Kurtz Death Essay Conclusions

Jewels of Expression: First Essays in Modernist Primitivism (Fall 1998)

On this page I have placed excerpts from some of our papers as well as complete copies of two essays. I consider the excerpts to be examples of good writing and thinking.  Without time constraints I could have selected something from every paper, so don't be disappointed if none of your prose appears here.

On Kurtz's having scrawled "Exterminate all the brutes!" on his essay, "The Suppression of Savage Customs":
"Ironically, in a study of suppression emerges the first of Kurtz's primal urges, and it is against the primitive at that. A psychoanalytic reading would suggest that Kurtz's assertion came from his unconscious, as demonstrated by the fact that he did not remember writing it. Also, according to Freud, the desire to kill is fundamental in all men. . . . Thus "Exterminate all the brutes!" is the quintessential Freudian slip."

On the classical elements in Conrad and Freud (here just Conrad):
"Heart of Darkness has inescapable classical ties. This relationship seems problematic at first; modernist primitivism is after all, in a sense, a reaction to and departure from the classical. This duality can be reconciled with the understanding that classicism is to some degree �primitive,' at least in the sense that it is the foundation and origin of recurring tropes and motifs. In this way, "regressing to the primitive" could involve, in the very least, an appreciation of things Classical. The two movements are, therefore, intrinsically linked. "

A good use of the textual notes in Heart of Darkness:
"In a footnote to the Norton Critical Edition, Robert Kimbrough reveals an additional remark by Marlow from the Blackwood's Magazine publication: "And we men looked at her [the African woman] -- at any rate I looked at her" (60). Here, Marlow not only makes clear the sexual magnetism of the African woman but his personal attraction, one so strong he could no longer know whether others were gazing in the same manner."

A provocative conclusion:
"Through Melanctha. Stein is able to make a powerful statement on the ways in which people identify themselves, and the power of questioning those standards of identity. In following the failed attempts of Melanctha, a typical example of unquestioning identity, Stein finds Jeff, and with him the hope for overcoming the societal standards by which roles in the institutions of race, gender, and relationships come to dominate individuals. As a representation of herself, Stein suggests in Jeff the power of her text to change ways of thinking, not just about the world, but about the people who create it."

A dissenting view on Stein:
Stein's attempt to write a novel about African-Americans characters only seems to reinforce American stereotypes about the morality, conscience, and overall "civilization" of black people. She assigns levels of conscience to her characters based on "white" she thinks their upbringing or blood is. The "blacker" the character, the closer to "savageness" it is. The characters in the novel could have been used to make a statement on the lack of differences and separation between the races; instead, Stein objectifies and caricaturizes them until they no longer seem human." The writer also connects the racialized levels of "conscience" with Freud's notion that conscience forms the basis of civilization.

The nub of an argument:
    This perceived absence of "self-consciousness" was not confined to areas of primitive art.  In contrast, it invaded the entire Western construct of the capacity of the primitive "racial other" for conscious self-knowledge.  I propose that this same Western colonialist conception of the absence of "rational ability," "analytic power," and true "self-consciousness" in the "racial other" is evident in Gertrude Stein's highly autobiographical work, "Melanctha."  Specifically, through the character Rose, whose pompous self-conception grounded in her "sense of decent conduct" (Stein, 149) is continually contradicted by scathing descriptions by the omniscient narrator, Stein exposes a figure of the "racial other" who is incapable of a valid "self-consciousness."  Furthermore, Stein's characterization of this "racial other" as childlike and bestial clearly echoes other colonialist stereotypes of "primitive people."  In light of this, I argue that throughout "Melanctha," Stein self-consciously manipulates characters who have no true "self-awareness," and in doing so scripts herself as the sole "voice" of consciousness in her work, and thereby clearly reflecting patterns of classic Western colonialist thought.  Stein employs convenient notions of the "racial other" who are without "rational ability" and "self-consciousness," even bestial and childlike, to give herself a medium of self-expression, intensifying the irony that her "expedition into self" is through characters to whom no self-awareness is allotted.

Other essays focused on connections between Oedipal desire and original sin in Conrad and Freud; modernism's promise of wholeness in response to the mechanization (broadly construed) of modernity, grounded in Conrad and Freud; the significance of the "saving lie" (e.g., Marlow's to the Intended) or "positive illusion" in Freud and Conrad; the cultural bias against women found in both Conrad and Stein (despite the latter's avowed feminism); and the representation of female sexuality in Conrad and Stein.

Further below are two complete essays. I do not offer them as models to be copied so much as complementary examples of strong writing.

