‘The enemies of intellectual liberty always try to present their case as a plea for discipline versus individualism…. [but] to write in plain, vigorous language one has to think fearlessly, and if one thinks fearlessly one cannot be politically orthodox.’ ––George Orwell
‘Political correctness is the natural continuum from the party line. What we are seeing once again is a self-appointed group of vigilantes imposing their views on others. It is a heritage of communism, but they don’t seem to see this.’ ––Doris Lessing
‘Chastity, by nature the gentlest of the affections––give it but its head––’tis like a roaring lion.’ ––Laurence Sterne
‘Art made tongue-tied by authority’ ––W. Shakespeare
Like life, history is shot through with coincidence. Consider the sudden resurgence of political correctness in the wake of the communist collapse in Europe, seemingly disparate events with no apparent connection. But coincidence is often only a statistical illusion, a bit of hocus-pocus which, on closer examination, yields to the laws of cause and effect. Viewed in a broader context, the air of mystery dissolves and a connection emerges: for the New Left, the defeat of the Soviet Bloc was a sign that mankind was on the threshold of a Golden Age of World Peace, that the time had come to conquer the evils of society itself. Verily, the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. Now that the threat of armed conflict has been eliminated from the human landscape, man can advance to the next stage of his social evolution and create an organic social order, a dream that has eluded mankind from time immemorial.
There is only one problem: man himself, a brutish, savagely territorial creature driven by irrational impulses, superstition and ignorance, beguiled by the idols of the cave. Despite spectacular advances in science and technology, mankind remains stubbornly depraved. In The Brothers Karamazov, Father Zosima and the mysterious visitor, Mihail, find that they share the same epiphany: that if men were to take upon themselves the crimes of all other men, the Kingdom of Heaven would be a living reality. Antoine De Saint Exupery put it even better when he wrote: ‘I understand now for the first time the mystery of the religion whence was born the civilization I claim as my own: “To bear the sins of man.” Each man bears the sins of all men.’ But, asks the young Zosima, when will this come about? Not for some time, replies Mihail soberly. Man must pass through the crucible of individualism and existential isolation before he will be ready for universal love. This will take some time, he councels. The Christian exhortation that we should take upon ourselves the crimes of all other men, a sharing of guilt and sin not to be confused with the Marxist sharing of surplus value and the means of production, has an intoxicating allure, but it is not at all clear Dostoevsky believed it possible in this life.
Nonsense, say the social revolutionaries. Human nature is not immutable. Just as the human race evolved biologically, it is capable of evolving socially, of making ‘moral progress.’ Mankind is still young and the universe unfinished. All that is necessary to ascend to the next level of his spiritual evolution is verbal discipline, for man to cleanse his mind of ‘incorrect’ thoughts and attitudes. Language rules thought and thought is destiny. By establishing a program of linguistic hygiene and purging speech of all the verbal correlates that predispose man to iniquity, we can remove the precursors of immoral conduct and man’s unconscious biases, and contain his capacity for evil.
But this program has an ominous ring to it: substitute the word ‘subversive’ for ‘incorrect,’ and you have the old Communist Party line for thought control and the suspension of free speech for the greater good of the state. In Arthur Koestler’s novel, The Darkness At Noon, Rubashov, an old guard Bolshevik imprisoned for treason by the Soviet government he helped create, is asked by the man in the next cell why he was arrested. Using the prisoners’ quadratic alphabet Rubashov taps out an enigmatic two-word answer on the wall of his cell: “Political divergencies.” As far as the Marxist timetable was concerned, the time for political discussion was over. Political purity was the only way to achieve the single-minded dedication required for victory. A new form of autocracy had come into being far more despotic and lawless than the one it had replaced: ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat,’ said Lenin, was a power limited by nothing. Ironically it was this elevation of Marxist dogma to infallible gospel that hastened rather than forestalled the collapse of Soviet Communism.
Ideology does not like a vacuum. Is Doris Lessing correct in her belief that political correctness is ‘the heritage of communism’? Have the dispossessed ghosts of the Marxist-Leninist Revolutionary Club found a new home in the Victims’ Revolution? While such a strategic transformation might not have been what Marx had in mind when he called for the ‘forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions,’ it could achieve a similar result; and comes not a moment too soon for the moribund Communist movement. According to orthodox Marxist theory, the Communist revolution was supposed to take place in a decadent capitalist society, not in a Slav agrarian economy like Russia’s, leaving many to wonder if Russian communism was anyhing more than Czarist thuggery masquerading as ideology. But if, as diehards of the Marxist rearguard maintain, Communism has never failed because it has never been faithfully implemented in any society, what is this but to say that Marxist doctrine in its ‘pure’ form is so perversely utopian and politically regressive it has never captured the imaginations of able men?
Commenting on the doctrinaire incompetence of the Soviet apparat and Party nomenklatura in Putting Up With the Russians, British journalist Edward Crankshaw, wrote: “this is a milieu almost impossible for the foreigner to present to his own countrymen. I have had to work with such officials in war and peace. Their sycophancy, their barefaced lying, their treachery, their cowardice, are so blatant, their ignorance so stultifying, their stupidity so absolute, that I have found it impossible to convey it with any creditability to those fortunate enough never to have encountered it.”
Crankshaw wouldn’t have any trouble conveying this sensibility today, for, paradoxically, it is just this milieu that we are encountering with increasing frequency in Western society. In fact, it bears a remarkable resemblance to a fringe movement of political activists who identify themselves as the New Left.
Suppose some unrepentant Marxist wished to reproduce the Russian milieu of personal and moral degradation described by Crankshaw in American society. Absent the lethal methods of coercion and intimidation at the disposal of the communist terror state, how would he proceed? First, he would revive class hatred and cultural warfare by promoting the cult of victimhood, invoking an inclusive class of perpetual victims, and deputize legions of carpetbaggers and race hustlers to interpret, codify, and eulogize their every resentment, manufactured or real. Next, he would create a repressive atmosphere of fear and paranoia by promulgating exhaustive lists of verbal taboos and forbidden ideas so comprehensive, arbitrary and capricious that, as in Puritan Salem, no one would be above suspicion. Finally, he would establish cultural relativism as the state religion, and advance the cause of multiculturalism in order to undermine and trivialize the intellectual and cultural achievements of Western society. In short, our Marxist would institute Pavlovian conditioning in the form of political correctness, enabling a reflexive Marxist police state in all but name.
How ironic it would be if the conquest of world Communism were only to result in its revival in cultural form, as a kind of psychological deprivation that perceived the self as a spiritual nullity. What a triumph for the forces of totalitarianism if, by a mere verbal substitution of the word ‘incorrect’ for ‘subversive,’ they could retire the familiar apparatus of social repression (intimidation, imprisonment, torture, murder, blackmail, exile) and implement an invisible censorship to promote the Marxist worldview. The police state would no longer require vast bureaucracies of agents and informants, Gulags and labor camps, to suppress dissent and achieve its utopian social goals; it need only indoctrinate men to police their own thoughts.
That militaristic regimes and police states contain the seeds of their own destruction is, of course, a historical truism. After interrogating senior Nazi officials in the days immediately following Germany’s surrender in World War II, intelligence analysts from the U. S. State Department expressed surprise at their mediocrity, observing that, with the exception of few men like Albert Speer, they were ‘a bunch of jerks,’ an opinion shared by many Germans at the time. How a gang of inept sociopaths succeeded in taking over the country that produced Kant, Goethe and Beethoven is still something of a mystery. When asked, most Germans simply shrug and say they awoke one morning and found the Nazis in control. Though the Nazi Party seized power in stages, over a period of about fifteen years, the recollection of many ordinary citizens is of an event that took place overnight.
Something of the same illusion of suddenness attends the arrival of political correctness. It seems only yesterday that cases of PC began appearing in the press and the evening news. There was about these initial incidents a sense of suspended disbelief and complacency, and its early critics were accused of hysteria. Katharine Whitehorn, a British journalist, wrote:
“The thing has been blown up out of all proportion. PC language is not enjoined on one and all—there are a lot more places where you can say “spic” and “bitch” with impunity than places where you can smoke a cigarette.”
Few observers understood that by the time a cultural phenomenon has come to the attention of the media, it is already deeply entrenched. Typical of reported incidents was U. S. Congresswomen Pat Schroeder’s complaint that current specifications for the cockpits of fighter aircraft conformed to only 85% of the general population. Fighter cockpits should accommodate 95% of the population, insisted the stalwart egalitarian. Aeronautical engineers patiently explained that an ejection seat designed to hurl a 250 pound man clear of a mach 2 fighter, would toss a 100 pound woman into the stratosphere.
When sensitivity collides with common sense, the result is always absurdity, and incidents of this kind have provoked hoots of laughter from both the right and the left sides of the aisle, along with the growing contempt of the public. But while critics may cackle, it looks as though PC partisans may have the last laugh. Imperceptibly, the victims’ revolution has acquired the ubiquity of smokers’ cough and the hysterical frenzy of a Southern Baptist revival. A sense of inevitability hangs in the air, and there are ominous signs of a fait accompli. Skeptics who thought political correctness was a camp phenomenon or a passing fad are invited to read the New Yorker review of the movie What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, in which the mentally retarded brother is described as ‘mentally challenged.’ Evasive, patronizing and inelegant, tortured circumlocutions like this have crept into the writing of discriminating journalists and writers who would have considered them ludicrous a few years ago. Thoreau warned us to ‘beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.’ What would he have said about enterprises that require new vocabulary?
Even the august L. A. Times, flagship of the Times-Mirror colossus bestriding downtown Los Angeles, has succumbed to the victims’ rights agenda, and its stylebook committee codified a new set of amendments proscribing such phrases as ‘Dutch treat.’ This, of course, is absurd, but typical of the comic contradictions that arise when the totalitarian mind attempts to interpret culture. The charm of slang is its inherent bias, and even members of the Times stylebook committee must know that you cannot eliminate evil from the world by expurgating language. Nor is that their purpose. During the debriefing of a KGB agent who had defected to the West during the Stalinist era, a CIA official asked him why the Communist Party line was so patently stupid. Didn’t this actually work against loyalty to the state? The KGB agent laughed and replied that you cannot create an atmosphere of terror by requiring people to believe in reasonable things. In order to instill the maximum fear, guilt and self-loathing necessary to cow people into abject submission to the state, you must demand that they believe, or at least act as though they believe, in something that is manifestly absurd. The list of forbidden words and phrases enforced by the thought police at the L.A. Times certainty satisfies this condition, and is a useful reminder that the armory of social repression is not only rather lethal, it is utterly impersonal. Those who resort to coercive censorship, whether they are the egalitarian thistlebottoms at the L.A. Times or doctrinaire thugs of the KGB, wield the same bloody axe. The results are uniformly destructive to the human spirit.
|An invention of the educated elite, political correctness is essentially a class phenomenon, i.e. designer morals for yuppies of uneasy conscience. Socioeconomic groups informed by the stark exigencies of survival have shown little interest in the hair-splitting subtleties and scholastic quibbling of victim taxonomy.
It is axiomatic that those least alarmed by the erosion of society’s moral and intellectual life have none themselves. It is easy to understand the crude appeal of political correctness to liberal yahoos of the New Left (closet fascists posing as 60’s liberals): it provides them with a ready store of social causes that require no thought and confers instant moral authority on all those who profess to champion them; less obvious is its attraction to the intelligentsia. The cynical tactics of manipulation and intimidation are a throwback to the police state; the childlike faith in the efficacy of social engineering hopelessly naïve; the unctuous solicitude for downtrodden minorities and clammy compassion for the unfortunate are an affront to human dignity. What self-respecting liberal could be taken in by such fatuous posturing and moral exhibitionism? What is Pat Schroeder doing telling Lockheed how to build jet fighters? Why have hard-nosed journalists developed a sudden Pollyanna fixation? And why are distinguished publications, famed for their aggressive editorial independence, appeasing self-anointed victims’ groups and groveling before sanctimonious minorities?
