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Workers, with a capital

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Two passages from Heart of Darkness, the first a famous one and the second less so:

1) Still on the Nellie, waiting for the tide to turn, before the start of the story proper, Marlow’s just fantasized the life of a Roman imperial administrator in Britain and the “fascination of the abomination — you know, imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate” – that he would have experienced. And then the turn:

“Mind,” he began again, lifting one arm from the elbow, the palm of the hand outwards, so that, with his legs folded before him, he had the pose of a Buddha preaching in European clothes and without a lotus-flower — “Mind, none of us would feel exactly like this. What saves us is efficiency — the devotion to efficiency. But these chaps were not much account, really. They were no colonists; their administration was merely a squeeze, and nothing more, I suspect. 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. The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea — something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to. . . .”

So a distinction grounded on something like a “just intervention” theory of imperialism. But he can’t, of course, define the “idea” that distinguishes “us” from “them.” Rather, it remains empty – fetishistic in the true sense of the word.

Marlow is mystified, but can’t quite come to terms with the fact. Instead, as he often does, he turns away from the problem – this time heading on the story of his time as a “fresh-water sailor,” the central narrative of Heart of Darkness.

2. A few pages into the story proper, Marlow turns to his aunt to find him some work on a ship. (This more or less really happened to Conrad himself…) And once she has pulled some string and found him a job, he returns to thank her before setting off to the Congo.

“One thing more remained to do — say good-bye to my excellent aunt. I found her triumphant. I had a cup of tea — the last decent cup of tea for many days — and in a room that most soothingly looked just as you would expect a lady’s drawing-room to look, we had a long quiet chat by the fireside. In the course of these confidences it became quite plain to me I had been represented to the wife of the high dignitary, and goodness knows to how many more people besides, as an exceptional and gifted creature — a piece of good fortune for the Company — a man you don’t get hold of every day. Good heavens! and I was going to take charge of a two-penny-half-penny river-steamboat with a penny whistle attached! It appeared, however, I was also one of the Workers, with a capital — you know. Something like an emissary of light, something like a lower sort of apostle. There had been a lot of such rot let loose in print and talk just about that time, and the excellent woman, living right in the rush of all that humbug, got carried off her feet. She talked about ‘weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways,’ till, upon my word, she made me quite uncomfortable. I ventured to hint that the Company was run for profit.

“‘You forget, dear Charlie, that the labourer is worthy of his hire,’ she said, brightly. It’s queer how out of touch with truth women are. They live in a world of their own, and there has never been anything like it, and never can be. It is too beautiful altogether, and if they were to set it up it would go to pieces before the first sunset. Some confounded fact we men have been living contentedly with ever since the day of creation would start up and knock the whole thing over.

“You forget, dear Charlie, that the labourer is worthy of his hire.” Marlow’s aunt has slyly introjected the flipside of the “idea at the back of it” evoked above – she has voiced the logic that can never be named, the secret affiliation between the “us” and “them” denied in the first passage. She may have reversed the hierarchy of causes – she has the “hire” secondary to the “work,” while Marlow knows the opposite is the case – but how is it that Marlow is so able and ready to call his aunt out now, while a few minutes ago he was deploying an explanation of the work that was even more deluded and dishonest than this one?

The idea, it seems, so buoyant a few pages before, cannot survive even the most grazing contact with the realm of commerce, which instantly throws Marlow into a misogynist rant about the “facts” that men live with, what has always, ineluctably, been the case.

(Did you notice the echo of “set [it] up” in the two passages? A rhyme…)

At any rate, thank god everything’s better now…

Capition from wikipedia: “Clearing tropical forests ate away at profit margins. However, ample plots of cleared land were already available. Above, a Congolese farming village (Baringa, Equateur) is emptied and levelled to make way for a rubber plantation.”

Written by adswithoutproducts

August 11, 2006 at 12:00 am

Posted in conrad, distraction, empire, war

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