Sunday, October 21, 2007

Heart of Darkness (excerpt #2)

"I directed my glass to the house. There were no signs of life, but there were the ruined roof, the long mud wall peeping above the grass, with three little square window-holes no two of the same size, all this brought within reach of my hand, as it were. And then I made a brusque movement and one of the remaining posts of that vanished fence leaped up in the field of my glass. You remember I told you I have been struck at the distance by certain attempts at ornamentation, rather remarkable in the ruinous aspect of the place. Now I had suddenly a nearer view and its first result was to make me throw my head back as if before a blow. Then I went carefully from post to post with my glass, and I saw my mistake. These round knobs were not ornamentation but symbolic; they were expressive and puzzling, striking and disturbing - food for thought and also for vultures if there had been any looking down from the sky; but at all events for such ants as were industrious enough to ascend the pole. They would have been even more impressive, those heads on stakes, if their faces had not been turned to the house. Only one, the first I had made out, was facing my way. I was not so shocked as you may think. The start back I had given was really nothing but a movement of surprise. I had expected to see a knob of wood there, you know. I returned deliberately to the first I had seen - and there it was black, dried, sunken, with closed eyes - a head that seemed to sleep at the top of that pole, and with the shrunken dry lips showing a narrow white line of the teeth, was smiling too, smiling continuously at some endless and jocose dream of that eternal slumber.

"I am not disclosing any trade secrets. In fact the Manager said afterwards the Mr. Kurtz's methods had ruined the district. I have no opinion on that point, but I want you clearly to understand that there was nothing exactly profitable in these heads being there. They only showed that Mr. Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts, that there was something wanting in him - some small matter which when the pressing need arose could not be found under his magnificent eloquence. Whether he knew of this deficiency himself I can't say. I think the knowledge came to him at last - only at the very last. But the wilderness had found him out early, and had taken on him a terrible vengeance for the fantastic invasion. I think it had whispered to him things about himself which he did not know, things of which he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitude - and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating. it echoed loudly within him because he was hollow to the core... I put down the glass, and the head that had appeared near enough to be spoke to seemed at once to have leaped away from me into inaccessible distance."

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006. 55-6.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Human Animal

The novels I've been reading lately - William Golding's Lord of the Flies, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and now Ayn Rand's massive Atlas Shrugged - and even the television I have been watching lately, such as the new season of Dexter, all force a confrontation, messy and painful as it usually is, with a the ugly and true nature of humanity; and they all ask this questions, What does it mean to be human? How are we authentically human? Does morality, either innate within us or imposed from without us by society or tradition or religion, make us more or less human?

Several hundred years ago, the answers to these questions would be nearly laughably obvious. Man is an animal, depraved from all goodness; he can, however, aspire to greater thing and, through moral and religious training, become more human and more heavenly; as the prophetic Milton wrote, humanity could be be "by gradual scale sublimed, / To vital spirits aspire... improved by tract of time, and winged ascend / Ethereal" (Paradise Lost, V.483-4... 498-9). Man was the missing link - not some hypothetical stage in an overblown cosmological conceit, but the very real connection of earth and heaven, a combination of matter and spirit that could either ascend the Great Chain into the presence of God or wallow in the dirt, mired forever in animal impulses. Man lived in two worlds and it was up to him to decide which one he preferred.

Today, of course, we are disillusioned with such notions; we reject the possibility of an objective standard of morality, that is to say, of righteousness, and we insist, through our myths, our science and our theories, that man is only an animal, the purposeless product of chance and aimless design. But this insistence brings us no comfort. Since Darwin, humanity has struggled to come to terms with our own unflattering ideas about ourselves and this struggle, this conflict of myth and ideology, is reflected in our literature and our entertainment. We do not know who we are. We do not know how to live with each other. Society collapses in the face of nature. We kill the pig and exterminate all the brutes and become savages - not the politically incorrect savages of Western imperialism, but the savage human beings feared by Milton and other Renaissance thinkers - the base, material animals of wasted and fallen humanity. We've broken the link, severed Man from his higher nature and forfeited heaven, the proper inheritance of Man.

I know that a return to a Christian mythos is an impossible proposition and one that is ugly to many people, at least in today's political and ideological milieu. But we as a society have replaced the elevating Christian ideals with an ideological of self-deprecation, an ideology that makes us loathe ourselves and which promotes savagery instead of inspiring greater humanity. An ideology that does not give us an identity but forces us to constantly ask, Who am I and what does it mean to be human? Until we stop telling ourselves that we are merely advanced animals, until we regain a greater sense of what it means to be moral and free-choosing creatures, until we see that we are more than an collection of material instincts, and until we turn our eyes away from the dirt and up once again to the heavens, we will not build a better world, we will not see the end of war, we will not even live in happy families, we will not even be satisfied with who or what we are. We are greater than we think we are. We just need to learn how to be so again.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Heart of Darkness (excerpt)

I've been reading Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness these last couple days. It's a terrifying novel. I've read it before, but its potency is just as sharp today as the first time I read it. Like Lord of the Flies, Heart of Darkness tears long, jagged strips off the flesh of human society and fills these bleeding gaps with terrifying images of what, as Marlowe reminds us, is all too bleakly human. I'm not sure there is any hope to be found in this novel, but its terror is grand and apocalyptic nonetheless. Enjoy.

"The moon had spread over everything a thin layer of silver - over the rank grass, over the mud, upon the wall of matted vegetation standing higher than the wall of a temple, over the great river I could see through a sombre gap glittering, glittering as it flowed broadly by without a murmur. All this was great, expectant, mute, while the man jabbered about himself. I wondered whether the stillness on the face of the immensity looking at us two were meant as an appeal or as a menace. What were we who had strayed in here? Could we handle that dumb thing, or would it handle us? I felt how big, how confoundedly big, was that thing that couldn't talk and perhaps was deaf as well. What was in there? I could see a little ivory coming out from there and I had heard Mr. Kurtz was in there. I had heard enough about it too - God know! Yet somehow it didn't bring any image with it - no more than if I had been told an angel or a fiend was in there. I believed it in the same way one of you might believe there are inhabitants on the planet Mars. I know a Scotch sailmaker who was certain, dead sure, there were people in Mars. If you asked him for some idea how they looked and behaved he would get shy and mutter something about 'walking on all-fours.' If you as much as smiled he would - though a man of sixty - offer to fight you. I would not have gone so far as to fight for Kurtz, but I went for him near enough to lie. You know I hate, detest, and can't bear a lie, not because I am straighter than the rest of us, but simply because it appals me. There is a taint of death, a flavour of mortality in lies - which is exactly what I hate and detest in the world - what I want to forget. It makes me miserable and sick like biting something rotten would do. Temperament, I suppose. Well, I went near enough to it by letting the young fool there believe anything he liked to imagine as to my influence in Europe. I become in an instant as much of a pretence as the rest of the bewitched pilgrims. This simply because I had a notion it somehow would be of help to that Kurtz whom at the time I did not see - you understand. He was just a word for me. I did not see the man in the name any more than you do. Do you see him? Do you see the story? Do you see anything? It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream - making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is the very essence of dreams..."

He was silent for a while.

"... No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one's existence - that which makes its truth, its meaning - its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream - alone."

Joseph Conrad. Heart of Darkness. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006. 26-7.