Friday, June 26, 2009

Where are the Greek Villains?

Where are the Greek Villains?

Greek mythology introduces a pantheon of heroes, superhuman beings capable of performing impossible deeds, unbound by human limitation. Modern narratives typically dictate a force in opposition to heroism: villainy. Often the Gods and heroes themselves are embodied as agents of both forces. Gods punish wantonly, demanding vengeance, blood, destruction and sacrifice from those who offend them; heroes slaughter entire cities kit and caboodle for the sake of glory and treasure. While morality certainly does exist within the scope of Greek literature, the characters are reflections of an imperfect world capable of good and evil. Perhaps one of the keys to reconciling the context in which a laudable hero can commit acts of treachery and wholesale slaughter is an understanding of the one-world model of Greek mythology. The gods do not inhabit some other plane of existence, but rather make their homes at the peaks of mountains and within the temples of their favored cities and islands. While their domains are rarely accessible, they are present in the lives of mortals. Even the land of the dead can be reached by a particularly bold traveler. The entire spectrum of being existed in this mutually shared space. A world model which does not separate goodness from evil into meaningfully distinct camps precludes the creation of villains as they appear in modern works.

In order to advance this argument, it must be first demonstrated that despite the fact that many of these tales are born of a more distant past, they do actually reflect the world view of the Classical Greek audience. Within the texts of the Epic Cycle there are repeated indications that the events occurring are not contemporaneous with the poet. The opening invocation of the muses indicates a lack of firsthand knowledge in the matters being discussed; after all, why should a poet need to invoke a minor goddess to tell him how to describe an event he bore witness to? (Carpenter, 24) Archaeological findings confirm the separation between the Mycenaean Greek origin of these myths and the Classical Greek cultural prism through which modern readers interact with them. The degree to which Homer, as an Archaic or early Classical Greek, is capable of detailing the warriors’ impedimenta and the architectural style is doubly significant in that he describes them in great specificity and equally great historical inaccuracy. The implication is that he substituted what he knew for those things which he either did not know or did not see value in repeating. (Carpenter, 31) It stands to reason then, if Homer altered the story to reflect details which would be familiar to a Classical Greek audience then he likely emphasized or introduced themes which would also resonate culturally. Though these myths may be the product of another age, the form encountered by modern readers is certainly one which was intended for, and therefore reflective of, Classical Greek audiences. Were the opposite true, then The Lion King and West Side Story might be called accurate portrayals of Shakespearian drama, an assertion unlikely to win praise in any scholarly circles.

Having established that these texts were composed with a Classical or pre-Classical Greek audience in mind, it becomes necessary to turn to the works of Hesiod: Theogony and Works and Days to define the nature of the Greek cosmos. Greek cosmology occurs entirely within the scope of that which is observable; Hesiod describes all of existence, excluding that which is generated exclusively by the yawning nothingness of chaos, as the product of the Earth and the Sky, everything in existence lies between. “In truth at first Chaos came to be, but next wide-bosomed Earth[…]And Earth first bore starry Heaven, equal to herself, to cover her on every side, and to be an ever-sure abiding-place for the blessed gods.”(Hesiod, “Theogony” ln.116-126) The Earth, Gaia, created a domain in which the Gods would dwell, and by extension the creations of the gods. Within the Greek tradition, the Gods take on a decidedly anthropomorphic form, reflecting successive familial lineages stemming from the origin of existence, leading to an ordered cosmos under the rule of Zeus. (Clay, 13) Within this existence the gods create humankind, which takes on varying permutations through the ages as the divine powers apparently attempt to get the formula right. The final incarnations of the human race, the races of heroes and iron, would seem to blend into one another, a progression characterized by a diffusion of the divine stock present in the gene pool. (Clay, 93) This distinction between the mythological races of men is vital to the Classical Greek understanding of Homer’s works, as the mortal characters belong to the race of heroes and the audience to the race of iron. It is additionally useful in illustrating the mixture of good and evil within their world. “For now truly is a race of iron, and men never rest from labor and sorrow by day, and from perishing by night; and the gods shall lay sore trouble upon them. But, notwithstanding, even these shall have some good mingled with their evils.” (Hesiod, “Works and Days” ln.176-179)

