My previous post in this series (see links at the end of this post) was about the longest paragraph in Heart of Darkness, one that is structurally central to the text. For that reason I’ve called it the nexus.
In this post I offer comments on the entire paragraph, along with comments on several preceding paragraphs and one following paragraph. My object is to demonstrate, in some detail, the range of material Conrad covers in this structurally central paragraph. What’s lacking in these comments is an overview. To invoke an old metaphor, I’m commenting on trees by ones, twos, threes and stands, but the shape of the overall forest is obscure.
Perhaps there’s no overview to be had. But I doubt that. I just don’t know the terms in which an overview can be constructed. I'd appreciate suggestions.
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At this point in the story Marlow and the others are close to the Inner Station, where they expect to find Kurtz and, of course, his ivory. The boat is attacked from the shore. The helmsman is transfixed with a spear and dies, bleeding all over the floor. Marlow notices that his shoes are drenched in blood. He transfers the wheel to one of the pilgrims who’d been sent by the manager, and tosses one shoe overboard, thinking about how Kurtz must be dead and how he’d lost the opportunity to talk to him.
I have interpolated comments in italics, thus. The comments do not strive for depth. They note or ask about the obvious. Where I break a paragraph into segments to comment on the segments individually, I number the segments A, B, C, etc. I also give the total word count for the entire paragraph, but only list that total in the first segment of a multi-segment paragraph.
Before the Nexus
[99. 117 words]"The other shoe went flying unto the devil-god of that river. I thought, 'By Jove! it's all over. We are too late; he has vanished—the gift has vanished, by means of some spear, arrow, or club. I will never hear that chap speak after all,'—and my sorrow had a startling extravagance of emotion, even such as I had noticed in the howling sorrow of these savages in the bush. I couldn't have felt more of lonely desolation somehow, had I been robbed of a belief or had missed my destiny in life. . . . Why do you sigh in this beastly way, somebody? Absurd? Well, absurd. Good Lord! mustn't a man ever—Here, give me some tobacco." . . .
(1) Notice the sorrow and desolation he experiences while thinking of the meeting he’ll never have. (2) And then he turns his attention to his present listeners, one of whom apparently has sighed. Where does the “absurd?” come from? What’s Marlow thinking the other has judged to be absurd? (3) And then the concrete need of tobacco for his pipe, which gets lit in the next paragraph, which focuses our attention on the here and present of the frame tale.
[100. 61 words] There was a pause of profound stillness, then a match flared, and Marlow's lean face appeared, worn, hollow, with downward folds and dropped eyelids, with an aspect of concentrated attention; and as he took vigorous draws at his pipe, it seemed to retreat and advance out of the night in the regular flicker of the tiny flame. The match went out.
[101A. 210 words] "Absurd!" he cried. "This is the worst of trying to tell. . . . Here you all are, each moored with two good addresses, like a hulk with two anchors, a butcher round one corner, a policeman round another, excellent appetites, and temperature normal—you hear—normal from year's end to year's end.
Notice this figure — “each moored with two good addresses”. It will return again at 103G. Marlow then returns to commenting on his actions back then, the loss of his shoes, of Kurtz’s discourse. But, to the present Marlow’s shame, he did not shed a tear back then.
[101B.] And you say, Absurd! Absurd be—exploded! Absurd! My dear boys, what can you expect from a man who out of sheer nervousness had just flung overboard a pair of new shoes. Now I think of it, it is amazing I did not shed tears. I am, upon the whole, proud of my fortitude. I was cut to the quick at the idea of having lost the inestimable privilege of listening to the gifted Kurtz. Of course I was wrong. The privilege was waiting for me. Oh yes, I heard more than enough. And I was right, too. A voice. He was very little more than a voice. And I heard—him—it—this voice—other voices—all of them were so little more than voices—and the memory of that time itself lingers around me, impalpable, like a dying vibration of one immense jabber, silly, atrocious, sordid, savage, or simply mean, without any kind of sense. Voices, voices—even the girl herself—now—"
(1) Marlow now assures us that, yes, he did get to hear “the gifted Kurtz.” (2) What girl? The Intended, which he’ll mention shortly, or perhaps that native woman who’ll be mentioned somewhat later and who appears to have been Kurtz’s mistress? (3) And why does Marlow go silent? To compose himself before going on?
[102. 7 words] He was silent for a long time.
