The Real Heart of Darkness: The Manager of the Central Station in Heart of Darkness

May 21, 2019 by Essay Writer

In Heart of Darkness, Marlow, in explaining his motivations for venturing into the Belgian Congo, first, almost by way of an apology, draws on the common spirit of adventure shared by boyhood readers of adventure novels; he names a childhood “passion for maps.” His desire for the journey originates in an urge for discovering the uncharted spaces that appeared as blanks on globes and maps. Africa itself, is “the biggest, the most blank” – though “it had ceased to be a blank space of delightful mysteryŠit had become a place of darkness” (5). Marlow, then, ventures into Africa not on a headstrong impulse of adventure, but under the apparatus of a Belgian trading company. With this air of a disappointed enthusiasm overhead we meet the characters that populate the Congo. Though it must be noted that the country is populated with black folk, we are only really introduced to the agents of the company, to white Europeans who are in country to turn a profit. Indeed, any other suggestion is almost unreasonable, as Marlow’s “Why come here?” to one of his fellows is greeted thus “scornfully”:”ŒTo make money, of course. What do you think?” (17). Yet, there is another reason, which sets itself against this one, the Romantic notion of the colonialist as being “something like an emissary of light, something like a lower sort of apostle” (10), bearing progress to the Congo while bringing prosperity back to the company. There is a disjunction between this ideal, indubitably couched in religious terms (later he refers to fellow colonialists as Œpilgrims,’ a wryer sort of irony than Œmissionaries’ would provide, as pilgrims concern themselves with the taking, where missionaries look to the giving), and the vehicle that bears it, one that Marlow broaches right away, before he has even heard of Kurtz. “I ventured to hint,” he says to his aunt, “that the company was run for profit” (10). The inviolable pursuit of profit, he suggests, will cross purposes with the “higher motive” of colonialism. Soldiers and custom-house clerks come into the country with Marlow, no one else.These two value systems shall be at odds, as one will have to take precedence. There is no loyal obligation to duty, of the sort that Conrad describes among sailors in “Well Done,” to settle the differences between these conflicting missions. This struggle is dramatized within the ranks of the company’s men in the Congo. We have noted that one of the ways in which Conrad works to illuminate moral and psychological truth is through contrasts, through dynamic juxtapositions. The methods of Kurtz, the manager of the Inner Station, with his rhetoric and ideals, and with his extravagant success, are contrasted with the sordid practicality and terrific inefficiency of the manager of the Central Station. Marlow is immediately identified, and almost simultaneously identifies, with Kurtz – which places him in an inevitable, positional antagonism with the manager of the Central Station. So we must read Marlow’s characterization of the manager with regard to that bias. Marlow’s description of the manager of the Central Station, reduces him to a type by its insistence on his unreadability. It is one that defies imagination to conceive of it- a testament to his memory’s incapacity to record the man. In regards to complexion, features, manners, voice, build, size – he is “commonplace”, “ordinary”. This is in strong contrast to Kurtz, whose entrance into the book is all but mythic: “He looked at least seven feet longŠan animated image of death carved out of old ivory” (54-5). Kurtz seems even more commanding in his failing health, if only because he becomes “appalling” (55). An extreme contrast exists between the specter of Kurtz and the manager’s solid complacency. However, the one thing that distinguishes him gesturally will later be understood to be as significant as Kurtz’s highly dramatic entrance. “There was only an indefinable, faint expression on his lips, something stealthy – a smile – not a smile – I remember it, but I can’t explainŠ. It [made] the meaning of the commonest phrase appear absolutely inscrutable”(18). That this inscrutability, this immediate obfuscation, is his most distinguishing characteristic will seem significant later. Though it is more lumbering, it will seem to eviscerate itself of meaning in the same way as Kurtz’s remarkable speech.It is significant that Marlow does not give the manager a name. By identifying him only by his position, he is voided of personality – he becomes symbolic. He is equivalent to his position. Kurtz, however, refuses to be defined by his station. When Marlow is speaking to the manager’s “spy,” the brickmaker, and asks, “Who is this Mr. Kurtz?” the response that he receives makes him laugh. He laughs because describing Kurtz as “the chief of the Inner Station” is a tautology that does nothing to define a man who lives, as it seems, in defiance of the limitations his position should impose. (22) Marlow takes the voiding of the manager to a literal level: “Perhaps there was nothing within him” (19). But, he continues, it is precisely this void within him that makes him a successful man for the colonial venture. Marlow can only attribute his survival to his imperfect humanity, to what he calls his lack