Kurtz, the central disturbing character in Conrad’s novel, The Heart of Darkness, was a product of Europe. He was the child of Europe, believing naturally, without thinking about it, that Europeans were naturally superior to and could help the native savages achieve civilization. All the Africans had to do was assimilate to the superior Europeans. Europeans of course, are famous for this point of view though it is shared by many peoples.
Kurtz had been given the task by his company of preparing a manual to help new Europeans learn about the job of “helping” the native inferiors. As Marlow, the narrator of the novel, said, “the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs had entrusted him with the making of a report, for its future guidance.” He wrote it. “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.’ The reader, like Marlow got the idea reading this pamphlet of “an exotic Immensity ruled by an august Benevolence.” It made Marlow tingle with enthusiasm. No doubt it had the same desired effect on new recruits. Marlow noted “that this was the unbounded power of eloquence—of words—of burning noble words.”
Marlow explains though that this report was started “before his—let us say nerves–, went wrong, and caused him to preside at certain midnight dances ending with unspeakable rites which …were offered up to him. After all Kurtz, as Marlow said, “had the power to charm or frighten rudimentary souls into an aggravated witch-dance in his honour.” Those rites are merely hinted at. Conrad never explains exactly what happened, we just know that Kurtz was treated like a god, and withered black human heads were attached to the end of spikes on poles in the dark jungle. How that happened we are left to imagine, and our imagination is no doubt more effective than any bald statements would be. Good novels can do that. As a result, at the end of that report Kurtz abandoned his noble ideals, and his noble words.
As Marlow said,
“…at the end of that moving appeal to every altruistic sentiment it blazed at you, luminous and terrifying, like a flash of lightening in a serene sky: ‘Exterminate all the brutes.’”
In Kurtz’s case, that was the inevitable result of all those noble ideals. Just as it was the inevitable result of all the pious talk of civilizing the natives. It was all a lie—a cunning, false rapacious lie! That was the end of the noble philanthropic enterprise of European colonialism. That was the end of noble lies everywhere. That was the heart of darkness we all carry within us and which we have to guard against. Or we too will end up exterminating the brutes!
This has significance far beyond European colonization. It is a chastening for all enterprises with excessive hubris. We would do well to be modest. Humility always becomes us. Over confidence not so much.
Kurtz is us. We are no different. That is the most terrifying part of his story.