The fact that Homeric characters exist in a world without absolutes helps to explain why Hector, the mightiest Trojan warrior in the Iliad, with his perfect filial loyalty and prowess in battle can also stiffen out of fear at the thought of fighting Achilles. It can also serve to explain how Athena, the goddess of wisdom, can engage in trickery to convince him to fight Achilles by posing as his brother and successfully goading him forward with the prospect of victory through dirty two-on-one tactics, only to disappear, abandoning him at his final moment. Hector’s lapse of courage and brief abandonment of honor do not rob him of his heroic status, nor do Athena’s actions make her monstrous, instead it fixes them within the framework of functioning singular cosmos. In this sense, Greek mythical figures, though exaggerated, are made compelling by their realism, as opposed to exemplifying a purely static and impossible ideological archetype. Ancient Greeks allowed for the possibility that their heroes might, in certain circumstances, behave badly. This is not to say that these characters go without judgment, on the contrary, the gods constantly weigh the virtues of their actions and mete out punishment as they see fit. The gods, being themselves imperfect, often appear heavy or light-handed in their verdicts. The magnified scale of Greek mythical figures often results in an almost absurdist system of crime and punishment. Within a single story one might find both a hero, Odysseus for example, who is guilty of genocide and is sentenced to slowed return home, waylaid by the inconvenience of erotic extramarital episodes with divine beings. In that same tale, one also finds a group of lousy houseguests, at worst guilty of conspiring against the host, who are met with wholesale slaughter. These inequities of justice are reflective of a reality which is not always fair to its participants. It should be noted that, in spite of obvious favoritism in the distribution of justice, proportionality is essential to the Greek concept of virtue versus guilt. In a world without purely manifested ideological extremes, the sum of a character’s actions determines his or her fate. A person who has done more evil than good is subject to divine wrath, whereas a character that is largely virtuous is likely to be reprieved. In the Agamemnon, Clytemnestra can be seen as just for killing her husband out of vengeance for the duel crimes of sacrificing their virgin daughter to Artemis for the sake of sacking Troy and the utter destruction of Troy itself. However, the fact that she is also an adulteress who, along with her lover, profits from the execution by usurping the kingdom dooms her. The righteousness of her actions is outweighed by the evilness of her intent. Had she been otherwise virtuous she might have escaped punishment. Orestes, her son, in killing her, balances the crime of matricide by avenging the murder of his father.

In an ethical system founded on the principle of doing more good than harm, true redemption does not exist. A character cannot achieve spiritual forgiveness, they can merely stave off the wrath of the gods by not pushing so far beyond the bounds of acceptable conduct that divine favor completely abandons them. This is reflected through the competing agendas and judgments of the gods. Odysseus, to his credit, manages to appease most of the gods, but consistently brings down the wrath of Poseidon on himself and those around him. Judeo-Christian monotheism differs in that divine forgiveness is absolute; this is reflected in the clear separation of mortal and divine affairs with the deity existing on another plane of being. Absolute goodness exists in Heaven and absolute evil exists in Hell, the mortal realm exists as a testing ground, but eternal forgiveness or damnation are uncompromising ends to which a mortal can aspire. A polytheistic one-world cosmic model differs from a monotheistic multi-world model because one offers an eventual release from the dictates of knowable existence, while the other anchors the soul to the mortal experience. Monotheism offers two possibilities, complete bliss and complete suffering, whereas the Greek system delivers the dead into a grayish limbo which is, at its finest, reflective of Thesiod’s view of the best possible life—a balance of good and evil.

Aristotle’s work Poetics provides modern scholars with a significant insight into the workings of Greek narratives. In this work, the philosopher considers the nature of the tragic narrative as well as tragic elements of the Epic Cycle. His work helps modern readers to distill the elements of Classical Greek narratives valued by those chronologically proximate to the texts.