More to the point, why would any society beset with real social problems (pandemic crime, the worst educational system in the industrialized world, an imploding socioeconomic infrastructure, in a world where terrorist states have access to nuclear weapons, etc.) squander its limited moral resources on the frivolous, manufactured distinctions posed by a coalition of PC partisans? The question answers itself. The PC movement is both a potent distraction from more intransigent social problems and an ersatz substitute for the patience, wisdom and expertise needed to solve them; while the emergence of a class of PC carpetbaggers guarantees that, as the lurid melodrama of the victims’ revolution unfolds in the full glory of its irrelevance upon the stage of jaded public consciousness, grave issues of national survival will continue to be pushed further into the background.
An invention of the educated elite, political correctness is essentially a class phenomenon, i.e. designer morals for yuppies of uneasy conscience. While the partisans for victims’ rights agonize over whether to call persons of African descent ‘blacks’ or ‘Negroes,’ tens of thousands of Africans are dying of starvation, AIDS, and in tribal warfare. Socioeconomic groups informed by the stark exigencies of survival have shown little interest in the hairsplitting subtleties and scholastic quibbling of victim taxonomy. Coincidentally, these are the very social groups PC purports to champion; but this would not be the first time a subversive agenda and questionable motives had been concealed by a smokescreen of concern for the common man.
It is a commonplace that elaborate stratagems to compensate penalized minorities and avoid giving pain to others, such as quotas, affirmative action, preferential treatment, euphemistic speech, and other palliates, often achieve the opposite. By drawing attention to, and stigmatizing, the victim’s disability, they serve only to confirm that he hasn’t enough self-esteem, dignity and imagination to deal responsibly with his own problems. As a corollary, such a strategy tends to encourage self-pity and the manufacture of sensitivities without end, promoting an autonomous culture of victims and empowering sanctimonious minorities with unearned moral authority. Every one of us constitutes a minority of one, and no amount of sympathy or fellow-feeling, however well-intentioned, can ever remove the pain of man’s isolation or the tragic nature of the human condition.
PC zealots hold that if we attend to minutiae, larger issues will take care of themselves, that if (say) you proscribe ethnic humor, genocide will become, literally, unthinkable. This is the rank fallacy of the feckless harridan who believes if she natters at her husband for dumping his pipe dottle in the potted plants, he wouldn’t dream of visiting a house of prostitution. It’s whistling in the dark. Not only does it lull society into a false sense of security, but the persistent recourse to euphemism and circumlocution corrupts and debases language, and the coercive atmosphere of guilt, fear and intimidation surrounding this capricious censorship inhibits the easy give-and-take of human discourse, the life-blood of democratic institutions, and ultimately of man’s own social and spiritual life.
Recalling the strenuous schedule of examinations at the Munich Gymnasium and Zurich Polytechnic, Albert Einstein remarked that “This coercion had such a deterring effect that, after I had passed the final examination, I found the consideration of any scientific problems distasteful to me for an entire year.” One of the great fallacies of the apostles of sensitivity is their implicit assumption that we are vulnerable in our affective life, when it is our cognitive life that is at risk. Emotions and feelings are comparatively robust and self-sustaining; it is the delicate and finely tuned instrument of reason, or our capacity to reflect, conceive and learn, that is contingent and that requires continuous nurture.
The Persistence of Utopia
The latest cause célèbre of the victims’ revolution is cash reparations for the descendants of American slaves. With an unerring instinct for lurid controversy unmatched even by the tabloid press, Harper’s Magazine conducted a forum in its pages called, “The Case for Reparations.” One would have thought that the casualties of the American Civil War had gone a long way toward the cancellation of that debt. Perhaps a visit to America’s Civil War cemeteries would appease the twice- and thrice-removed ‘victims’ of nineteenth century slavery. But in a movement that is about the here and now, historical amnesia is the order of the day, and explains why PC partisans have never bothered to deal with several inconvenient facts surrounding Negro victimology. Consider, for example, the curious affinity of African-Americans with Islam and Muslim names. It was not Christian missionaries, but North African Arabs and Berbers who organized and ran the black slave trade in the African interior. Similarly, there is no linguistic evidence that ‘welshing’ on a debt is a slur on the inhabitants of Wales (the verb originated in the resistance of Welsh school children to English language instruction), yet its use is forbidden by the PC handbook. When the coin of the realm is moral indignation, historical truth is a devalued currency.
Political correctness is the triumph of sensitivity over truth; but it is more than and less than that. The following editorial appeared on May 5, 2003, in The Desert Sun, a newspaper of the Gannet chain located in the Palm Springs area:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for redress of grievance.” –– First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
Find other names for Sports teams
‘Redskins,’ ‘Braves’ have no place in today’s sport arenas
Those who use Indian names for mascots or sports teams probably don’t intend to offend anyone, but the point is that they do. As a state, it’s time to reassess our thinking and the pay heed to the sensitivities of American Indians.
The tool available to begin the sea change in act––and attitude––is Assembly Bill 2115. The proposed legislation aims to protect tribes from having names traditionally associated with Indians such as “Redskins” or “Braves” used for mascots or teams names by the state’s public schools.
The only question here is: What took so long for such legislation to surface?
Dismissing the issue as much ado about political correctness does not eliminate the dispute or change the feeling of those American Indians truly offended. Why prolong such a needless point of friction?
“So-called Indian mascots reduce hundreds of indigenous tribes to generic cartoons,” Cornel Pewewardy writes in “Why Educators Can’t Ignore Indian Mascots.” “These ‘Wild West’ figments of the white imagination distort both the indigenous and non-indigenous children’s attitudes toward an oppressed––and diverse––minority. Schools should be places where students come to unlearn the stereotypes such mascots represent…”
It’s been more than 30 years since the National Congress of American Indians launched a campaign to bring an end to the use of Indian sports mascots and other media stereotypes. Still, there’ work to be done as is evidence by AB 2115.
There are those who trivialize the issue, saying tribes should be more concerned about unemployment, health care and poverty on the reservations than about sports team caricatures. But this issue transcends a distorted cartoon. For any student of history, it is apparent such caricatures are rife with racism. It is that simple.
The bill has support from a broad range of educational and Indian organizations, and rightly so. According to the March issue of Sports Illustrated, 83 percent of Indian nationally want professional sports teams to stop using Indian Names. How many times and in how many ways do they need to deliver that message?
The time has come for sports teams in California to stop turning to Indian-themed mascots to generate cheers. It brings shame to the teams and to the schools. It’s time to take the issue to a higher plane.
This newspaper proudly displays the First Amendment at the top of its editorial page, but it is doubtful anyone in the editorial department has read it lately. The fact that Assembly Bill 2115 did not pass is scant consolation; like propaganda, PC censorship is atmospheric, it penetrates the fabric of our social life and remains there; i.e., it succeeds even as it fails. Like the old-style Soviet propaganda with which it has much in common, PC censorship does not attempt to advance the truth; it is an instrument of manipulation, conditioning and control; and those who deny its influence have already succumbed to it as environment.
Although the editorialists are quick to distance themselves from political correctness, this article is a classic specimen of PC fascism. Notice how cleverly the reverence for the authoritarian power of the state and the invitation to groupthink are folded into an unctuous solicitude for a penalized minority. The empathetic author would have us believe he is inside the minds of the ‘victims,’ feeling their pain and anguish (the idea being, apparently, to inflict maximum survivor guilt on the rest of us).
It is all so familiar: the travesty of benevolence, the asinine unction, the clammy compassion, the absurd demands, the bogus scholarship and invented statistics provided by special interest groups (Pewewardy is no more an anthropologist than Sports Illustrated is a scientific journal). If Indian tribes have suddenly developed ethnic sensitivities, perhaps it is because cleverly-worded survey questions suggest that they should. Other polls indicate that American Indians are blandly indifferent to team logos, and even if they were not, what authority would this give the state to dictate linguistic usage? Do American Indian tribes own the trademark rights to these common English words? And what does the adoption of team logos like ‘Aztecs,’ ‘Braves’ and ‘Redskins’ have to do with crying ‘fire’ in a crowded theater? Surrendering autonomy to special interest groups is hardly what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they framed the Bill of Rights.
All this is obvious and, hence, trivial; less obvious and trivial is the chilling effect of this whimsical censorship on our daily lives. The most insidious effect of these proscriptions is not that they enjoin free speech and assembly––after all, Assembly Bill 2115 did not pass––but that they cast a shadow of inhibition over human discourse that paralyses the free flow of ideas, making spontaneous thought all but impossible; undermining not merely the content of speech and thought, but the very impulse to think and speak freely, which is the enabling principle our social and transcendental existence. We find a familiar inversion here: the more superficial the distinction, the more ferocious the moral approbrium; the more absurd the proscription, the more effective the inhibition of thought. This is a recurrent theme in the works of Franz Kafka, i.e. the fearful disproportion between guilt and punishment, where the more minute and mysterious the offense, the more terrible the retribution. The sense of fear and horror is heightened by the surreal and unfathomable nature of the penalty meted out. No one is safe in this universe of Kafkaesque lunacy, where thought itself, not merely ‘incorrect’ thought, is a crime.
The use of sham research and statistics is an attempt to impart a veneer of rationality to a belief-system. Political correctness, like its collectivist ancestor, stems from a political ideology based on a nihilistic interpretation of man. PC zealots are less concerned with the welfare of minorities than they are with imposing their reductionist view of man on society. The premise of this editorial is not that we should accede to the manufactured sensitivies of minorities (this is only a tactical diversion); it is that minorities, and humanity in general, lack the spiritual resources and imagination to deal with poor taste and vulgarity, without the intervention of the state. That is the premise. The effect is simpler and more lethal––a toxic cloud of fear and paranoia that surrounds every impulse, thought and decision we make, to the exclusion of thought itself; leaving us only the nihilism and anemic social philosophy of progressive ideologues to confront the anarchy of life. The unstated message of this editorial is that we are all sinners in the hands of an angry Marxist God.
Editorial pieces like the one above have been appearing in newspapers and periodicals all over America. The editors of these publications were not acting on orders from the Comintern, and they would probably be shocked to hear themselves described as cultural Marxists. Political philosophy, they would say, was the furthest thing from their minds.
Let us grant this at once. Most proponents of political correctness do not consider their advocacy ideological or even political; they are simple idealists and dreamers, well-meaning yuppies and flower children with ponytails, who believe that it is a humane and decent guide to compassionate conduct. The attraction of political correctness is that it ‘feels right;’ it seems to be a good idea. No reflection is called for: PC is flypaper for a new generation of ‘useful idiots,’ Lenin’s expression for social activists living in the liberal democracies who unwittingly advanced the cause of Communism. The impulse to censor the ‘incorrect’ speech (and thought) of others fulfills a deep human appetite for power and control that are part and parcel of the Communist worldview, i.e. with the ‘tyranny of the proletariat.’ But one tyranny is much like another, and since it is never clear who interprets the will of the proletariat, it is correct to classify Marxism as a variety of fascism.
It would be hard to find a more candid rationale for political correctness than Richard Rorty’s book, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, a candor evident in his unapologetic use of such words as ‘utopia’ and ‘sensitivity.’ Rorty begins with the familiar nominalist argument that such words as ‘truth,’ ‘beauty’ and ‘goodness’ are mere names that refer to no objective phenomenon, and holds with the doctrine of historicism that there is no baseline humanity below our socialization or history. That there are no universal human values is proven by the fact that there is so much human diversity.
