“They only showed that Mr Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts, that there was something wanting in him – some small matter which, when the pressing need arose, could not be found under his magnificent eloquence….I think [the wilderness] had whispered to him things about himself which he did not know…and he had found the whisper irresistibly fascinating.”
“I saw him open his mouth wide–it gave him a weirdly voracious aspect, as though he had wanted to swallow all the air, all the earth, all the men before him.”
– Heart Of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
All British people should read Conrad. The wistful romance of the sea that permeates his writing resonates very deeply with our island story, its tales of maritime adventure and trade. Almost a century after his death, it is painful now to read him and realise what has been lost, not in terms of international prestige or empire but in our wider sense of ourselves. Ironically, Conrad himself would probably have approved of that: much of his writing, and never more strongly than in his great novel Heart Of Darkness, warns us not to be too sure of what we are: that all heroism is tinged with vanity, all moral certainty irredeemably tainted by corruption are recurring themes within his oeuvre.
The central theme of Heart Of Darkness is that in their arrogance Europeans imagined colonialism to be a moral mission, bringing civilisation to a Africa’s heart of darkness, whereas in reality they brought the darkness with them. The book’s anti-hero, Kurtz, goes mad with greed and ambition in the wilderness, corrupted by his absolute power over the natives who worship him as a god.
Hearing of Tony Blair’s musing this week and his demented ambition to create an elite, unelected “ex-leaders club” to run global affairs, it struck me for the first time that how apposite the novel is to Tony Blair’s career and many of those who followed him. A latter-day Kurtz, he and those who fell under his spell were sure that their neo-colonial policy of liberal interventionism was bringing light to the darkness of Middle Eastern politics, only to leave the region more benighted than ever. Just like Kurtz, his descent into darkness and personal greed only seems to have spurred his ambition to further heights of delusion and madness.
Just before he dies, Kurtz wails to the narrator of Heart Of Darkness, Marlowe: “I had immense plans… I was on the threshold of great things”.
Once upon a time, Tony Blair also had plans, and tragically for the world got to execute a fair few of them. Let us all pray he is no longer on the threshold of ‘great things’ that more probably than not would make the world truly dark indeed.