The Horror

pk School Stories: University

Graduate School
The Horror

I’ll try to tell this briefly, but to see what I’m saying you really should know Joseph Conrad’s famous short story, Heart of Darkness, and also know the standard academic points made about it: in particular the contribution made by and credited to Leonard F. Dean (known to his friends and students as Pete).

Mid-1960s, if I remember, Dr. Dean was spending a transfer year teaching at NYU. I no longer recall exactly how that works: maybe NYU had to send somebody comparably well-known to the lending university: the point is: Pete was at NYU for that one year. Since Pete is famous for his work on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, I sat in on his Heart of Darkness class.

Pete had pointed out in print that the story’s progress into the Congo is accompanied by a disrobing as it were of civilization: comparable to Shakespeare’s stripping King Lear naked before he rebuilds the foolish old man into something devastated, tragic, human … By the time the story reaches the notorious Mr. Kurtz, “Mr. Kurtz, he dead.”

I’ll repeat the two absolute essentials:

  • Kurtz’ last words before his death, much quoted, were
    “the horror.”
  • Back in Europe, the narrator meets with the fiancée and tells her that Kurtz’ last words were
    “your name.”
  • This graduate class discussion, led by Dr. Dean, touched on Kurtz’s message to his fiancée. “Why did he lie?” Pete asked.

    Though I wasn’t registered with the class, my hand shot up. Yes: Pete acknowledged me.

    “He didn’t lie,” I said. “He told her the truth: but in a form she wouldn’t recognize.”

    Color left his face. A shocked class turned to me, then quickly looked away.

    What’s wrong with these people? Wasn’t that Professor Dean’s own famous point I was making back to him?

    Is it really possible that academics don’t understand their own stories? any more than do the Jews? the Christians? the Americans? Or had I really taken it even further than Conrad meant?

    I doubt it.

    Feedback on this specific question is welcome: but please understand the implications first.
    Also note that what I attributed to Conrad is a major theme at whether or not it is appropriate to Conrad (whether or not it’s from “Conrad” that I got it!) Myths tell the truth in a way that celebrants of the myth will not understand. Religions miss their own point. Churches block messages from God, schools block messages from intelligence. Art, myth … tell the truth to the blind and deaf.

    So that when God (or destiny or nature or truth) throws us into hell (or failure or extenction or oblivion) we cannot rightly say that we weren’t warned! Artists get it. Some artists. Saints get it. Some saints. Why can’t the group get it? Because they’re the group. Because they don’t want to get it. They’d rather be kleptocrats than Christians: share in what’s stolen.


    Further than Conrad?

    2006 06 19

    Hubris is a wasted concept: unrecognized. So is original sin. Not one in a million ever sees either. And when one in ten million does, he doesn’t get to meet another from the ten million, or one hundred million. Society can propagate only ideas seen by the group. Unique perceptions simply disease the womb of the unique perceiver.

    5 AM. I just started out of sleep, realized I’d been redreaming that Pete Dean class, realized, with horror, that that class was an illustration of the horror: kleptocrats can’t see their reflection in the mirror.

    When I read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, I took Conrad’s bullet right between my own eyes: Kurtz, the missionary, was a disease: and those who sent him were the propagator of the disease: the English, the Dutch, in Africa: they — we — were, are, the horror. I had no idea until that class that no one else saw it that way: including the guy who I’d thought had led the way, before me, independently of me, in seeing that! It’s like my perception of homeostasis and of Christianity as an illustration of homeostasis: the Romans never see that they’re to Romans; they always think that they’re the Christians! And members of a university never ever for one second perceive how many ideas get blinked at unseeing there.

    I’d read Conrad. I’d gone around the bend. But I’d thought, foolishly that other readers of Conrad had also gone with me around the bend. No. I was alone.

    Note, if you can, the formal parallel here between Conrad’s horror and Jared Diamond’s coinage kleptocracy: he saw it, so everyone could see it; so no one sees it.

    About pk

    Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
    This entry was posted in Conviviality, pk Teaching, school. Bookmark the permalink.

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