In an earlier post about Heart of Darkness I said:
But, and this is crucial, he wanted us have a précis of Kurtz’s story before we finally meet him in the last installment. [Why? Good question, but let’s leave it alone for now.]
That’s where I’m going, to answer the question I posted in brackets. But before we get there I want to take up a matter that Samuel Delany has been emphasizing in discussions at Facebook: It’s not about Kurtz; he’s only a subplot, if you will.
Kurtz as MacGuffin
You might object, But he’s the central character in the story. He’s why Marlow went up the Congo. He’s what the story’s all about. No?
No. Yes, he is the central character and, yes, he is why Marlow went up the Congo. But is he really what the story is all about? Is it about his thoughts and desires and how he’s changed in the course of the story? Think about it.
First, over half of the narrative goes by before we learn anything about him other than his name. We get a précis of his life story in one long paragraph – the good, the bad, and the very bad (“Exterminate all the brutes!”), then he’s carried onto the steamer, sees his African mistress gunned down, and then he dies, well before the story concludes with a conversation between Marlow and his Kurtz’s fiancée. He doesn’t do much of anything. Whatever doing he’s done is in the past. In this story he just gets carried to a watery grave.
I submit that Kurtz is what Alfred Hitchcock called a MacGuffin, the object in a spy story or a detective story that motivates the action. The black ceramic bird at the center of The Maltese Falcon is a good example. It turned out to be of little or no value (the statue was a fake), but people thought it was valuable and so they made all this fuss over it.
Hitchcock explained the MacGuffin in an interview he had with François Truffaut:
The main thing I've learned over the years is that the MacGuffin is nothing. I'm convinced of this, but I find it very difficult to prove it to others. My best MacGuffin, and by that I mean the emptiest, the most nonexistent, and the most absurd, is the one we used in North by Northwest. The picture is about espionage, and the only question that's raised in the story is to find out what the spies are after. Well, during the scene at the Chicago airport, the Central Intelligence man explains the whole situation to Cary Grant, and Grant, referring to the James Mason character, asks, "What does he do?" The counterintelligence man replies, "Let's just say that he's an importer and exporter." "But what does he sell?" "Oh, just government secrets!" is the answer. Here, you see, the MacGuffin has been boiled down to its purest expression: nothing at all!
To be sure, Heart of Darkness is not a spy story or a detective story. It’s a stripped down African adventure story. But the concept is still apt.
Consider Steven Spielberg’s enormously successful Raiders of the Lost Ark, one of the highest grossing films of all times. In this case the MacGuffin is the Ark of the Covenant, a religious object of great value to Christians and Jews, but otherwise just an old relic with unspecified powers. But what does the Ark actually do in the film? What purpose is accomplished through the agency afforded by the Ark? Nothing, really. Yes, at the end, the Nazis look at it when it is opened and are thereby incinerated, but the plot was never about defeating Nazis. It was about finding this object, this MacGuffin. And what happens to it? It ends up in a government warehouse in the middle of nowhere.
The Ark and its surrounding aura is the focus of an exotic adventure set in the Middle East, but that’s all it is. And so it is with Kurtz in Heart of Darkness. He’s the focus of a story about a voyage up the Congo in which an African helmsman is killed by other Africans and an African woman is killed by European “pilgrims”, but he does nothing in the story and facilitates no larger purpose. He’s a pretext.
A pretext for what? Delany argues that the real story is in all the delays in the journey, delays caused mostly by colonialist incompetence. That is surely part of it; these imperialist lords are shown to be incompetent as well as greedy. But that doesn’t quite account for Marlow’s final conversation with Kurtz’s Intended. It is in the course of the conversation that we learn why Kurtz went into the Congo (paragraph 171):
"I listened. The darkness deepened. I was not even sure whether he had given me the right bundle. I rather suspect he wanted me to take care of another batch of his papers which, after his death, I saw the manager examining under the lamp. And the girl talked, easing her pain in the certitude of my sympathy; she talked as thirsty men drink. I had heard that her engagement with Kurtz had been disapproved by her people. He wasn't rich enough or something. And indeed I don't know whether he had not been a pauper all his life. He had given me some reason to infer that it was his impatience of comparative poverty that drove him out there.
