerable motivational and inspirational force. If the European adventure in Africa, with which Kurtz is so intimately identified, if that adventure flows from a desire such as Humbert Humbert has for his Lolita, then perhaps it is not surprising that it had such ghastly consequences on the ground. For the motivation is in a world altogether different from the one in which its consequences were lived.

The romance of Africa is one thing. Actual relations with Africa, another. Heart of Darkness is a great artist’s attempt to weigh the two. And perhaps what Conrad shows is that the commerce can be so grim precisely because the romance has little purchase in the real world.

But that’s a reading for another day.

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Other posts in this series.


  1. the loss of the Helmsman--classical echoes as well, are there not. Bad joss to lose the pilot. Odyssey perhaps? One of those old sea-shanties . The river itself with Dantean overtones as well. Or, per the Conrad, Abridged of FCC's Apoc.Cow--don't get off the boat.

    "An Outpost of Progress" has some similar themes: gear, if you will--which is to say, rifles-- as the main thing separating the europeans from the natives.

    (don't perceive much of a Nabokov connection--I doubt JC would approve of VN, that semi-talented comic )

  2. Interesting set of observations. Makes one ask: Why'd Conrad make the (vocationally incompetent) point of attachment to be, specifically, the helmsman?