21 April 2010
Kurtz, Overman?: walking the tightrope in the Congo and beyond
"Surely you couldn't have helped, he-he! fancying yourself... just a little, an 'extraordinary' man, uttering a new word in your sense.... That's so, isn't it?”
What exactly Kurtz attempts and represents in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) is obfuscated at once by the titular state of the chaotic inner Congo and narrator’s willful difficulty in expressing the horror therein. The danger of Kurtz’s excursion, however, is plentifully in evidence, as is his awesome power within his station. Conrad’s description of Kurtz leads to fruitful comparisons between Kurtz and Nietzsche’s conceptual Overman which, upon application, reveal Kurtz as possessing the characteristics of the Overman, but which does not answer whether Kurtz is successful in overcoming man. Constructing a reading which holds in tension these views—Kurtz as the prophesied Overman, and Kurtz as the Overman failed—imbues the text with paradox, complexity, and richness, refusing to simplify for the audience the multivalency of a moral question that has haunted Western civilization since its specter was raised by Nietzsche.
Kurtz elicits variegated reactions from the different parties in Heart of Darkness, but all of them share in their judgment of him as “a remarkable man” (Conrad 69). He is clearly set apart, whether in terms of a differing moral standard (as is the opinion of the Russian) or in terms of an addled mental state (as the Company believes); “whatever he was, he was not common” (46). “I teach you the Overman,” says Zarathustra; “Man is something that shall be overcome” (Nietzsche 124), language echoed in Marlow’s first vision of Kurtz “opening his mouth voraciously, as if to devour all the earth with all its mankind” (68). This first impression gives rise to several other indications of similarities between Kurtz and the Overman.
An Overman occupies an entirely different plane, and so it is easy to see how he might be seen as “an extremist” (67) like Kurtz. This plane is higher in a hierarchical relationship with humankind’s similar position; the Overman is better in every way. Kurtz is clearly a leader, as is required of the Overman: he has the ability to marshal together disparate tribes of natives under his command, not to mention the later offhand remark that his true profession ought to have been “politics, on the popular side” (67). Kurtz’s intellect rivals his charisma: “[The article] was a beautiful piece of writing,” (45) composed by a “universal genius” (67). Kurtz even possessed a special talent for music (66), that art so dear to Nietzsche himself that he wrote in Nietzsche contra Wagner, “my melancholy wants to rest in the hiding-places and abysses of perfection: that is why I need music” (664). Like Zarathustra and the Overman, Kurtz “wandered alone” (51).
Moreover, Kurtz channels his passions in a singular way that is suggestive of Nietzsche’s earlier work in The Birth of Tragedy. “Mr. Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts,” (53) but Nietzsche actually affirms the value of the somatic experience (“O despisers of the body! You are no bridge to the Overman!” ). The Overman “makes his virtue his addiction and his catastrophe: for his virtue’s sake he wants to live on and to live no longer,” (127); Kurtz, who throws the entirety of his life into his attempt at crossing the tightrope, mirrors even the second sentiment when he exhorts, “Live rightly, die, die…” (63).
Nietzsche (ever unsystematically) distills his position on morality throughout his work, but primarily one must know that his idea of morality affirms the world as it is, to the point that “One must need to be strong—otherwise one will never be strong” (542). Kurtz comes to the Congo nearly completed in terms of becoming an Overman, but he arrives definitely lacking a Nietzschean, ‘natural’ morality. The article he writes for the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs (ISSSC) indicates at his arrival he is a missionary of Europe’s antinatural moralities—Christianity, liberalism, and the like. Marlow relates “the original Kurtz had been educated partly in England” (45)—Kurtz the European, the one who believes in the European system of antinatural morality and who seeks, through the ISSSC, to convert the African to this way of viewing the world, which Nietzsche despised. This Kurtz believes in “humanizing” (29).
Kurtz in the jungle completes the transition from antinatural to natural morality. The jungle is the perfect literary setting for this to occur. Zarathustra, the prophet of the Overman, implores “Where the state ends—look there, my brothers!” (163). Nietzsche scoffs in Twilight of the Idols at state liberalism, calling it a euphemism for “herd-animalization” (541). The jungle is the epitome of the anti-state and antistructure, with its complete lack of liberal institutions like “neighbor-love, work, modesty, legality, and scientism” (540). It is fitting, then, that the jungle is where Kurtz makes his transition to the Overman complete.