Nor, again, should the downfall of the utter villain be exhibited. A plot of this kind would, doubtless, satisfy the moral sense, but it would inspire neither pity nor fear […] There remains, then, the character between these two extremes—that of a man who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty. (Aristotle, “Poetics” ch.xiii)

This Aristotelian view of tragedy conceives it as a narrative detailing the downfall of a person who is neither completely virtuous nor wicked, one who is not brought to ruin through sin but rather through miscalculation, ignorance or inability which leads to a tragic turn of events. At the risk of contradicting earlier assertions regarding the moral balance of characters, it should be noted that Aristotle seems more concerned with the shocking immediacy of a narrative’s turn of events than the justness of the circumstances. (Jones, 14) Central to Aristotle’s argument is the idea that human beings are caught in the snare of fate or circumstance, in which case the morality of the participants is a secondary consideration dictating the action (response), but not necessarily the outcome. This concept can be seen to function in a variety of ways in Classical Greek narratives; the most accessible example is perhaps those warriors of the Iliad who are destined to fall in combat. Patroclus is slain because he ignores Achilles’ warning to not venture too far into battle, his mistake is hardly relevant since Apollo orchestrated his death at the hands of Hector. The role of Patroclus’ actions in this case becomes negligible since it is divine will which decides his fate. Beyond the maneuvering of mortal and divine characters within the text it is clear that Patroclus’ death serves the narrative function of drawing Achilles into battle, turning the tide of war. A direct corollary can be therefore be formed between the divine will present in the text and those things which occur to advance the narrative. Returning to the question of morality in regards to the actions of Athena and Hector, his timidity in the face of danger and her ignoble methods become nearly immaterial byproducts of fate and artistic design. In order to avoid the somewhat conspicuous contradiction between the previous claims made regarding the balance of morality and the endorsement of Aristotle’s view of the dramatic form, it becomes necessary to refine the primary argument being made. The ancient Greek world, while wholly contained within a single sphere of existence is not egalitarian in nature; fate always takes precedence over mortal ambitions. Therefore, the miscalculations of characters which are often presented as poor moral decisions serve to deliver them to their fate. The simple fact that they are destined, in the narrative sense, to make a particular choice does not preclude them from being judged.

It is fitting, having moved from discussion of a one-world cosmic model to Aristotelian dramatics, to briefly address the ontology of 5th century BCE Athenian philosophers. Firstly, the work of Plato is a two-world metaphysical model consisting of physical and metaphysical existence. The actual distinction between these planes of existence does not divide the world in a way which meaningfully damages the properties of the one-world existence previously mentioned. Plato’s two-world model separates perfect from imperfect concepts, and while he would surely argue that all perfect concepts are “better” than their imperfect counterparts, it is doubtful that he would consider them inherently “gooder” since a concept can exist in perfection without existing in a state of goodness. This separation of pure divine concepts from impure mortal concepts advances the argument that the Greek cosmos was hierarchical in nature, even outside the domain of folklore. Aristotle, Plato’s student, returns to a one-world ontological model in his Nichomachean Ethics, thus returning the divine to the immediate human experience. Aristotelian virtue relies on a concept of proportion and moderation, essentially systematizing the traditional Greek worldview to reflect a clearly defined ethical system. Returning to the fallen warriors of the Iliad, Patroclus and Hector, when their cases are applied to the Aristotelian definition courage, their actions can be further explained.

Now the brave man is as dauntless as man may be. Therefore, while he will fear even the things that are not beyond human strength, he will face them as he ought and as the rule directs, for honour's [sic] sake; for this is the end of virtue. […] Of the faults that are committed one consists in fearing what one should not, another in fearing as we should not, another in fearing when we should not, and so on; […] The man, then, who faces and who fears the right things and from the right motive, in the right way and from the right time, and who feels confidence under the corresponding conditions, is brave; […] the man who exceeds in confidence about what really is terrible is rash. […]The rash man, however, is also thought to be boastful and only a pretender to courage; at all events, as the brave man is with regard to what is terrible, so the rash man wishes to appear; and so he imitates him in situations where he can. […] The man who exceeds in fear is a coward; for he fears both what he ought not and as he ought not […] The coward, the rash man, and the brave man, then, are concerned with the same objects but are differently disposed towards them; for the first two exceed and fall short, while the third holds the middle, which is the right, position. (Aristotle, “Nichomachean Ethics” book iii, sec. 7)