The following essay has several virtues, including both verbal and conceptual clarity. I also want to single this one out to highlight effective close reading. Strong papers typically manage to make some broad claims while supporting those claims and subordinate claims with some close attention to the text.

The Continuum of Humanness:
Conrad and Freud on the Humanity of the Primitive

    The ways in which a society might define itself are almost always negative ways. "We are not X." A society cannot exist in a vacuum; for it to be distinct it must be able to define itself in terms of the other groups around it. These definitions must necessarily take place at points of cultural contact, the places at which two societies come together and arrive at some stalemate of coexistence. For European culture of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries this place of contact—this new culture by which to define itself—came from Africa, from those "primitive" cultures whose society was being studied and in some ways appreciated for the first time. The African natives became the new Other, the new way to define what Europe was at that time.

    The way in which this redefinition took place was through the institution of a fundamentally hierarchical system. "Primitive" versus "sophisticated," "barbarous" versus "cultured." The anthropology of the time—articulated primarily by Frazer—espoused an evolutionary view of humanity. Societies passed through several stages of development on their way to true civilisation, and, while the Europeans had made it all the way, the Africans were lagging just a bit behind. This, however, created a problem for Europe. If Africans were fundamentally the same as Europeans (albeit farther back on the evolutionary ladder), what did that say about the roots of European society? This uncertainty created a very disjunctive view of primitives in the literature of the time. In his book, The Dialect of Modernism, Michael North suggests that, "The colonial subject is either a part of nature, utterly literal and therefore soothingly simple, or menacingly unreadable, mysterious, and suggestive of some vast unknown" (North, 65). The European mind at the fringes of "civilisation," when confronted with this Otherness, cannot settle on one or the other of these alternatives. "European reactions to other cultures tend to oscillate between these two poles, and thus the same culture can seem simple, authentic, concrete, or, on the other hand, odd, uncanny, and arbitrary" (ibid.). While this paradigm of shifting viewpoints is exemplified by Marlow in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, it seems to find its resolution in Sigmund Freud's assertion that in many ways the modern man is the primitive man.

    Marlow's oscillation between viewpoints is almost startling in its rapidity. On his very first meeting with the natives of the Congo, he swings from one pole to the other in only a few sentences:

They shouted, sang; their bodies streamed with perspiration; they had faces like grotesque masks—these chaps; but they had bone, muscle, a wild vitality, an intense energy of movement that was as natural and true as the surf along the coast. They wanted no excuse for being there. They were a great comfort to look at. (Conrad, 17)
    So in the space of three sentences, the natives go from being "grotesque masks" to "chaps" who were "as natural and true as the surf along the coast."  Marlow is having a great deal of trouble making up his mind over the Africans, and he never really comes to any conclusion.

    While he is staying in the down river station, Marlow looks upon the natives primarily from the inhuman stance. When he comes upon the dying slaves as he is entering the station for the first time, they are described as "black shapes" who "were nothing earthly now" (Conrad 20). They are anatomised to an almost absurd degree. "The black bones reclined at full length…" "the eyelids," "the fingers," "two more bundles of acute angles" (20-21). These beings are obviously not part of the natural world, the world that gives Marlow comfort. Instead they are unreadable ciphers; they offer Marlow no insight, only disjointed images and impressions.

    As he travels up the river, however, Marlow's beliefs about the savages begin to shift. He feels he and his companions are "wanderers on a prehistoric earth, on an earth that wore the aspect of an unknown planet" (37). But as for the humanity of the natives,

No, they were not inhuman... They howled and leaped and spun and made horrid faces, 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. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough, but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of the noises, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you—you so remote from the night of first ages—could comprehend (38).
    His imagery has totally changed. Now he suspects that they are indeed natural, but on a basic primitive level of nature that could only be felt as a survival—a vestigial remnant of "the night of first ages"—in the modern European man. This shift in attitude is exemplified best in the episode involving the death of his helmsman. "And the intimate profundity of that look he gave me when he received his hurt remains to this day in my memory—like a claim of distant kinship affirmed in a supreme moment" (51). Conrad has finally completely humanised the savages in the helmsman and in the grief Marlow feels for him.

    By the end of the story, however, Marlow's attitude has taken another one hundred and eighty degree turn. When he is tracking Kurtz through the jungle in the night, he sees a native priest of some sort. "A black figure stood up, strode on long black legs, waving long black arms across the glow. It had horns—antelope horns, I think—on its head. Some sorcerer, some witch-man, no doubt; it looked fiend-like enough" (64). Again the savage is seen as something other than human, this time somehow merged with the animal, the inhuman. The repetition of the figure's blackness serves to unite it with the night and the unknowable forces of nature that Marlow doesn't understand. Perhaps this final shift in imagery can be explained by Marlow's implicit realisation that the heart of darkness is not in Africa, but instead in Europe—in the land that produced a man like Kurtz.

