The Paradox of the Heart of Darkness

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, published first in 1899, is a deeply psychological, atmospheric story of a man’s journey up the Congo in search of a man named Kurtz.

But any recounting of the simple plot will miss the mark. Heart of Darkness is set in the Belgian Congo when it was the personal property of King Leopold II; one of the most cruel, hypocritical and savage of the imperial colonies. Kurt is ostensibly a agent for the Belgian company exploiting the ivory of the Congo, but is a shadowy figure who has caved into his own grotesque fantasies. Kurtz is an idealist who has, left along in the jungle to his own devices, has become a god and monster. The heart of darkness isn’t the deep jungle of the African continent, it is Kurtz and by implication Western civilization.

Most commentary on Heart of Darkness characterize it as anti-imperialist, morally ambiguous, and a bit prophetic of the 20th century (Kurtz authors a pamphlet on how to “civilize savage peoples” where he includes a footnote that simply says “exterminate the brutes!”). In other words, we tend to read into it our own time and problems and historical memory.

Conrad’s works are known for the paradoxical nature. Heart of Darkness is both anti-imperialistic and yet racist and sexist; it winds up being a sort of de facto imperialist. The morality and metaphysics of the novel are also paradoxical. This is what Conrad is most interested in. Marlow, the main character, is a close novelistic rendering of Conrad himself (who it must be remembered actually sailed up the Congro river in a rickety paddle-wheeler just like Marlow). Marlow is oddly attracted to Kurtz’s personality and mythos and yet repelled at the same time. Conrad is a nihilist who longs for a moral world and moral purpose, yet would reject any morality as ultimately false; he is trapped in a paradox.

It is also considered a novel that looks back to the the past and looks to the future. As we write for our own time, it makes the most sense to assume that Conrad was looking back on his own life, and the European experience.

The novel starts in a extra-normal setting: a lazy afternoon on the Thames, pillars of the community (an Accountant, a Lawyer, a company Director, and Marlow, the old sea captain, who is recounting the story for the others as a parable; it could almost work as a chapter in a larger novel about something else completely) relax on a sail boat.

Marlow (in the tale) makes his way to a city that reminds him of a cemetery or a ‘sepulcher’, and the headquarters of a large company in charge of the Congo. Things seem normal, but two knitting women who act as receptionists remind us of the Greek fates (but two this time instead of three) inject an air of destiny to the proceedings.

On the ship bound for the Congo, things are quickly not right. There are several large incongruities. The ship is constantly landing tax collectors and detachments of soldiers along the coast; a coast of undeveloped jungle; the theme is hit home when Marlow witnesses French warship shelling the jungle with no apparent enemy.

The men who staff the trading company are small minded, callow men who use the idealism of a civilizing mission as a cover to senselessly exploit the people and land of Africa. Hypocritical farce bordering on madness is the order of the day. At one point a far breaks out, and as the white trades men rush about (Conrad calls them pilgrims), one man, carrying a pail of water with a hole in it says that  “everyone is behaving splendidly” and “everything is quite correct.” More then simply an introduction to the true horror of Kurtz, this is a scathing commentary on commercialism, imperialism, and the rhetoric of the “white man’s burden”  . Conrad’s tradesmen/pilgrims are selfish and petty, but that causes them to insist on ‘keeping up appearances’ and empty gestures; jealous and futile scheming occupies the time of the colonizers.

The paradox of Conrad is part of the lasting appeal and power of Heart of Darkness. I wish more people could take its lessons to heart.


Common Sense

Thomas Paine’s Common Sense pamphlet, published in 1775, famously inspired the Declaration of Independence.

The title in itself, contains a very important lesson. Paine’s basic ideas and reasoning in Common Sense was, well, common sense. And today – a bit dated it must be admitted – it still sounds very solid. The declaration of independence, and the French Revolution in 1793, seem to indicate that many people agreed with Paine that it was indeed common sense.

I am going to propose that want counts as “common sense” from one age to the next, one culture to an other, and so on, vary over time. Our sense of common sense today is different from the common sense of say, the ancient Egyptians, who worshipped, among other things, the Dung Beatle.

Common sense shifts then. Our common sense is different from Paine’s. The means and causes by how and when this happens is impossibly complex, even though we try to influence it everyday. Events, consequences, jokes, experiences all flavor our individual sense of common sense.

What we call “Revolutions”, whether political, scientific, etc, can be ultimately seen as revolutions in what passes for common sense.

