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Heart of Darkness

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He was silent for a long time. He was silent for a long time.
“I laid the ghost of his gifts at last with a lie,” he began, suddenly. “Girl! What? Did I mention a girl? Oh, she is out of it—completely. They—the women, I mean—are out of it—should be out of it. We must help them to stay in that beautiful world of their own, lest ours gets worse. Oh, she had to be out of it. You should have heard the disinterred body of Mr. Kurtz saying, ‘My Intended.’ You would have perceived directly then how completely she was out of it. And the lofty frontal bone of Mr. Kurtz! They say the hair goes on growing sometimes, but this—ah—specimen, was impressively bald. The wilderness had patted him on the head, and, behold, it was like a ball—an ivory ball; it had caressed him, and—lo!—he had withered; it had taken him, loved him, embraced him, got into his veins, consumed his flesh, and sealed his soul to its own by the inconceivable ceremonies of some devilish initiation. He was its spoiled and pampered favourite. Ivory? I should think so. Heaps of it, stacks of it. The old mud shanty was bursting with it. You would think there was not a single tusk left either above or below the ground in the whole country. ‘Mostly fossil,’ the manager had remarked, disparagingly. It was no more fossil than I am; but they call it fossil when it is dug up. It appears these niggers do bury the tusks sometimes—but evidently they couldn’t bury this parcel deep enough to save the gifted Mr. Kurtz from his fate. We filled the steamboat with it, and had to pile a lot on the deck. Thus he could see and enjoy as long as he could see, because the appreciation of this favour had remained with him to the last. You should have heard him say, ‘My ivory.’ Oh, yes, I heard him. ‘My Intended, my ivory, my station, my river, my—’ everything belonged to him. It made me hold my breath in expectation of hearing the wilderness burst into a prodigious peal of laughter that would shake the fixed stars in their places. Everything belonged to him—but that was a trifle. The thing was to know what he belonged to, how many powers of darkness claimed him for their own. That was the reflection that made you creepy all over. It was impossible—it was not good for one either—trying to imagine. He had taken a high seat amongst the devils of the land—I mean literally. You can’t understand. How could you?—with solid pavement under your feet, surrounded by kind neighbours ready to cheer you or to fall on you, stepping delicately between the butcher and the policeman, in the holy terror of scandal and gallows and lunatic asylums—how can you imagine what particular region of the first ages a man’s untrammelled feet may take him into by the way of solitude—utter solitude without a policeman—by the way of silence—utter silence, where no warning voice of a kind neighbour can be heard whispering of public opinion? These little things make all the great difference. When they are gone you must fall back upon your own innate strength, upon your own capacity for faithfulness. Of course you may be too much of a fool to go wrong—too dull even to know you are being assaulted by the powers of darkness. I take it, no fool ever made a bargain for his soul with the devil; the fool is too much of a fool, or the devil too much of a devil—I don’t know which. Or you may be such a thunderingly exalted creature as to be altogether deaf and blind to anything but heavenly sights and sounds. Then the earth for you is only a standing place—and whether to be like this is your loss or your gain I won’t pretend to say. But most of us are neither one nor the other. The earth for us is a place to live in, where we must put up with sights, with sounds, with smells, too, by Jove!—breathe dead hippo, so to speak, and not be contaminated. And there, don’t you see? Your strength comes in, the faith in your ability for the digging of unostentatious holes to bury the stuff in—your power of devotion, not to yourself, but to an obscure, back-breaking business. And that’s difficult enough. Mind, I am not trying to excuse or even explain—I am trying to account to myself for—for—Mr. Kurtz—for the shade of Mr. Kurtz. This initiated wraith from the back of Nowhere honoured me with its amazing confidence before it vanished altogether. This was because it could speak English to me. The original Kurtz had been educated partly in England, and—as he was good enough to say himself—his sympathies were in the right place. His mother was half-English, his father was half-French. All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz; and by and by I learned that, most appropriately, the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs had intrusted him with the making of a report, for its future guidance. And he had written it, too. I’ve seen it. I’ve read it. It was eloquent, vibrating with eloquence, but too high-strung, I think. Seventeen pages of close writing he had found time for! But this must have been before his—let us say—nerves, went wrong, and caused him to preside at certain midnight dances ending with unspeakable rites, which—as far as I reluctantly gathered from what I heard at various times—were offered up to him—do you understand?—to Mr. Kurtz himself. But it was a beautiful piece of writing. The opening paragraph, however, in the light of later information, strikes me now as ominous. He began with the argument that we whites, from the point of development we had arrived at, ‘must necessarily appear to them [savages] in the nature of supernatural beings—we approach them with the might of a deity,’ and so on, and so on. ‘By the simple exercise of our will we can exert a power for good practically unbounded,’ etc., etc. From that point he soared and took me with him. The peroration was magnificent, though difficult to remember, you know. It gave me the notion of an exotic Immensity ruled by an august Benevolence. It made me tingle with enthusiasm. This was the unbounded power of eloquence—of words—of burning noble words. 