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Heart of Darkness: A Primer for the Holocaust

ISSUE:  Winter 1982

Once again, as in the years following the European Holocaust, we are faced with the problem of imaginatively recreating an historical nightmare—Vietnam. Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, through the technology of film, attempted to capture for us the latest technologically implemented slaughter of human beings, just as the TV series The Holocaust sought to render an earlier one. In each case a considerable amount of time passed between the historical event and its fictionalized portrayals on our theater and video screens: there are things we cannot forget but do not wish to remember. Nevertheless, the compulsion to remember is strong, and may perhaps account for Coppola’s use of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as a narrative scaffolding for the film; for what nearly everyone seems to have forgotten is that this century began with genocide on an immense scale—the murder of millions of black Africans by “civilized” Europeans. Hannah Arendt has made it clear that the colonial atrocities in Africa which Conrad saw and wrote about became the proving ground for the systematized destruction of Europe’s Jews through the mechanism of bureaucracy and the ideology of race. According to Arendt, “African colonial possessions became the most fertile soil for the flowering of what later was to become the Nazi elite.” In fact it may be a form of latent racism which allows us to forget—or perhaps never to have known—that insofar as mass murder is concerned the African Holocaust was at least as cataclysmic as the European one which has preoccupied us all for the last 35 years. It was by no means coincidental that Coppola should have chosen Heart of Darkness—“the most illuminating work on actual race experience in Africa”—in order to remind us of our own recent Asiatic adventure and our own infatuation with body counts; for Conrad’s novel may in fact be that rarest of literary species, a truly prophetic work, one which belongs in every course entitled “Holocaust Literature.” Conrad probably had no clear idea that he was divining the future, but he did it nevertheless; and Coppola sensed this in choosing the novel for his film about Vietnam. This essay will try to make explicit the ways in which Heart of Darkness can also serve as a primer for the history and literature of the European Holocaust.

When, near the end of Heart of Darkness, Marlow tells us how he peered over the edge of the abyss and then withdrew humiliated by the fact that he could not judge what he saw, that in fact he had “nothing to say,” he confronts us with what has become an all too familiar sensation; for the “glimpsed truth” about man which Kurtz also saw and to which he could respond only with a cry of terror, has become an historical fact. Anyone who has read, however briefly, in the literature of the European Holocaust, who has seen the notes, memoirs, diaries unearthed from the Warsaw ghetto, must soon become aware that here is a reality that defies the descriptive resources of language itself. Like Marlow, who keeps interrupting his own tale in order to question his ability to tell it— “Do you see him? Do you see the story? Do you see anything?”—Elie Wiesel, as survivor and chronicler of the European Holocaust, finds himself, as storyteller, in an impossible situation. His words describe Marlow’s predicament as a teller of tales better than any I have seen:

Thus, writing itself is called into question. To set oneself the task of bringing back to life the hallucinatory reality of a single human being, in a single camp, borders on sacrilege. The truer the tale, the more factitious it appears. The secret must remain inviolate. Once revealed it becomes myth, and can only be tarnished, diminished. In the end, words lost their innocence, their power to cast a spell. The truth will never be written. Like the Talmud, it will be transmitted from mouth to ear, from eye to eye. By its uniqueness, the holocaust defies literature. We think we are describing an event, we transmit only its reflection. . . . No image is sufficiently demented, no cry sufficiently blasphemous to illuminate the plight of a single victim, resigned or rebellious, walking silently toward death, beyond anger, beyond regret. With pity perhaps.