The Nexus Proper
[103A. 1502 words] "I laid the ghost of his gifts at last with a lie," he began suddenly. "Girl! What? Did I mention a girl? Oh, she is out of it—completely. They—the women, I mean—are out of it—should be out of it. We must help them to stay in that beautiful world of their own, lest ours gets worse. Oh, she had to be out of it. You should have heard the disinterred body of Mr. Kurtz saying, 'My Intended.' You would have perceived directly then how completely she was out of it.
(1) Marlow starts with a reference to the Intended, and to his conversation with her in which he lied about Kurtz’s last words, which were “the horror, the horror.” He told the Intended that Kurtz died with her name on his lips.
(2) The women are to kept out of this world. Whatever THIS world is – Africa? the sea? – it’s men only.
(3) The Intended is first mentioned in paragraph 58, though not by the phrase. Marlow is conversing with a young agent, an aristocrat who collected artifacts and was supposed to be making bricks. Marlow had been talking with him and noticed “a small sketch in oils, on a panel, representing a woman, draped and blindfolded, carrying a lighted torch. The background was somber—almost black. The movement of the woman was stately, and the effect of the torchlight on the face was sinister.” It had been painted by Kurtz and was, we subsequently infer, the Intended, whom we meet at the very end of the story.
(4) This is the first use of that phrase, “the Intended”.
[103B.] And the lofty frontal bone of Mr. Kurtz! They say the hair goes on growing sometimes, but this—ah specimen, was impressively bald. The wilderness had patted him on the head, and, behold, it was like a ball—an ivory ball; it had caressed him, and—lo!—he had withered; it had taken him, loved him, embraced him, got into his veins, consumed his flesh, and sealed his soul to its own by the inconceivable ceremonies of some devilish initiation. He was its spoiled and pampered favorite.
The frontal bone, perhaps alluding to the brain behind it. That it keeps on growing, presumably alluding to hair growth after death. He’s thinking of Kurtz being dead, which, of course, happens later in the story. From bald head Marlow associates to ball, and from there to ivory, the object of this whole business.
Follow the ontology in that sequence: from (part of) a living being, to an inanimate object, to a substance sans form. We’re heading toward “ivory” as a mass noun, as a substance. We’ve gone from high in the Great Chain of Being to low.
[103C.] Ivory? I should think so. Heaps of it, stacks of it. The old mud shanty was bursting with it. You would think there was not a single tusk left either above or below the ground in the whole country.
And elephants had to be killed to obtain those tusks. This is the economic core of the venture, the Company’s, and Marlow’s boat trip.
[103D.] 'Mostly fossil,' the manager had remarked disparagingly. It was no more fossil than I am; but they call it fossil when it is dug up. It appears these niggers do bury the tusks sometimes—but evidently they couldn't bury this parcel deep enough to save the gifted Mr. Kurtz from his fate.
(1) Not sure what’s going on here. Still, the term “fossil” tends to have a paleontological reference and that lines up with various references to prehistory. But how would burying the ivory deep have saved Kurtz? It’s as though the ivory tempted him, but couldn’t do so if he couldn’t find it. (2) Note the word “niggers.”
[103D.] We filled the steamboat with it, and had to pile a lot on the deck. Thus he could see and enjoy as long as he could see, because the appreciation of this favor had remained with him to the last. You should have heard him say, 'My ivory.' Oh yes, I heard him. 'My Intended, my ivory, my station, my river, my—' everything belonged to him.
Here we get the critical phrase, the one where Kurtz shows his boundless greed and boundless need, the phrase I’ve called the Litany: 'My Intended, my ivory, my station, my river, my—' As I’ve indicated in an earlier post — Ontology at the Heart of Darkness — it limns an ontology.
[103E.] It made me hold my breath in expectation of hearing the wilderness burst into a prodigious peal of laughter that would shake the fixed stars in their places. Everything belonged to him—but that was a trifle. The thing was to know what he belonged to, how many powers of darkness claimed him for their own. That was the reflection that made you creepy all over.
Kurtz had become a man possessed. He’s no longer an autonomous agent. He was in thrall to powers of. . . the place? Cf. the voiceover line in Apocalypse Now where Willard remarks that Kurtz had been receiving orders from the jungle.
[103F.] It was impossible—it was not good for one either—trying to imagine. He had taken a high seat amongst the devils of the land—I mean literally.
An allusion that will be clarified later on when we learn [103L] that tribesmen in the area made sacrifices on Kurtz’s behalf.