Patroclus, in defying Achilles’ warning, demonstrates brashness in the face of danger; he puts on Achilles’ armor and imitates his courage in battle, but ultimately falls short of the Greek virtue of bravery because he chooses not to demonstrate reasonable fear of danger. Hector is not a coward by this Greek definition as the fear he harbors is reasonable given Achilles’ prowess in battle. By choosing to face Achilles he demonstrates moral virtue. It could be argued that his momentary willingness to abandon honorable combat is indicative of cowardice; however, the fact that he stands his ground against his opponent even after Athena abandons her ruse illustrates his true nature. The mere act of considering dishonorable action in the face of certain death does not, by Greek standards, make him a coward.

The ultimate effect of the Classical Greek worldview is the production of works devoid of true villains. At most two mythical figures might find themselves in opposition to one another, each performing virtuously in accordance with their own telos. This absence of ideological extremes is brought about by the formulation of a world view which does not subscribe to the concepts of absolute good and evil, but is more mindful of the orderly procession of a hierarchal existence. This relegates morality, in the sense that it applies to good and evil, to a secondary consideration mediated by circumstance and divine necessity. This worldview is not completely removed from modern audiences, but rather quite close to the reality which we exist. Though modern western thinkers would like to consider themselves virtuous creatures driven by a desire to perpetuate a greater good, the reality is that seemingly moral decisions are rarely absolute. These choices are made on the basis of a limiting ideology centered on the self, the social unit or the political unit. Frequently, people are called on to make decisions which benefit one group over another, and while these actions may not be called evil, they are likewise not wholly good. Ancient Greek narratives embrace this ambiguity of action, accepting that individuals and groups often work in their own interest at the detriment of others. Perhaps the modern constructions of heroism and villainy are manifestations of a deep cultural denial which seek to conceal the failings of absolutist thinking by inventing a world in which a human being can act in an irreproachable and categorically impossible inhuman manner.

Works Cited

Aristotle. (c. 350 BC) Poetics (S.H. Butcher, Trans.). Web.


Aristotle. (c. 350 BC) Nichomachean Ethics (W.D. Ross, Trans.). Web.


Carpenter, Rhys (1962). Folktale, Fiction and Saga. Los Angeles: University of

California Press

Clay, Jenny Strauss.(2003). Hesiod’s Cosmos. New York: Cambridge University Press

Hesiod. (c. 350 BC) Theogony (Hugh G. Evelyn-White, Trans.). Web.


Hesiod. (c. 350 BC) Works and Days (Hugh G. Evelyn-White, Trans.). Web.


Jones, John. (1980). On Aristotle and Greek Tragedy. Palo Alto: Stanford University


Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Why Not Update?

I feel alright today. That's good.

Where am I? I suppose that's more or less an irrelevant question to ask on the internet, a place that is not fixed, which can be conjured to any location with a wire and an electrical pulse (but seems most at home in places that serve espresso.) To answer that question which may not have needed asking, I am alone in my apartment--procrastinating. Taking my time getting to writing a small fleet of papers for school, holding my breath for a serviceable novel to appear on my screen, I just finished watching The Devil Wears Prada (it was free OnDemand, and came out in the last two years... I jumped out of survival instinct, it wasn't bad.) But where am I? I am situated sometime in between here and there, here being where I was when I started, whenever that was, and there being where I'll end up when I finish, wherever that will be. Location, in this sense, is not reflective of geoposition, but rather life position. Which is to say, like the internet, I'm all over the place no place all at once.

I don't understand people of any stripe. I can parse them: motivations, wants, failings, virtues. I can appreciate them. I just don't understand how the core of one person can be so different from another. If people were volcanos, I would be a snow capped mountain. Sure, I'm not likely to blow anyone up, but no one is going to turn on the news to see what I do next... at most I might humble those people stupid enough to suffer my pointless jaggedness.