Therein lies the dilemma of the storyteller who sees himself essentially as a witness, the drama of the messenger unable to deliver his message: how is one to speak of it, how is one not to speak of it? Certainly there can be no other theme for him: all situations, all conflicts, all obsessions will, by comparison seem pallid and futile. And yet how is one to approach this universe of darknesss without turning into a peddler of night and agony? Without becoming other? As Elie Wiesel has come to understand, what we owe to that dark episode in the so-often-horrible history of humanity may not be our speech but our silence or perhaps a mode of speech whose every syllable is qualified by ineffable realizations, unutterable insights. Such is the language that Wiesel himself has preferred since the moment of his spiritual death as a child in Buchenwald: “We were incapable of thinking of anything at all. Our senses were blunted; everything was blurred as in a fog. It was no longer possible to grasp anything. The instincts of self-preservation, of self defense, of pride had all deserted us. In one ultimate moment of lucidity it seemed to me that we were damned souls wandering in the half-world, souls condemed to wander through space till the generations of man came to an end, seeking oblivion—without hope of finding it.” And such is the language which Marlow is forced to use after his own encounter with the void which took place “. . .in an impalpable grayness, with nothing underfoot, with nothing around, without spectators, without clamor, without glory, without the great desire of victory, without the great fear of defeat, in a sickly atmosphere of tepid skepticism, without much belief in your own right, and still less in that of your adversary.” It is true that there are now excellent historical studies of the Holocaust such as those of Hilberg, Reitlinger, and Levin; there are psychological assessments such as those of Cohen, Bettleheim, and Frankl; there are fine historical novels and stories such as those by Wallant, Steiner, Schwarz-Bart, and Borowski; yet, as Nora Levin remarks, “In spite of the vast accumulating literature, however, an abyss still lies between those who endured the unimaginable and those who did not. The survivors themselves remain pendant between the living and the dead, searching like the poet Nelly Sachs to pierce the realms of each.” Those who, for whatever reason, may wish to bridge this abyss, to experience through language the human meaning of the European Holocaust, may well prepare themselves best by first listening to Marlow, that strange wanderer whose tales are shaped, as Marlow himself notes, both by the words he uses and by the silence outside of the words—a silence now made nearly deafening by the worlds of Auschwitz and Vietnam.


With the words Morituri te salutant— those who are about to die salute you—Marlow ushers us into a moribund world. Not since the Medieval obsession with death culminating in the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch, has there been created a landscape so redolent of death. Perhaps it was with an eye on Bosch, as well as his own experiences, or a remembrance of Brueghel’s The Triumph of Death with its myriads of skeletons killing and killing, that Conrad created his own landscape of terror and adopted the Medieval symbol of death, the skeleton, to express what he calls “the fascination of the abomination.” From the moment at the beginning of the novel when Marlow has his cranium measured to the point where he sees Kurtz’s house surrounded by death heads mounted on poles, from the scene in which Conrad sees the skeleton of his predecessor whom he now must replace to the one wherein he sees the living skeleton of Kurtz himself, there is an unremitting preoccuption with death in the novel. Marlow, having himself been “numbered with the dead,” accepts his partnership with the man he thus describes: “His covering had fallen off, and his body emerged from it pitiful and appalling as from a winding sheet. I could see the cage of his ribs all astir, the bones of his arm waving. It was as though an animated image of death carved out of old ivory had been shaking its hand with menaces at a motionless crowd of men made of dark and glittering bronze.” It is surely significant that the very next sentence of this quotation which begins, “I saw him open his mouth wide,” is a revision of a manuscript version which read, “I saw it open its mouth wide.”

The fact of the matter is, however, that we need no longer depend on the iconography of the Middle Ages, on the Dance of Death, on Bosch or Brueghel and their representations of the annihilating plagues which swept over Europe for centuries. Insofar as the mass killing of human beings is concerned, 20th-century man has at least equaled nature and in addition brought into history the most bizarre fantasies of the medieval mind. There is, for example, in the lower left corner of Brueghel’s The Triumph of Death, the image of a large wagonful of human skulls being driven by a skeleton, a scene which in the extermination camps became a daily reality. Now one has only to look at the photographs in order to imagine what those Allied soldiers who liberated the camps must have felt when they saw, as in Brueghel’s painting, armies of walking skeletons, survivors of an infernal world. These are the images which now complete the meaning of Marlow’s tale; and, what is more, they are the proper and relevant images. Using the atrocities perpetrated by the Belgians in the Congo as an historical base, Conrad was able to create a remarkably modern version of Hell—a prophetic vision of a necrophilous world in which the portraits of victims and murderers and accomplices come startingly close to the historical realities of a time he was mercifully not permitted to endure.

Here for example is Marlow’s description of some dying Africans:

Black shapes crouched, lay, sat between the trees, leaning against the trunks, clinging to the earth, half coming out, half effaced within the dim light, in all the attitudes of pain, abandonment, and despair. . . .