    While in Heart of Darkness this relocation of the primal self to Europe is implicit, for Sigmund Freud in Totem and Taboo it is quite the opposite. For Freud, "a comparison  between the psychology of primitive peoples, as it is taught by social anthropology, and the psychology of neurotics, as it has been revealed by psycho-analysis, will be bound to show numerous points of agreement and will throw new light upon familiar facts in both sciences" (Freud 3). In other words, the mind of the modern man, if thrown a bit off kilter by some neurosis, immediately "reverts" to a primitive state, and that primitive state can tell us a great deal about where our society came from.

Totem and Taboo is organised around one central idea, the acceptance of which, according to Freud, entails his entire chain of argument leading to the "original sin" of parricide. This assumption is that the obsessional neurotics that Freud treated are in some way very much akin to the primitives then being studied by Frazer and others, and they are both similar to small children in their earliest stages of development. When discussing "The Horror of Incest" among primitive peoples, he concludes that, "All that I have been able to add to our understanding of it is to emphasise the fact that it is essentially an infantile feature and that it reveals a striking agreement with the mental life of neurotic patients… We have arrived at the point of regarding a child's relation to his parents, dominated as it is by incestuous longings, as the nuclear complex of neurosis" (22).

    As this assumption is the lynchpin of his argument, he takes pains to remind the reader of it as often as possible. In the penultimate paragraph of the book, defending his assertion that this "original sin" did in fact take place, he says, "It is not accurate to say that obsessional neurotics, weighed down under the burden of an excessive morality, are defending themselves only against psychical reality… The analogy between primitive men and neurotics will therefore be far more fully established if we suppose that… psychical reality… coincided at the beginning with factual reality: that primitive men actually did what all the evidence shows that they intended to do" (199).

    Is it so far a step from neurotics and small children to normal adults? According to Freud, it was the guilt from that original crime that created all of society as we know it. And here we have arrived at a resolution of the problem proposed by North. While for Marlow primitive men were both intensely human and intensely inhuman, Freud shows us that these things are all one. This continuum of thought collapses into one inescapable fact: we are the primitive, and he is us.

Works Cited

    Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1988.

    Freud, Sigmund. Totem and Taboo. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1950.

    North, Michael. The Dialect of Modernism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

This next essay shares many of the virtues of the one above, particularly clarity, but also effective close reading. This essay uses a deceptively simple structure -- a comparison of the father-son relationship in Totem and Taboo with the Kurtz-Marlow relationship -- in order to pursue an increasingly complex exploration of the relative valuations of reflection and action in Conrad and Freud. This paper meshes in an interesting way with one (excerpted further above) that took up Torgovnick's argument in Gone Primitive that Western appreciation of African art often perpetuates colonialist assumptions by depriving the non-Western of the powers of reflection. (The only minor structural change I recommended here are a few more paragraph breaks.)

Conrad, Freud, and the Force of the Primitive

The force of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness lies in the strange relationship between Marlow and Kurtz, and the responses of Marlow to what Kurtz has evoked in him.  Ultimately, the novel functions as a subjective account of one man's experiences with what he believes to be a more essential and more pure state of man.  That much of the novel consists of Marlow's attempts to understand, define, and redefine his opinion of Kurtz points to this man's importance in Marlow's views of the primitive state of humanity.  Kurtz functions as a European who has crossed the line from European civilization to African barbarism.  Thus he becomes emblematic of the European experience in this environment, and his fate looms as a possibility for Marlow.  What emerges as more interesting, however, are the parallels between Marlow's understanding of Kurtz and the primal family in Sigmund Freud's Totem and Taboo.  Marlow's attitudes toward Kurtz develop in the same pattern as Freud's description of the original dynamic between father and son;  this parallel consequently implies the connection of Kurtz to the primitive and the inability of Marlow to escape society.