That revelation points at the heart of European social order, the bourgeois family, and reveals it to be a sham. That revelation in turn cascades up to a meta-level and becomes a comment on the European novel, which had been obsessed with marriage and family throughout the 19th century.
Why that long paragraph, that précis?
Now we’re in a position to answer that question: Why give us a précis of Kurtz’s story before we finally meet him in the last installment? Because we need the précis in order to understand the very end of the paragraph. What happens at the end? As I have pointed out before (e.g. in The Heart of Heart of Darkness) at the very end of that paragraph Kurtz compares Kurtz to his helmsman, who had just been killed, and finds him wanting. Conrad had to give us the précis in order to make the comparison meaningful. Marlow had already told us quite a bit about the incompetence of his African crew; now we also know that Kurtz himself was morally bankrupt.
Now that we know enough about both Kurtz and the helmsman to make the comparison meaningful, and Kurtz comes up short, what then? Imagine a somewhat different version of Raiders of the Lost Ark where, at some point a bit after the middle, and well before we’re sure the Ark has been discovered, Spielberg engineers a flash-forward in which we see the Ark being trundled into the warehouse, perhaps with some workers talking about all the time and expense wasted in finding that old piece of junk. That would pretty much empty the rest of the story of its life. All this work – for that’s what this grand adventure has become, mere work – is for pretty damn little.
That long paragraph does two things. In the first place it removes all the mystery that has surrounded Kurtz. We have nothing to look forward to when Marlow finally finds him. Secondly, it robs the journey of any moral value. Up to this point in may have seemed as through this journey up the Congo was but a long tedious slog through the charnel house of European imperialism. Now we know that’s all it has been.
And this in turn sets us up for the story’s penultimate horror, the slaughter of Kurtz’s mistress. The ultimate horror, of course, is the story’s final lie (paragraphs 188-197):
"'Ah, but I believed in him more than anyone on earth—more than his own mother, more than—himself. He needed me! Me! I would have treasured every sigh, every word, every sign, every glance.'
"I felt like a chill grip on my chest. 'Don't,' I said, in a muffled voice.
"'Forgive me. I—I—have mourned so long in silence—in silence. . . . You were with him—to the last? I think of his loneliness. Nobody near to understand him as I would have understood. Perhaps no one to hear. . . .'
"'To the very end,' I said, shakily. 'I heard his very last words. . . .' I stopped in a fright.
"'Repeat them,' she said in a heart-broken tone. 'I want—I want—something—something—to—to live with.'
"I was on the point of crying at her, 'Don't you hear them?' The dusk was repeating them in a persistent whisper all around us, in a whisper that seemed to swell menacingly like the first whisper of a rising wind. 'The horror! The horror!'
"'His last word—to live with,' she murmured. 'Don't you understand I loved him—I loved him—I loved him!'
"I pulled myself together and spoke slowly.
"'The last word he pronounced was—your name.'
"I heard a light sigh, and then my heart stood still, stopped dead short by an exulting and terrible cry, by the cry of inconceivable triumph and of unspeakable pain. 'I knew it—I was sure!' . . . She knew. She was sure. I heard her weeping; she had hidden her face in her hands. It seemed to me that the house would collapse before I could escape, that the heavens would fall upon my head. But nothing happened. The heavens do not fall for such a trifle. Would they have fallen, I wonder, if I had rendered Kurtz that justice which was his due? Hadn't he said he wanted only justice? But I couldn't. I could not tell her. It would have been too dark—too dark altogether. . . ."
Notice how Marlow was thinking of Kurtz’s last words – 'The horror! The horror!' – words Kurtz most likely (surely?) uttered in reference having seen his mistress slaughtered, as he, Marlow, prepared to deliver his lie. Think of the social structures, and the history, bound together by those words and rendered into dust though that lie.