For example, in Western societies marital fidelity is considered the norm, but in some Polynesian and Eskimo societies, it is not uncommon for a man to offer his wife to a visitor for the night. So according to Rorty, rather than ask: “What is it to be a human being?” we ought to ask: “What is it to inhabit a rich twentieth century democratic society?” But democratic societies, even ‘rich’ ones, are not exceptional. Over a hundred viable democracies have emerged in the last century, not to mention earlier prototypes:
All of these societies were to a greater or lessor extent de jure democracies. Even primitive societies were quick to see that tribal counsels shared by an inclusive membership were less controversial than decisions arrived at by fiat. This is the practical argument Pericles made when he said that ‘democracy is everyone’s business,’ and in the empirical observation that, despite all its flaws, no other political system seems to work. There is no human universal here except the evolutionary response to employ the most useful tools at hand, like the plow. But this only leads to a deeper question: “Why do men refuse to yield to lawless autocracy?” And we discover the answer in the realm of the transcendental: because their personal dignity and their potential for spiritual growth are crushed by authoritarianism.
We can certainly make the argument that the growth and success of democracies in the twentieth century was due to their inherent stability, but if we look beyond this simple pragmatic argument we will see that this stability is based on the fact that in a free society man is able to pursue such ideals a ‘truth,’ ‘beauty’ and ‘goodness,’ the metaphysical abstractions the nominalists tell us are nothing more than irrational sentiment and estheticism. These abstractions, Rorty tells us, belong to an obsolete paradigm:
In my utopia, human solidarity would be seen not as a fact to be recognized by clearing away “prejudice” or burrowing down to previously hidden depths but, rather, as a goal to be achieved. It is to be achieved not by inquiry but by imagination, the imaginative ability to see strange people as fellow sufferers. Solidarity is not discovered by reflection but created. It is created by increasing our sensitivity to the particular details of the pain and humiliation of other, unfamiliar sorts of people. [emphasis added]
Here, in a nutshell, is the philosophic foundation for the victims’ movement, the imaginative power to empathize with fellow sufferers. Human solidarity, or those immutable laws by which man interacts with his fellow man and the world around him, are a Chimaera, abstractions adduced after the fact. We do not consult the past to create the conditions for utopia, e.g. the wisdom of Homer, Aristotle and Blake, etc., because they spoke only to their own times, but imaginatively project ourselves into the unique specificity of the here and now. So in addition to public debate and reasoned discourse we are asked by a leading advocate of gay rights, Martha C. Nussbaum, to imagine a ‘humane public poetry’:
The issue [of gay rights] demands more [than discussion]. It demands also an effort of culture: works of art, high art and popular art, that touch the public imagination and inspire it to feel empathy with relationships that are now viewed with loathing.
The caption says: “With the help of Japan, China, and Manchukuo, the world can be in peace.”
Thus, it is not reflection but empathy that is the magical key to the gates of Beulah Land. But where does empathy end? It is not clear where we should draw the line or even if there is a line. Carry this Pollyanna philosophy to its logical conclusion and we find there is no human conduct unworthy of our empathy, no fail-safe mechanism to prevent us from empathizing with the Devil himself. For example, there are those who deplored the Marshall Plan as an instrument to achieve European recovery, because it isolated the USSR and provoked Stalin. Had it not been for the Marshall Plan, they tell us, Stalin would have been prepared to make peace with the West instead of being forced into aggression. This is reminiscent of the argument that had not America imposed an oil embargo on the Japan in 1941, Japanese militarists would not have ordered the attack on Pearl Harbor. (Never mind that the Japanese Imperial Army had already slaughtered millions of Chinese civilians in Manchuria and mainland China to establish its ‘Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’ .)
There is something perversely naive and subversive about the concept of empathy. (Uncle Joe would have freed the Captive Nations had America appeased his volcanic paranoia?) Something addled in its optimism about the human race. (Homosexual activists have no radical agenda to mainstream their epicene lifestyle, promote an androgynous society, and recast American culture in a unisex straightjacket?) According to the Bodhisattvas, Gautama Buddha, is not smiling out of a supernatural goodness of heart or a sentimental belief in the brotherhood of man, or because he is a kindly, sensitive, empathetic being; the Buddha’s smile is an expression of his delight in the creative process of knowing. He understands and sees all. Benevolence is merely a secondary by-product of reflection.
In Anna Karenina, when Alexy Alexandrovitch Karenin expresses his displeasure with his son, Seryozha, for neglecting his studies, the narrator (Tolstoy) observes that
He was not a stupid boy. On the contrary, he was far cleverer than the boys his teacher held up as examples to Seryozha. In his father’s opinion, he did not want to learn what he was taught. In reality he could not learn that. He could not, because the claims of his own soul were more binding on him than those claims his father and his teacher made upon him. Those claims were in opposition, and he was in direct conflict with his education. He was nine years old; he was a child; but he knew his own soul, it was precious to him, he guarded it as the eyelid guards the eye, and without the key of love he let no one into his soul.
Seryozha resists the learning imposed on him by his tutors because he cannot admit anything to his inner life that has not been sanctified by love, which, for Tolstoy, was the beginning of all human understanding, creativity and achievement. (Or, to paraphrase Mozart: Love, not loftiness of intelligence or imagination, is the soul of genius.). When liberal progressives like Rorty speak of empathy, sensitivity and utopia, they are not referring to mankind’s capacity for love, but to the Promethean impulse to transcend human nature and remake society by the sheer exertion of human will without reference to moral limits. Rorty, and the partisans of political correctness, represent the tutor imposing an external idea on society, i.e. the timeless myth of a terrestrial paradise, and it is because this originates from without, rather than from within, that all utopian movements eventually fail.
In his scholarly study of cartography, Mapping Paradise: A History of Heaven on Earth, Alessandro Scafi notes that up until the Renaissance, Western map makers took pains to include earthly paradise on their maps of the world. In the Medieval worldview the Garden of Eden was an actual geographic location that was or would become heaven, the place where the saints and mankind would find rest and repose at the end of history. In short, the abode of the blessed was a destination, not a social engineering project. After the Copernican Revolution there evolved, in a kind of blasphemous mimicry, a humanistic or secular tradition of earthly paradise, Utopianism, born of the notion that paradise was a perfect society or ideal civilization that man himself could bring about. Thomas More coined the word, ‘Utopia’ (no place), for the as yet unachieved perfect society or ideal civilization that mankind could call into being through the agency of good works.
We are indebted to Arnold Toynbee for his analysis of millennial movements. Utopianism, he tells us, is an attempt either to recapture the past (‘archaism’) or scrap the past and cut short to the millennium (‘futurism’), and is associated with senescent institutions and societies in decline. Because creativity is a process that articulates itself moment by moment, societies in a period of dynamic growth and self-discovery, e.g. such ongoing enterprises as the Periclean Age, the Italian Quattrocento, the English Renaissance, the Enlightenment and Colonial America, in a state of emergent evolution, do not develop according to a definitive plan, and there is little inclination to formulate doctrines for success in the midst of success. It is only after things have gone wrong, during a ‘time of troubles,’ that political thinkers, in a desperate attempt to shore up the ruins of a collapsing civilization, resort to shallow prescriptive remedies. Plato’s Republic, a utopian manifesto that followed the catastrophe of the Peloponnesian War, is a notorious example of this kind of ad hoc political thinking. Plato’s solution to Athens’ social problems, of which the judicial murder of Socrates was symptomatic, was the creation of an elite academy of philosopher-kings to the rule a state based on the Spartan military model. Plato’s preference for a regimented oligarchy was a repudiation of the historic synthesis of democracy and culture that had made Periclean Athens the envy of the other city-states, the political miracle Pericles called ‘the education of Hellas.’
PC from Nursery to University
The education of America has become a lightning rod for PC revisionism, and the evolution of the American educational system is a history of contending educational philosophies, beginning with Ciceronian humanism, and ending with a decline into instrumentalism, relativism, multiculturalism, and finally obscurantism (we can prescribe prophylactics for pre-teens and they can listen to rap, but we cannot expose them to team logos).
In colonial America educational philosophy was influenced by the French encyclopedists of the Enlightenment, of which Jefferson was the exemplar and leading advocate. Jeffersonian democracy was based upon the Ciceronian ideal of the citizen-farmer who was an intellectual aristocrat by virtue of a classical (non-specialist) education in the humanities. As America shifted from an agricultural to an industrial economy, another educational theory, based on New England Calvinism, began to assert itself. According to the Calvinistic doctrine preached by the New England divines, man was a fallible creature who could only redeem himself by good works. This led easily to the notion that his education should be utilitarian, an idea that dove-tailed neatly with New England’s industrial bias and the logical positivism of John Dewey. Dewey held that man was a technological unit of the state and that his training should therefore be scientific and specialist; with a strong emphasis on something called ‘critical thinking,’ as opposed to mnemonic skills. Professional educators subscribed readily to the bold simplicity of this idea, for in it they sensed a profound correspondence to the stark simplicity of their technocratic souls, and it has been the foundation of the American educational system ever since.
The influence of Dewey has been most pronounced in the training of secondary school teachers, where an emphasis on methodology, how to as opposed to what, gave rise to the notorious ‘life-adjustment’ curriculum and a class of dreary professional careerists who excel in pedagogic technique, with only perfunctory attention to course content. More recently the ‘life-adjustment’ curriculum has been co-opted by ‘Outcome-Based Education.’ According to OBE, the test of educational efficiency no longer depends upon the adjustment of a child to his or her environment (the central tenet of progressive education) but upon the sense of well-being such an adjustment confers upon the child. In either case, the result is the same: both teacher and student are exempted from the more strenuous disciplines of traditional learning.
At the university level, Dewey’s ideas meshed neatly with the Teutonic model of inquiry based on scientific scholarship adopted by Harvard University. The hierarchy of knowledge achieved in fifth-century Athens, and rediscovered by secular humanists of the European Renaissance and Colonial America, was supplanted by the concept of knowledge as asymptotic and phenomenal, a leveling of human experience to a behavioristic plane, denuding Western culture of metaphysics. In an attempt to emulate the glamour and ascendancy of the scientific disciplines, the American university reduced humanistic studies to sterile specialization and pseudoscience (scientism). This has a PC correlative. For this development not only set the stage for a decline in the prestige of humanistic studies, it opened the way for deconstructionism, a nihilistic theory of criticism which holds that literature is devoid of meaning. If Western literature has no meaning, then its preeminence in the curriculum is unjustified, paving the way for multiculturalism. The goal of deconstructionism was to dismantle Western metaphysics, but trivialization of the humanities had already proceeded so far there is some question whether there was anything left to dismantle.
After this relentless battering by the -isms (Calvinism, Progressivism, Behaviorism, Scientism, and Deconstructionism) the failure of the American educational system was a foregone conclusion. Math proficiency and English literacy have fallen to such low levels that even the stolid bovines of the educational establishment have begun to bestir themselves. The effects of a uneducated populace reverberate throughout society. The first casualties of ignorance in a democracy are those institutions most dependent upon an educated citizenry for their maintenance, such as the judicial system. Legal scholars, who have long bemoaned the capricious verdicts of American juries, attribute the problem to an unwieldy legal system so overbuilt with case precedent it is virtually unusable. But no legal system in the world would be proof against the ignorance and ineptitude of a typical American juror.
The displacement of humanism and metaphysics by the Teuronic ideal of Wissenschaft (scientism, and its handmaiden scientific specialization), in an increasingly secular society has created a moral vacuum and spiritual malaise felt at every level of American life. The American university now finds itself populated by a generation of students who are culturally illiterate and spiritually adrift. Reared in an educational milieu of sterile methodology and moral relativism that has trivialized its sacred texts and great books, they view their own society as a militant technocracy rather than a universal culture, and their contempt for Western values extends not only to its democratic institutions, but to its norms for civility as well. As a result, the social disintegration that was once confined to the inner city, has now invaded the genteel precincts of academia, and American campuses have become the scene of unprecedented antisocial behavior, including an alarming increase in racial incidents and such crimes as date-rape.