They were dying slowly it was very clear. They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now—nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation, lying confusedly in the greenish gloom. . . . Lost in uncongenial surroundings, fed on unfamiliar food, they sickened, became inefficient, and were then allowed to crawl away and rest. . . . Then glancing down, I saw a face near my hand. The black bones reclined at full length with one shoulder against the tree, and slowly the eyelids rose and the sunken eyes looked up at me, enormous and vacant, a kind of blind, white flicker in the depths of the orbs which died out slowly. . . . . . . and all about others were scattered in every pose of contorted collapse, as in some picture of a massacre or a pestilence.

In a country that had at one time nurtured these men, there had been produced by the Belgians an enviroment so totally alien to them that it had become impossible for them to respond to it at all. Not only detribalized but depersonalized as well, deprived of their homes, their religion, their families, exposed to a cruelty made unbearable because of its meaninglessness, the blacks simply chose to die. In the concentration camps such men were called Müsselmanner, Moslems. As notes, “Prisoners who came to believe the repeated statements of the guards—that there was no hope for them, that they would never leave the camp except as a corpse—who came to feel that their environment was one over which they could exercise no influence whatsoever, these prisoners were, in a literal sense, walking corpses . . . . First they had given up all action as being utterly pointless; then feeling, because all feeling was merely painful or dangerous or both. Eventually this somehow extended backwards to blocking out the stimulation itself.” This process, which for the Belgians of King Leopold’s time was a byproduct of greed, became for the Nazis a matter of conscious intent, a question of the proper application of methodology and technology whereby people could be turned into objects. As Bettleheim and others have shown, for some prisoners the walk to the gas chamber was the merest of formalities: they were already dead. But even if they had not ceased to be human, they offered no human problems to their executioners and were seen simply as part of a statistcal or logistical problem dealing with the efficient processing of inert matter. To the technicians of murder, human suffering and man himself became only an inconvenience.

This attitude is brilliantly given by Marlow’s description of the chief accountant who, in the general squalor and decadence of his station, surrounded by dying men, is chiefly worried about his immaculate appearance and the problem of making “correct entries” in his ledger. Dressed in a “high starched collar, white cuffs, a light alpaca jacket, snowy trousers, a clean necktie, and varnished boots,” the accountant remarks, after a dying man is put in his office that, “the groans of this sick person . . .distract my attention. And without that it is extremely difficult to guard against clerical errors in this climate.” Shortly before leaving the station, Marlow observes how the accountant, amidst the buzz of flies and with a near corpse beside him, “was making correct entries of perfectly correct transactions; and fifty feet below the doorstep I could see the still tree-tops of the grove of death.” Is it really only coincidental that less than 40 years after this passage was written there should have appeared on the historical scene just such an “accountant,” a man whose precise attention to detail allowed him to direct the murder of millions of innocent people? Heinrich Himmler’s obsession with “precise record keeping” is carefully noted by his biographer, B. F. Smith; “His book-keeper’s mentality was most clearly shown in the way he handled the mail he received. . . . On each item he wrote not only the date of receipt but even the precise hour and minute when the letter reached his hands. Since many of these items were birthday greetings, and the like, his pedantry went beyond absurdity.” In his diary, “Himmler noted how long he had slept, when he went to dinner, where he had tea, or whether he had smoked, whom he met during the day, how long he had stayed . . . .” etc. Like the accountant in Heart of Darkness, Himmler sees the world in terms of orderliness and cleanliness, remarking at one point that “anti-Semitism is exactly the same as delousing. Getting rid of lice is not a question of ideology; it is a matter of cleanliness. In just the same way anti-Semitism for us has not been a question of ideology but a matter of cleanliness.” Conrad’s accountant devotes himself to order and efficiency and ignores as best he can the death and decay which constitute his world and to which he contributes by his furtherance of the colonial enterprise; Heinrich Himmler, in a position of vastly greater power, sees to it that the processes of death will be made as efficient and morally blind as the accountant himself.

