Category Archives: Kurtz

Mission civilisatrice

Léopoldville, 1928 Léopoldville, 1928

It ends with heads impaled on poles

In Conrad, writes Dalrymple, there is not just linguistic mastery but

a cognitive and a moral quality.

Art, entertainment, and moral purpose are indivisible.

Probity was perhaps the highest good, the moral quality Conrad admired most; for him, very distant goals diluted probity and finally dissolved it. The good that resulted from doing something with all one’s might had to be tangible or immediate, and not so far removed that it entailed or permitted the doing of evil in the name of the eventual good that it would supposedly produce.

Forced labour, Anglo-Belgian India Rubber Company, Belgian Congo 1907 Forced labour, Anglo-Belgian India Rubber Company, Belgian Congo 1907

The risks of distance are shown by the colonialists in Heart of Darkness.

Kurtz has grand plans for a mission civilisatrice in the depths of the primeval forest that end with decapitated heads impaled on poles.

Conrad allowed no transcendent meaning, purpose, or design to the universe:

There were no ultimate consolations for our earthly travails, except such as we can find for ourselves, and that are inevitably modest. Attempts to transgress those dimensions are intellectually absurd and practically disastrous.

The evils of colonialism

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Statue of Leopold II, Arlon. ‘J’ai entrepris l’œuvre du Congo dans l’intérêt de la civilisation’

Hatred, writes Dalrymple,

is by far the strongest of political emotions, against which love or the desire for progress is a reed in a tornado. In his report for the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs, Kurtz [in Conrad’s 1899 short novel Heart of Darkness] had written: ‘By the simple exercise of our will we can exert a power for good practically unbounded.’ He ended his life proclaiming his desire to ‘Exterminate all the brutes!’

Here is a fuller excerpt from the passage Dalrymple refers to:

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 as 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,’ &c., &c. 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.

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Equestrian statue of Leopold II, Ostend. 1931. ‘Dank van de Kongolezen t.o.v. Leopold II om hen te hebben bevrijd van de slavernij onder de Arabieren’