December 14, 2007

THE BUDDHA IN THE BOAT


Welcome to the final day of Heart of Darkness Week at Goat Rope. What can I say? It seemed like a cheery holiday theme and I happened to be in Washington DC. If this is your first visit, please click on earlier entries.

As mentioned previously, Conrad's novel is recounted by the seaman Marlow to friends sitting at twilight on a boat. Marlow is described more than once as sitting like a Buddha.

I'm not sure how well-versed Conrad was in Buddhism, but that image really fits for this story. Particularly in the Mahayana tradition, it is the essence of a Buddha to overcome the delusions of dualistic thinking, which is the all-to-human tendency to classify the world through binary opposites like self/other, good/bad, us/them.

Dualistic thinking is also at the root of imperialist ideologies, with such pairs as civilized/barbarous, white/black, progress/primitivism, etc. Like Guatama, Marlow has gone beyond these dualities. As much as anything else, this story seems to me to be about setting up many polarities and then relativizing or demolishing them.

Two prominent examples would be colonizer/colonized and light/dark.

When the book was published (1902), Britain was near the apparent summit of its imperial power. It was a place where "the sun never set" and where a popular poet wrote of "the white man's burden."

But as the group gazes at the lights around the Thames, the recounting of the tale of the journey to the Congo begins thus:

"And this also," said Marlow suddenly, "has been one of the dark places of the earth...

"I was thinking of very old times, when the Romans first came here, nineteen hundred years ago--the other day..."


He imagines what this "dark" country seemed like to a Roman colonizer intent on extracting tribute

Imagine him here--the very end of the world, a sea the colour of lead, a sky the colour of smoke...going up this river with stores, or orders, or what you like. Sand-banks, marshes, forests, savages,--precious little to eat fit for a civilized man, nothing but Thames water to drink. No Falerian wine here, no going ashore. Here and there a military camp lost in the wilderness, like a needle in a bundle of hay--cold, fog, tempests, disease, exile, and death--death skulking in the air, in the water, in the bush...


Land in a swamp, march through the wood, and in some inland post feel the savagery, the utter savagery, had closed round him--all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men. There's no initiation either into such mysteries. He has to live in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is also detestable. And it has a fascination, too, that goes to work upon him. The fascination of the abomination--you know, imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate.

...They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force--nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others. They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind--as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness.


Light and dark are relative and power an accident of history.

A little later, Marlow describes the European city which rules the Congo as "a whited sepulchre," borrowing an image from Jesus' attacks on the Pharisees. The "whiteness" of the imperial city is a superficial layer, concealing darkness, decay and rot within--and we haven't even made it to Africa yet.

Final comment. In a week's worth of writing about this book there's been scarcely a mention of the mad and enigmatic Kurtz who becomes the object of Marlow's quest. The Gentle Reader knows where to find him. He's up the river. Waiting.

WHAT RETIREMENT? Millions of workers, particularly younger ones, have no retirement savings:

More than one out of every three American workers born in 1990 will have zero dollars in a 401(k)-style plan at retirement, a government report said Tuesday, an ominous sign considering many businesses are dumping pension plans.


One step towards a solution would be the creation of universal voluntary accounts that workers could take from job to job and which could help them build the needed savings. Some folks in WV are working to establish such a system at the state level.

SHOUTING HEADS. A new study tells us what we kinda suspected:

Television can encourage awareness of political perspectives among Americans, but the incivility and close-up camera angles that characterize much of today’s “in your face” televised political debate also causes audiences to react more emotionally and think of opposing views as less legitimate.


COUNTING THE COST of the Iraq war is the theme of this op-ed from Madison, WI.

MEGAN WILLIAMS UPDATE. Here's the latest on the planned rally in Charleston.

DEATH PENALTY. New Jersey became the first state in over 40 years to abolish the death penalty, a step that foes of capital punishment hope will signal a larger trend. It is interesting that something seems to be happening at the cultural level. Even in the Bush era, the number of executions has declined dramatically.

URGENT DINOSAUR UPDATE. They found a new one in Antarctica.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

2 comments:

Wabi-Sabi said...

What an uplifting week. Reminds me of when I watched Philadelphia and Schindler's List the same weekend. :)

The good news is we don't have to worry about the consequences of colonial economies here in America in this enlightened day and age.

We've learned that it's immoral for outside interests to exploit indigenous people, put them in life threatening situations, destroy their homes, bankrupt their local economies, rape the environment, and steal their natural resources. Right?

Oh, wait a minute... crap.

El Cabrero said...

I guess we live in one of those dark places.

"The horror...the horror..."

At least we have talking bugs!