Erich Fromm, in his recent work, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, speaks of the “technical-bureaucratic nature of modern large-scale destructiveness” and brings both the accountant and Himmler to mind:

At one end of the process the victims were selected in accordance with the criterion of their capability for doing useful work. Those who did not fall into this category were led into chambers and told that it was for a hygienic purpose; the gas was let in; clothes and other useful objects such as hair, gold teeth, were removed from the bodies, sorted out and “recycled,” and the corpses were burned. The victims were “processed” methodically, efficiently; the executioners did not have to see the agony; they participated in the economic-political program of the Fuhrer, but were one step removed from direct and immediate killing with their own hands. No doubt, to harden one’s heart against being touched by the fate of human beings whom one has seen and selected and who are to be murdered only a few hundred yards away within the hour requires a much more thorough hardening than is the case with the aircrews who drop bombs. But. . . the fact remains that the two situations have a very important element in common: the technicalization of destruction and with it the removal of the full affective recognition of what one is doing. Once this process has been fully established there is no limit to destructiveness because nobody destroys; one only serves the machine for programmed— hence, apparently rational—purposes.

In a footnote to this passage, Fromm explicitly compares the Nazi bureaucracy of murder with the Belgian adminstration responsible for the enslavement, deportation, and killing of tens of thousands of Congolese Africans—an administration whose bloody and greedy purposes were consciously furthered in Conrad’s novel by none other than Marlow himself. Like the chief accountant, Marlow tries desperately to ignore the universe of death to which, however indirectly, he contributes and for which contribution he is being paid. Marlow understands very well that while some might look upon him as a type of Christian missionary charged with “weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways,” it was nevertheless true that so far as the Congolese were concerned “the company was run for profit,” and that those who came to Africa from Brussels emanated not from a Christian city but from a “whited sepulchre,” a city of death. Despite his best attempts to pay exclusive attention to the technical problems posed by his decrepit boat, Marlow, unlike the accountant, is forced time and again to engage the darkness, as when his shoes are filled with the blood of his slain helmsman. But more importantly he must travel to the very center of the darkness and encounter its embodiment— Kurtz.


As a student of Conrad, I have for many years been puzzled by the character of Kurtz—a being both fascinating and repellant whose macabre actions and appearance seemed to make him either half human or perhaps something other than human. It was only my readings in the literature of the Holocaust that allowed me to come to terms with Kurtz and thus with the penetration of Conrad’s political imagination. More precisely, it was Erich Fromm’s biographical portrait of Adolf Hitler which time and again visited me with shocks of recognition at the brilliance and magnitude of Conrad’s achievement in Heart of Darkness. It is surely no more bizarre than the holocaust itself that the chief murderer of Conrad’s novel should, in so many important details, remind us of the man who stood at the center of our own recent Dark Ages.

Consider their backgrounds and capabilities. According to Marlow, Kurtz’s engagement to his intended was “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.” Kurtz was a man of insignificant social standing who, possessing some talents as a musician and painter, had simply not succeeded in making either of these fields pay off, or any other field, for that matter. Marlow notes “to this day I am unable to say what was Kurtz’s profession, whether he ever had any .. . . . I had taken him for a painter who wrote for the papers, or else for a journalist who could paint—but even the cousin . . .could not tell me what he had been— exactly.” But he did have one particular talent which Marlow, because of his own experiences with the man, simply could not deny: “This visitor informed me Kurtz’s proper sphere ought to have been politics “on the popular side.” . . . [He] really couldn’t write a bit—”but Heavens! how that man could talk! He electrified large meetings. He had faith—don’t you see—he had the faith. He could get himself to believe anything—anything. He would have been a splendid leader of an extreme party.” “What party?” I asked. “Any party,” answered the other,” It was the Belgian Congo which offered Kurtz the opportunity to exercise this talent without restraint. Using that voice (which utterly infatuates Marlow), Kurtz gains the respect, not only of the Africans, who worship him as a god, but of the Europeans in Africa as well. The chief accountant believes Kurtz will be a great statesman; the Russian sailor-adventurer, after spending some time conversing with Kurtz, is entranced by his discourse; even Marlow, despite his knowledge of Kurtz’s darker side, is moved to call him a “remarkable man,” a “universal genius.”

