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CHAPTER I (continued)
To Marlow's disgust the other agents at the Central Station seem to spend most of their time either backbiting or wandering aimlessly around in the sun. With the long staffs they always carry, they remind him of "a lot of faithless pilgrims." A pilgrim is a traveler to a holy place; why should Marlow pick this word for the unholy agents? He supplies the answer himself: "The word 'ivory' rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it."
One evening a fire breaks out in one of the storage sheds, and the "pilgrims" run around idiotically trying to put it out. Marlow watches one of them attempt to fill a bucket that has a hole in the bottom-another moment of comedy, and another example of the gross incompetence that reigns at the Central Station. Meanwhile, he falls into conversation with one of the agents, a young aristocrat who's a flunky to the manager and a snob to the other agents. On their side, they think he's the manager's spy. How could these men ever conquer the wilderness when they can't even conquer their petty jealousies?
This man is supposed to be a brickmaker but, true to the inefficiency of the place, he hasn't managed to make any bricks because he lacks some material or other that he needs. The young man invites Marlow to his room, and as the two talk Marlow slowly realizes that the brickmaker is pumping him for information-even though he has no idea what useful information he might possess. The brickmaker drops a lot of hints about Marlow's connections in Brussels, and he gets more and more annoyed because he thinks Marlow is hiding something from him.
Marlow is struck by a painting in the room-a blindfolded woman carrying a lighted torch-and the brickmaker tells him that it was done by Mr. Kurtz when he was at the Central Station more than a year ago.
The painting is obviously symbolic. The lighted torch reminds us
of the primary narrator's description near the beginning of the novel
of heroic British navigators: "bearing the sword, and often the torch,
messengers of the might within the land, bearers of a spark from the sacred
fire" (I, 1). The woman is carrying what must be the torch of enlightenment
amid, we may surmise, the darkness of ignorance. But why should this emblem
of colonization be blindfolded? Shouldn't colonizers enter the wilderness
with their eyes open? (Obviously, from Marlow's experience so far, many
of them haven't.) And why isn't the torch illuminating the "sombre-almost
black" background as knowledge is supposed to enlighten ignorance?
And finally, why does the torchlight have a "sinister" rather
than an agreeable effect on the woman's face? Conrad doesn't place a heavy
emphasis on this symbolic painting, and neither should we. But if you
think about it you might find it a little disquieting. Does it mean that
the forces of light have no hope of illuminating the darkness? Or is its
significance more particular, a glimpse into the mind of Kurtz? And if
Kurtz is the bearer of light (as, we'll see, he claims to be), is there
something "sinister" about him?
Marlow asks for more information about Kurtz. The brickmaker tells him that Kurtz is "an emissary of pity and science and progress"- i.e., of light-one of the brilliant new breed who have come to Africa not just for profit, but with a higher mission to civilize the Africans. Kurtz is a special being, as Marlow ought to know. Marlow doesn't know why he ought to know, but the brickmaker won't let him get a word in. Right now, he continues, Kurtz is chief of the best station; next year he'll probably be assistant manager, and who knows how high he'll climb after that. He thinks Marlow ought to know because Marlow too is one of "the new gang-the gang of virtue." Suddenly everything becomes clear. Marlow recalls his aunt's clap-trap about his being an "emissary of light" in the jungle, and he remembers the exceptional terms of praise she had used to recommend him. Word has somehow reached this young man, and he must think that Marlow is terribly influential with the Company's European office, and that he's in league with Kurtz. The brickmaker had planned to become assistant manager under the current manager; the arrival of the awesomely impressive Kurtz must have thrown a wrench into the plans of both men.
The brickmaker's rather confusing jabber about the "gang of virtue" refers to a conflict between King Leopold, who had a monopoly on trade in the Congo, and the private companies to which he had granted concessions, one of which is the so-called Company Marlow is working for. These companies found a propaganda advantage in allying themselves with the reformers who were genuinely interested in improving conditions for the Africans-they could claim to be doing some good beyond lining their own pockets. It was only a pose, but since it was the Company's official line, plenty of agents took it seriously, including Kurtz. Thus, the "gang of virtue" is the new wave of Company men professing the new ideals, and they threaten the entrenched positions of the old-school bureaucrats like the manager and the brickmaker.
So far Kurtz hasn't been much more than a word to Marlow. And yet now Marlow does something for this unknown quantity that's against all his principles, something that makes him feel miserable and sick: he lies for him. It isn't a gross lie, he just keeps quiet and lets the brickmaker go on thinking that he has a lot of influence in Europe. He can't even really explain the reason he does it, beyond saying that he had the impression that his lie would be helpful to Kurtz (apparently by keeping the brickmaker-and the manager-intimidated). Why should he be loyal to Kurtz? Because at this point he's heard nothing but praise for his efficiency and his high ideals, assets that are rare (to put it mildly) in the whites he's met so far.
It's ironic that Marlow should do something counter to his principles in order to protect a man whose principles he admires, or thinks he admires. Nor is this the last time that Marlow, the hater of lies, is going to lie for Kurtz. He's destined, like it or not, to remain loyal to Kurtz, even after he learns more than he ever wanted to know about Kurtz and what Kurtz has turned into out there in the jungle.
The two men go outside, and the brickmaker becomes even oilier, calling Kurtz a "universal genius" and pitching himself as the kind of intelligent man who could be useful to him. He knows that Marlow is going to see Kurtz before he will, and he wants Marlow to put in a good word for him. He makes excuses for not making bricks, and for the menial secretarial work he performs for the manager: after all, it's only sensible to seek the confidence of your superiors. The man is obviously a shameless bootlicker who will try to curry favor with anybody he thinks can help him get ahead.
Marlow lets him run on for a while, but finally he tells him that what he really wants are rivets for repairing the steamboat. He hasn't been able to get any himself, but the brickmaker, he intimates, could get them for him if he set his mind to it. "My dear sir," the young man replies, "I write from dictation"- meaning that he's just a secretary, that only the manager has any real power to do favors for Marlow. Marlow insists that he could get them if he wanted. Offended, the brickmaker turns very cold and even, in a slimy way, menacing. He mentions a hippo that seems to have a charmed life, even though the pilgrims have emptied their rifles into it. But that can be said only about jungle beasts. "No man-you apprehend me?- no man here bears a charmed life," he tells Marlow, and on that outrageously (and unconvincingly) threatening note, this pathetically ineffectual man departs with a curt goodnight.
Conrad has a particular metaphor for the spiritual emptiness of the white men in Africa, and it gains power every time he uses it. "Perhaps there was nothing within him," Marlow says of the manager (I, 4); and as he's talking to the brickmaker he observes, "It seemed to me that if I tried I could poke my forefinger through him, and would find nothing inside but a little loose dirt, maybe." Later we will find out that Kurtz, too, "was hollow at the core" (III, 1). No wonder that T. S. Eliot called his 1925 poem on the subject of spiritual desolation "The Hollow Men," and chose an epigraph for it from Heart of Darkness.