10 February 2014
At the heart of ‘The Heart of Darkness’, Conrad’s towering masterpiece, Marlow, the author’s narrative voice, recounts the death of the Belgian trader in the remotest of up-river settlements on the Congo.
“Anything approaching the change that came over his features I have never seen before, and hope never to see again. Oh, I wasn’t touched. I was fascinated. It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw on that ivory face the expression of sombre pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror – of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision – he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath – ‘The horror! The horror!’”
He, the narrator, continues:
“He said it. Since I had peeped over the edge myself, I understand better the meaning of his stare, that could not see the flame of the candle, but was wide enough to embrace the whole universe, piercing enough to penetrate all the hearts that beat in the darkness. He had summed up – he had judged. ‘The horror!’”
The genius of Joseph Conrad is that he sees that point where the individual’s life and crisis become the same as the crisis of the age he lives in. The appalling horror of capitalism in Africa and the private agony of the exploiter become the fundamental condition of the mortal man. It is this visionary grasp that eludes modern readers who follow the ideology-blinded scribbling of Achebe, the Nigerian novelist who cannot see beyond the anti-racist doctrines that blighted the last century and were themselves the racism of the hated enemy. Today, of course, black police fire on South African miners, Rwanda boasts a genocide of blacks by blacks. Central African Republic is in total anarchy. Congo is in civil war. The Europeans still hover, but the new exploiters, the Chinese, are kow-towed to by black governments. Capitalism today has a many-coloured face.
The resonance of this great book, up and beyond the triviality of its Nigerian critic, writing in poor English, lies in its metaphoric power. It is simply not about colonial oppression – it is about the agony of mortality, made almost unbearable by the crushing power of capitalism on all men, exploiter and exploited.
Our journey would not be up-river into the jungle to bring back the colonial agent, Mr Kurtz – it would be across green lands and ancient bombed mosques to rescue Mr Assad, the executioner of a people and himself the helpless front-man and victim of a vicious and lethally determined tribe clinging to power.
The failure of the rest of humanity to raise a finger to stop the carnage has inexorable and far-reaching results.
Firstly, it is the abolition of the concept of humanism. It simply is proven not to exist. At most it remains Cain-and-Abelism. One brother kills the other.
Secondly, it abolishes the idea that the conflict between Muslim and Shi’a is sectarian. They are opposites. Shi’ism is anti-Islam.
Thirdly, it abolishes the continuation of the pretence that there still exists something called international law. The organisation of the United Nations is rendered useless. Its negotiating diplomat is a shipwreck, helpless and lost.
Fourthly, it abolishes the myth of America as the model of social justice. Worse than Vietnam, worse than Iraq, worse than Afghanistan – is a nation that is helpless to halt a mass murder and the exile of millions because some of the opponents of the killing hold other ideas than America. The killing of children must continue because some of its opponents THINK differently.
Fifthly, the Egyptian Muslim people now prefer an army which kills Egyptians to an army which rescues innocents from genocide.
Sixthly, the billions of capitalist paper money (in fact algorithmic impulses on computers) cannot rescue the innocent victims.
Seventhly, to end the matter on the exalted Qur’an (Ad-Dukhan, 44:59):
‘So watch and wait. They too are waiting.’
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