[103G.] You can't understand. How could you?—with solid pavement under your feet, surrounded by kind neighbors ready to cheer you or to fall on you, stepping delicately between the butcher and the policeman, in the holy terror of scandal and gallows and lunatic asylums—how can you imagine what particular region of the first ages a man's untrammeled feet may take him into by the way of solitude—utter solitude without a policeman—by the way of silence, utter silence, where no warning voice of a kind neighbor can be heard whispering of public opinion?
(1) Here’s that trope again, betwixt butcher and policeman, the one Marlow had introduced in paragraph 101A when responding to imagined critique by his audience.
(2) Marlow again addresses his listeners (us). And talks of home (England, Europe), with its familiar assurances (pavement, neighbors), and its familiar worries (scandal, gallows, asylum). And asserts that here, in the “region of the first ages” (the fossile ages?) one (that is, a European) lives in solitude. No gossip, no policeman to keep one behaving properly. It’s as though it’s not enough to have internalized social norms (cf. the Freudian superego); one must have those norms continuously reinforced by interaction with real people. There’s no one here to do that, for the people here are not one’s own (European).
(3) Note also the reference to pavement under foot, picking up the thread introduced by Marlow tossing his bloodied shoes overboard.
[103H.] These little things make all the great difference. When they are gone you must fall back upon your own innate strength, upon your own capacity for faithfulness. Of course you may be too much of a fool to go wrong—too dull even to know you are being assaulted by the powers of darkness. I take it, no fool ever made a bargain for his soul with the devil: the fool is too much of a fool, or the devil too much of a devil—I don't know which. Or you may be such a thunderingly exalted creature as to be altogether deaf and blind to anything but heavenly sights and sounds. Then the earth for you is only a standing place—and whether to be like this is your loss or your gain I won't pretend to say. But most of us are neither one nor the other.
This is a bit obscure, tough to unravel. Yet “innate strength” would seem to be in opposition to the social pressure he’d mentioned previously, “kind neighbors ready to cheer you or to fall on you” and “the holy terror of scandal and gallows and lunatic asylums.” The sense seems to be that it takes a special kind of person to get caught up in whatever it is that caught Kurtz up. But for the likes you and me ...
[103I.] The earth for us is a place to live in, where we must put up with sights, with sounds, with smells too, by Jove!—breathe dead hippo, so to speak, and not be contaminated.
The dead hippo – an allusion to meat brought on board the boat by some of the crew. From paragraph 81: “They were men one could work with, and I am grateful to them. And, after all, they did not eat each other before my face: they had brought along a provision of hippo-meat which went rotten, and made the mystery of the wilderness stink in my nostrils. Phoo!”
[103J.] And there, don't you see? Your strength comes in, the faith in your ability for the digging of unostentatious holes to bury the stuff in—your power of devotion, not to yourself, but to an obscure, back-breaking business. And that's difficult enough. Mind, I am not trying to excuse or even explain—I am trying to account to myself for—for—Mr. Kurtz—for the shade of Mr. Kurtz. This initiated wraith from the back of Nowhere honored me with its amazing confidence before it vanished altogether. This was because it could speak English to me.
Again, Marlow addresses his audience. He’s trying to account “for the shade of Mr. Kurtz.” The fact that Kurtz was willing to confide in him comes down to the fact that Marlow spoke English. Kurtz had been deprived of the opportunity, the society, to use his native tongue.
[103K.] The original Kurtz had been educated partly in England, and—as he was good enough to say himself—his sympathies were in the right place. His mother was half-English, his father was half-French. All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz; and by-and-by I learned that, most appropriately, the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs had intrusted him with the making of a report, for its future guidance.
Now we shift gears, from Kurtz to Europe. Kurtz, though his genealogy, and through his mission, becomes a figure for all of Europe. Kurtz is Europe in its encounter with Africa.
[103L.] And he had written it too. I've seen it. I've read it. It was eloquent, vibrating with eloquence, but too high-strung, I think. Seventeen pages of close writing he had found time for! But this must have been before his—let us say—nerves, went wrong, and caused him to preside at certain midnight dances ending with unspeakable rites, which—as far as I reluctantly gathered from what I heard at various times—were offered up to him—do you understand?—to Mr. Kurtz himself.
