‘The Horror! The Horror!’, Revisited in Palestine

The jungle is here – creeping inside all of us.

“Mistah Kurtz – he dead.”
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

Joseph Conrad once said that before he had been to the Congo he was a simple animal. It was in one of those lands partially mapped out by the cruelty and hypocrisy of the imperial ethos that Conrad discovered European colonialism in its undiluted, most terrible incarnation, duly depicted in Heart of Darkness – one of the great consciousness-raising epics in the history of literature.

It was in the Congo that Conrad, an ethnic Pole born in what is still known today as “Ukraine”, then controlled by Poland, and who only started to write in English when he was 23, forever lost any illusion over the civilizing mission of his race.

Other eminent Europeans of his time seamlessly experienced the same horror – participating in Conquest Atrocity Spectaculars; helping the Metropolis to hack and plunder Africa; using the continent as backdrop to their – murderous – juvenile adventures and rites of passage; or only testing their mettle while “saving” the souls of the natives.

They went through the savage heart of the world and made their fortune, their reputation or their penitence just to come back to the sweet comfort of unconsciousness – when they were not shipped back in a coffin, of course.

To dominate assorted “primitive” peoples, Britannia replaced the iron and the sword with trade. Like any monotheistic faith, they believed there was only one way to be; one way to drink your tea; one way to play the game – any game. Everything else was non-civilized, savage, brute, at best providing raw materials and acute headaches.

The jungle inside

For the European sensibility, the sub-equatorial world, actually the whole Global South, was where the White Man went for personal triumph or for dissolution, becoming somewhat “equal” to the natives. Literature, from the Victorian era onwards, is full of heroes traveling to “exotic” latitudes where passions – like tropical fruit – are bigger than in Europe, and perverted forms of self-knowledge can be experienced to oblivion.

Conrad himself placed his tortured heroes on Earth’s “obscure” places to expiate their shadows alongside the shadows of the world, far away from “civilization” and its conventional punishments.

And that brings to Kurtz in Heart of Darkness: he’s in a class by himself because he arrives at an extreme of self-knowledge virtually unheard of in European literature, facing the full revelation of the malignity of his mission and his species.

In the Congo, Conrad lost his innocence. And his main character lost reason.

When Kurtz migrated into the movies in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, and Cambodia replaced the Congo as the Heart of Darkness, he was denigrating the image of the Empire. So the Pentagon sent a warrior-intellectual to kill him, Captain Willard. Coppola depicted the passive spectator Willard as even more insane than Kurtz: and that’s how he pulled off the psychedelic unmasking of the whole farce of civilizing colonialism.

Today, we don’t need to set sail or embark on a caravan looking for the source of misty rivers to live the neo-imperial adventure.

We just need to turn on the smartphone to follow a genocide, live, 24/7, even in HD. Our meeting with the horror… the horror – as immortalized in Kurtz’s words in Heart of Darkness – can be experienced while shaving in the morning, doing Pilates or dining with friends.

And just as Coppola in Apocalypse Now, we are free to express a humanist moral stupor when facing a “war”, actually a massacre, that is already lost – impossible to be ethically sustained.

Today we are all Conradian characters, just glimpsing fragments, shadows, mixed with the stupor of living in a gruesomely memorable time. There is no possibility of grasping the totality of facts – especially when “facts” are fabricated and artificially reproduced or bolstered.

We are like ghosts, this time not facing the grandeur of nature, or traversing the thick, irreversible jungle; but plugged to a devastated urbanity as in a video game, co-authors of the non-stop suffering. The Heart of Darkness is being constructed by “the only democracy” in West Asia in the name of “our values”.

There are so many invisible horrors enacted behind the fog, in the heart of a jungle now replicated as an urban cage. Helplessly watching the wanton killing of women and children, the carpet bombing of hospitals, schools and mosques, it’s as if we are all passengers in a drunken ship plunging into a whirlpool, admiring the powerful majesty of the whole scenery.

And we are already dying even before we glimpse death.

We are the epigones of T.S. Eliot’s Hollow Men. The haunting cries from the jungle don’t come anymore from an “exotic” hemisphere. The jungle is here – creeping inside all of us.


One thought on “‘The Horror! The Horror!’, Revisited in Palestine

  • Pete Martell

    But, but Pepe, Mr Borrell says we are The Garden ….


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