This was fertile ground for political correctness and baffled university officials have responded in typical PC fashion. Treating symptoms, rather than causes, they called for strict censorship of offensive speech and instituted Draconian disciplinary codes; and, in an attempt to defuse racial tensions, implemented a multicultural curriculum. Some of these desperate ad hoc disciplinary measures, such as Antioch College’s sex code, were not only silly, they were flagrant violations of due process, and were subsequently struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional. The humanities curriculum, already eviscerated by deconstructionism and ‘scientific’ scholarship, was further debased with courses in gender-politics and black studies, while prestigious institutions, like Stanford University, dropped their Western Culture course requirements altogether; and today it is possible to graduate from a major American university without having read any of the great seminal works of Western civilization.
The parallels to Plato’s Republic are uncanny, but should surprise no one; while the dynamics of social creativity are unique, the pattern of social failure is always the same. A society that has lost touch with the dynamic vision responsible for its success is rarely able to rekindle the creative spark from the cold ashes of failure, or even to arrest decline. Hypnotized by its own pathology, and impatient for quick solutions, a society in decline typically undervalues its earlier achievements. The allure of the exotic is irresistible to those who no longer understand their cultural origins, and they cast about for solutions outside their own society. Just as Plato rejected the achievements of Periclean Athens and turned to Sparta for inspiration, banning poets as enemies of the state, university officials discarded the Western canon and enforced multiculturalism with police state censorship and the suspension of due process. Instead of reaffirming the universal values of Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian society that have bound diverse cultures to one another for two thousand years, they promoted cultural relativism, a strategy that accelerates social collapse.
These developments have already acquired an alarming momentum and are probably beyond immediate remedy. Is there a way to reverse the process social disintegration? We can no more control the course of social pathology than we can govern the human passions that drive it; the corruption of a society’s cultural values is only noticed after it is far advanced; changing direction is somewhat analogous to reversing the course of a supertanker.
But there must be a start. Sometimes understanding a phenomenon removes the need to control it; for when we become aware of the hidden workings of such a process, it no longer has the power to impose itself on our unconscious life. Traditional societies turned to their gods in a time of crisis; a modern society consults its visionaries and artists. It is a commonplace that a gifted novelist can tell us more about our social history in a single work of fiction than is available to us on the sagging bookshelves of social science; literary techniques and poetic imagination afford a wealth of insight into social pathology and provide us with an intimate and penetrating understanding of our society. Comparing documentary history to the human history revealed by literary imagination, Joseph Conrad wrote:
Fiction is history, human history, or it is nothing. But it is also more than that; it stands on firmer ground, being based on the reality of forms and the observation of social phenomena, whereas history is based on documents, and the reading of print and handwriting—on second-hand impression. Thus fiction is nearer truth.
What is more, literary works, and especially the novel, provide us not only with the most accurate social history of the times, but in their power to reveal the metaphysics of human existence in poetic expression, they are semi-religious documents and sacred texts in their own right, inspirational moral guides to human conduct. If the words ‘Apostolic succession’ have any real meaning to the modern world, it is in reference to the works of its literary artists. Homer’s Iliad was just such a document, rich in universal wisdom, poetic perception, and lessons in noble conduct and self-sacrifice, and a testimonial to the tragic nature of the human condition. No one has has better expressed this than Thomas Mann in his introduction to Anna Karenina:
Art is the most beautiful, the most pungent, the most joyous and most reverent of symbols for all man’s super-rational striving toward the good, toward truth and toward perfection. And the breath of the surging sea of epic art would not so stirringly expand our breasts, did it not bring with it the pungent in invigorating roots of the spiritual and the divine.
We get a notion of who we are as we read and absorb these literary artifacts of the past and present. That Western dramatists, novelists and poets constitute a natural succession of the Twelve Apostles was first suggested by George Santayana:
Religion and poetry are identical in essence, and differ merely in the way in which they attach to practical affairs. Poetry is called religion when it intervenes in life, and religion, when it merely supervenes upon life, is seen to be nothing but poetry.
Utopian Visionaries in History and Literature
We find that the utopian visionary is well-represented in Western literature, and includes such worthies as Don Quixote and Candide. But for a more contemporary example, we turn to Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness, a novel as harrowing in its moral power as a Biblical parable. Kurtz is of particular interest, because in him Conrad has evoked the definitive utopian visionary of modern times, and a close reading of the narrative yields significant insight into the utopian mind. But before turning to Conrad’s novel, it might be useful to establish a historical context for the problem. History has a way of revealing the arbitrary, and at times unsavory, origins of our most cherished beliefs; and an investigation of the ancestry of a compelling political idea often serves to qualify the enthusiasm of even its most ardent partisans.
One of the most influential utopian thinkers in recent history is Francis Bacon. His New Atlantis described an ideal society based on reason, and it is still regarded by many as the original blueprint for the West’s spectacular advances in science and technology. “The end of our Foundation,” says one of the guiding Fathers, “is knowledge of causes and secret motions of things; and enlarging the bounds of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible.” Bacon believed in the perfectibility of man, and that it could be achieved by a balanced education in the arts and the sciences. Like all utopians, he was convinced he could bring about such a society in his own time, and to that end he petitioned the Crown for funds to establish colleges and educate a cadre of leaders. He was, of course, rebuffed. King James, chronically short of revenue, had his hands full with the Parliament, and man’s mastery of the physical universe and “the effecting of all things possible,” would have to wait a few centuries. Not surprisingly, some of the leading intellects of Bacon’s time were unsympathetic to his ideas. It was to a gift copy of Bacon’s Novum Organum that Sir Edward Coke had scornfully affixed the celebrated couplet:
It deserveth not to be read in Schooles
But to be freighted in the ship of Fooles.
No matter. The cause of science and human progress has never had a more eloquent spokesman, and Bacon had thrown open a magical casement on the future.
Bacon’s belief in the utility of ‘an achieved body of truth’ and ‘collective wisdom’ and the Promethean gift of science, was to bring him into conflict with another utopian, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. What Bacon had seen as Divine instruments to aid man in a Sisyphean struggle to master his soul and unlock the mysteries of the universe, Rousseau had seen as an impertinent intrusion into God’s domain and a profane disruption of the cosmic harmonies. What Bacon had seen as the gradual and painstaking evolution of man from barbarism to Godly perfection, Rousseau had viewed as ‘an artificial pageant of blood and butcheries perpetrated by “a few mad, designing, or ambitious priests.” ‘ Like Bacon, Rousseau believed in the perfectibility of man, but he was convinced that it could, and must be achieved without the intervention of society.
Man’s works, generated by ego, artifice and guile, had only brought about his enslavement; his manifest duty was to disinter his soul from the detritus of civilization and rediscover his lost innocence in direct communion with Nature. At war with reason, Rousseau believed man must exorcise the accumulated knowledge of the collective past and cleanse his soul of all civilizing influences; and if he was willing to throw out the baby with the bathwater, it was because centuries of war and religious strife had convinced him that the baby was stillborn. His program to recapture lost innocence of childhood and put man back in touch with the primal forces of the universe evolved into the doctrine of the ‘noble savage’ and the re-creation of society in the image of man’s original state.
Darwin’s discovery that man had evolved from lower animals, ‘red in tooth and claw,’ not only forced the Church to re-examine the dogmas of the Creation, it made sentimental nonsense of Rousseau’s naïve view of nature as the cradle of innocence. Nevertheless, Rousseau had happened upon a profound poetic truth, one that was to exert a powerful influence on the Romantic imagination down to our own time, that ‘the child is father to the man.’ That man’s spiritual life proceeds from the rapt wonder, enchantment and simplicity of childhood is foreshadowed in Christ’s instruction to his disciples:
Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me; for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven. . . . Except ye be converted and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.
Unfortunately, the apotheosis of nature held many dangers, for with the passive merging of man with nature came the extinction the ego and of individual consciousness, and by implication the reduction of man to a functional unit of an absolutist society, the paradigm for modern Twentieth Century collectivism. Nature conceived as a picturesque object of sentimental idolatry was essentially a rejection of human genius, a form of spiritual lobotomy and moral deprivation; and the doctrine of the ‘noble savage,’ and its implicit message of anti-intellectualism, held the seeds for a Romantic nihilism that was to exercise a less than salutary effect on Rousseau’s disciples: two hundred years later ‘innocent’ children would be suffocating adults with plastic bags in the killing fields of Cambodia. It is to this nihilism that John Stuart Mill refers in his Chapters On Socialism:
If appearances can be trusted the animating principle of too many of the revolutionary Socialists is hate; a very excusable hatred of existing evils, which would vent itself by putting an end to the present system at all costs even to those who suffer by it, in the hope that out of chaos would arise a better Kosmos.
It is the fatal notion that, if we could somehow eliminate all trace of civilization and start with a blank page, we could create a perfect society, or as Joseph Conrad said, ‘the strange conviction that a fundamental change of hearts must follow the downfall of any given human institutions.’ As V.S. Naipaul has observed, the ‘wish to wipe out and undo’ has been the hallmark of some of the bloodiest ‘revolutions’ in recent history:
A rebellion like this occurred after independence. It was led by Pierre Mulele, a former minister of education, who, after a long march through the country, camped at Stanleyville and established a reign of terror. Everyone who could read and write had been taken out to the little park and shot; everyone who wore a tie had been shot. These were the stories about Mulele that were circulating in neighboring Uganda in 1966, nearly two years after the rebellion had been put down . . . . Nine thousand people are said to have died in Mulele’s rebellion. What did Mulele want? What was the purpose of the killings? The forty-year-old African who had spent some time in the United States laughed and said, “Nobody knows. He was against everything. He wanted to start again from the beginning.”
During the French Revolution, there was interesting exchange of words between Lavoisier’s counsel and the judge at his trial. When the councel said: “You are condemning a great scholar!” the judge replied: “The Republic does not need scholars.” Rousseau’s apologists insist that these enormities came about as a simplistic interpretation of his ideas and that he would have been appalled by these ritual butcheries, but the fact remains that Robespierre and Pol Pot did not invoke the writings Voltaire or Thomas Paine to justify their slaughter of the intelligentsia, but those of Rousseau.
|If the dictatorship of the proletariat is absolute, then any violent act committed in it’s name is permissible. But such violence is essentially ritualistic: the ambushes, beheadings, eviscerations of the innocent, serve no practical social end; they’re like primitive human sacrifices to appease the rain gods or stave off plague. The Left has always had this atavistic streak, a puritanical superstition that human sacrifice, or to used the Marxist term, ‘purification,’ is the necessary and sufficient condition to achieve uptopia. If you’re not killing people on a massive scale, well––it’s not really Communism, is it?According to the recent biography of Mao Tse-Tung, Mao, the Unknown Story, by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, Mao was rotten to the core and harbored “a love for bloodthirsty thuggery,” blithely predicting that during the Great Leap Forward “half of China may well have to die.” This turned out to be a bit of an exaggeration: only 38 million people died of starvation and overwork in the purifying flame of social revolution.
We are the hollow men. . .
But the Mulele revolt was a mere tremor compared to the human disaster that preceded it some sixty years before—the methodical enslavement and extermination of millions of Congolese by Leopold II of Belgium. This was an unprecedented human catastrophe. History had seen whole cities put to the sword and witnessed enormities of unparalleled savagery, but never one of this scale nor one committed by a ‘civilized’ European power.
