Kurtz: Sanity in the Heart of Darkness

“Heart of Darkness” is about a man’s journey into a darkness both physical and metaphorical: he travels to both the inner depths of the Belgian Congo and to the deepest regions of the human heart. In the novel, the shadowy world of Africa has been turned by the Company, an organization concerned with exporting ivory and civilizing natives, into a den of exploitation and greed, a place where insanity thrives in the heart of the Congo. Kurtz, a Company agent, represents sanity in this insane world.The madness of the other characters, namely the Company’s agents and pilgrims, reveals itself in a number of early incidents that only emphasize, by contrast, Kurtz’s ability to reason. A French man-of-war is seen firing into the African bush, seemingly at nothing: “Pop, would go one of the six-inch guns…and nothing happened. Nothing could happen. There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding, a sense of lugubrious drollery in the sight.” The “pop” made by the guns is symbolic of a crazed, incomprehensible, and ultimately futile attempt to subdue the continent. Similarly, Company men are engaged in detonating a series of explosions on a cliff for no apparent reason: “The cliff was not in the way or anything; but this objectless blasting was all the work going on.” Even more absurdly, a pilgrim attempts to put out a fire one night by carrying water in a bucket with a large hole. The sheer insanity of these actions only shows the lack of progress by the Company in the Congo, as well as the Company’s inability to affect the country.These moments of madness contrast sharply with Kurtz’s sanity: his resolution of purpose and his ability to reach his goals is astounding. As described by the accountant, Kurtz “is a very remarkable person…Sends in as much ivory as all the others put together.” With his rational will and deft reasoning skills, Kurtz rises to a position of great power and influence over the natives – one not unlike that of God – and he uses this deified role to prompt the natives to raid villages and pilfer the land for ivory. Although these are barbarous and morally reprehensible acts, they nevertheless demonstrate Kurtz’s enormous capacity for practical action towards the fulfillment of concrete ends. This affirms Kurtz’s sanity: he does what he does with reason and with purpose.Kurtz further proves his sanity in his acceptance of reality, something other agents and pilgrims foolishly, and ludicrously, ignore. Only Kurtz sees the Company for what it is: a cold business enterprise bent on raping Africa of its wealth in ivory while pretending to be a force of civilization and religion among its inhabitants. Hypocrisy, the denial of reality, is one of the leading traits of the Company’s workers – the agents claim they are concerned with improving the natives’ lives, but a glimpse of the effects of this “improvement” is enough to destroy the credibility of their so-called concerns: “They were dying slowly – it was very clear. They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now – nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation, lying confusedly in the greenish gloom.” Likewise, the pilgrims claim that their purpose is to instill religion and morals in the natives, but at the same time, they carry staves with which to beat the African laborers. It seems as if the only God they worship is wealth, and the only religion they follow is one of imbecile rapacity, for “the word ‘ivory’ rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it.” This hypocrisy enrages Kurtz: he is disgusted by the lies that surround him. When the Manager arrives to “rescue” him, Kurtz cries, “Save me! – save the ivory, you mean. Don’t tell me. Save me!” Eventually, Kurtz can no longer tolerate the Company’s “methods” of plunder and pretense, and to preserve his sanity, he goes to extremes. He extorts ivory from the natives with no hypocrisy, thereby accepting the brutal reality of his malicious actions instead of hiding inside a sanctimonious cloak of treachery as the Company does.Although Kurtz’s extremity might appear to be lunacy, it is only a natural response to a world of madness that threatens to overwhelm and consume him. Kurtz isolates himself from this absurd environment to protect his sanity: unable to be part of the cruel hypocrisy of the Company any longer, he frees himself from the restraints of civilized society. “He had kicked himself loose of the earth. Confound the man! He had kicked the very earth to pieces.” In abandoning the constraints of society, Kurtz breaks free from the restraints of morality, “kicking himself loose of the earth.” Yet, in his extremity, when Kurtz “kicks the very earth to pieces,” he dismisses the idea of morality all together. His subsequent actions are deemed immoral and insane by “civilized” people, but they are only the result of Kurtz’s struggle to maintain his sanity, his battle to escape the moral shackles of a world that has ceased to make sense.Whatever his faults, Kurtz remains sane to the end. He acknowledges the truth about himself and the world; in their insanity, those around him do not. Kurtz journeys into the darkest parts of himself to find truth, while those around him only suppress and ignore it. Having rejected civilized European society, Kurtz is forced to look into his own soul. This introspection leads to his moral depravity, for in escaping from an unreasonably hypocritical society, Kurtz uncovers the masks that civilization wears to conceal the truth about the inherent evil in human nature. Kurtz succumbs to this evil, though he is enlightened and comes to understand the darkness in his heart. Once, in a flash of illumination, Kurtz’s true, black nature reveals itself at the end of his altruistic report on the treatment of natives in a startling postscript: “Exterminate all the brutes!” However, Kurtz’s most profound message of truth is found in his death, as described by his admirer, Marlow:I saw on that ivory face the expression of somber pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror – of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision – he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath: “The horror! The horror!”Kurtz faces who he is at the end, when he sums up mankind in two fateful words: “The horror! The horror!” His sanity asserts itself at last, and he is able to confront the ultimate truth about himself and human nature. Kurtz’s reasoned purpose, acceptance of reality, and realization of truth firmly establish his sanity. He frees himself from the imposing absurdity of European civilization, discovers his own truth, and follows his own creed. These actions of sanity allow Kurtz to save his soul and remain faithful to who he is. Ultimately, his sanity saves him from the immense heart of darkness that threatens to swallow the rest of the world.

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