of “entrails” (19). His actions, then, depersonalized, are stripped of humanism, monstrous in a place where “there were no external checks” (19). Marlow’s characterization, already opposed to him, finally describes him in terms typical of the other, as the ultimately inscrutable: “It was impossible to tell what could control such a man” (19). It is this opacity that is the source of his power. These capacities, though, are the ones that have allowed him to survive. The strain of colonialism that Marlow is an envoy of is of markedly different tenor than the manager’s. “You are of the new gang,” accuses the brickmaker, “the gang of virtue” (22). From whence springs this contempt? Part of it is due to fear of losing his position. But Marlow and Kurtz spring from a different milieu from these inhabitants. Marlow states of the manager: “He was a common trader, from his youth up employed in these parts – nothing more” (18). It would not be deceptive to describe the manager of the central station is a sort of ideal, the same way that Kurtz is an ideal type. While Kurtz is a man brought in from the outside – a representative of the best of Europe – the manager is the (almost Darwinian) victor in the political meritocracy of the colonial mission. There is an unsettling specter of inequity in Kurtz’s (and Marlow’s) interjection in the internal structure of the Colonial company. Marlow’s narration works to obscure the fact of it. Marlow’s place in the Congo, after all, is one gained by favor, not by merit. It is significant, though, that his role is not beyond him – whether he merits it, whether he is capable of the task given to him, is an incidental issue, subordinated to the social politics of Europe. When Marlow overhears the manager speaking with his uncle, one of the main plaints they level against Kurtz is the external privilege he exercises: “he has asked the administration to be sent thereŠlook at the influence that man must have” (28).But what order is Kurtz, an interloper, upsetting? The manager has created a sort of sham democracy – where equality is imposed by dictatorial order. Tired of the squabbling of his traders, he set up a round table to obviate the question of position in hierarchy. However, he has the prime position in this arrangement, despite the impartiality that the arrangement would imply. He, after all, imposed the arrangement – and had the power to arrange for a special house to be built to accommodate it. This undertaking, like the pyramids in Egypt, necessarily implies subordinates, slaves. The presence of Europe, of European opinion, hangs over and nags the players on the colonial stage. It is as though the tidy systems of valuation that have held purchase, the certainty of account-books, have been subverted by forces that “the gang of virtue” represents. However, these are not amenable to logic or to calculation, and are as horrific in the attainment of their ends as what they came to replace. Just as the accidents at the Central Station – of the steamship, of the conflagration of goods – seem sinisterly plotted, the attack on Marlow’s steamship is perversely ordered by Kurtz. The intent is not quite clear, though their calculated disorder furthers not the colonial mission but their own ends. Ironically, though Kurtz fails where they should be singularly equipped to succeed, they succeed where the former have failed – Kurtz turns a profit. Kurtz is successful precisely because his methods are unreasonable. Yet, in the final reckoning, this profit, the storehouses of ivory, and invoices, are negated by mortality. The final end is survival; this determines the victor. The manager’s uncle reassures him: “nobody hereŠcan endanger your position. And why? You stand the climate – you outlast them all” (29). Sickness is ever present in the narrative. The Russian implies that Kurtz’s physical sickness is the cause of his mental sickness, his mental instability. But all we know is that they are coterminal. Sickness is prevented by emptiness, as emptiness implies nothing for sickness to feed upon. The colonial venture is one of exchange, but the exchange in this case is always negative: “Not many of those she looked at ever saw her again – not half, by a long way” (8). The proper occasion, then, to “offer a sacrifice to” in the name of an idea, as Marlow suggests. It is evident throughout that Marlow reduces non-whites to their physical characteristics, rolling eyes and angular legs. But whites are also subject to this reduction. The colonial realm, therefore, exists as a place where capacity can obtain nothing. In his Œcommonplace’ personality, of which Marlow states, “he had no learning, no intelligence”(18), the central manager is governed by a steady instincts, a “beautiful resignation” (34). Marlow is inspired to observe at this, “What did it matter who was manager? One gets sometimes such a flash of insight” (35). The very irrelevance of the characteristics of the top manager is what secures the position for the longest-lived. Thus, Kurtz is right in his interpretation of the manager’s suasions to leave the inner station: “Save me! Save the ivory – you mean” (56). His understanding of the logic of the place is ultimately as canny as the manager’s, despite his attempts at redemption. He becomes what he has hoarded – a pile of bones.

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