Hired on as the skipper of a paddle steamer by Leopold’s Royal Belgium trading company, Conrad was to become a firsthand witness to this apocalyptic event, an evil so morally shocking in its extent that it was to permanently transform him (he would later remark that up until his Congo experience, he had been living in a dream world). His health broken by fever, Conrad returned to England after only a few months in the Congo. But there would be eight years of searing meditation before he was able to assimilate the trauma of this experience and explore its meaning in Heart Of Darkness.
King Leopold II
There has been much speculation about Kurtz’s true identity. In Conrad’s own words, Heart Of Darkness is a “histoire farouche d’un journalist qui devient chef de station à l’intérieur et se fait adorer par une tribu de sauvages.” [a wild story about a journalist who became a chief of station in the interior and made himself adored by a tribe of savages]. On this showing, Kurtz could have been the rogue trader-explorer-journalist Henry Stanley. There are also obvious parallels with the buccaneering exploits of the ‘White Rajahs’ of Sarawak, and in particular with Charles-Marie David de Mayréna and his brief reign as the ‘King of the Sedang.’ But with the recent publication of Adam Hochschild ‘s book, King Leopold’s Ghost, we discover that Conrad probably knew of, and may even have crossed paths with, a Captain Léon Rom, one of Leopold’s most notorious officers. Like Kurtz, Rom wrote for publication, painted, dabbled in science, and decorated his fence palings with the heads of African tribesmen.
Conrad’s characters could germinate from a random scrap of conversation, a name or a news item; so the person who actually sparked the novelist’s imagination was probably an obscure agent by the name of Georges Antoine Klein, a Frenchman who worked for an ivory trading company at Stanley Falls, who had fallen ill at his station and died aboard the steamboat Conrad piloted on the Congo River. Little else is known of the mysterious Klein, and it is doubtful that he provided more than a few of the story’s incidental features. Here is Conrad’s description of Leggatt in The Secret Sharer: “He had rather regular features; a good mouth; a smooth square forehead; no growth on his cheeks; a small brown mustache, and a well-shaped, round chin.” But aside from the observation that he was very tall, we have no physical description of Kurtz, which would suggest he was a composite, possibly of Antoine Klein, Léon Rom, and the Irish liberal Roger Casement, with whom Conrad had struck up an acquaintance at Matadi.
It would have been interesting to listen in on Conrad’s conversations with the Irish patriot and humanitarian; he took few notes but tells us significantly that Casement had ‘a touch of the conquistdore‘ in him. Kurtz and Casement share other traits: Casement was a tall charismatic figure with a mellifluous speaking voice. And like Kurtz, he was a man of humble origin imbued with liberal sympathies, particularly the cause (of human progress). Both men were attracted to the romance and mystery of Africa, and excited by the prospect of nation-building and bringing civilization to the Belgian Congo (a country roughly the size of western Europe). It is probably no coincidence that both Kurtz and Casement are journalists. Raised in a household of Polish nobles, Conrad harbored an aristocrat’s contempt and distrust for the press, and considered it less a catalyst for democracy than a tool used by populist demagogues to dupe and manipulate the semi-educated masses.
So, let us speculate that Klein (a German synonym for Kurz) provided the name and narrative seed, Leon Rom (angel of death) the savage vision, and Roger Casement (emissary of progress) the utopian ideology that constitute the unique personality of Kurtz. Rom and Casement stood, of course, at opposite ends of the moral spectrum, but it took Conrad’s penetrating gaze to reveal that Rom’s stark inhumanity and Casement’s liberal sympathies could, and often did, coexist in the same mind. Heart of Darkness is without question a landmark of literary and moral imagination, and the high place it occupies in the Western canon is due in no small part to the novelist’s fearless examination of ‘the sinister impulses that lurk in…noble intentions.’ This was indeed disturbing terra incognita, and its exploration by Conrad was to permanently transform Western literature.
It is curious that Kurtz, one of the most celebrated characters in modern fiction—T. S. Eliot invokes his name at the beginning of The Hollow Men—is also one of the most abstract, and there are times when he seems less a person than a symbolic presence. Our encounter with Kurtz (or Klein-Rom-Casement) is muffled by the passage of time, the remote geography, and Conrad’s layered narrative style. He comes to us second-hand, by way of a friend of the narrator, the familiar Charlie Marlow, on the cruising yawl Nellie, and much of what Marlow learns of Kurtz comes through the accounts of others. When finally he does meet him, after an arduous passage upriver, Kurtz is dying of fever and is only accessible during brief moments of coherence in a haze of delirium. Marlow is by this time himself feverish and has only a precarious grip on reality, so that our picture of the protagonist resembles the phantasmagoria and hurly-burly of a fever dream, more like the ghost of Hamlet’s father than Hamlet.
Marlow is able to maintain his mental equilibrium amidst the lunatic greed of the ivory agents (‘the pilgrims’) by patching up his tinpot paddle steamer, and by the chance discovery of a book in a riverside hut some fifty miles below the inner station:
It was an extraordinary find. Its title was, “An Inquiry into some Points of Seamanship,” by a man Towser, Towson—some such name—Master in his Majesty’s Navy. The matter looked dreary reading enough, with illustrative diagrams and repulsive tables of figures, and the copy was sixty years old. I handled this amazing antiquity with the greatest possible tenderness, lest it should dissolve in my hands. 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. The simple old sailor, with his talk of chains and purchases made me forget the jungle and the pilgrims in delicious sensation of having come upon something unmistakably real.
At first glance this excursion into marine lore seems a puzzling digression from the narrative thrust of the novel, but thematically it is central. For Conrad, there was no higher calling than the sea. He believed that shipboard discipline, the hardships of life at sea and the dangers of sailing fragile wooden ships across the storm-tossed oceans of the globe, had transformed England’s lower classes into a race of noble seafarers, and that this was the making of his adopted country both as a political entity, the conscience of Europe, and a moral cynosure of the world. His friend, H.G. Wells, was to ridicule this extravagant notion as a naïve and fanciful literary affectation. But time has sided with Conrad: modern historians are in general agreement that the ordeal of transmarine migration is a revitalizing influence, and that the demands of seamanship and shipboard cooperation, which are contractual in nature, became the cultural bedrock of England’s democratic institutions, and constituted the spiritual discipline that released the Angles and Jutes, and later the Normans and Danes, from the ancient bonds of tribal kinship and oriental despotism that enslaved the continental states, including Conrad’s native Poland, for centuries after England had achieved parliamentary government. ‘The simple old sailor,’ Towser or Towson, is not introduced for atmospheric effect, but as an admonitory presence and symbol of probity, in stark contrast to the ‘Pilgrims’ and their mad scramble for loot.
Captain Leon Rom
Much of what we learn of Kurtz is related to Marlow by the ivory agent’s devoted companion, a Shakespearean court jester (fool to the monarchic Kurtz) accoutered in harlequin patches, who is the son of a Russian Orthodox arch-priest. Kurtz’s own genealogy is at one with the patchwork of his young Russian assistant: A German with a half-English mother and half-French father. “All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz,” Marlow tells us significantly. Prodigiously gifted, he is an accomplished musician, artist, and writer and speaker of electrifying eloquence, and even his enemies in the trading company acknowledge that he is a ‘universal genius.’ Why has such a man journeyed to the vast wilderness of an unexplored country? We learn that the aristocratic family of his intended spouse disapproves of his impoverished circumstances, and he is forced, like many talented men of his time, to seek his fortune in the colonies.
Fully sentient of his powers and impatient to make his mark on the world, he decides to try his hand at commerce. Says Kurtz: ‘You show them you have in you something that is really profitable, and then there will be no limits to the recognition of your ability.’ Rather than confront the shabby commercial values of his time (the proper destiny of genius), he chooses to exempt himself from the obscurity of poverty and the opprobrium of his fiancée’s bourgeois family to become an ivory agent. Kurtz’s moral ruin is prefigured in his childish and quixotic pursuit of conflicting goals; his first act of violence is, thus, against himself, a self-inflicted spiritual wound and act of self-betrayal from which his subsequent crimes take their rationale and momentum (what in Nostromo Conrad described as “the picturesque extreme of wrong-headedness into which an honest, almost sacred, conviction may drive a man”).
Kurtz is not without a higher calling. A precursor to Albert Schweitzer, he describes himself, in an unintentional lampoon of King Leopold’s pious humanitarian cant, as an ’emissary of pity, science and progress,’ with ‘vast plans’ for the Belgian trading company. “Each station,” he tells the company directors in Brussels, “should be like a beacon on the road towards better things, a center for trade of course, but also for humanizing, improving, instructing.”
Despite his credentials as a humanitarian and a crusader for human progress, disturbing rumors about Kurtz have reached the base camp (Stanley Pool), sufficient to give even the company director (a man ‘who inspired uneasiness’ in all) misgivings. He grudgingly admits that Kurtz has collected more ivory than all the other agents combined, but considers his methods unsound and unorthodox. Just how unorthodox we learn when Marlow scans the buildings of the inner station with his glass, and ornamental knobs on stakes expand on magnification into human heads.
“I am not disclosing any trade secrets. In fact, the manager said afterwards that 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 at the core…. I put down the glass, and the head that had appeared near enough to be spoken to seemed at once to have leaped away from me into inaccessible distance.”
There is, Marlow tells us with deliberate understatement, something wanting in a man who decorates his yard posts with human heads. Kurtz, we learn, is not only a commercial agent of transcendent virtue, but a respository of monstrous passions; a man who could discourse on ‘love, justice and the conduct of life’ with his faithful Russian companion one moment, and conduct murderous raids on the neighboring villages for ivory the next; i.e., Kurtz exhibits all the powers of dissociation and unblinking self-contradiction found in children and in criminals. Conrad sets himself to explore one of the great moral paradoxes of modern times: how an ’emissary of pity’ becomes a pitiless brigand, and what role his lofty ideals played in accelerating his precipitous fall from grace.
Kurtz belonged to a class of men who, to use Dostoevky’s words, ‘have only to feel the faintest stirring of some kindly and humanitarian emotion … to persuade themselves that they stand in the foremost rank of culture.’ But noble deeds are not always accompanied by noble feelings. True moral conduct is the product of a rigorous soul-searching, of a strenuous and exhausting moral struggle. Kurtz is a humanitarian dilettante, a connoisseur of sensation who seeks and expects the splendors of moral exaltation to validate his sense of self-importance and romantic self-image; and who, when these fail to sustain him, yields to the exhilaration of power. Both autocrat and utopian visionary are promiscuous devotees of sensation and intoxication, and savor the exhiliration that accompanies the pursuit of noble causes and the quest for power with impartial zeal, so that any moral distinctions that separate the two are blurred by their quest for personal identity.
This is the theme of Conrad’s political novel, Under Western Eyes (which, like Victory, proved to be eerily prophetic of twentieth century social upheaval). Conrad, a Pole who understood the slavic character well, examines the personal and philosophic motivations of lawless tyrants and oppressed revolutionaries in Czarist Russia, and comes to the conclusion that there is little difference between the two, i.e. that autocrat and social revolutionary are both malefactors involved in the orchestration of criminal enterprises. Helplessly addicted to indiscriminate sensation, Kurtz fancies himself an altruistic liberal, but cultivates the adoration of a tribe of savages; i.e. he enjoys the exaltation of noble aspirations while it suits him, but yields to the temptations naked power without scruple the moment he encounters the evitable frustrations that attend the pursuit of ambitious social goals. Mortified by failure and driven by an insatiable appetite for glamour, he discards the mask of passionate humanitarian and adopts the role of the ruthless autocrat, accepting the truth of whatever sensation happens to validate his romantic self-image. Sainted benefactor of mankind intoxicated with the ravishments of progressivism (Roger Casement), or hell-for-leather adventurer and pitiless brigand (Léon Rom)––it is all one to Kurtz. Obsessed with fantasies of greatness, and enslaved by vanity and immediate personal gratification, as opposed to rigorous moral principle, he is ‘hollow to the core.’
