What's it all about, part 2: The Hollow Man

I’ve been thinking about Mr Kurtz a lot lately.

In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the reader follows the quest to find “the inestimable Mr. Kurtz”. Kurtz is the finest product of the Belgian Empire: a scholar, a musician, a poet, a politician. Kurtz is the ideal product of imperial-era European civilization. Amongst the elegant salons of the capital, he charmed and impressed the national elite with his artistic skill, his eloquence and, above all, the power of his intellect.

But Kurtz was sent to the Belgian Congo, King Leopold’s private fiefdom, which was the source of the Empire’s wealth, the foundation of all the culture and civilised behaviour of which he was the exemplar. What he found there was horror.

Kurtz was faced with the reality that his elegant, refined, cultured civilisation depended on the utmost brutality and human degradation for its existence – slavery, torture, and ruthless exploitation of the African population. The foundations of all that he believed in rested not on sand, but on piles of skulls.

Kurtz is an interesting lesson to all of us. What should any intelligent person, what should you, I, do if we come to realize that our way of life is based on unsustainable, indefensible, exploitation?

Kurtz could have rejected it. He could have refused to participate – and would, no doubt, have been unable to rejoin a society that had no desire to face the nature of the truth.

Instead, he accepted it. He accepted the fact of the source of his society’s wealth, and used his skills to do it better, more efficiently, more honestly than any of his competitors, who hid their methods with hypocrisy and proxies. In this he revealed himself as a ‘hollow man’, a facade lacking any moral centre. He went alone into the jungle, became – through force of personality married with superior firepower – a terrible god to the local people, and ringed his ivory factory with human heads on stakes, a technique that in later days, with later methods, (but the same purpose) would come to be known as “shock and awe”.

Kurtz, almost to the end, was perfectly sane. He was just doing what needed to be done. It was the society that produced him that was insane. Kurtz didn’t invent the methods he used; he merely refined and purified the existing tools of empire. The problem was that in so doing, he exposed the nature of those methods and tools in a way that could no longer be ignored or winked at. And, at the very end, perhaps his moral sense revealed itself once more and with his last breath he acknowledged the horror of the system he had served too well.

Kurtz has his parallels today; people who know exactly the human cost of their actions, but simply don’t care so long as the profits keep flowing. Tears, after all, have no place in the balance sheet, or the profit and loss statements. I met these people during my MBA, and their kind appear daily in the headlines about Wall Street.

If you are too squeamish, if you cannot bring yourself to join the ranks of the amoral profiteers, what other choices do you have?

Kurtz was a hollow man, because at his core he was empty. I want to look at some other people who also realized that something was wrong, that either they were crazy or their society was, and made other choices, becoming other kinds of hollow men. To be continued.

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