Wednesday, October 9, 2019

On Kurtz’s twice-quoted orison, as well as people named and unnamed [#Heart of Darkness]

I like that word, “orison”. I’ve never used it myself, not ‘till now, though I’ve certainly read it. My dictionary says it means prayer and that it’s archaic. Just what we need.

I’ve previously used the word “litany” to refer to a specific phrase Kurtz utters. A litany, of course, may also be a prayer. But the word is more familiar, and with a different valence. But I want to go with the unfamiliar, because that’s what he is, this Mr. Kurtz. Very strange.

I’ve written about this phrase before, several times, but this eight year old post is a convenient reference point. The phrase occurs twice in Heart of Darkness in slightly different versions. I’m going to list those occurrences, but in context. Both contexts involve a death. In the first instance it is the death of the helmsman, to whom Capt. Marlow had become attached. In the second instance it is the death of Kurtz’s African mistress.

The first instance is at the beginning of paragraph 103 (yes, I’ve numbered them, from the Project Gutenberg edition). The helmsman has just dropped bleeding to the boat’s deck and Marlow has interrupted his narration for a moment. When he resumes talking he doesn’t attend to the dying helmsman. Rather he embarks on a digression about Kurtz, the first time we learn anything beyond the fact that he was chief of the Central Station, which has gone incommunicado.
“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. 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. 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. ‘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. 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.
There have it, Kurtz’s orison, My Intended, my ivory, my station, my river, my—. Notice and think about the things conjoined in that phrase. His Intended, that is, the woman he wants to marry, his Beatrice if you will. Then his ivory, which he has been accumulating so he has wealth enough to be accepted by her family. What is his means of accumulating that ivory? His station, that is Central Station, but also his position (station) as the head of the station. And then his river, the Congo. But in what sense is it HIS river? Never mind, it is the artery that connects him to the world. And that orison is the umbilical connecting his soul with the cosmos.

What about that first sentence: “I laid the ghost of his gifts at last with a lie”? Marlow would seem to be referring to Kurtz’s death and to his conversation with Kurtz’s Intended. That’s when he told her that Kurtz’s last words were of her. But they weren’t, were they? Hence the lie. And the girl, the women? Notice that word girl, where are there girls in this story? Or is he using it as a diminutive, referring, not to the Intended, but to Kurtz’s African mistress? As we will see, she is murdered in paragraph 146 and Kurtz utters his orison shortly thereafter, in paragraph 148. I presume, upon reflection, that Kurtz uttered it only once, but that Marlow has entered it into his narrative twice, in slightly different forms.

And what of this: 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? What beautiful world (of their own)? Perhaps theirs (the world Marlow would relegate them to) is the world of the novels that so enchanted and deceived Madame Bovary?

On to the second instance. The steamer is pulling away from the shore.
[142] “We had carried Kurtz into the pilot-house: there was more air there. Lying on the couch, he stared through the open shutter. There was an eddy in the mass of human bodies, and the woman with helmeted head and tawny cheeks rushed out to the very brink of the stream. She put out her hands, shouted something, and all that wild mob took up the shout in a roaring chorus of articulated, rapid, breathless utterance.

[143] “’Do you understand this?’ I asked.

[144] “He kept on looking out past me with fiery, longing eyes, with a mingled expression of wistfulness and hate. He made no answer, but I saw a smile, a smile of indefinable meaning, appear on his colorless lips that a moment after twitched convulsively. ‘Do I not?’ he said slowly, gasping, as if the words had been torn out of him by a supernatural power.

[145] “I pulled the string of the whistle, and I did this because I saw the pilgrims on deck getting out their rifles with an air of anticipating a jolly lark. At the sudden screech there was a movement of abject terror through that wedged mass of bodies. ‘Don't! Don’t you frighten them away,’ cried someone on deck disconsolately. I pulled the string time after time. They broke and ran, they leaped, they crouched, they swerved, they dodged the flying terror of the sound. The three red chaps had fallen flat, face down on the shore, as though they had been shot dead. Only the barbarous and superb woman did not so much as flinch, and stretched tragically her bare arms after us over the somber and glittering river.

[146] “And then that imbecile crowd down on the deck started their little fun, and I could see nothing more for smoke.

[147] “The brown current ran swiftly out of the heart of darkness, bearing us down towards the sea with twice the speed of our upward progress; and Kurtz’s life was running swiftly too, ebbing, ebbing out of his heart into the sea of inexorable time. The manager was very placid, he had no vital anxieties now, he took us both in with a comprehensive and satisfied glance: the ‘affair’ had come off as well as could be wished. I saw the time approaching when I would be left alone of the party of ‘unsound method.’ The pilgrims looked upon me with disfavor. I was, so to speak, numbered with the dead. It is strange how I accepted this unforeseen partnership, this choice of nightmares forced upon me in the tenebrous land invaded by these mean and greedy phantoms.

[148] “Kurtz discoursed. A voice! a voice! It rang deep to the very last. It survived his strength to hide in the magnificent folds of eloquence the barren darkness of his heart. Oh, he struggled! he struggled! The wastes of his weary brain were haunted by shadowy images now—images of wealth and fame revolving obsequiously round his unextinguishable gift of noble and lofty expression. My Intended, my station, my career, my ideas—these were the subjects for the occasional utterances of elevated sentiments. The shade of the original Kurtz frequented the bedside of the hollow sham, whose fate it was to be buried presently in the mold of primeval earth. But both the diabolic love and the unearthly hate of the mysteries it had penetrated fought for the possession of that soul satiated with primitive emotions, avid of lying fame, of sham distinction, of all the appearances of success and power.
Let me interpret a bit. The woman with the helmeted head in 142 was Kurtz’s mistress; anyone can see that. In 145 Marlow blows the whistle to disperse the Africans on shore. Why? Because he saw the ‘pilgrims’ (emphasis on the grim?) getting out their rifles to shoot into the crowd. And one of those pilgrims objects. And then they fire [146]. The mistress has been murdered – an observation we owe to Samuel Delany (from an interview conducted by Rachel Kaadzi Ghansa, “Samuel R. Delany, The Art of Fiction No. 210”, Paris Review, Summer 2011, No. 197). Two paragraphs later, 148, we get Kurtz’s orison again, My Intended, my station – and instead of my river we get – my career, my ideas. Eight paragraphs later [156] we’re told, ‘Mistah Kurtz—he dead’ – the single best-known line in the text (courtesy of T. S. Eliot).

To summarize: We have two deaths, the helmsman and Kurtz’s mistress. In his dying ramblings consequent to having seen his mistress murdered, Kurtz utters his orison, and Marlow quotes it in that context. But he also quotes it in the context of his helmsman’s death, a man to whom he had been quite attached.

One further detail: Only two characters in the story are indicated by name, Marlow and Kurtz. Many others are referred to by one title or another, Manager, etc. [note to self: make an inventory of these appellations], indicating, well, their station, the role they play in the social system. Still others have no specific appellation at all. The helmsman and the mistress are the most important of those and they, of course, are linked to the only named characters. And Marlow binds them all together though his repetition of Kurtz’s orison.

More later.

1 comment:

  1. ‘My Intended, my ivory, my station, my river

    If I had to put that in an older heroic frame.

    My intended = contract/ obligation (the language of the gift/ reciprocity).

    Everything else follows and reflects that. Obligation, reciprocity the language of exchange.

    Although station would read better if its a physical location like a post or base of operation. Each an object that I have kinship/ relationship with. These ties and obligations reflect my status and my honor.

    Not sure if it works here but take it out of context and compare it to verse the theme is central. It matches.