Conrad divided criminals into two classes: common and uncommon. The common criminal is, of course, the familiar career recidivist who is felonious by habit, e.g. the incorrigible second- or third-generation thief for whom crime is a way of life. The uncommon criminal is a first-time offender who commits a situational crime in a moment of weakness. While Conrad’s portraits of common criminals, like Martin Recardo, are adroit and fully rounded, they serve mostly as foils for uncommon criminals, and his narratives revolve around men who blunder into criminal conduct under extreme adversity, men of a superior stripe but in whom an unexpected and harsh turn of events has exposed some hidden moral flaw, protagonists like Lord Jim, Leggett, Kerain and Kurtz himself. If Conrad is sympathetic with uncommon criminals, perhaps it is because he saw so much of himself in them. After all, this was a man who had, in his early twenties, run guns for the Carlists in Spain and had tried to discharge his gambling debts by putting a bullet through his heart. Suicide was considered a particularly shameful act at the time and there can be no doubt but that Conrad, like most men, had enough unworthy thoughts and sins at his beck to identify with many of his lawless protagonists—not excluding Kurtz—without unduly taxing his imaginative powers.
In the case of The Secret Sharer, Conrad (or the narrator) actually perceives his own double. This man’s name is Leggatt and his crime is murder. The chief mate of the Sephora, he fells and then strangles a deck hand, a snarling intractable malcontent (i.e. a common criminal) who, by refusing to do as he is ordered, endangers the ship in the midst of a furious gale. Finally it is Leggatt’s heroic action that saves the Sephora, but he has murdered a man and is certain to hang. As the narrator makes clear, an English jury of smug, lubberly fools will not understand how, by setting a reefed foresail in a gale, Leggatt had saved the ship and its crew; it will only perceive an intemperate ship’s officer who has killed a man in a fit of rage, and send him to the gallows. As a brother seaman, the narrator (the master of the Otago) can do no less than help Leggatt make good his escape, and the remainder of the story is a description of the extreme risks he takes to free Leggatt.
There can be little doubt where Conrad’s sympathies lie. The Secret Sharer is a brave, resourceful and, above all, skilled seaman whose daring and courage save the ship; his victim is a resentful, obstructive churl. Says Leggatt: “He was one of those creatures that are just simmering all the time with a silly sort of wickedness. Miserable devils that have no business to live at all. He wouldn’t do his duty and wouldn’t let anybody else do theirs.” Conrad’s ambivalence towards statutory crime and his confessional style of narration both serve his moral viewpoint. Leggatt, like Towson, has useful skills and is not afraid to put his shoulder to the wheel, even when it imperils his life. But his self-involved victim, a foul-tempered shirker who endangers the ship, is beyond redemption. So there are higher laws than the legal codes of society; which is to say, justice is existential. Conrad illustrates this with paradox: a bold man may steal a horse with less opprobrium than a shiftless ne’er-do-well who merely looks at a bridle with larcenous intent. Maybe he can ride!
It is not difficult to see how such a morality might have evolved: in an emergency at sea a decisive man with nautical skills is indispensable, while a passive spectator, even one of stainless character, is a liability. Conrad spent more than twenty years under canvas with simple, stout-hearted seamen who routinely put their lives at risk, and though they could be dissolute and lawless, he considered them morally superior to the bourgeois tradesmen who sat complacently by their comfortable fires of an evening and dutifully attended church every Sunday. The deep affection he felt for these men is evident in his stirring farewell to his shipmates at the end of The Nigger of the Narcissus:
A gone shipmate, like any other man, is gone for ever; and I never met one of them again. But at times the spring-flood of memory sets with force up the dark River of the Nine Bends. Then on the waters of the forlorn stream drifts a ship–a shadowy ship manned by a crew of Shades. They pass and make a sign, in a shadowy hail. Haven’t we, together and upon the immortal sea, wrung out a meaning from our sinful lives? Good-bye, brothers! You were a good crowd. As good a crowd as ever fisted with wild cries and beating canvas of a heavy foresail; or tossing aloft, invisible in the night, gave back yell for yell to a westerly gale.
In Lord Jim, we find an interesting variation on Kurtz and Leggatt. His crime is not committed in the act of saving his ship in a storm, but in abandoning it in a funk, leaving a hold full of Muslim pilgrims to fend for themselves. Like Kurtz, Jim begins the adventure of life with extravagant dreams: triumphant acts of courage and romantic visions of heroism, imagined in such vivid detail the reality cannot possibly compare to the fantasy. So, when the opportunity for action finally arrives, aboard the Patna, a rusting steamer foundering in heavy seas, the discrepancies are so overwhelming he fails to recognize his chance to prove himself. There are no trumpet flourishes to announce the great event—only gale winds whistling through the rigging, high seas pounding leaking bulkheads, and a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. Unprepared for the appalling unfamiliarity of the scene and convinced the ship is about to go down, he joins the other officers and crew who jump ship.
Jim’s failure to perform his duty is more the result of misperception than moral turpitude. Jim isn’t a coward—he is simply too much of a dreamer. He had rehearsed these glorious deeds of heroism in his reveries so often they had in some sense already taken place, allowing a cozy imaginary world to supplant the real one. But the real world, inevitably, exacts its revenge, and he is deprived of his mate’s papers by the court of inquiry. Ostracized by colonial society and the expatriate community, Jim exiles himself from European enclaves (much as Conrad exiled himself from Europe) and seeks work in remote outposts. But no matter how far he goes his past eventually catches up to him and he is forced to seek anonymity elsewhere. Finally, when Jim is at the end of his tether, Marlowe sends him to Stein. Stein’s prescription for redemption is immersion in the ‘destructive element.’ He sends Jim to a remote river outpost in the Malay States, where a white man, very much in the mold of Kurtz, is attempting to enslave the local population. Because it succinctly summarizes Conrad’s philosophy of life, and because it is central to any discussion of romantic idealism and utopianism, this famous passage deserves special attention. Says Stein:
A man that is born falls into a dream like a man who falls into the sea. If he tries to climb out into the air as inexperienced people endeavor to do, he drowns—nicht wahr? . . . . No! I tell you! The way is to the destructive element submit yourself, and with the exertions of your hand and feet in the water make the deep, deep sea keep you up.
A careful reading reveals multiple layers of meaning. Conrad says a man is born into a dream, the dream of a perfect world ruled by truth, beauty and goodness, but he grows up to learn that these ideals are only illusory and that in the real world, life is nasty, brutish and short. How does he cope? Does he continue to live in his illusory dream-world, or does he curse the darkness and yield to cynicism, or does he accept the human condition and put his shoulder to the wheel?
It is obvious that Conrad favors the latter alternative. Using the metaphor of the sea, he observes that unskilled swimmers typically try to escape the water, thrashing about (like angels flapping their wings in a vacuum) until they become exhausted and drown. A sensible swimmer accepts the conditions in which he finds himself: he cooperates with the laws of buoyancy, i.e. he learns to tread water. In other words, he submits himself to the hazards of life as he finds it, instead of retreating to the warmth, comfort and safety of the womb; he commits to the existential moment rather than distancing himself in aloof detachment, stoically accepting the human condition instead of trying to improve on mankind with fanciful notions of social engineering; he embraces the urgency of existence in all its chaos and confusion rather than await the perfect moment to act. Above all, he accepts the necessity of hardship and self-sacrifice, as opposed to egotism and self-interest, for he recognizes that sacrifice is the medium of devotion to his fellow man, as Jim demonstrates when he surrenders his life to Dain Waris.
Conrad was speaking to his times. Since then, the laws of buoyancy have become somewhat more complicated, as is illustrated by Marshall McLuhan’s reference to Poe’s story, “Descent Into a Maelstrom.” The metaphor used is still the sea, but since the human condition has become far more perplexing and perilous, the analogy is to the swirling vortex of a whirlpool and how to emerge from it. To quote Poe’s sailor:
I must have been delirious—for I even sought amusement in speculating upon the relative velocities of their several descents toward the foam below. ‘This fir tree,’ I found myself at one time saying, ‘will certainly be the next thing that takes the awful plunge and disappears,’ —and then I was disappointed to find that the wreck of a Dutch merchant ship overtook it and went down before. At length, after making several guesses of this nature, and being deceived in all—this fact—the fact of my invariable miscalculation, set me upon a train of reflection that made my limbs again tremble, and my heart beat heavily once more.
To summarize the sailor’s miraculous escape from the maelstrom: he perceives the counter-intuitive fact that the larger objects are descending, while the smaller objects are ascending. So he abandons his boat and rises from the whirl to live another day. McLuhan’s point is that if we find a quiet place in our consciousness to observe, and cooperate with, the action of the maelstrom, or whatever the predicament in which we find ourselves, and resort to simple problem-solving, we can rise above, and triumph over, every human crisis; that is, we can realize Bacon’s dream of ‘effecting of all things possible’ by understanding ‘the secret motions of things.’
There’s nothing in such a contemplative philosophy that is not accessible to an average intelligence. Absent the reference to the Deity, Conrad’s and McLuhan’s philosophy is neatly summed up in Reinhold Niebuhr’s folksy Serenity Prayer:
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time;
enjoying one moment at a time;
accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it. . . .
Jim like Legget, employs science to assist the oppressed natives, hoisting a cannon up a steep mountain side opposite an enemy stockade using the block and tackle pulley system described in such loving detail by Towson. Both Jim and Legget, who are masters of marine technology and accomplished seaman, realize Bacon’s ideal of the modern man employing empirical method to advance civilization, while Kurtz, who unwittingly renounces the moral universe to commune with the wilderness, illustrates Rousseau’s moral imperative to rediscover man’s lost innocence in a mystical union with nature. Both Kurtz and Jim exile themselves to tropical wildernesses and both achieve the status of virtual gods in their respective domains. But whereas Jim uses this power to do good—he actually approximates Kurtz’s benevolent vision of society—Kurtz is driven to depravity. By his immersion with primitive nature and communion with ‘noble savages,’ Kurtz blunders into the extinction of his moral identity and civilized values.
Unlike Jim and Leggatt, who can never return to England and exile themselves to exotic lands in a personal quest for redemption, Kurtz comes to the Congo with grandiose plans to bring civilization to the wilderness; and, like Mayréna (the ‘King of Sedang’ who presumed to parlay with world leaders), Kurtz anticipates meetings with dignitaries and heads of state on his triumphant return to Europe. When he is taken aboard the river steamer, he entrusts Marlow with a written report commissioned by the ‘International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs.’ The ironic title is a stinging rebuke of the theoretical liberals who stood idle during the rape of the Congo by King Leopold. The text of the report, Marlow tells us, is “a magnificent peroration,” that gave him “the notion of an exotic Immensity ruled by an august Benevolence.” In it, Kurtz writes: ‘By the simple exercise of our will we can exert a power for good practically unbounded.’ There is something noble and grand in this, an echo of Bacon’s dream of ‘the effecting of all things possible.’ Marlow says he is moved by the document, but troubled by a postscript at the end:
There were no practical hints to interrupt the magic current of phrases, unless a kind of note at the foot of the last page, scrawled evidently much later, in an unsteady hand, may be regarded as the exposition of a method. It was very simple, and at the end of that moving appeal to every altruistic sentiment it blazed at you, luminous and terrifying, like a flash of lightning in a serene sky.
Exterminate all the brutes!