Let’s apply this today’s poisonous politics. Common sense in our society favors the rhetoric of economic neoliberalism. Never have I seen people so swept away by rhetoric in the face of their own self interests.

How can the Left recapture the high ground of common sense? The Left is stuck in the past – a different past then the past of the Right, but it is still a past. The Left must totally re-articulate itself. The welfare state – despite its success – must pass.

The environment. Already the ‘environment’ is a cliche – and it is a tragedy that the party of Theodore Roosevelt and the foundation of the national parks now functions effectively as climate change deniers – but the environment is the ultimate check on neoliberal economics because, like war, it is the ultimate reality check.

It may be too late to change the vocabulary of global warming and the ‘environment’, but it needs to be couched in terms of sustainability, efficiency, longevity; passing along a functioning world along to future generations.

Real, local communities must be emphasized, with real entrepreneurship and small businesses. It must be made clear that if you actually support small businesses, then support for Republicans is worse then support for Democrats.

Profit as a means, and not an end. Happiness and human dignity and genuine pluralism as the end. A recognition that being human is necessarily inefficient and that is how it should be.

Asking people to think seriously about what sort of society and world they want to live in. Do we actually believe in democracy? Because history shows that democracy needs a high level of economic quality to function, as today clearly demonstrates.

These are some of my basic “common sense” ideas. I think the entire Left is still searching for the right terms and the right argument, and this is my simple contribution.


A Way Forward?

The time – our time today –  is completely new. Unlike Renaissance writers, we cannot harken back to a past age that struggled with similar problems; there is no comparable experience or vocabulary to help us.

It is now that we can look back and calmly say that there was no Enlightenment; Kant’s “An Answer to the Question, what is Enlightenment?” was premature at the least, simply naive at best, and at may be admitted, an impossible fantasy.

Humanity – this species, this experience that is us/ours – has no control over its destiny in the sense that Kant ultimately felt that Europe was achieving. We are swept along with events just the same as a ship captain might attempt to weather a storm, or a medieval city might try to stem the spread of a plague.

Things make more sense when we assume that nobody has the slightest idea what is going on in the world. And I mean this in the widest sense of the word. Conspiracy theorists are wrong -there is no “smoke-filled back room” filled with shady manipulators of human affairs. I would believe in class warfare if I felt that anyone was actually gaining something truly real in our society. Just as slaves presuppose a master and vice versa, I find it hard to see the ultra wealthy, robber-baron, financial speculator as anything other than the human individuals driven, mostly by chance into these positions of wealth and power.

This does not in anyway minimize or negate the agonizing problems in our society. The ‘master,’ though he may ultimately be a just as much as a cog in system as the ‘slave’ bears the moral and mental burden and guilt; at a certain point we all live in a human system and society together and at a certain point, we all have to honestly admit that, so to speak,  the Emperor is Naked. (My favorite thing about political systems is how they often come to reflect the ultimate randomness of the universe in how they operate: an absolute monarch, is still just a man, an accident of birth; he is simply the human that must sit on the throne; the system requires this; we crave the legitimacy that cannot exist (I do not discount the advisors whispering in his ear, or his actions in power); US presidential elections are basically just flipping a coin; or rather a poker tournament). Being ‘master’ is the naked emperor: it is ideology, it is belief, a need for order and purpose.

The most hard-nosed, down-to-earth, common-sensical, show-me-the-money, realistic businessman is ultimately just as misty-eyed, just as fantasy-ridden as a geek at a Star Wars convention. He has made just as many fanciful assumptions about existence as the next man. Any Rand is basically a Tolkien or a Rowling. Watching millions of Americans vote again and again against their own self-interest for the sake of neo-liberal, trickle down ideology is a powerful testament to this fantasy.

So is the Enlightenment that Kant hopped for possible? Can we have our cake of material plenty I believe it to be. With a few basic assumptions taken seriously, this ball of yarn which is human existence and society can be made to be more equitable, just, and ultimatly more sane, and more sustainable.

Money is the most real thing in the world thing these days because we all crave it and believe in it. The man in the private jet, the social power, the opportunities – it is very real, because it is normalcy – its a system, the system that we all buy into. What I hate is how people in this system insist on being above it or separate from it; those who think that they are somehow Robin Crusoe, John Galt, John Wayne.