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 curious part was that he had apparently forgotten all about that valuable postscriptum, because, later on, when he in a sense came to himself, he repeatedly entreated me to take good care of ‘my pamphlet’ (he called it), as it was sure to have in the future a good influence upon his career. I had full information about all these things, and, besides, as it turned out, I was to have the care of his memory. I’ve done enough for it to give me the indisputable right to lay it, if I choose, for an everlasting rest in the dust-bin of progress, amongst all the sweepings and, figuratively speaking, all the dead cats of civilization. But then, you see, I can’t choose. He won’t be forgotten. Whatever he was, he was not common. He had the power to charm or frighten rudimentary souls into an aggravated witch-dance in his honour; he could also fill the small souls of the pilgrims with bitter misgivings: he had one devoted friend at least, and he had conquered one soul in the world that was neither rudimentary nor tainted with self-seeking. No; I can’t forget him, though I am not prepared to affirm the fellow was exactly worth the life we lost in getting to him. I missed my late helmsman awfully—I missed him even while his body was still lying in the pilot-house. Perhaps you will think it passing strange this regret for a savage who was no more account than a grain of sand in a black Sahara. Well, don’t you see, he had done something, he had steered; for months I had him at my back—a help—an instrument. It was a kind of partnership. He steered for me—I had to look after him, I worried about his deficiencies, and thus a subtle bond had been created, of which I only became aware when it was suddenly broken. And the intimate profundity of that look he gave me when he received his hurt remains to this day in my memory—like a claim of distant kinship affirmed in a supreme moment. “I put that image of him to rest with a lie,” he said suddenly. “Girl! What? Did I mention a girl? Let’s leave her out of it. The women should be out of it. We must keep them in that beautiful world of theirs, or our world will get worse. She had to be left out of it. You should have heard Kurtz, looking like a corpse, saying, ‘My Beloved.’ You would have seen then how clueless she had to be. And the head of Mr. Kurtz! They say that hair keeps growing after death, but this living corpse was bald. The wilderness had patted him on the head, and it became an ivory cue ball. The wilderness caressed him and he wasted away. His soul was married to the jungle. He was its spoiled favorite. Was there ivory? Absolutely. Heaps of it, stacks of it. The old mud shack was bursting with it. You would have thought there wasn’t a tusk left anywhere in the country. ‘Mostly fossilized ivory,’ said the manager dismissively. It was no more fossilized than I am, but that’s what they call it when you dig it up. Apparently the natives bury it sometimes, but they couldn’t bury it deep enough to save Mr. Kurtz from his destiny. We filled the steamboat with it and had to pile a lot on the deck. He could see and enjoy it for as long as his eyes worked. He loved it to the end. You should have heard him say, ‘My ivory.’ Oh, I heard him. ‘My Beloved, my ivory, my station, my river, my—’ everything belonged to him. I kept waiting for the jungle to laugh at his arrogance. What difference did it make what belonged to him? What mattered was what he belonged to, what dark powers had taken possession of him. It was terrifying to think about. He was a devil. Literally. You can’t understand. How could you, with solid pavement beneath your feet and neighbors and the police looking out for you? How can you imagine what dark things a man can do living all alone in a primitive place like that, without any civilization around to control him? Those little pieces of civilization like neighbors and policemen, they make all the difference. If you were without them, you’d have to fall back on your own inner strength. Of course, you might be too much of a fool to recognize the dark temptations that would arise. No fool ever sold his soul to the devil. The fool is too foolish or the devil is too devilish to make that deal. I don’t know which. Or maybe you’re just such a wonderful person that you wouldn’t feel such temptations. If so, the earth is just a waiting room for you. But most of us aren’t that way. The earth is a place for us to live in, where we have to put up with terrible sights and sounds and smells and try not to get contaminated by them. This is where your inner strength comes in, your determination to bury those dark feelings deep and focus on some other business. And that’s hard to do. I’m not trying to excuse or explain Mr. Kurtz. I’m trying to make sense of him to myself. He was practically a ghost when we found him, but this ghost spoke to me before he disappeared entirely. This was because he could speak English to me. Kurtz had gone to school in England and that place was still special to him. His mother was half-English, his father was half-French. All of Europe helped make Kurtz. That was appropriate, since the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs had asked him to make a report to help them with their future plans. And he wrote it. I’ve read it. It was incredibly eloquent, but full of anxiety. Seventeen pages of tiny writing! He must have written it before his, um, nerves went wrong and led him to host dances at midnight in the jungle that ended with human flesh being offered up to him. (Or so I gathered from various sources.) But it was a beautiful piece of writing. In light of what happened later, the opening paragraph seems a little ominous. He began by saying that we whites ‘must seem like supernatural beings to savages, we must look like gods to them,’ and so on. ‘By applying our will, we can do endless good,’ etc. It carried me away, though it’s difficult to remember what exactly it said. I know it gave me the impression of an immense land overseen by gentle and noble rulers. It was exciting, so full of brilliant words. There was no practical advice at all, except for a note on the last page, which he apparently scrawled sometime later, in a shaky hand. It was a very simple method of rule that he proposed, and after reading all of those pages of pure poetry about helping the natives, it was like a terrifying flash of lightning in a clear sky: ‘Exterminate all the brutes!’ He apparently forgot all about that piece of practical advice, because later he asked me to take good care of ‘my pamphlet’ (as he called it), which he was sure would be good for his career. As it turned out, I had to handle his affairs after he died. After everything I’ve done, I should have the right to put his memory in the trashcan of history, but I don’t have a choice in the matter. He won’t be forgotten. Whatever he was, he was not common. He could make his followers do terrible things, and his enemies feel consumed by bitterness. He had one true friend, at least, one person who was neither simple nor selfish. So no, I can’t forget him, even though I don’t think he was worth the life we lost trying to rescue him. I missed the dead helmsman a lot, even while his body was still lying in the cabin. Maybe you think it’s strange to feel that way about a savage, but for months he was a sort of partner to me. I was only aware of our bond after it had been broken. The look he gave me when he was hit with the spear is still in my mind.

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