Anyway, once these papers are out of the way, I've got some promising notes on new material for the book.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Environmental Factors, Order and Chaos in Late and Post-Victorian Literature

Here's something to "entertain" you. This is a paper I wrote for a literature class, a topic I am by no measure qualified to speak about.

One can say, with no measure of doubt, that a particular work cannot be both exclusively pertinent to a singular era while also transcending the passage of time to inform and engage modern readers. The writings of Ibsen, Mann, and Conrad persist in their relevance beyond their simple revelations as historical texts reflective of their Late and Post-Victorian origins by exploring topics which invite speculation outside the purview of the period allotted to them by the sweeping hands of history’s keepers. This is not to say that these works are not products of their time, but rather that the extremity of the overarching aegis of the Victorian Era was such that it provoked in these writers an urge to address the philosophical assumptions of their day, assumptions which were not by any means unique in a historical context, but were elevated to such a point of social import whereby they became virtually synonymous with the age. Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, explore the relationship between the axis of order and chaos versus the axis of goodness and evil in relation with the human experience through the eyes of individual Victorian characters. Each author in his own way challenges the western preconceptions which tie goodness to order and chaos to evil by stripping away the veneer of good and orderly existence to reveal the absolutist correlation between these axes to be an artificial construction divorced from the actual human condition within the reality of Victorian culture and beyond.

The Role of Travel and Geography

In shaping each of these works the authors took care to juxtapose the austerity of Northern European cultural standards of order against more viscerally passionate locations to the south: Italy in the case of Ibsen’s and Mann’s work, and Africa in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. These locations serve not only as a cultural manifestation of Victorian strictures or the lack thereof, but also as a metaphorical bridge between geography and anatomy. The northern origins of the characters identify spatially with the brain, the supposed source of Victorian superiority and civilization: intellect, stoicism, Apollonian thought and western refinement. The north to south travel of the principal characters can be seen to correspond with an acknowledgement of, or awakening to, Dionysian impulses manifested at least partly in all cases with sexuality; thus this travel can be viewed as a shift in the anatomical center of thought downward from the head to the sexual organs. This change in locality also manifests itself as a change of atmosphere from cool to warmer climes. In A Doll’s House, Nora and Torvald’s trip to Italy, occurring prior to the story, is made evident through Nora’s fiery tarantella dance to provide a contrast against the frigid Norwegian winter. Heart of Darkness similarly opens beneath the oppressive darkness of London’s overcast sky and quickly thrusts the reader into Marlow’s sweltering account of Africa, home of Kurtz’s wild mistress and all the primal energy Conrad assigns to its thick jungles. At first glance, Mann’s Death in Venice, would seem to defy this pattern by placing the protagonist Gustav van Aschenbach in an unseasonably warm and humid Munich to begin with and then moving him to an unusually dreary and cool Venice; however, when viewed not as a comparison between the physical temperatures of the locations but rather as a contrasting indicator of the relative heat or passion of Aschenbach’s temperament as he moves between these environments, one can further assert the importance of the imagery of environmental temperature change in demonstrating the effect of location on the character. Assuming for the use temperature as a metaphorical representation of passion, Aschenbach, as he appears in Munich, is cooler than his surroundings; this is an allusion to his status as an exemplar of stoic ideals. It stands to note that amongst a society which reveres his mentality, he is set apart by his unusual lack of romanticism. His relative warmth in Italy signifies the stirring of a suppressed and excessive desire, one so great that it defies the capacity of a city as symbolically romantic as Venice.

The Role of Illness and Its Link to Food

Having asserted the role of temperature imagery in advancing the common thematic elements of these three texts, and having similarly identified the role of individual temperature in the case of Aschenbach, it is only natural to extend this to an analysis of the role of fever specifically and disease in general within the context of the Victorian sentiments which manifest themselves in the writers’ works. In each of these texts, disease (a manifestation of both passion and disorder) plays a two-sided role as a liberator of social constraints and as a potentially lethal killer.