As Fromm notes, Hitler “was not rooted in any social class. He did not belong to the working class; neither did he belong to the bourgeoisie. . . . The only roots he could experience were the most archaic—those of race and blood.” An aspiring artist, who, at one time, wished to write an opera, he was rejected by the art academy, and finally succeeded only in making a pittance for painting postcards and copying photographs. In every way mediocre at best, Hitler nevertheless had, as anyone who can remember the newsreels and the radio programs of the war years will attest, a voice. “A consummate actor,” Hitler showed “a remarkable capacity for mimicking the speech and gestures of the most diverse people. He had complete control over his voice, consciously playing on it in order to achieve the desired effect. . .” which was to mesmerize people, to rhetorically control and captivate them. What is more, he was even able to convince those small groups of people who conversed with him that he was incredibly erudite, a sort of “universal genius,” who could hold forth on “paleontology, anthropology, and every aspect of history, philosophy, religion, psychology, women, and biology.” We can imagine his listeners, the misfits, the sycophants, the adventurers, saying what the Russian sailor said about Kurtz: “We talked of everything. . . . The night did not seem to last an hour. Everything! Everything! . . . It was in general. He made me see things—things.”

One of those whom Kurtz was able to captivate was his financée, who, to the utter dismay of Marlow, speaks of his “greatness, of his generous mind, of his noble heart . . .his goodness . . .his example.” It is clear that she does not love Kurtz the man, but rather an illusion created by her own naive propensity to believe, as well as Kurtz’ capacity to create illusions about himself. By her own declaration she sees Kurtz not as a lover but as a son adored by an overly possessive mother: “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.” Observing her gestures, Marlow is reminded of the other woman in Kurtz’ life, his African mistress with whom it may be safely presumed there were no Platonic dialogues concerning “love, justice, and the conduct of life.” Marlow does not describe the relationship of Kurtz to this woman, but given what Marlow calls “the colossal scale of his vile desires,” there is really no necessity to do so. Hitler’s relationships with women were apparently split in rather the same way: there were the wealthy and respectable women who idolized him, but with whom he apparently had little or no sexual contact, and there were his social inferiors such as Eva Braun who became his mistress for a number of years, and whom he treated very badly, once proclaiming in her presence that a “highly intelligent man should take a primitive and stupid woman.” The extremes between which Kurtz vascillated are, of course, most evident in the difference between his great humanitarian schemes for the Congo and the bloody realities which eventuated from his presence there. “Each station,” said Kurtz, “should be like a beacon on the road towards better things, a centre for trade of course, but also for humanizing, improving, instructing.” Yet even in his admiration of the eloquence with which Kurtz’s report on the possibility of “improving” the Congolese was written, Marlow points out that the report was naively idealistic, containing no practical means of implementation, “unless a kind of note at the foot of the last page, scrawled evidently much later . . .may be regarded as the expositon of a method. It was very simple and at the end of that moving appeal to very altruistic sentiment it blazed at you, luminous and terrifying, like a flash of lightning in a serene sky: “Exterminate all the brutes!”” It takes little time for Kurtz’ altruistic humanitarianism to recede in favor of an omnivorous and gargantuan appetite seeking to appease his basest desires. In an early manuscript as well as the magazine version of the novel, Conrad has Kurtz proclaim, “Let me go—I want more of it. . . . More blood, more heads on stakes, more adoration, rapine, and murder.” And in the final text Marlow envisions Kurtz, “opening his mouth voraciously, as if to devour all the earth with all its mankind.” Were it not for the political power which his will commanded we would have to call his extreme selfishness, his pure narcissism, childish, as in fact Marlow does at one point. More than once Marlow hears Kurtz exclaim, “My intended, my ivory, my station, my river.” It seemed that “everything belonged to him.”

Hitler, as is well known, also had plans, which like those of Kurtz were idealistic, grandiose, and completely at odds with what he accomplished. As Fromm succinctly puts it, “The great builder, the enthusiastic planner of a new Vienna, Linz, Munich, and Berlin, was the same man who wanted to destroy Paris, level Leningrad, and eventually demolish all of Germany.” Fromm also points out Hitler’s extreme narcissism in words which bring Kurtz directly to mind: “He [Hitler] shows all the typical symptoms of an extremely narcissistic person: he is interested only in himself, his desires, his thoughts, his wishes; he talked endlessly about his ideas, his past, his plans; the world is interesting only as far as it is the object of his schemes and desires; other people matter only as far as they serve him or can be used. . . .” It was Hitler’s desire, for example that the peoples of Poland be “culturally castrated,” given only the rudiments of an education sufficient for their employment as slave laborers for the purpose of carrying out Hitler’s deranged ideas concerning the future of Europe.