It’s a truism and a cliche to say that money can by anything, but it can’t buy happiness. The obvious response is : “No, but it really, really helps,” is undeniably true. And we need a system, that is clear; there will always be a naked emperor that we bow before and pretend is dressed in the finest finery. But to a certain extent we should choose this emperor. By this I mean that, obviously, there is the fundamental truth of scarcity. And so work must be done. But that is not a problem. People are fundamentally human, not lazy. Many things that we really, really, really want are simply arbitrary and unnecessary. I don’t deny them a role in human happiness and experience, I’m just saying that we place far too much emphasis on them today. If nothing else, remember the Ruff collar worn in the 16th century.

We need to act to protect the environment, limit human population, acknowledge that human life and society is fundamentally inefficient – we will never be happy, efficient. Profit must be seen for what it is – a limited, narrow way of harnessing petty self-interest  – a means (and a limited one at that) and not an end unto itself. It presupposes everyone’s greed; which I admit is prudent to a certain extent, but very narrow, and in an absolute sense, not at all true.

I have played with an idea of ‘spontaneous theater’ -each of us indulging seamlessly the tragi-comedy of each other’s lives – though I admit that this is ridiculous. A sense that each of us our the main characters in our own novelistic plot.

We live in a society that no one controls; it is headed somewhere, nobody knows. DNA engineering, artificial intelligence – I have no idea where it will lead. But we must all think about what sort of future society we want to live in and we must do this quickly before environmental damage puts an end to all of this technological magnificence. We can choose -through education, hard mental work, inefficient mentorship – to guide the human society-system. We must seize Enlightenment.

The Myth of Venice Continued

We had ended with Paruta supporting the ancient example of Sparta in contrast to the ancient example of Rome against Machiavelli.

This is the era of humanism and classicism, where the recovery of ancient texts made possible conscious inspection, and  imitation of classical thoughts, ideas, and history. Renaissance Italians could not get enough; the language of humanism provided a vehicle for legitimation, advice, and moral succor.

When Paruta and Machiavelli, and men like them, wanted to compare political systems or the actions of leaders, they looked back to the examples of the ancients. To compare governments, they had the example of Athens (a democracy, commercial empire, but is limited life-span turned many Renaissance thinkers off of it), Sparta (aristocratic, small, limited empire, but still a republic). Rome (the most glorious; nearly a perfect constitution) and Carthage (but this was used the least). It is interesting to note the occasions when these individual examples would be cited.

Paurta must uphold Sparta because Sparta was organized as an aristocratic republic, that because it did not expand territorially, remained internally stable and lasted as a distinct political entity for hundreds of years. Rome’s imperial greatness, is enticing, but the turmoil that comes along with it would be unacceptable for Venice.

Paruta needs to downplay the importance that Machiavelli attaches to the “lawgiver.”  Sparta had Lycurgus, Athens had Solon, the Jews had Solomon, Rome had Romulus and Numa, but Venice has no founding figure. In fact, the Venetian political system was famous for its unanimity; very few famous figures emerged, no leaders arose around which cliques formed. One historian notes how the number of individual Venetians we have direct records about abound with phrases like “he was a typical Venetian”. Part of the uniqueness of Venice is thus its high level of political and cultural conformity. Paruta must present an argument for the perfection of the Venetian republic that allows for no original great lawgiver; an naturally occurring system that “self-corrects” and does not either decay into corruption or require a new ‘lawgiver’ to restore the society.

Paruta emphasizes the role of ‘accidents'(chance) and the role of forming governments and institutions which ideally suit the local temper of populations and the geography of the area.  Venice’s organic government, its limited, sea-borne empire, is ideally suited to the Venetian situation, says Paruta, and the situation of the ancient Romans (as farmers) ideally suited them to a massive, expanding land empire.

How successful is Paruta in defending the Serenissima? Moderately. Paruta, as a good  ambassador, is sensitive to the uniqueness of each situation. In his Political Discourses, he tests historical situations as well as “modern” historical situations, where he apologetically defends Venice from charges of being “fishermen and merchants.” In many of the episodes which Paruta explores, no clear preference or prescription emerges; he sees benefits to both sides, and acknowledges that the historical actors often did they best they could and probably cannot in honesty be faulted. The Paruta that abhors generalizations and “essentialisms” is attractive, and the Paruta who refers to the Venetian political system consistently as ‘miraculous’ is touching. In many ways, Paruta’s reading of Machiavelli has clearly had an effect. Paruta agrees with Machiavelli on the importance of a citizen-milita instead of relying on mercenaries, and is clearly tempted by the lure of “great deeds and actions”, i.e., a glorious empire.

