The Ghost of Kurtz

One of the paradoxes of human existence is that society corrupts while solitude can be highly destructive.  Solitude is not a solution for the problems raised by society.  Joseph Conrad is a novelist who explored these themes extensively in his works.  This blog post focuses on Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness.

Kurtz, the protagonist of Heart of Darkness has been haunting my habitat in the recent past rather mercilessly in spite of the fact that I tend to see ghosts as rather innocent creatures. 

Heart of Darkness implies that if one has a certain degree of solidity in one’s character society need not corrupt one much.  Kurtz lacks that solidity.  The narrator of the novel [Conrad’s famous character, Marlow] describes Kurtz as “hollow at the core” [70].*  Moreover, Kurtz is placed in a peculiar situation: there is a society which consists of the savage natives of the African jungles of the British colonial era.  That society, for a colonialist is as good as solitude.  The colonist/colonialist can only view the natives as the others.  Hence he virtually remains outside the society, superior to the society.  Kurtz controls the natives to such an extent that they are ready to dance to every tune that he plays according to his moods.  Kurtz has no principles except making profits by selling as much ivory as he can.  Ivory is what he is after.  He is an agent for an ivory company.

Kurtz is an excellent agent.  He brings in a lot of the commodity by means fair or foul.  Kurtz is an ideal blueprint for the profit-making local director of a present-day MNC [Multi-National Corporation].   But Conrad is more interested in the character of that director.  Conrad’s narrator says of Kurtz that he “lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts, that there was something wanting in him – some small matter which … could not be found under his magnificent eloquence” [70, emphasis added].

Kurtz comes across to Marlow as an example of cleverness and enterprise, qualities that will be envied by any MBA today.  But as Marlow gets to know Kurtz closer, Kurtz becomes a kind of supernatural monster who has kept all the natives under his control by hook or by crook.  Kurtz, the outsider, controls the habitat that rightfully belongs to those natives. Kurtz exploits the wealth that belongs to those natives.  Kurtz exploits what the natives wouldn’t have exploited.  Kurtz has degenerated the natives with his “magnificent eloquence”.  Kurtz knows how to ‘collect, barter, swindle, or steal more ivory than all other agents together’ [56].  There is that terrifying “deceitful flow from the heart of an impenetrable darkness” [56]. 

Is Kurtz an embodiment of greed?  Greed for wealth or power?  Or is he just another human being with some “cleverness and enterprise” [phrase borrowed from a literary critic, Joseph Warren Beach]? 

Psychology teaches me that people act largely according to their nature.  Are the actions of people like Kurtz motivated merely by their psychological nature of cleverness and enterprise?  If so, why do they do it, why can’t they learn from their environment in spite of decades of ‘experience’?

I have seen people trying to rush on Delhi’s roads.  Only to be terminated at the next traffic signal where the drivers who don’t rush also reach and stand side by side.  The traffic signal is a great teacher of a lesson of life.  The traffic signal is a great leveller like death.  If death makes the rich and the poor equal in the small space of the burial ground, the traffic signal makes a good many drivers equal.  Yet why do people rush through life?  Why do people try to amass wealth (in the case of Kurtz and perhaps many of us) or time (in the case of the drivers)?  Kurtz dies towards the end of Conrad’s novel crying, “The horror! The horror!” [84]

Evil is a problem that has no answer yet.  Yet Conrad implies an answer in the character of the Manager in Heart of Darkness.  The Manager in Heart of Darkness is based on a real person, Camille Delcommune, and is the ultimate villain of the plot.  He is directly or indirectly to blame for all the disorder, waste, cruelty, and neglect that curses the ivory trade stations in the novel.

But Conrad does not give us an answer why management should be so evil.  Of course, Conrad lived in a time when management was no more a professional affair than architecture or sculpture or almost anything.  The Taj Mahal, for example, was not built by any professional architect.  The great emperors of the past, for example, were not MBA degree holders. 

Conrad’s novel ends with the narrator leaving the beloved of the protagonist with an illusion.  Marlow tells that lady that Kurtz’s last words were about her.  And she is immensely relieved.  Ultimately, does our happiness depend on the wealth that we amassed or the power that we wielded?  Or does it depend on the sweet memory that we can leave to at least one person on this earth?

Another question that arises in me: Is management all about blocking the potential of some persons and promoting the welfare of some other (sycophantic) individuals?  This is the ghost of Kurtz that has been haunting me for the past few months. 

  • Notes: All page numbers given in brackets refer to the Orient Longman 1996 edition of the novel, Heart of Darkness. 
  • For those who like to read my last post on ghosts [posted in 2007]: The Death of a Vampire

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9 Responses to The Ghost of Kurtz

  1. Adamotomy says:

    I often wonder if cleverness should be a collegiate course offering for any MBA. However, if it were, the idea of cleverness would be extinguished.

    I enjoyed your post.

  2. Raghuram Ekambaram says:

    No Matheikal, cleverness cannot be taught in IIPM, institute founded to promote stupidity! IIPM’s motto is “Let us win the race to the bottom!”

    Raghuram Ekambaram

    • matheikal says:

      For that matter, Raghuram, any educational institution today seems to be meant to promote stupidity. The whole education system today is promoting the capitalist ‘principle’ of “I will scratch your back, you scratch mine.”

  3. benny says:

    This is certainly good writing and good thinking. I can assume a number of things but i won’t do so since that will make it an ass of u and me.

    • matheikal says:

      Yes, Benny, there are many things that we can’t say plainly yet. Maybe a time will come… or maybe I’ll learn to take everything in the stride!

  4. Pingback: Gospel of one’s own heart « Matheikal's Blog

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