The ‘method’ is unorthodox, but familiar enough: it is the clarion call of all utopian movements in extremis, reflecting, to use V.S. Naipaul’s words, the ‘wish to wipe out and undo,’ a declaration of intent often ignored by society until it is too late. Our inclination is to dismiss such threats as bluster. Yet extermination was a plan Kurtz was poised to carry out with the assistance of the militant lake tribes he had co-opted to enforce his will in the region, had he not been prevented by illness. Still, given a choice of two nightmares, the moral depravity of the chef de station à l’intérieur and the feckless greed of the ‘pilgrims,’ Marlow finds himself siding with Kurtz. “The most you can hope for [in life] is some knowledge of yourself,” says Marlow; and Kurtz, like Lord Jim, Karain, the Secret Sharer, and Conrad’s other heroic criminals, achieves redemption through self-knowledge yielded in the harrowing torments of self-examination:
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!
Despite his approaching fever and delirium, Marlow realizes he has witnessed an uncommon event: a change of heart, what the Greeks called metanoia. Kurtz had looked over the edge, partaken of life’s final mysteries, and pronounced it a ‘horror,’ a protracted interval of unbearable suffering. And it is for this reason that Marlow calls him ‘a remarkable man’:
After all, this was the expression of some sort of belief; it had candor, it had conviction, it had a vibrating note of revolt in its whisper, it had the appalling face of a glimpsed truth—the strange commingling of desire and hate…. It was an affirmation, a moral victory paid for by innumerable defeats, by abominable terrors, by abominable satisfactions. But it was a victory! That is why I have remained loyal to Kurtz to the last,…
Conrad’s moral viewpoint remains remarkably consistent across the gamut of rogues and criminal heroes who populate his world. His crimes are atrocious, yet Kurtz is redeemable because he has, at least, actively committed himself to life and the hazards of existence, and achieved insight through intense suffering. It is true that Kurtz and Lord Jim occupy different coordinates in the moral continuum, but Conrad comes very close to saying of Kurtz what he said of Lord Jim and of Heyst, that “he was one of us.” Marlow scorns the squalid ‘pilgrims’ for their feckless greed and commends Kurtz for his activism and his belated insight into the extent of his own depravity. The intrinsic nature of their crimes is less significant than the arc of their moral growth. ‘Crime,’ Conrad tells us, ‘is a breach of trust with the community of mankind.’ But crime is neither finite nor quantifiable because it is in essence existential, and personal redemption is always possible through moral insight.
A Meeting in a Clock Shop
These are but the lacerations of personal conscience. There remains a mystery: why are utopian movements driven to apocalyptic violence? Arnold Toynbee was the first historian to address the paradox in a general way, observing that utopian movements almost always set in motion an ‘avalanche of violence’ because they impose a wholesale reversal of the status quo; such was the amoral wilderness of Pol Pot’s ‘year zero,’ Mao’s ‘cultural revolution,’ and the actual wilderness into which Kurtz blundered and committed his atrocious crimes.
In Under Western Eyes, Nathalie Haldin’s English tutor tries to warn her of this danger:
“The last thing I want to tell you is this: in a real revolution — not a simple dynastic change or a mere reform of institutions — in a real revolution the best characters do not come to the front. A violent revolution falls into the hands of a narrow-minded fanatics and tyrannical hypocrites at first. Afterwards comes the turn of all the pretentious intellectual failures of the time. Such are the chiefs and the leaders. You will notice that I have left out the mere rogues. The scrupulous and the just, the noble, humane, and devoted natures; the unselfish and the intelligent may begin a movement — but it passes away from them. They are not the leaders of a revolution. They are its victims: the victims of disgust, of disenchantment — often of remorse. Hopes grotesquely betrayed, ideals caricatured — that is the definition of revolutionary success.”
The utopian dreamer who would erect a terrestrial paradise or resurrect a ‘golden age’ is soon pushed aside by a ruthless authoritarian who invokes bloodlust to achieve a righteous social end. For every Trotsky, there is a psychopath, a Stalin, waiting patiently in the wings to hijack the revolution and commence the slaughter of the Kulaks. As St. Augustine reminds us, angels and demons can occupy the same soul, and not infrequently, as in the case of Kurtz, and half-baked intellectuals like Robespierre, Mulele, and Pol Pot, the humanitarian reformer and the maniacal butcher are folded, Jekyll-and-Hyde fashion, into the same personality. In a revealing passage from Conrad’s novel, Victory, Heyst reads from the last philosophic work of his father:
Men of tormented conscience, or of a criminal imagination, are aware of much that minds of a peaceful, resigned cast do not even suspect. It is not poets alone who dare descend into the abyss of infernal regions, or even who dream of such a descent. The most inexpressive of human beings must have said to himself, at one time or another: “Anything but this!”…
We all have our instants of clairvoyance. They are not very helpful. The character of the scheme does not permit that or anything else to be helpful. Properly speaking its character, judged by the standards established by its victims, is infamous. It excuses every violence of protest and at the same time never fails to crush it, just as it crushes the blindest assent. The so-called wickedness must be, like the so-called virtue, its own reward—to be anything at all….
Heyst’s father might have been writing about Kurtz himself, whose criminal imagination yields to the intoxicating horror of his acts, and whose hate-driven nihilism and lawless autocracy enable him to control and manipulate the fearsome lake tribes, in his pursuit of ivory, without remorse.
|The paradox of utopian violence may be explained in terms of gravity and Newton’s laws of falling bodies. The utopian visionary has further to fall than common men of ordinary ambition. He achieves such a precipitous downward acceleration it is impossible for him to arrest his descent and recover. He goes ‘all the way.’
It is impossible to discuss the subject of utopian violence without mentioning two fundamental human emotions: anger and pride. Confronted with the darkness and chaos of Africa, most men would have withdrawn to meditate patiently on human limits. But, as Conrad says in Nostromo, “Action is the enemy of thought and the friend of flattering illusions.” Thus for a megalomaniac like Kurtz the challenge of Africa is a call to arms. His loyalty to extravagant social goals causes him to leap headlong into the arena of action, where he finally succumbs to moral insanity, to rage, hatred and violence. He plunges fearlessly into the destructive cycle of history, a cycle from which there is no escape: “Oh, but I will wring your heart yet!” he cries to the silent jungle from his sickbed, just as the master of the Pequod promises to wreak his vengeance on the White Whale. Sensing that Moby Dick is finally within his grasp, Ahab exclaims:
“Stern all! Oh, Moby Dick, I clutch thy heart at last!”
Ahab is a utopian ex post facto, in his failure to accept the human condition. When the Captain of the Pequod announces his intention to pursue and destroy Moby Dick, Starbuck, the first mate, is horrified:
“Vengeance on a dumb brute!” cried Starbuck, “that simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous.”
To this Ahab answers that his rage (a rage compounded by an agonizing sexual wound) is his metaphysic, that he is a law unto himself; and he compares himself to ‘pagan leopards,’ that ‘give no reason for the torrid life they feel.’ Inventing a utopian worldview, dysfunctional after the fact, Ahab likens the human condition to a cognitive prison of ‘masks’ which he must strike through and penetrate by wreaking destruction upon the whale: the quest for metaphysical truth becomes a pretext for violence. Moby Dick has deprived him of one of his legs, and from this tragic event he postulates a universe of inscrutable malice upon which he focuses all his hatred.
Both Kurtz and his Russian court jester, and Ahab with his Pip, share a common heritage with King Lear and his fool Tom. Indeed, a comparison of Kurtz and Ahab is practically unavoidable. In their imperious narcissism and power-intoxicated worldview, Kurtz and Ahab both signify the arrival of the modern dictator-revolutionary, charismatic maniacs like Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Tojo, Castro, Ho Chi Min, Pol Pot, the Middle-Eastern mullahs, and their maniacal, nihilistic ideologies: fascism, Communism, unregenerate Islamic fundamentalism (Wahabism).
King Lear is the monarch who couldn’t leave well enough alone and balkanized his kingdom by dividing it among his squabbling daughters, regressing instantly to the chaos of the feudal world from which it had lately emerged. Lear doles out his kingdom like a god, one so powerful he has risen above the mundane responsibilities of kingship. Moreover, Lear is the worst of all possible tyrants, for he considers the kingdom a possession in his gift, that it is his to give away, like his private property or the chattels of his household; indeed, since he owns everything, there is no clear distinction between the state and society, which means its members are his slaves.
Compare the hubris of Ahab, Lear and Kurtz to the Secret Sharer. Leggatt understands at once that he must put some canvass up or the ship will founder in the gale winds and drown its crew; so he resorts to problem-solving: he sets a reefed foresail. By contrast, Ahab highlights the personal nature of his quest by symbolically smashing his navigational tool, a quadrant, and sails by dead reckoning into the jaws of death, destroying both ship and crew. Leggett is forced to kill a man interfering with the safety of his ship, whereas Ahab is so consumed with hatred for a dumb beast, he destroys the Pequod and consigns its crew to a watery grave.
There is, of course, no objective correlative to Ahab’s behavior; he is as mad as Lear, and then some. Hatred is the natural product of the frustrated ambition and mortified vanity of child-men like Kurtz and Ahab, and it is this hatred that is the catalyst for the ‘avalanche of violence’ that so often accompanies utopian movements. In the absence of any corrective influence, the sudden and unexpected stresses of the arena tend to magnify the character flaws of the idealist and to transform his virtues to liabilities: imagination and curiosity leave him vulnerable to the seduction of exotic idols and a fascination with the abominable, courage and fearlessness become courage and fearlessness in the service of evil, spiritual pride gives way to imperious ruthlessness, and a childish narcissism hardens into absolute solipsism, the moral madness one sometimes observes in otherwise sane mass murderers.
Kurtz says that white men must appear to the savages as ‘supernatural beings with the might of a deity;’ and, in the final stage of self-delusion, he speaks of his ‘desire to have kings meet him at railway stations’ on his return to discuss his ‘immense plans.’ Living in a world of childish willfulness, superman fantasies, vanity and incompetence, his written reminder to ‘exterminate all the brutes’ is not a non sequitur, but the inevitable response of a megalomaniac whose grandiose schemes had been thwarted by a mysterious adversary, the African wilderness. He had come to his native adorers as a benevolent intelligence ‘armed with moral purpose,’ a blueprint for paradise, and a belief in the unlimited power to do good, but instead had taken a ‘high seat among the devils of the land,’ playing god to the natives. As his Russian assistant explains, that is why the natives attacked the relief party on the steamer: they feared, correctly, that the white men had come to take Kurtz away from them. In the absence of kings and heads of state, Kurtz had substituted the worship of savages.
Kurtz belonged to an age that had experienced an unprecedented political calm and a burgeoning technological revolution that had conferred upon it a sense of mastery of the material world. This fierce mystical faith in progress is echoed in the philosophy of Herbert Spencer, who spoke for the Victorian Age when he said, “progress is not an accident, not a thing within human control, but a beneficent necessity.” The Victorians believed they inhabited a benevolent cosmos designed to accommodate their rational plans and goals. Within the comfort of this narrowly circumscribed world it was easy for them to conclude that history had come to an end and that they were masters of their own universe, and they became infected with a certain expansive optimism. But Conrad, who had exiled himself from the safety and stability of this world to the ends of the earth, knew better. As a counterpoise to this ephemeral nursery where history had come to an end, Conrad poses the Congo, where history was just beginning, a vast, remote, primordial wilderness where man was at the mercy of both the hostile natural forces outside himself as well as demons within.
Kurtz departs for the Congo leaving a world with no sense of limits and enters one defined by limits. He carries within himself a universe immune to fatality, and when this fragile world is breached by the reality that is Africa it releases forces within him that are beyond his practical experience and self-knowledge. When Kurtz is drawn by the atavistic beat of tribal drums and escapes from the paddle steamer to join in the ‘satanic litany’ of his native adorers, Marlow blocks his path and tries to cajole him into returning, cleverly appealing to his megalomania. But Kurtz, he soon discovers, is beyond the claims of either Heaven or Hell.
