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CHAPTER II (continued)
At this point Marlow breaks off his tale and launches into a long, rambling discussion of Mr. Kurtz-who hasn't yet appeared on the scene. This would be an odd technique for most novels. But for a story being told aloud it seems absolutely right: nowhere do we get a stronger sense of Marlow's speaking voice.
When Marlow says, after the attack, that Kurtz is probably dead by now, it suddenly occurs to him how badly he had wanted to talk to him. He's heard all about Kurtz's gift of expression; he wanted to hear him himself, and now that he's lost the chance he's almost on the verge of tears. Marlow admits that part of the reason he was so upset was that he'd become a little unbalanced. For one thing, he'd had several small fevers while he'd been in the jungle. And, as he points out, his nerves were in such a state that he'd just thrown a pair of perfectly good shoes overboard.
But as it turned out, Marlow tells his listeners bitterly, he did get a chance to hear Kurtz talk-and he heard more than enough. He alludes to a girl, and he tells them he finally put Kurtz's ghost to rest with a lie. But then he's startled at his own words. "Girl! What? Did I mention a girl? Oh, she is out of it-completely." He repeats his convictions about the beautiful illusions of women, and how men "must help them to stay in that beautiful world of their own." Then he says something about "the disinterred body of Mr. Kurtz saying, 'My Intended.'"
By now you'll probably be thoroughly confused. Conrad is playing
with our curiosity by dropping hints about what will happen later in the
story. Did Kurtz die, we wonder. Did his corpse really talk about his
"Intended"? Is that the girl Marlow is talking about?
Marlow now divulges the truth about Kurtz. The wilderness, he tells his listeners, had made Kurtz its own. He was unable to resist; you can't possibly imagine what solitude, "utter solitude without a policeman," can do to a person's mind. The only people who are safe from that kind of madness are the fool, who's too stupid to realize that he's "being assaulted by the powers of darkness," and the saint, "deaf and blind to anything but heavenly sights and sounds." (You'll see examples of both in the pages to come.) But the only protection that the rest of us have-Marlow repeats his favorite nostrum-is work, "your power of devotion, not to yourself, but to an obscure, back-breaking business."
Kurtz represents words, not work; Marlow imagines him simply as a voice. He fell prey to the jungle; his nerves went wrong. He participated in "inconceivable ceremonies" and "unspeakable rites." The "powers of darkness claimed him for their own," and he took "a high seat among the devils of the land."
Critics have disagreed about Marlow's vagueness here. Some feel that Conrad owes us a fuller description of Kurtz's crimes, and that by being indefinite he was dodging the issue. Others think that these obscure suggestions are much eerier than any explicit description could be. (Once again we should call to mind Conrad's statement that explicitness "is fatal to the glamour of all artistic work, robbing it of all suggestiveness.") Of course, today we're inclined to want all the scandalous details that a Victorian audience preferred to leave unmentioned.
Instead of getting more explicit, Marlow tells a disturbing story about a high-flown report Kurtz wrote for an organization with a high-flown name, the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs. The report began by observing that the white man with his superior technology (weapons, for example) seemed like a god to the primitive African (a rather ominous observation, Marlow adds, in light of what later happened). Its subject was the amazing power to do good that the white man had. But scrawled at the bottom of the last page, much later, was this chilling note: "Exterminate all the brutes!"
Marlow says, with bitter sarcasm, the Kurtz's report demonstrated "the unbounded power of eloquence-of words-of burning noble words." It went on and on about doing good, but there were no practical suggestions about how to do it. What Marlow respects is work, not words. Whenever anybody starts spouting high ideals he gets suspicious, because experience has taught him that ideals are too often just a mask to hide ugly intentions. The best example is the trading companies who are always talking about helping and guiding the Africans when what they're really doing is putting them in chains. In a sense, that terrible scrawled sentence is the one lightning-flash of truth that breaks through the cloud cover of the white man's lies; it's the evil secret of the white man.
The saddest irony is that Kurtz actually believed in the ideals everybody else was just repeating mechanically. The man with the most elevated beliefs turns out to be the one who sinks the lowest. But at least he isn't one of the fools who don't even perceive that the darkness is calling them. "Whatever he was," Marlow tells his listeners, "he was not common." Keep this statement in mind. It sets Kurtz up as the opposite of the characterless manager, lacking in all extraordinary qualities, whom Marlow described as nothing more than a "common trader" (I, 4).
But saying he wasn't common is the most Marlow can say for Kurtz. He doesn't think getting to him was worth the death of his helmsman-a preference for a black life over a (degraded) white one that would certainly shock his racist colleagues.