Now we get to Kurtz’s ideas, on which he prided himself, for which the Intended worshipped him, and which so impressed the harlequin, who shows up in paragraph 108. This is paragraph 103, so he’s showing up soon. But even as those ideas are mentioned, we also hear reference to “certain midnight dances ending with unspeakable rites.”
[103M.] But it was a beautiful piece of writing. The opening paragraph, however, in the light of later information, strikes me now as ominous. He began with the argument that we whites, from the point of development we had arrived at, 'must necessarily appear to them [savages] in the nature of supernatural beings—we approach them with the might as of a deity,' and so on, and so on. 'By the simple exercise of our will we can exert a power for good practically unbounded,' &c., &c.
(1) Marlow’s now giving us the story of how Kurtz’s words had enthralled him. But he’s also giving us critical commentary on those words.
(2) Let’s remind ourselves where Marlow’s taken us in this paragraph. We start with the Intended, 103A. Then from Kurtz’s head to an ivory ball, 103B, to all the tusks that were the economic point of this imperialist enterprise, 103C and 103D. In 103E the ivory is piled on deck and Kurtz is admiring it: “My Intended, my ivory, my station, my river, my—.” That litany, as we’ve seen, indicates the entire world. Now Marlow shifts to moral reflection in 103E, 103F, 103G (oriented toward society), and 103H (oriented toward individual character).
(3) 103I reminds us of brute physicality, the stench of decaying hippo flesh. But I rather suspect that the evolutionary psychologists can link that sense of disgust to morality. For that matter, so could the psychoanalysts and the anthropologists (I’m thinking particularly of Mary Douglas on taboo).
(4) 103J brings up the relationship that Marlow had established with Kurtz, the fact that “this initiated wraith from the back of Nowhere honored me with its amazing confidence.” Why? Because Marlow could speak English.
(5) Now we get Kurtz’s background, 103K, which implicates all of Europe. In particular, Marlow mentions the report Kurtz had prepared for the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs. The name of that society is, of course, dripping with irony, for the report’s author, that is to say, Kurtz himself, had become enthralled by savage customs, 103E and 103F.
(6) And that brings us to the writing and ideas in the report, 103L. Marlow observes that it is eloquent, and then mentions that his “nerves, went wrong, and caused him to preside at ... unspeakable rites ... offered up to him.” This brings us to the current section, 103M, where Kurtz observes that whites must appear as supernatural beings to ‘savages.’
You might want to pause for a moment and think about just what Conrad is doing. It’s more than I can comprehend. And so I simply list things as they happen.
[103N.] From that point he soared and took me with him. The peroration was magnificent, though difficult to remember, you know. It gave me the notion of an exotic Immensity ruled by an august Benevolence. It made me tingle with enthusiasm. This was the unbounded power of eloquence—of words—of burning noble words. There were no practical hints to interrupt the magic current of phrases, unless a kind of note at the foot of the last page, scrawled evidently much later, in an unsteady hand, may be regarded as the exposition of a method. It was very simple, and at the end of that moving appeal to every altruistic sentiment it blazed at you, luminous and terrifying, like a flash of lightning in a serene sky: 'Exterminate all the brutes!'
And now the fall (yes, of course, I know how that particular work, fall, resonates in such a context). Marlow/Conrad expostulates on the seductions of “burning noble words” and crashes it into that ugly phrase: Exterminate all the brutes! What we need to think about is how those words became so utterly detached from reality.
[103O.] The curious part was that he had apparently forgotten all about that valuable postscriptum, because, later on, when he in a sense came to himself, he repeatedly entreated me to take good care of 'my pamphlet' (he called it), as it was sure to have in the future a good influence upon his career. I had full information about all these things, and, besides, as it turned out, I was to have the care of his memory.
(1) Now we’re looking ahead. Kurtz is concerned about how he’ll be remembered. And, of course, this very discourse Marlow is delivering is one of several acts in which Marlow acquits his responsibility.
(2) Marlow’s heading to the end of this digression. For it is THAT, a digression, in the sense that it interrupts the tale which, as you may recall, was in the thick of an attack, with a man just killed.
[103P.] I've done enough for it to give me the indisputable right to lay it, if I choose, for an everlasting rest in the dust-bin of progress, amongst all the sweepings and, figuratively speaking, all the dead cats of civilization. But then, you see, I can't choose. 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.
(1) Progress and civilization aren’t faring very well.
