What’s the difference between a civilized person and a barbarian? Is it in how he dresses? Is it the breadth, morality, and beauty of his ideas? Or is it something else? Joseph Conrad offers an answer that at first seems surprising.
Heart of Darkness is a ‘searing indictment’ (since those words seem always to go together) of the 1890‘s pillage of Congo by Leopold II of Belgium. Of course, if it were merely that, it would just be another forgotten anti-colonial tract, like King Leopold’s Soliloquy, by that obscure satirist Mark Twain. Heart of Darkness is actually about what happens when the young idealist Kurtz, who has stuffed his soul with the pieties of European mercantile liberalism, leaves home and discovers that he’s a barbarian. Conrad asks, what do we mean by civilization? Or from a different angle, “What do you mean ‘we,‘ white man?”
Of course you remember the story: Danang, 1969. Operative Martin Sheen goes up the Mekong into Indian country to look for Colonel Kurtz, top military mind of his generation gone rogue. Behind a skull-topped palisade, he finds Marlon Brando--nasty, brutish, and tall--reciting from The Waste Land as if at one of Evelyn Waugh's house parties. This is the end, my only friend, the end. Apocalypse now. Great movie.
Not quite. Marlow's tale is messier, more nuances, fewer Cobras. Like Conrad, Marlow had piloted a small steamship up the Congo, into the heart of King Leopold’s private elephant graveyard--the so-called Congo Free State--and was confronted with the horror of Kurtz’s rotting ideals. One evening a few years later, he and some friends are relaxing on the deck of a yacht, anchored where the Thames broadens towards the sea, quietly awaiting the ebb-tide for a trip down the river. “What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth! . . . The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germ of empires.” They are just eastward of “a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth,” in the heart of that empire on which, in 1903, the sun never sets. But night is coming on...
“And this also,” said Marlow suddenly, “has been one of the dark places of the earth... I was thinking of very old times, when the Romans first came here, nineteen hundred years ago.” He imagines “a decent young citizen in a toga... coming out here... [to] land in a swamp, march through the woods, and in some inland post feel the savagery, the utter savagery, had closed around him,--all that mysterious life of the wildness that stirs in the forest... There’s no initiation... into such mysteries... The fascination of the abomination--you know. Imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate.” A sensitive young man far from his household truths: that is the prehistory of Kurtz, a “decent young citizen” with a talent for power, full of fine words like “the dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths...etc.”
Before he goes on to his morality play though, Marlow says something extraordinary. “Mind, none of us would feel exactly like this. What saves us is efficiency-- the devotion to efficiency.”
What does he mean? By “us” he means the British Empire, of course, as distinct from the Congo Free State ("merely a squeeze"). But Marlow is no mere mouthpiece for the virtues of Empire, and his is not simply the Empire of Whitehall or the British East India Company: “The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretense but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea...” But ideas of Empire are suspect, little more than elaborate justifications for national greed, and he trails off, unable to finish that sentence. He can’t really defend a distinction between his ‘idea’ and the rapacity of a Kurtz. It’s worth noting that the names Kurtz and Cortez are cognates (an observation for which I am indebted to the psychoanalyst José Barchilon).
But efficiency? One might think that an odd charm to invoke against one’s inner barbarian. But it seems to me that Marlow, in trying to distinguish himself and his friends from Mistah Kurtz, is groping towards something important about having a long view--a sense of having to maintain a durable ethical structure of governance and administration beyond a single lifetime--coupled with a quotidian attention to details. Without such particularity, ‘ideas’ turn all too easily into “sentimental pretense,” ornaments for savages, pretexts for rapine, slaughter, and enslavement. A crucial aspect of ‘civilization’ is a devotion to humble gestures made meaningful partly by their repetition.
Upriver, sickened by the perverse fruits of philosophy, Marlow comes upon a talisman. He happens upon the deserted house of another European, who has left behind an ancient book, minutely annotated in what looks like cipher (actually Russian) and “thumbed into a state of extremely dirty softness... lovingly stitched afresh with white cotton thread... Its title was ‘An Inquiry into some Points of Seamanship,’ by a man Tower or Towson--some such name--Master in his Majesty’s Navy... Within, Towson or Towser was inquiring earnestly into the breaking strain of ships’ chains and tackle, and other such matters. Not a very enthralling book; but at the first glance you could see there a singleness of intention, an honest concern for the right way of going to work, which made these humble pages, thought out so many years ago, luminous with another than a professional light.” To Marlow, this text, written out of the intimate experience of a modest but deeply complex and ramified craft, aiming earnestly at the practical instruction of young mariners, studied and annotated and repaired with such devotion, is more to be honored than any Bible or “Manifesto of the Perfected Civilization.” Rightly so. This is a truly civilized artifact.
As for Marlow’s ambivalent faith in the virtues of the British Empire, I defer to Mahatma Gandhi, who lived in it. Gandhi visited London in the 1930's to address Parliament on the question of Indian independence, and outraged that patriotic bigot Winston Churchill by doing so in his loincloth. As a visiting celebrity, he was interviewed by the papers:
Interviewer: Mr. Gandhi, what do you think of Western civilization?
Gandhi: I think it would be a good idea.