The White God 1: Kurtz

He’s been haunting me. In the past few months, he’s been following me in the books I’ve been reading: Blood Meridian, Heart of Darkness, and now The Windup Girl. The character is a little different each time, whether he shows up as Kurtz, Judge Holden, or Gi Bu Sen/Gibbons—yet there is no mistake. He is a figuration of white, European Humanism, for whom science and technology provide the instruments for the brutal colonization of non-whites and nonhumans alike. He is a white god of death, whose anthropomorphism and ethnocentrism fuel a blinding nihilism…

Edvard Munch.  Selvportrett i Helvette [Self-portrait in Hell].  1903.  Oil on Canvas.  820 x 660mm.  The Munch Museum, Oslo.  (via The Google Art Project)
Edvard Munch. Selvportrett i Helvette [Self-portrait in Hell]. 1903. Oil on Canvas. 820 x 660mm. The Munch Museum, Oslo. (via The Google Art Project)

Upon reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness after something like fifteen years (in the hours before my first-year English class, I prepared the reading in a single sitting in front of a library window overlooking the barren quad on a grey autumn afternoon) I was struck by Kurtz’s absence from the novella. (I did some work on Apocalypse Now for my Master’s thesis, and Marlon Brando makes such an enormous physical presence, despite his constant envelopment in shadow, that it has been hard for me not to let Coppola’s rogue military operative overdetermine my memories of Conrad’s derelict ivory trader.) For the majority of the text, Kurtz is a blank spot, a lacuna, a spectral black hole that wrenches at the entire narrative though it cannot be seen. He is ultimately inaccessible, especially for the reader, who is doubly removed from him by the frame narrative that buries him at the heart of two narratives: the story Marlow tells of his journey quoted in turn by the unnamed crewman of the Nellie. Marlow himself provides a fitting account of how the reader herself experiences Kurtz:

He was just a word for me. I did not see the man in the name any more than you do. Do you see him? Do you see the story? It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream—making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is the very essence of dreams….[1]

To Marlow, the crew of the Nellie, and to the reader, Kurtz is just a word. A spoken word, one which cannot be seen physically. Despite merely being a spoken word, Kurtz himself barely speaks. Nevertheless, the power of his words—an almost magical potency—of his eloquence, is repeatedly commented upon. Kurtz is a shade, a spirit, but a spirit whose power to inspirit and inspire comes, not from a language spoken of his own breath, but rather from second-hand reports (particularly the devoted Russian acolyte at Kurtz’s encampment), and, of course, from the pages of Kurtz’s own “Report to the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs,” which is itself mostly paraphrased by Marlow. Marlow’s account of this document demonstrates the bewildering arrogance and absurd brutality of the colonial enterprise, which is the true heart of darkness the wandering seaman tries vainly to convey:

He began with the argument that we whites, from the point of development we had arrived at, ‘Must necessarily appear to them (savages) in the nature of supernatural beings—we approach them with the might as of a deity,’ and so on, and so on. ‘By the simple exercise of our will we can exert a power for good practically unbounded,’ &c., &c. From that point he soared and took me with him. The peroration was magnificent, though difficult to remember, you know. It gave me the notion of an exotic Immensity ruled by an august Benevolence. It made me tingle with enthusiasm….There were no practical hints to interrupt the magic current of phrases, unless a kind of note at the foot of the last page, scrawled evidently much later, in an unsteady hand, may be regarded as the exposition of the method. It was very simple, and at the end of that moving appeal to every altruistic sentiment it blazed at you, luminous and terrifying, like a flash in a serene sky: ‘Exterminate all the brutes!’ (83-84)

This extermination refers immediately to the native Africans, whose “savage customs” would be suppressed as a matter of enlightened altruism and benevolence. But racism and species discourse go very much hand-in-hand, as Cary Wolfe demonstrates in Animal Rites,[2] making Kurtz’s “method” apply, not only to brutalized human beings, but to brute beasts and untamed nature as well.

Much earlier in the text, a nonhuman “brute” makes an appearance. After Marlow “hobbles” into the Central Station, he meets a devilish figure, a “papier-mâché Mephistopheles” (48) who acts as a spy for the station manager. He tells Marlow about a Hippopotamus that frequently invades the station grounds. Despite all attempts to destroy the animal (“The pilgrims used to turn out in a body and empty every rifle they could lay hands on him” [52]), it remains at large. “That animal has a charmed life,” the man tells Marlow, “but you can say this only of brutes in this country. No man—you apprehend me?—no man here bears a charmed life” (52). Perhaps it is the “charm” of the brutes that is so threatening to Kurtz and to the imperial powers that had employed him, a charm that escapes the hands of man.

A little later, as Marlow finally begins to make his way up the river toward Kurtz, he and his crew encounter bands of Africans dancing and hollering at them from the riverbanks. At this point, Marlow begins to speak about traveling through a primordial landscape, a place out of time: “We were wanderers on a prehistoric earth, on an earth that wore the aspect of an unknown planet” (62). In this alien, immemorial “night of first ages” (62), where the surroundings become incomprehensible and Marlow and his crew become “phantoms,” he remarks, “The earth seemed unearthly. We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there—there you could look at a thing monstrous and free” (62). A monstrous thing that remains free despite what violence any “man” can wreak upon it.

What strikes Marlow as so unearthly, and what I think remains so for many of us in the twenty-first century, is the Earth itself, an un-humanized Earth, an Earth charmed in its freedom, which has not yet been remade in the image of a globalized Western humanity. For me, Kurtz’s injunction to “Exterminate all the brutes!” extents to this monster, the un-earthly Earth that is comprehensible only once it has been conquered and shackled. The white man’s burden is not only the weight of a people who resist being carried to civilization; it is the unweildly mass of all that remains free from European progress. For Kurtz, once all pretense that the “suppression of savage instincts” entails a benevolent cultivation is stripped away, the solution is simple: the burden can only be relieved if it is extinguished altogether. The white lightning fires of Enlightenment can immolate the darkness, a holocaust that relieves as it annihilates.

When Marlow finally encounters Kurtz in person, the latter remains immaterial, a deathly white spectre: “He rose, unsteady, long, pale, indistinct, like a vapour exhaled by the earth, and swayed slightly, misty and silent before me” (105). A living ghost, already dead, and soon to die once again on Marlow’s steamer with his famous exclamation of horror. Yet Kurtz death is not a disappearance. Ghosts are revenants, as Jacques Derrida points out, spirits that come again (revenir), that return and promise to do so again. So does the ghost of Kurtz loom over the future, a haunting for which we all must remain vigilant. Our responsibility lies in taking heed of Kurtz own prophecy:

“I’ll carry out my ideas yet—I will return. I’ll show you what can be done. You with your little peddling notions—you are interfering with me. I will return. I…” (100; original ellipses)


1. Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, ed. Robert Hampson (London: Penguin, 1995), 50; original ellipses. Subsequent references in parentheses.

2. See Cary Wolfe, Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of Species, and Posthumanist Theory (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

“The larger point I stress here is that as long as this humanist and speciesist structure of subjectivization remains intact, and as long as it is institutionally taken for granted that it is all right to systematically exploit and kill nonhuman animals simply because of their species, then the humanist discourse of species will always be available for use by some humans against other humans as well, to countenance violence against the social other of whatever species—or gender, or race, or class, or sexual difference” (7-8).


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