The Myth of Venice: Machiavelli and Paruta


At the fall of the ancient world – the final cataclysmic barbarian invasions of the Western Roman Empire – local inhabitants fled to some marshy islands right off the Italian coast at the end of the Adriatic Sea. Over the course of the next several hundred years, the inhabitants of these islands established themselves as an important and thriving economic and shipping port city.

By the 1300s, Venice had established itself as a leading Italian and Mediterranean power. While most Italian cities, and larger European nations were feudal, landed nations, often constantly engaged in low-level warfare, Venice lived a sort of “splendid isolation”, benefiting commercially from wars and peace alike. By the end of the 1400s, Venice had reached her peak. She had expanded across the eastern Mediterranean, and now held considerable land territories in northern Italy.

In 1494, at the instigation of the Pope, French armies defended in to Italy. This triggered nearly thirty years of complicated, shifting alliances, conspiracy, revolt, treason, etc. At one point – nearly all of the powers in the Mediterranean world formed an alliance – the League of Cambrai – against Venice. It was the supreme crisis, not just because every European power was conspiring to destroy Venice, but the Venetian army was beaten badly right off the bat. Only the waters of of the Venetian Lagoon saved the Republic. Eventually, through the treacherous shifting sands of diplomacy and high politics, the lands were recovered by a chastened Venice several years later.

But there were bigger problems looming for Venice. The decaying Byzantine Empire (which at one time claimed Venice as a dependent city) was gone, destroyed by the Turks, who were aggressively expanding both on land and on sea. The Portuguese were starting to engineer the new trade routs to the Indies, and were slowly starting to cut into Venice’s spice trade.

Thus, by the early 16th century, Venice was a second rate power, hemmed in by hostile powers and finding her commercial trade increasingly risky and competitive.

The Venetian political concept and ideology became a well known myth in early modern Europe. Venice was the Serenissima, the Serene Republic; the perfect mixed constitution of monarchical, aristocratic, and democratic elements hoped for by Aristotle, which guaranteed a sort of perpetual internal stability. The crisis of the League of Cambrai had served to create a self-conscious strengthening of this myth.

Niccolo Machiavelli, a Florentine, here enters the picture. Machiavelli is famous for The Prince, a guidebook for aggressive, expansionist rulers, that shocked and dazzled contemporaries, and is a important step to our modern ideas of abstract, rational states. Since ancient times, political thought had been based around how cities should be organized, and how to produce virtue in the citizen body. Christian writers like Augustine were interested in sorting out men’s souls and organizing a Christendom on earth. Machiavelli is a realist, a man in the winter of his discontent. Man is neither good or bad; a Prince who wants to rule needs not be loved or even liked; to be hated and feared is ok. Cunning and subterfuge is a part of being a ruler. Machiavelli, as a support of a Florentine Republic looks back to ancient Rome, and thinks that, with some tweaking, Florence could be organized to be a new Empire on the Roman model. He thinks that Rome had a perfect constitution, and the fact that Rome fell leads Machiavelli to conclude that all political systems will inevitably be corrupted and either be renewed by a “law-giver” or collapse. All told, Machiavelli makes for pretty weak reading these days (I would literally kill to hear his thoughts on modern US politics; I think that even Machiavelli himself would find them cynical and corrosive).

While Machiavelli is not “anti-Venetian”, he would certainly be a skeptic of the Myth of Venice, and his writing provides a vocabulary and ammunition to the critics and enemies of Venice. This is where Paolo Paruta comes in. Paruta is a leading Venetian aristocrat, diplomat, and historian. And in his “Political Discourses” he sets out to shore up the Myth of Venice. Paruta asks (vastly over simplified here): what is so great about Rome? Why do we want to imitate this empire which was full of internal discord, civil war, and bloody expansion? Paruta posits that peace, internal stability and tranquility is the natural state of cities and governments. Only Fear and Jealousy prompt wars, and expansionistic warfare is an uncertain gamble, as likely to result in your own ruin as anyone else’s.

Paruta needs to assert the Venetian form of Republic (mixed, but primarily aristocratic) against Machiavelli’s preference for a republic based on a certain amount of internal tension. So Paruta basically cites the success of the Venetian state so far in history, quotes Aristotle, and claims that because the people of rome had too much power, and the grandees of Rome had too much wealth, it could only go badly. Paruta supports the ancient example of Sparta over Rome.