In A Doll’s House, Torvald’s illness, which precipitates most of the events in the play, is cured through travel to Italy’s warmer climes which, as previously noted in relation to her dancing, results in an awakening of a sense of unusual passion within Nora. The circumstances by which the trip was made possible, Torvald’s illness and Nora’s subsequent forgery of her father’s signature on a loan document, further demonstrate the good that can arise from a state of disorder. Torvald’s position of financial executor is hampered by his disease, but Nora is able to overcome the problems facing her marriage through a criminal act of forgery which both cures her husband and quietly liberates her from Victorian social expectations. The collective cultural repertoire from which these three authors drew contained more than a few concepts which might be alien to the modern reader. Not the least amongst them, the widely held belief that disease was the result of unnatural sexual and culinary appetites advanced by the American temperance leader Sylvester Graham[1]. This causal link between food and disease is most directly formed in A Doll’s House, wherein Nora and Rank discuss the nature of his fatal illness.

“Rank. My poor innocent spine has to suffer for my father’s amusements.

Nora. I suppose that you mean he was too partial to asparagus and pate de foie gras, don’t you?

Rank. Yes, and to truffles.

Nora. Truffles, yes. And oysters too, I suppose?”

Rank. Oysters, of course, that goes without saying.

Nora. And heaps of port and champaign. It is sad that all these nice things should take their revenge upon our bones.” (Ibsen, 38)

While on the surface, this brief dialog might seem to the modern reader to subtly hint at sexuality, the actual connotation within the context of the time is much more significant given the outspokenness of the Grahamite movement during the Victorian era. Nora’s shift in topic from the unseemly frankness of the sexual act to euphemistic dietary habits opens a window of opportunity for the two to speak flirtatiously. Rank personalizes the discussion by alluding to Nora’s personal vice, macaroons, by mention of their confectionary cousin the truffle. In this light, the macaroons which Nora secretly hides from her husband, but flaunts in front of her friends, come to represent a hidden sexuality which Torvald is not party. Nora’s mention of oysters, a reputed aphrodisiac, advances the sexual dialog by linking a specific food to the act of sexual intercourse. Torvald’s overbearing enforcement of order and strictures within the house results in two evils: the suppression of his wife’s passions and her intellectual infidelity. The balance of relationships are directly upset by Torvald’s strict adherence to social mores; thus Ibsen is able to demonstrate that order does not always yield goodness and that goodness, Torvald’s good health and Nora’s self-actualization, can be born from disorder.

Mann similarly links food with disease in Death in Venice by having Aschenbach ignore warnings about eating fruit which might be contaminated with cholera. Fate takes a more sinister turn for Aschenbach who is compelled to expose himself to disease by the unbridled passion he feels for Tadzio. His decision to stay in the city and partake of luxury foods in spite of the growing epidemic is indicative of the irrationality of his passion which manifests to such an extent that he allows himself to be corrupted by agents of disorder to offset the imbalance of his life. Through Aschenbach’s classically inspired reasoning Mann is able to show the arbitrariness of social order in the context of differentiating between good and evil acts. At the same time, he recognizes through Aschenbach’s eventual death the inherent dangers of completely ignoring prudence. Aschenbach’s fever is indicative of his growing passions and also the onset of cholera. Again, temperature plays a role in expressing the character’s inner motivations and desires. As Aschenbach grows sicker, so too does his appetite for sex and disorder: his feverish dream of the bacchanalian celebration and its phallic idol and his musing on the adventures to be had with Tadzio once the rest of the city had succumbed to disease are both manifestations of the corruption in his mind and body. The fact that he succumbs to the disease of his desire for the boy is not necessarily an indictment of disease or desire, but rather a charge levied against the living of an imbalanced life. Aschenbach’s tale demonstrates the inevitable destructive spiritual backlash against the stoic Victorian ideal. The prediction set forth by Mann’s depiction of Aschenbach was perhaps vindicated by the excesses of the post-war 1920s and the subsequent economic failure of the 1930s, a rise and fall mirroring Aschenbach’s own journey from direness to disaster by way of elation.