Kurtz’s shift to natural morality is what puts him at odds with the leadership of the Company and the supporting characters. In Section 3 of Part 1 of Thus Spake Zarathustra, the titular character rails against reason, virtue, justice, and pity—those pillars of what Nietzsche characterizes in Twilight of the Idols as antinatural morality. Kurtz-in-the-jungle fulfills these requirements; Marlow describes him as a man who “knew no restraint, no faith, and no fear” (61). Marlow recognizes Kurtz as a “being to whom I could not appeal in the name of anything high or low” (61)—that is, as an individual who, like the Nietzschean Overman, has rejected antinatural morality. It is as if Kurtz has catapulted Pico’s Great Chain entirely; the standards of men, especially their mistaken antinatural morality, cannot apply to the Overman.
The absence of conventional morality as applicable to Kurtz most strikes the interpreter in the ruthless episode related by the sycophant Russian. If “one has renounced the great life when one renounces war” (489), then Kurtz has nothing to worry about: he rules with an iron fist, at war with nature, the natives, and the Europeans, all at once. Every healthy morality, argues Nietzsche (489), is a natural morality, and Kurtz’s brutal force is nothing if not true to reality. The natives wait upon his every need, due to a Machiavellian mix of intimidation, force, and a budding cult of personality. Hierarchy appeals to Nietzsche, as “the cleavage between man and man…is characteristic of every strong age” (540). Kurtz is “pitiless to human weakness,” (51) an essential characteristic of natural morality (533). Therefore he has no problem threatening to kill the Russian, who recognizes that “there was nothing on earth to prevent him killing whom he jolly well pleased” (51). This story appalls Marlow, illustrating the incompatibility of natural and antinatural moralities. The law of the jungle, which Kurtz exercises so ruthlessly in the Russian episode, conveys what Nietzsche writes of as the need “to remain on top” (542). Kurtz’s recognizance of a Nietzschean, natural, in this case African, morality is most clear in the Russian’s recounting of his brush with death. Power rules the jungle, and power is the language of Kurtz and the Nietzschean Overman alike.
Zarathustra warns that to achieve the Overman, one must cross the “rope over an abyss. A dangerous across, a dangerous on-the-way…” (126). The danger of the passage is consistent with pan-cultural conceptualizations of liminal stages as dangerous as well as powerful. Kurtz, like the Overman, has his own passage, which might be visualized as leading to the heart of darkness itself, the treacherous Congo replacing the difficult tightrope. Kurtz’s status is liminal in many ways: the passage through Africa; antistructure, i.e. the jungle; the Nietzschean tightrope, i.e. the passage from man to Overman. The extended conceit of Kurtz having stood at the edge of such a crossing reappears throughout Heart of Darkness (“I was on the threshold of great things” ). The only reason Marlow feels qualified to tell the story of Kurtz is because “I had peeped over the edge myself,” that “threshold of the invisible” (65). Looking into the abyss, Kurtz’s “nerves went wrong” (45): one may interpret this as meaning either that he 1) made an error in judgment in seeking to deny his humanity or 2) promoted a (natural) morality that ran counter to the (antinatural) moralities endorsed by the powers that be.
Does Kurtz fall into the abyss? The first reading is that he does; Kurtz’s endeavor is therein seen as an internally flawed proposition in which it is impossible for him to overcome his humanity. The act of placing in hierarchy his relations with the Africans is a denial of their common humanity. Kurtz’s death, in this reading, can be seen as an instance of Flesch’s analysis of fictive narrative as training social expectations regarding individuals whose behavior is ‘out-of-bounds,’ in terms of morality or group survival (24). His death, then, is a triumph for Marlow’s early suspicion: it is ultimately impossible for Marlow, Kurtz, or anyone else to make a complete break with humanity as is required of a true Overman. One of the novella’s most poignant passages occurs on p. 32, when Marlow describes the enslaved Africans:
No, they were not inhuman. Well you know, that was the worst of it—this suspicion of their not being inhuman…but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity—like yours—the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar.
For Kurtz’s plan to be carried out requires a denial of what Marlow here witnesses: the shared humanity of Africans and Europeans, which Kurtz cannot escape. The difference between Marlow and Kurtz is that Marlow, when he witnesses death, recognizes “a claim of distant kinship affirmed in a supreme moment” (46). Kurtz does no such thing, and his ignorance dooms him. This reading posits liminality as seductively dangerous.