One can, I suppose argue endlessly about the Jekyll-Hyde mentality of Kurtz, but about his actions in this world there can be no dispute. The fact is that the man who believed that by the simple exercise of his will he could “exert a power for good practically unbounded” used this same will to transform his environment into a charnel house decorated with death-heads, and himself into an “animated image of death.” At the center of Conrad’s necrophilous world lives a true necrophile with a real taste for killing. Speaking of Kurtz, the Russian sailor observes, “He declared that he would shoot me unless I gave him the ivory . . .because he could do so, and had a fancy for it, and there was nothing on earth to prevent him from killing whom he jolly well pleased.” It is true that Kurtz is ultimately horrified by his actions, but his misgivings, when compared to his deeds are, it seems to me, insignificant. They remind one of Hitler’s decision, in his last hours, to marry Eva Braun. This supposedly life affirming act was carried out in the context of planning his own suicide, ordering the execution of Himmler, and providing for the final devastation of his own country. “Live rightly, die, die. . . .” says Kurtz. In point of fact, whatever his intentions and aspirations, Kurtz could not live rightly and deserves to die, if only because this would be one means of ridding the Africans of his presence. His actual death, however, although it brings some satisfaction to the African who announces it, more importantly provides Marlow with the penultimate experience in his journey through a land of moral and physical decay, whose oppressiveness threatens to overwhelm his sensibilities. Speaking of Kurtz as one who was “as good as buried,” Marlow proceeds: “And for a moment it seemed to me as if I also were buried in a vast grave full of unspeakable secrets. I felt an intolerable weight oppressing my breast, the smell of the damp earth, the unseen presence of victorious corruption, the darkness of an impenetrable night. . . .” Indeed it is only by a sort of miracle that Marlow pulls himself out of the vortex of death whirling about Kurtz, only to wander the earth with a soul forever blighted, tainted not only by his experience of Kurtz and Kurtz’s world, but by the truth about man to which these experiences ineluctably lead.


Returning from the continent of death to Brussels, “the sepulchral city,” Marlow resents “the sight of people hurrying through the streets to filch a little money from each other, to devour their infamous cookery, to gulp their unwholesome beer, to dream their insignificant and silly dreams. They trespassed upon my thoughts. They were intruders whose knowledge of life was to me an irritating pretence. . . .” Like a 19th-century Gulliver, Marlow becomes a misanthrope who rushes from the presence of that cultivated and refined fiancée of Kurtz as though she were the most repulsive of monsters. Even during the telling of his tale Marlow cannot refrain from stopping occasionally to insult his listeners only because they are ordinary jobholding people: “Here you all are, each moored with two good addresses, like a hulk with two anchors, a butcher around one corner, a policeman round another, excellent appetites, and temperature normal—you hear—normal from year’s end to year’s end.” What Marlow has learned through his terrifying experience is the same lesson which Conrad voices clearly and directly in his related story, “An Outpost of Progress”:

Few men realize that their lives, the very essence of their character, their capabilities and their audacities, are only the expression of their belief in the safety of their surroundings. The courage, the composure, the confidence; the emotions and principles; every great and every insignificant thought belongs not to the individual but the crowd: to the crowd that believes blindly in the irresistible force of its institutions and of its morals, in the power of its police and of its opinion. But the contact with pure unmitigated savagery, with primitive nature and primitive man, brings sudden and profound trouble into the heart.

Conrad is here voicing a notion which comes strikingly close to the Marxian thesis that the essence of man is nothing more than the ensemble of the social relations. For the most part man is a set of conventions which may be thrown into disarray or shattered completely by a simple geographical displacement. Whether or not such a statement is indeed true, whether the behaviorists are correct or not, history, in the form of the European Holocaust has verified Marlow’s supposition that “the mind of man is capable of anything. . . .”

It was, after all, not in Africa but in the heart of Europe that the evil represented by Heart of Darkness is repeated, but this time systematized and technologically refined. Surely it is now evident that in the mass graves of Europe lie not only innocent human beings but the corpse of civilization itself. In the words of Elie Weisel:

Civilization? Foam that crests the waves and vanishes. Lack of morality and a perverted taste for bloodshed are unrelated to the individual’s social and cultural background. It is possible to be born into the upper or middle class, receive a first rate education, respect parents and neighbors, visit museums and attend library gatherings, play a role in public life, and begin one day to massacre men, women, and children, without hesitation and without guilt. It is possible to fire your gun at living targets and nonetheless delight in the cadence of a poem, the compositon of a painting. One’s spiritual legacy provides no screen, ethical concepts offer no protection. One may torture the son before his father’s eyes and still consider oneself a man of culture and religion. And dream of a peaceful sunset over the sea.

