Heart of Darkness

In order to argue what Roosevelt is in the dissertation, I found I had to produce a capsule summary of the Heart of Darkness myth of Africa so that I can argue Roosevelt to be doing a different kind of Africa myth. For your edification, therefore, this is how I paraphrase Heart of Darkness in 400 words:

The experience of the Congo produced a sense in the West of an African “darkness” that reflected the dark truth of the civilized world’s ego-ideals: from Conrad through to Fanon’s critique of it, Africa as “Heart of Darkness” told a story of the African as civilized man’s id, as the humanity buried under civilized morality and work discipline. The essential hollowness of Marlow’s faith in work, after all, can settle onto the revelation of what Kurtz truly is because buried beneath the veneer of civilization is the truth we seek to avoid looking too closely at: while Kurtz throws off the shackles of civilization and “go[es] ashore for a howl and a dance,” therefore, Marlow’s restraint is precisely a function of having closed his mind to anything but “surface-truth[s]” and stayed busy.

In this account of human maturity, the African within represents the undisciplined, unrestrained animal essence over which a thin but ultimately insubstantial gloss of human civilization has been cast. And the kind of growing understanding that Heart of Darkness charts is of Marlow’s increasing realization — and horror — at the truth of himself and of all civilized man, a truth which can only be dealt with lying (or, perhaps, by fiction), by closing his eyes (and those of Kurtz’ intended) to a truth which “would have been too dark — too dark altogether.” In other words, the enlightenment which Marlow has received — three times described as a kind of Buddha — is that denial is better than looking too close at reality; “going at it blind,” he reflects, is the proper way to “tackle a darkness.”

Conrad’s account of what Fanon called the “Black who slumbers in every White,” therefore, produces horror because it narrates “maturity” as a (male) realization of the more-real real beneath and the violent discipline produced in response. The beautiful illusions of the ego, therefore, only cover over the libidinal horror that still essentially motivates even the most (ostensibly) idealistic efforts to civilize and liberate; the evangelical illusions of Conrad’s women, after all, are what keeps them “out of it — completely” but which, Marlow eventually decides, must be cultivated as the only buffer against the darkness. “We must help them to stay in that beautiful world of their own,” he writes, “lest ours gets worse.” But even a shining example of European civilization like Kurtz is, ultimately, nothing more than “a dog in a parody of breeches,” an animal pretending to be human.

The Gun is the Sultan of Africa

From E.J. Glave’s In Savage Africa (1893), almost certainly a source for Conrad’s Heart of Darkness:

“All the ivory pillaged by the raiders is brought to Stanley Falls; thence it is carried on the shoulders of slaves a distance of three thousand miles to the east coast of Africa, and the Arabs themselves calculate that only one-third of the carriers dispatched reach their destination. The enormous death-roll caused by this scourge to Africa can be imagined—the number of those killed in the raids, those who die of sickness, privation, and hunger at the camps, and the loss of life on the caravan road to the east. All this cruelty exists—homes are destroyed and pillaged, husbands cruelly shot while defending their wives and children, and slaves captured, sold to be eaten, or sacrificed for tribal ceremony. All these atrocities are committed by man on man, to enrich the white-robed Arab of Stanley Falls. It is for this perfectly arrayed being that this injustice exists.

The man of civilization condemns with indignation the barbarism of the Arab slaver, but let the white man pause and think for but one moment and he will realize how deeply he himself is implicated. By whom are the guns and ammunition supplied with which this persecution is carried on, and who is the purchaser of the costly elephant tusk?

The power of the Arab and his Manyema follower lies in his superior weapon, the fire-arm; Arabs are not able to make guns or powder. These articles are supplied by the white trader, and this is a traffic which the great powers should at once control as far as possible. It is the possession of the gun by the Arab which gives him his present tyrannical position over the multitudes of inoffensive and poorly-armed natives. There is a common saying amongst the slavers ” Bunduki Sultani ya Bara Bara,” meaning “The gun is the Sultan of Africa.”

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