Kurtz, near death, loses the belief that he is more than any other human. Aristotle stated so long ago that all great tragedy requires its hero to recognize his flaw in a moment of anagnorisis. To this reading, when Marlow wonders that “the mind of man is capable of anything,” (31) he is foreshadowing Kurtz’s delusion that he is not human at all, and Heart of Darkness is the tragedy of Kurtz’s inability to escape humanity. Impending death is the only way to break Kurtz’s delusion (mortality—the great unifier!), and, in a fit of recognition, he whispers, “The horror!” (64). This is the knowledge that Marlow says “came to him at last—only at the very last” (53). Nietzsche’s Overman, Kurtz finds out, is unattainable, the tightrope impassable.
There is, of course, a reading which is not quite so dismissive of the applicability of Nietzschean ideals. “Man is a rope, tied between beast and Overman,” (126); to the untrained eye, the representation may seem to cast the Africans as beasts and Europeans as Man. This is the position of the Kurtz who writes for the ISSSC, but Nietzsche would not set the hierarchy in this way. Kurtz-in-the-jungle has ‘gone native,’ but to the Nietzschean this is not a bad thing, as it means a rejection of European antinatural morality and an affirmation of vitality. From this vantage, Kurtz’s vicious addendum to “exterminate all the brutes” (46) refers not to the Africans, but to the colonizers. The Overman, after all, must recognize that “Man is finished when he becomes altruistic” (536). To this interpretation, the “horror” is not that he has made a mistake, but that his work may remain unfinished. The antinatural moralists it would seem, have won, until one remembers the triumphant image of the native woman standing on the banks of the river. The language describing her is vividly Nietzschean (55-56); might she not be, not a lover of Kurtz’s, but his lieutenant—an Overwoman, left to rule the jungle? The embrace of antistructure, of liminality, is in this reading the source of Kurtz’s power.
Symbols “celebrate paradoxes” (Myerhoff 196). If Kurtz is a symbol of the Overman to come, the polysemous nature of Heart of Darkness demonstrated above is a testament to its richness above all else. Kurtz’s failure/success is irreducible precisely because the dichotomy between power and danger is irreducible. In entering a liminal state, Kurtz throws off the shackles of “social and cultural definitions and restrictions” and is empowered, leading to a “dangerous suspension of self” (Myerhoff 245). Heraclitus said it was the same thing to be dead and to be alive (Myerhoff 248); Conrad says it is the same thing to be dangerous and to be powerful.
“Nerves went wrong”
Denied his own humanity
His insanity is constructed by antinatural moralists
His tragic flaw, believing in the Overman
The tyranny of antinatural morality
The woman on the shore
Kurtz’s lieutenant; an Overwoman
Kurtz falls in
Kurtz is an Overman àKurtz failsàThe Overman failsàNietzsche is wrong
Kurtz succeedsàThe Overman triumphsàNietzsche is right8
Not an OvermanàKurtz failsàKurtz is wrong
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. New York: Dover, 1990. Print.
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor, and Constance Garnett. Crime and Punishment. New York: Modern Library, 1994. Project Gutenberg. Michael S. Hart. Web. 18 Apr. 2010.
Flesch, William. "Literary Darwinism." Rev. of On the Origin of Stories, by Brian Boyd. American Book Review Sept.-Oct. 2009: 13+. Print.
Myerhoff, Barbara G. Peyote Hunt: The Sacred Journey of the Huichol Indians. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1974. Print.
Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. The Portable Nietzsche;. New York: Viking, 1954. Print.
 Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky, 1866
 I will not here attempt to parse the difference between the bridge to the Overman and the Overman himself. Too complicated and too nuanced for seven pages.
 Emphasis added
 I mean not African in terms of the cultures of the indigenous populations but in terms of the lack of institutional control of morality that characterized Europe in the same time period; i.e., anti-European.
 C.f. 131, wherein a tightrope-walker fails in an attempt to cross.
 These two are the same.
8 These two are the same.
 This is one other possibility which I have tried to rule out, but which cannot be ignored: that it is Kurtz and not Nietzsche who is wrong, that Kurtz does not satisfy Nietzsche’s description of the Overman. Then no judgment as to the validity of the concept of the Overman in abstract would be possible from Kurtz’s actions.