     The first point of similarity between Conrad's account of Kurtz and Freud's theory of the original father appears in the granting of absolute power to both figures.  Freud's description of the paternal role in primitive society rests upon Darwin's theory of the primal horde.  Freud puts forth the essential features of this society as "a violent and jealous father who keeps all the females for himself and drives away his sons" (175).  The characterization Freud uses here deliberately implies a kind of omnipotence.  In order for the echoes of the primal father to resound throughout man's psychic history, he must have an unusual potency unmatched by his descendents.  This power sets up Freud's later transformation of the father into a god.  The same kind of influence emerges in Conrad as well, as Kurtz defies specific definition by Marlow.  Just as the primal father had possessed all the women, so too does Kurtz possess a strength of character.  Marlow is "unable to say... which was the greatest of his talents. ... He was a universal genius" (Conrad 71).  The contradiction of broad universality and something as specific as genius or talent demands that the pairing of the two either appear absurd or grandly powerful.  Kurtz takes on a mythical dimension for Marlow by the scope of his talents.  For both figures, the possession of such power produces both reverence for the bearer and a feeling of inferiority in comparison with him.

    The power of the father figure in both these texts becomes complicated by the sharply characterized ambivalence of his survivor.  Freud describes this relationship in terms of two strongly conflicting emotions.  He posits that the original sons "hated their father, who presented such a formidable obstacle to their craving for power... ; but they loved and admired him too" (Freud 177).  Marlow, as well, feels both impulses toward Kurtz.  On one level, he detests the society Kurtz has created in Africa, rebelling against the rules of its organization so strongly that other horrors of his experience seem paltry by comparison.  Contemplating the possibility of treating Kurtz in a special manner, with specific ceremonies, causes Marlow to feel "that such details would be more intolerable than those heads drying on the stakes under Mr. Kurtz's windows. ... Mr. Kurtz was no idol of mine" (Conrad 58).  The strength of Marlow's reaction comes in the fact that his outrage toward Kurtz's imposition of certain ceremonies eclipses the horror he might feel about needless murder.  In a sense, the beheading would continue to occur without Kurtz's influence.  The observance of certain approaches to Kurtz can arise only through his power, however, and thus Marlow's resentment comes from an uncommon form of savagery determined solely by the force of an individual.  The admiration of Marlow, however, exists side by side with this hostility.  Reading Kurtz's report on the African people, Marlow sees "the unbounded power of eloquence -- of words -- of burning noble words. / There were no practical hints to interrupt the magic current of phrases" (Conrad 50-51).  The descriptive power here is painted in a very positive light.  Marlow's admiration appears in the glowing terms he applies to Kurtz's report.  Thus, at the same time that he detests the application of Kurtz's power, Marlow admires the power itself and admits to himself its persuasive power.

    This ambivalence begins to find expression in violence, however, as Marlow's suppression of Kurtz meets opposition.  In his attempts to prevent Kurtz from joining the natives in a night ritual, Marlow oscillates between his desire to kill Kurtz and his wish to reclaim him for civilization.  In his initial pursuit of the fleeing Kurtz, Marlow "strode rapidly with clenched fists.  I fancy I had some vague notion of falling upon him and giving him a drubbing" (Conrad 64).  Yet later Marlow describes the situation as "not a case for fisticuffs, even apart from the very natural aversion I had to beat that Shadow" (Conrad 65).  Reverting back to violence in a moment, Marlow tells Kurtz "if you try to shout I'll smash your head... I will throttle you for good" (65).  His immediate violence finds a safer expression in the more polite "throttle," but the original instinct appears much more brutal.  Again, however, Marlow denies his violence by claiming, "I did not want to have the throttling of him... -- and indeed it would have been very little use for any practical purpose" (65).  Finally, resolving to try and appeal to Kurtz's intelligence, Marlow claims it "was his only chance -- barring, of course, the killing him there and then, which wasn't so good on account of unavoidable noise" (65).  Marlow eventually settles upon the practical solution of persuading Kurtz to return with him.  The account of appealing to Kurtz's intelligence appears as a deliberate quest to reclaim the civilized element of Kurtz from the savagery of this environment.  However, the quest for this civilized element occurs within Marlow as well, as he chooses socially developed discourse over the exercise of brute force.  Here Conrad sets up a dichotomy of the primitive and civilized which plays out in Kurtz and Marlow as characters.  Kurtz, fleeing the presence of European civilization in the camp, is pursued by Marlow, wishing to keep Kurtz from the primitive ceremony.  Marlow struggles to restrain him without the use of force, even viewing the force in socially acceptable ways by describing it as "drubbing" and "fisticuffs."  Violence is considered as a possibility, but dismissed because of practical considerations.  In short, Marlow feels a base level of deep aggression toward Kurtz, considering even killing him in order to destroy his power in this environment.  However, the civilizing influence in Marlow prevents him from expressing or acting upon the violence he feels in the hope that Kurtz may be appealed to in civilized terms.  His ambivalent attitude to Kurtz finds its fullest expression in this moment, as Marlow balances his desire to preserve Kurtz's social integrity while also wishing to destroy the savage aspect in him.