The role of disease in Heart of Darkness is not as internal to Marlow’s experience as it is to Aschenbach’s in Death in Venice, nor as integral to his motivations as the characters in A Doll’s House. Rather, the lurking diseases of the jungle serve to mirror the psychological effects of Africa’s alien environment on its European colonizers. The specter of sickness shadows Marlow’s journey from the outset, a threat which provides a constant reminder that whites are unwelcome intruders. The depiction of natives as direct extensions of their wild environment serves to further illustrate who belongs in the Congo or perhaps more appropriately: who belongs to the Congo. “…but they had bone, muscle, a wild vitality, an intense energy of movement, that was as natural and true as the surf along their coast. They wanted no excuse for being there. They were a great comfort to look at.”(Conrad, 21). This passage was similarly noted by Dr. Achebe in his essay An Image of Africa as an example of Conrad’s fixation with assigning value to cultural presence of location (Achebe, 122). This depiction of healthy Africans interacting seamlessly with their environment is both complimented and complicated by the image of Africans brought inland by Europeans to work, who upon leaving their homelands succumb to many of the same maladies as the whites they accompany. Still, even in their similarity to Europeans they are depicted as being separate, closer to the primeval wilderness.

“Black shapes crouched, lay, sat between the trees, leaning against the trunks, clinging to the earth, half coming out, half effaced within the dim light…” (Conrad, 27)

“Brought from all the recesses of the coast in all the legality of time contracts, lost to uncongenial surroundings, fed on unfamiliar food, they sickened, became inefficient, and were then allowed to crawl away and rest.”(Conrad, 28)

This is perhaps one of the few places in Heart of Darkness where Conrad offers a gray area, a position between the polar opposites of black and white, between African and European cultures. Africans acting outside of their environment are stricken with disease, just as Kurtz is later in the novel. If Conrad means for Africa to represent some primal otherworld to Europe’s civilization, then the disease afflicting both Kurtz and these dying Africans serves as a warning to the reader about the dangers of upsetting the natural order. At the same time, Conrad depicts the possibility of free-agency within this hierarchal division between order and chaos, in at least as far as Europeans are concerned. The Central Station Manager’s uncanny ability to survive in Africa is highlighted by the uneasiness he instills in others, the sense that he is unnatural belongs to a nothing. Kurtz, on the other hand, is able to elect to exist temporarily within the Congolese world, embracing it and ultimately seeming to abandon the existence of order he was born into for one of chaos. Marlow is ultimately confronted with this same decision, at least in his own mind. His awe in the face of the jungle and its people’s passionate culture is tempered by his understanding of social arrangement. While it seems clear that Conrad, vis-à-vis Marlow, views African culture as being inferior when compared to its European counterpart, he does not recognize it as evil, but rather as an alternative suitable to those born to it. Upon his return to Europe, Marlow views those who have not experienced the choice between order and chaos as being uninformed, passive recipients of culture, inferior in their understanding of the human condition, thus tying enlightenment to having glimpsed both alternatives and chosen according to one’s nature. In Conrad’s work, the disaffection of evil from chaos and goodness from the order of civilized life further dispels the unnatural linkage between these two axes of ethics.

[1] “If it be admitted that the dietetic doctrines herein taught are founded upon correct principles, those who make such admission, and neglect a reformation, have much to answer for. Is there any reasonable difference between the man who shortens his life by intemperate eating or drinking, provided he be not ignorant of their effects, and he who terminates a miserable existence by the sword or the pistol? Have we a right so to conduct as to become the victims of disease? Do we not owe a duty to ourselves, to the community at large, and to our families, that renders it criminal when we voluntarily disable ourselves from fulfilling such obligations? Is a man justified in calling his friends around a bed of sickness, robbing them of their natural repose to minister to his wants, and afflicting their minds with his situation, when he might have avoided it? And even if we have, with the most virtuous courage, corrected the abuses of our own lives, have we accomplished our duty? Is it virtuous, is it just to transmit, to posterity, the diseases with which we, ourselves, are afflicted? Does it not devolve upon us as an imperative duty, to our progeny, to educate them in such a manner, that they may be capacitated to enjoy all the happiness, of which, by a perfection of their nature, they are susceptible? Are we not accountable for the health, morals, and happiness of our offspring?”(Graham, 29).