The Kurtz Problem in Heart of Darkness

Kurtz is actually quite an interesting postulate by Conrad. It raises the question of the realtionship between evil — or at least “badness”, or evil in a comic book villian sense — and truth. Well, there is another form of “evil” in the book which is a kind of nihilism, the accepted criminality of the manager. This seems actually relevant in history, as, so the story goes, most efforts to overthrow a stagnant or criminal (ie, where criminality is accepted) system often end up themselves being an abuse of power.

And by “truth”, I mean a kind of reflective awareness, and more generally, some sense of understanding, some moment of being cut off from the past. There was something genuine about Kurtz which could not be reduced to shock and awe or simply the promise, the promise of another way of life, of power, and so on. I suppose that Heart of Darkenss could be about a kind of rock-and-hard-place situation in revolutionary history but at least there is the implication that Kurtz is somehow more closely allied with truth or a kind of truth movement. Well, when we think about truth we usually think of some kind of revelational process, but this is not the model I want to go after here. Rather I want to emphasize the “critical” nature of truth, of truth as negation. Most startling of all I want to consider truth as a kind of power over reality. Well, preliminary formulas may not be all that useful here, so let’s try another approach.

The basic oopposition I want to argue here is between the oneness of truth and the manyness of, not so much lie, but stagnation. Earlier we thought about stagnation or error as associated with a pursuit of promise, an exoticism, of other lands, and so on. That is, error is associated with the belief that the manyness of human concepts, or human distinctions, is in fact an essential manyness. This leads to a kind of stagnation in flourishing, which may be the paradox of the “golden age” — that the time of the production of countless distinctions is also a time of error. There are two things I want to talk about in this context, “allegory” and “nihlism”.

“Allegory” — Now the basic function of art of any form (this term being used very vaguely) is actually, not representation or simulation, but as a commentary on the nature of our interaction with art. For example, all video games are allegorizations of the compex activity of memorization, reaction, strategy, and decision-making, usually towards “humanism” or the established of a stable identity — within *many* other identities. And a book, as another example, is an allegory of reading. Being able to read a book, and not consider it “all that”, I mean, to consider it a mundane and natural activity, is a consequence of the book being a kind of commentary on our the mental activity of reading — and this, too, gets towards the notion of manyness of identity, and so forth. There are, for example, many genres of books, all of which are supported by an allegorization that maintains the stability of the essential manyness of such experiences.

“Nihilism” — Well, there is an attitude that simply dismisses this manyness, such as, for example, as a way to make money. This is attitude of Hollywood who churns out all these blockbusters that “tick the right boxes” and so on. Yet this attitude, really, doesn’t deny the essential manyness of such an experience, it is simply considers this manyness pyschologically.

The oneness of truth sounds almost like a scientific insight, but it is really, and this was my big insight yesterday, requires our own effort, ie, is a matter of insistence and participation. I don’t want to say, “contrivance”, as there is a kind of honesty to the insistence on oneness. And furthermore, this oneness is not a kind of overall awareness but rather precisely linked to the ability to *see* some agent. It may be associated with a kind of *loss of interest* in the manyness, a kind of melancholy even.

Let me relate a kind of personal example. I’ve recently been playing a video game called Spelunky. This game is quite fascinating in a very subtle sort of way, which is why it has been the source of some very interesting reviews — one reviewer speculated that it would be a great way to teach his (hypothetical daughter) about the ways of reality. (And why not a son? I wonder.) What’s so interesting about the game is that there is a kind of trickery involved — it looks and plays like a very standard platformer but it contains many elements that are all but impossible to react to but which can, on the other hand, be overcome with very simple methods once we are aware of them. The game requires either inhuman amounts of concentration and awareness or a kind of extrordinary patience that we normally aren’t used to maintaining for something so trivial. One reviewer said something to the effect that the lesson of the game is, “Don’t be a hero”. The most successful way for an ordinary human to play the game might be in the most cowardly manner possible, ie, In short, 1 or 2 second bursts of activity, followed by an assessment of all the risks, including any introduced by one’s own errors. One has to respond to the most apparently harmless missteps in a very serious way.

But this game is very interesting, and the language of the reviewers — and it is all but pointless to give a technical, descriptive account of the game — reveals an understanding of the allegorical stakes involved. Heroism, cowardice, father, daughter, teaching, etc. are all very interesting wasy to respond to a game that, superficially, is about going into a cave and collecting treasure. (Of course, in some way, all these elements can be found in the game itself, but as puns — and this would be the first step towards an allegorical understandign of Spelunky.) On the one hand, these elements point towards a new holism of gameplay, a new genre of games. But on the other hand, there is a kind of “sweet spot” to stop before one reaches such a point, which is the moment of, well, the greatest evocation of truth in the above sense. The game seems antagonistic to our efforts to construct an identity, one among many, in the world, it realizes the way, for example, video games tend to encourage the etablishing of the self in the world of an essential manyness and seems actively to hinder that process. More than one review have related — however meaningfully — the game to a kind of “father”, to a kind of stern and arbitrary one, one would imagine (– and is it necessarily one who has the best interests of the player at heart?). That sweet spot is that moment when the game becomes either a commentary on the very construction of the manyness of our identity, or, and maybe this is something equivalent in some sense, a fascinating and antagonistic agent of disruption.

… TBC

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