    Perhaps the strongest point of similarity between Freud's primal father and the treatment of Kurtz appears in the power of Kurtz after his death.  Freud asserts that in the son's memories "The dead father became stronger than the living one had been -- ... What had up to then been prevented by his actual existence was thenceforward prohibited by the sons of themselves" (178).  Marlow encounters this prohibitive power with regard to the memory of Kurtz and his agreement to preserve it.  Kurtz, obsessed with his memory while alive, impresses upon Marlow a stronger personal force after he has died:  "I was to have the care of his memory.  I've done enough for it to give me the indisputable right to lay it, if I choose, for an everlasting rest in the dustbin of progress, amongst all the sweepings and... all the dead cats of civilisation.  But then, you see, I can't choose.  He won't be forgotten" (Conrad 51).  Despite his mixed feelings of resentment and strange admiration for Kurtz, Marlow feels an irrepressible need to remember him.  The novel itself confirms that fact.  Even accepting the fact that Kurtz caused the loss of his helmsman by ordering the attack on their steamer, Marlow agrees to "a complete discretion with great gravity" when describing Kurtz's actions later (Conrad 62).  In a sense, Kurtz has become a kind of god figure to Marlow, representing all that he continues to hold mysterious about human nature.  He admits to trying to leave the memory behind, yet it continues to haunt him.  The primal strength of Kurtz intensifies after his death, pursuing Marlow with a vision of the primitive.

    Marlow's final judgment of Kurtz, however, illuminates what he perceives to be the difference between these two men, and positions them individually on the axis between modern society and the primitive.  Marlow ultimately calls Kurtz a great man because "He had something to say.  He said it. ... this was the expression of some sort of belief; ... it is not my own extremity I remember best -- ... It is his extremity that I seem to have lived through.  True, he had made that last stride, he had stepped over the edge, while I had been permitted to draw back my hesitating foot" (Conrad 69).  Marlow, in defining his admiration and his valuing of Kurtz's memory despite his ambivalent feelings toward the man, succeeds in defining the difference between the civilized and the primitive as well.  Kurtz, in his ability to act decisively and to judge, moves past a point which cannot be undone by later action.  By stepping "over the edge," Kurtz nullifies the possibility of return.  Marlow, on the other hand, hesitates in action and judgment, instead observing Kurtz's ordeals and experiencing them vicariously.  Marlow remains the stabilizing force of society, while Kurtz ventures into the unbound and undefined territory of the primitive.  It is this action of self-definition which determines the primitive here.  Kurtz acts with extremity, expressing his own belief.  Marlow remains safe, unable to say anything.

    The power of the primal father, invoked by Kurtz's behavior throughout the novel, rests finally on his ability to define things and judge.  The civilizing impulse instead questions definition, allowing the uncertainty to another's judgment.  Conrad's novel, in its mirroring of Freud's primal father, attributes the power of the primitive to a decisive act which is essentially creative.  Civilization, on the other hand, adopts a more critical stance, reactive rather than active.  Just as all the sons' actions are determined by the power of the father before and after death, so the modern becomes a reaction against a more pure primitive state.  The act of embracing the primitive becomes the fact of action, while the modern concerns itself more with observation.  The primitive, demonstrated by both Kurtz and the primal father, defines through action.  Civilization, however, leaves definition indeterminate in its lack of action.  The quest for the primitive becomes a search for the definition of an undefined present.

Return to Main Syllabus Page

Based on a close reading of the conclusion to Conrad's Heart of Darkness, explain Marlow's reaction to the death of Kurtz.

Several dramatic shifts in perspective characterise Marlow's changing reaction to the death of Kurtz in Conrad's Heart of Darkness. This changing or evolving perspective is ignited once Marlow returns to Belgium and begins to interact with the people who knew Kurtz prior to his derangement resulting from his savage experience in the Congo jungle; this eventually culminates in the meeting between Marlow and Kurtz's Intended. It is through this meeting with the Intended that Marlow truly begins to appreciate the gross paradox between what Western ideals consider civilised and uncivilised, allowing him to fully comprehend his mixed feelings toward Kurtz and the dark experience he was witness to in the Congo Jungle.

It isn't until Marlow has been restored to health by his Aunt in Belgium that he fully begins to contemplate Kurtz' existence. Close friends and relatives of Kurtz visit Marlow and offer a largely idealised version of their personal memories of the man Kurtz. These memories contrast dramatically with Marlow's own darker recollections of the Kurtz he encountered in the...

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