…the terror of the position was not in being knocked on the head,..but in this, that I had to deal with a being to whom I could not appeal in the name of anything high or low…. There was nothing either above or below him, and I knew it. He had kicked himself loose of the earth. Confound the man! he had kicked the very earth to pieces.
The paradox of utopian violence may be explained in terms of gravity and Newton’s laws of falling bodies. The utopian visionary, driven by a desperate ‘all or nothing’ philosophy, aims so high he is doomed to failure, and has further to fall than common men of ordinary ambition. He achieves such a precipitous downward velocity it is impossible for him to arrest his fall. He goes ‘all the way,’ whereas an ordinary man who falls from grace is able to brake his descent and recover his balance. Kurtz is not unlike the religious fanatic who slaughters his family to begin life anew under some new identity. Reporting on just such a case, H. L. Menken remarked that, while a career criminal might resort to judicious mayhem to bring off a botched burglary, a respectable family man, who has never cheated on his wife or on his income tax returns, is liable to ‘go the whole hog.’
Both Kurtz and the religious fanatic share a state of mind well-known to Rousseau’s utopian disciples, Robespierre, Mulele, and Pol Pot: a subrational trance imprinted with the tantalizingly simple notion that to bring about the millennium, we need only wipe out everyone and start with a clean slate. A conspicuous symptom of advanced psychosis is the confusion of metaphor with reality; e.g., the familiar dream logic that brings the extinction of human life into the same orbit of attitudes as cleaning or purification, wherein a delusional patient might imagine himself performing a ritual act of ‘purification’ when in fact he’s committing an act of murder. The vocabulary of social revolution is replete with euphemistic metaphors for mass murder: the ‘wish to wipe out and undo,’ to purge, purify or liquidate, to bring about ‘the final solution,’ effect ‘ethnic cleansing,’ to start with a clean slate on ‘day zero.’
These barbarous ‘cleansings’ seem to originate in a latent, quasi-religious atavism common to primitive societies, especially those in the throes of decline: human sacrifice for the purpose of purification and the appeasment of bloodthirsty gods. In The Sacred & The Profane Mercia Eliade says that in Fiji, “the ceremony for the installing of a new ruler is called ‘Creation of the World,'” a drama that is also enacted to guarantee favorable crops. Perhaps the wish to wipe out and undo, to start with a clean slate, and man’s enthusiasm for human sacrifice, are more deeply ingrained in his makeup than can be explained by the dual tropisms of autocracy and fascism.
One of the most striking scenes in the literature of revolution is found in André Malraux’s novel, Man’s Fate, where a council of Communist commissars and generals meet in a clock shop to plot military strategy. The weird juxtaposition of the mechanically ticking clocks and counsels of war resonates with illusive irony. Rather than abetting the commissars in their pursuit of Marxist utopia, the gently ticking clocks seem to be mocking the earnest utopian dreamers. Time passes slowly for the revolutionary man of action, because his mind is mechanical and sequential, and focused on a narrow point of view; but time expands to infinity for the reflective man who pauses to meditate upon existence and the human condition.
Perhaps this is the defining fissure between the conservative and liberal mind, the capacity to excavate eternity in the moment. The radical conservative is spiritually awake to the existential immediacy and all-inclusive nowness of the moment, and is totally involved in the metaphysics of being; whereas the progressive, with his utopian vision of better things to come, is always on the cusp of metaphysical epiphany, looking forward to, and preparing to live in, a splendid Eden just over the horizon, contemplating a millennial future that never arrives. Could the ticking clocks be reminding the impatient utopians that the Kingdom of Heaven is eternal?
A New Dark Age
Mistah Kurtz Is Alive and Well
The most adroit political engineering applied to the structure of the body social will never serve as a substitute for spiritual redemption of the soul. ––Arnold Toynbee
Heart Of Darkness ends where it begins, on the cruising yawl Nellie, in the Thames estuary, with ‘a mournful gloom brooding motionless over’ London:
The Director of Companies was our captain and our host. We four affectionately watched his back as he stood in the bows looking to seaward. On the whole river there was nothing that looked half so nautical. He resembled a pilot, which to a seaman is trustworthiness personified. It was difficult to realize his work was not out there in the luminous estuary, but behind him, within the brooding gloom.
London (‘the monstrous town’ and the ‘cruel devourer of the world’s light’) like the inner station, is associated with a darkness and the upper reaches of a river (the Thames), a topographic mirror image of the scene Marlow has left in the Congo. What is Conrad telling us? Traditional interpretations of Heart Of Darkness have focused on the moral deprivation of Kurtz, but Conrad was making a precise political statement. As a counterpoise to the darkness over ‘the biggest and greatest town on earth,’ there is the trustworthy pilot and the luminous space of the open sea, a ‘serenity of still and exquisite brilliance.’ The contrast of this ‘benign immensity of the sky’ with the ominous Dickensian gloom hanging over London is quite deliberate, as is Marlow’s remark that ‘All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz.’ Heart Of Darkness, which appears to be ‘about a journalist who . . . made himself adored by a tribe of savages,’ is really about Europe. An eyewitness to Belgian atrocities in the Congo, the casual enslavement and extermination of millions of defenseless Africans by a ‘civilized’ European power bent on the acquisition of colonial spoils, Conrad had looked unblinking into the future and seen apocalypse in the form of the modern terror state: a Europe ruled by hollow men like Kurtz, narcissistic demagogues intoxicated with utopian dreams, who would co-opt violent nationalistic movements, just as Kurtz had co-opted the militant lake tribes, and forge them into nightmare police states. It is an astonishing prophecy. The complacent and optimistic Victorian middle-class was certain God had chosen its halcyon age as a serene terminus of history. But beneath the quiet eddies of Victorian gentility, Conrad, the watchful pilot, had perceived danger; his artists’s imagnination reached into the future and foresaw the rise of militaristic police states ruled by charismatic maniacs like Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin and Tojo, that would plunder, enslave and exterminate the world’s weaker races and nations.
The currents of totalitarianism that Conrad foresaw seem at last to have run their course. Indeed, the political landscape has changed so dramatically since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Communist Bloc that (except for a few isolated pockets of barbarism in the Islamic world) it is difficult to imagine a return to the collectivist nightmare. But if Soviet communism has failed to turn “the globe into five million square miles of terror, stupidity, and barbed wire,” it is premature to assume the danger has passed. A new threat looms for the post-Cold War world in the form of cultural Marxism, for though it has been discredited as a political system, a core belief in utopian society and the virtues of statism still survives as a dangerous unconscious impulse. These reflexive tropisms of the collective unconscious, like utopianism and censorship, have a long history. As Arnold Toynbee notes in A Study of History, Plato advocated censorship in his Republic:
Plato proclaims a ban on poets which might have issued from the mouth of a Spartan overseer; and he advocates a general censorship over ‘dangerous thought’ which has its latter-day parallels in the regulations of Communist Russia, National-Socialist Germany, Fascist Italy and Shintoist Japan. . . . The Utopian programme proved a forlorn hope for the salvation of Hellas. . . . In the second century after Christ, when the Hellenic World was enjoying an Indian Summer which contemporaries, and even posterity, long mistook for a Golden Age, it looked as though Plato’s most audacious hopes had been fulfilled and transcended. From A.D. 96 to 180 a series of philosopher-kings sat upon a throne which dominated the entire Hellenic World, and a thousand city states were living side by side in peace and concord under this philosophic-imperial aegis. Yet the cessation of evils was only a pause, for all was not well beneath the surface. An impalpable censorship, inspired by the atmosphere of the social environment more effectively than it could ever have been imposed by imperial fiat, was eliminating intellectual and artistic vitality with a vengeance which would have disconcerted Plato if he could have returned to see his whimsical precepts so literally realized.
In Rome, as in America, an atmosphere of repressive censorship followed the exhaustion of war—always a dangerous and complacent time—resulting in a period of intellectual and cultural decline that was to be the precursor of the Dark Ages, five hundred years of of stark ignorance, superstition, barbarism, and political chaos. Paradoxically, the effects of political correctness are less political than psychological. Atmospheric censorship circumvents the marketplace of ideas and the political arena, and cuts short to the final stage of utopia, where the the impulse to think and speak freely have been sacrificed to achieve the serenity of a Golden Age. But the cost of peace and plenty is staggering––a devitalized society doomed to cultural collapse and political stagnation.
PC offers an irresistible exculpation to the morally confused, the spiritually adrift, and to guilt-stricken yuppies, because it requires only blind obedience to an arbitrary formulary of semantic taboos dictated by self-appointed guardians of society. This ritual cleansing or purification of language and thought has sinister parallels to the violent endgame of utopian movements in extremis, the ‘wish to wipe out and undo,’ and is as destructive of human intelligence as the ritual bloodbaths of millennial movements have been to human life, originating in the same latent atavism: the primitive impulse to appease psychopathic gods with human sacrifice.
Arnold Toynbe said, ‘Utopias’ are generally the products of civilizations in decline.’ It is a mistake to minimize the lethal effects of political correctness on culture. Such conditioning has the character of altering modes of perception, as when the habit of inquiry is snuffed out by repeated demands that we not offend the sensitivities of militant minorities and messianic special interest groups. Like Orwellian thought control, PC censorship creates a penumbra of guilt, fear and intimidation around human discourse that stifles spontaneity and, with it, all creativity and invention.
Kurtz is lured from his sickbed to the jungle by the tribal drumbeat. Referring to the powerful influence of the tribal drum of radio on Europe in the thirties, Marshall McLuhan observed that England and America were inoculated against its effects by literacy and industrialism, but that the oral cultures of Europe were less immune to its tribal magic, and ‘the old web of kinship began to resonate once more with the note of fascism,’ the Africa within. A distinctive feature of collectivism is the repetition of slogans and inspirational chanting, the mesmerizing effect of propaganda and the numbing of the critical faculty by euphemism, where thought and sound merge, and worldview is directed through the auditory sense. It is the hypnotic voice of Kurtz that Marlow remembers most vividly.
|In a radio speech in Munich, March 14, 1936, Hitler said, “I go my way with the assurance of a somnambulist.” His victims and his critics have been equally somnambulistic. They danced entranced to the tribal drum of radio that extended their central nervous system to create depth involvement for everybody. ––Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media
Political propaganda and censorship are central to the totalitarian regime, for human thought processes are inextricably bound to human speech, and to inhibit one is to inhibit the other. We are talking about nothing less than the life of the human spirit. If human society cannot survive without moral restraint, the effect of restraint on human consciousness is instant and complete stupification. The mind is a private theater wherein we simulate and re-enact reality in order to know it and ourselves better, a laboratory in which to test ideas and walk through doctrine and dogma, to better understand the social laws and physical forces that govern the human spirit and the phenomenal world, following logic fearlessly wherever it leads.
Spinoza said: ‘Every man is by indefeasible natural right the master of his own thoughts.’ The great fallacy of monolithic docrines like political correctness is that they seek to eliminate an important step in human cognition: the dialogue with the self, the act of dialectical mastication that allows us to absorb and process experience, to direct and enable our own moral lives. Only in the inviolable sanctuary of the soul, in the sacred act of self-communion, can man realize his own transcendence and salvation. Politically correct speech and thought provide us with the predigested morality of self-appointed ideologues, the profane consensus of mediocre minds, in lieu of our own common sense and the collective wisdom of the ages. It is the manager’s insolent cabin boy, not Marlow, who finally announces the demise of Kurtz: ‘Mistah Kurtz—he dead.’ But reports of Mr. Kurtz’s death are much exaggerated. He is alive and well in the minds and hearts of all those who ask us to abdicate our individuality, and upset the precarious balance between moral restraint and human freedom, in the name of a more perfect world.
Wm. B. Fankboner � 2001, 2004, 2008