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“as in some picture of a massacre”

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James Wolcott takes on the fake Lebanese dead libel, among other things.

The whole affair calls sends me spiraling down a string of associations, starting with Full Metal Jacket, the scene where the huey door-gunner is mowing down sprinting vietnamese famers and starts talking to joker:

Door Gunner: Git some! Git some! Git some, yeah, yeah, yeah! Anyone that runs, is a VC. Anyone that stands still, is a well-disciplined VC! You guys oughta do a story about me sometime!

Private Joker: Why should we do a story about you?

Door Gunner: ‘Cuz I’m so fuckin’ good! I done got me 157 dead gooks killed. Plus 50 water buffalo too! Them’s all confirmed!

Private Joker: Any women or children?

Door Gunner: Sometimes!

Private Joker: How can you shoot women or children?

Door Gunner: Easy! Ya just don’t lead ‘em so much! Ain’t war hell?

More to the point, if a bit indirectly, is this moment in Heart of Darknesss, near the start of Marlow’s time “in country,” when he comes upon a group of natives dying from overwork:

“Near the same tree two more bundles of acute angles sat with their legs drawn up. One, with his chin propped on his knees, stared at nothing, in an intolerable and appalling manner: his brother phantom rested its forehead, as if overcome with a great weariness; and all about others were scattered in every pose of contorted collapse, as in some picture of a massacre or a pestilence. While I stood horror-struck, one of these creatures rose to his hands and knees, and went off on all-fours towards the river to drink. He lapped out of his hand, then sat up in the sunlight, crossing his shins in front of him, and after a time let his woolly head fall on his breastbone.

“I didn’t want any more loitering in the shade, and I made haste towards the station…

What the frame narration of the work allows Conrad to capture is fully visible in scenes like this one. Marlow is confronted by the visible output of the system that he’s just entered into, and can’t – back when he saw it, presumably, nor “now,” in retelling the story – bring himself to come to any conclusions about what he has seen, to make it mean anything beyond itself. There’s lot of editorializing on Marlow’s part elsewhere in the narrative, but it’s generally disjoined from “reportage” like the stuff here. The break in the paragraph, and the turn away from the “bundles of acute angles,” tells us both everything and none of what we need to know at once. And we even get a few hints of the distancing program ostensibly at work in Marlow’s mind: his aestheticization of the scene (“as in some picture of a massacre or a pestilence” – can you imagine standing before of heap of the dead and dying and thinking this? “This is just like a picture of a heap of dying people!”) and the way the “loitering” of the last line forges an implicit – and delusionally euphemistic – connection with the dying men. As if that is what they’re doing – loitering – and Marlow had momentarily forgotten himself and his work and joined in with them during their “break.”

The passage is emblematic of Heart of Darkness as a whole, which shows us nothing so clearly as the fissuring off of thought and perception, reason and experience, that occurs – has to occur all the time – in order for business as usual to continue. Said’s reading in Culture and Imperialism is brilliantly succinct on this point:

Conrad’s self-consciously circular narrative forms draw attention to themselves as artificial constructions, encouraging us to sense the potential of a reality that seemed inaccessible to imperialism, just beyond its control, and that only well after Conrad’s death in 1924 acquired substantial presence.

I’m sure all this is giving Walcott’s wingers far too much credit – presuming interiority, even blocked, is probably going too far. Rather, perhaps, think of the stuff that Walcott takes on as the visible manifestation of the society-wide psychopathology (or useful adaptation, god knows…) which allows for certain things to keep happening, even on tv, without the citizenry coming at once to its senses and abolishing itself in a rage of sudden, terrible empathy and devastating guilt.

To its great credit, I believe, the modernist novel (Conrad’s, Woolf’s, Joyce’s, Lawrence’s, etc) was perhaps preoccupied with nothing so deeply as the things that we see but do not think about, know and do not fret about, the people that we kill and do not cry about.

Written by adswithoutproducts

August 4, 2006 at 11:46 pm

Posted in conrad, distraction, war

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