Because it is true that a man such as Kurtz or Hitler can so easily create men in his image, can shape ordinary “civilized” human beings into so many extensions of his own demented will, we must radically rethink those definitions of man passed on to us by the Western humanistic and intellectual tradition. Is it not time to say that along with the Judeo-Christian God, man also is dead? Has not history confirmed what Conrad, in the depths of a pessimistic skepticism bordering on nihilism, has attempted to show us; that all men are at least potential hollow men? Here perhaps is part of the reason for Conrad’s depiction of Marlow as a statue or idol resembling the Buddha. Like Weisel, like many other survivors of the Holocaust, Marlow is now beyond all normative conceptions of good and evil; he is truly “pendant between the living and the dead, searching . . .to pierce the realms of each.” He reminds us of that other fictional survivor of the Holocaust, Sol Nazerman, who in The Pawnbroker says this to his friend, the social worker:

There is this, my dear sociologist. People who have “suffered” in your little world may or may not become bitter, depending, perhaps, on the state of their digestive system or whether they were weaned too early in infancy. But wait, this you have not considered. There is a world so different in scale that its emotions bear no resemblance to yours; it has emotions so different in degree that they have become a different species. He tilted his face up toward the sky in the pose of a sun-worshipper, but his eyes were malevolently open. “I am not bitter, Miss Birchfield; I am past that by a million years!

Thus Marlow’s appearance is a graphic means of depicting the enormous moral and intellectual gulf between him and three of his auditors. How can we expect such pillars of orthodox society as a lawyer, an accountant, and a director of companies, each secure in the regularities of a profession, to understand and accept the truth of Marlow’s tale, when that truth involves nothing less than the negation of their existences? It thus seems appropriate that the one member of Marlow’s audience who has been alert and attentive throughout the narration, who, as first narrator, has described both Marlow and his manner of storytelling, and who may thus have actually understood what Marlow was saying, is only vaguely identified and has no physical substance at all—he is a disembodied voice being addressed by a statue. Perhaps it would be better, Conrad seems to say, if man as we have known him were simply to disappear. The fact that this is now a real possibility is perhaps only another confirmation of Conrad’s bleak skepticism. Yet, given the utter pessimism of Marlow’s tale, there is nevertheless a singular quality of affirmation about it. Enveloping the darkness of the story there is, as the first narrator points out, a faint glow like “one of those misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.” It may be that the most remarkable thing about Marlow’s tale is that he chooses to tell it, that he accepts the awesome responsibility of attempting to say the unsayable. How great must have been the temptation simply to remain silent. Writing about the Holocaust, Elie Weisel uses words which point straight at our understanding of Conrad’s novel and particularly at the dilemma of Marlow as narrator:

People wanted to understand: the executioner’s fascination with crime, the victim’s with death, and what had paved the way for Auschwitz. . . .[They] needed to . . .pinpoint the attraction the abyss exerts on man and determine the nature of what pushes him to his downfall.

People wanted to know everything, resolve all questions, leave nothing in the dark. What frightened them was the mystery. The survivors were reticent, their answers vague. The subject: taboo. They remained silent. At first out of reserve; there are wounds and sorrows one prefers to conceal. And out of fear as well. Fear above all. Fear of arousing disbelief, of being told: your imagination is sick, what you describe could not possibly have happened. Or: you are counting on our pity, you are exploiting your suffering. Worse: they feared being inadequate to the task, betraying a unique experience by burying it in worn out phrases and images. They were afraid of saying what must not be said, of attempting to communicate with language what eludes language, of falling into the trap of easy half-truths. Sooner or later every one of them was tempted to seal his lips and maintain absolute silence.

If it is true that it was Kurtz’s victory to have spoken four words when confronted with the abyss, how much greater was the moral victory of Marlow to have found a voice which “for good or evil . . .cannot be silenced.” Even more astounding however, is the fact that Joseph Conrad, witness to the African Holocaust, should have fashioned this voice so as to make it equal to its impossible task.


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