(2) That one devoted friend is the Russian, whom we have yet to meet, though we’ve seen evidence of his activity. He’s the one who left the note back in paragraph 83: 'Wood for you. Hurry up. Approach cautiously.' Notice how Marlow characterized him, as neither rudimentary — like the Africans who performed rites in his name? — or self-seeking, like the Company agents who valued the ivory he delivered.
(3) Note: the pilgrims have “small souls”. Shouldn't pilgrims have expansive souls, generous souls?
[103Q.] 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. 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.
Now we have a crude, but only possible, equation: Kurtz (the ideas of) = the dead helmsman. Marlow doesn’t know whether or not it balances. How could he? As far as I can see, the Kurtz side comes down to a pile of ideas while the helmsman side comes down to solid service (expressed in the next paragraph) and the life itself. The linkage between those ideas and the loss of that life . . . well, that takes in the whole novella, does it not?
[103R.] 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. And the intimate profundity of that look he gave me when he received his hurt remains to this day in my memory—like a claim of distant kinship affirmed in a supreme moment.
Now we’re ready to rejoin the attack in progress – actually, it’s all but over. Marlow mourns the loss of the helmsman, a man with whom he had formed a “kind of partnership.” It was a modest relationship, but one in which they achieved something together, progress along the river. What kind of relationship did he have with Kurtz and what did it achieve? Note that the look from the dying helmsman is as effectively seared into his memory as Kurtz’s words.
After the Nexus
[104A. 293 words] "Poor fool! If he had only left that shutter alone. He had no restraint, no restraint—just like Kurtz—a tree swayed by the wind.
That rickety equation continues, between the helmsman and Kurtz. Neither had any restraint.
[104B.] As soon as I had put on a dry pair of slippers, I dragged him out, after first jerking the spear out of his side, which operation I confess I performed with my eyes shut tight. His heels leaped together over the little door-step; his shoulders were pressed to my breast; I hugged him from behind desperately. Oh! he was heavy, heavy; heavier than any man on earth, I should imagine.
Again, the feet: (1) his own feet (the dry slippers), (2) the helmsman’s feet/heels. And this resonates with “pavement under your feet, surrounded by kind neighbors,” 103G.
[104C.] Then without more ado I tipped him overboard. The current snatched him as though he had been a wisp of grass, and I saw the body roll over twice before I lost sight of it for ever. All the pilgrims and the manager were then congregated on the awning-deck about the pilot-house, chattering at each other like a flock of excited magpies, and there was a scandalized murmur at my heartless promptitude. What they wanted to keep that body hanging about for I can't guess. Embalm it, maybe.
That is, Marlow is intent on the practical business of getting out of this mess. As captain of the boat, that’s his responsibility. Recall the brutal moment in Apocalypse Now when Willard shot the (most likely fatally) wounded woman in the sampan.
[104D.] But I had also heard another, and a very ominous, murmur on the deck below. My friends the wood-cutters were likewise scandalized, and with a better show of reason—though I admit that the reason itself was quite inadmissible. Oh, quite! I had made up my mind that if my late helmsman was to be eaten, the fishes alone should have him. He had been a very second-rate helmsman while alive, but now he was dead he might have become a first-class temptation, and possibly cause some startling trouble.
I take it that this is a bit of grim humor.
[104E.] Besides, I was anxious to take the wheel, the man in pink pyjamas showing himself a hopeless duffer at the business.
Again, the practical business of getting on with it takes precedence.
A Postscript: Do it All, the Whole Text?
That’s an obvious possibility, to comment on the entire text like I’ve commented on this portion. There is, of course, a reason why I started with these paragraphs, but why not go all in?
Two reasons: 1) I don’t have time to do it. 2) Even if I did, I’m not sure how I’d make sense of the commentary. Up top I noted that this commentary focuses on the trees at the expense of the forest. That problem would get worse with commentary on the whole text.
Yet, in the long run, in the large view, I don’t see that we’ve got any choice but to forge ahead and do it, and not just for this text. Things will no doubt come to view in the process of generating all that commentary. And we’ll have to put it all out there in order to begin grappling with the problem of creating an over view of that mass of information. Computer tools might help.
Anyone have a graduate seminar looking for a project?
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Earlier posts in this series:
- Heart of Darkness, Narration and Temporal Displacement
- Interlude: Slocum’s Pilot and Sensory Deprivation
- Closure, Attachment, and Abstract Objects in Heart of Darkness
- Ontology at the Heart of Darkness
- The Heart of Heart of Darkness