Heart of Darkness

There is something magical about Joseph Conrad’s writing – enrapturing, eloquent, filled with spirit and yearning. Full of humanity; lost people in lost places doing terrible and wonderful things. And “Heart of Darkness”? His arguably most famous work – written at the beginning in three parts and published in a magazine and then brought together into a novella merely 30,000 words long.

But in those 30,000 words… What other authors cannot capture in their entire careers, Conrad gives us in a few short pages. The story is well known, the journey of Marlow up the Congo River to Kindu in search of Kurtz, to return him home – though he resists. Through the Congo Free State, King Leopold’s personal colony and one of the most brutal in the history of humanity. It is said that 50% of the Congo’s population died during those terrible years of Leopold. If you are interested in that story, you can read “King Leopold’s Ghost”. Not that “independence” has been much better…

I won’t go into the symbolism or the allegories of the novel, those are well known. The use of darkness; the juxtaposition of the Thames and the Congo; the discovery of the savage in all of us.

I will skip this analysis in favor of another, for I have been to the Congo. For several years I worked the wars, I saw the suffering, I lived “the horror”. I first arrived in 1999, interestingly exactly 100 years after the publication of Conrad’s magnum opus. Yet the descriptions on the pages of his tale, coming from his own experiences in the Congo, could have been my descriptions. The privations, the suffering, the slavery. Things have not changed in the Congo – even now ravaged by Ebola and total war.

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Conrad was accused of being racist, and “Heart of Darkness” has been blasted by many as mis-representing Africa for the European audience. Who knows if today the novel would even have been published. Facile responses from the “safe” crowd who have never spent the time wading through the waters and walking through the broken down hospitals swollen with dying children. “Heart of Darkness” is a lament, a tragic lament – of what humanity is up to in the dark places where nobody is looking, and about how that darkness can seep into the hearts of even “good” men (as Kurtz was said to be).

Incidentally, I wrote my own “Heart of Darkness”, coming from my days in the Congo – in Uganda and in Mali and in Nigeria and in Chad; civil wars all, brutality and violence and sadness. “I, Charles, From the Camps” – the reaction of an African boy growing up in Conrad’s world. I surely will also get accused of racism and “cultural appropriation”, as if my ten years fighting for peace in a continent of war did not earn me the right. No matter – for, like Conrad, these stories must be told and the world – it must listen. For as Conrad eloquently said, “…you may be such a thunderingly exalted creature as to be altogether deaf and blind to anything but heavenly sights and sounds. Then the earth for you is only a standing place – and whether to be like this is your loss or your gain I won’t pretend to say. But most of us are neither one nor the other. The earth for us is a place to live in, where we must put up with sights, with sounds, with smells, too, by Jove! – breathe dead hippo, so to speak, and not be contaminated.”

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“Six Characters”, Absurdism and Madness

There’s a scene in The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand which has Ellsworth Toohey forming a new organization called the “Council of American Writers” – a group of bad writers, some who refuse to use punctuation and others who use literature as a vehicle for obscenity or pornography and any other riffraff he could find except that one anathema character excluded apriori from the rabble – the man with true talent.

Absurdism – those who would destroy civilization know to attack our art. Take the term, empty it of meaning, fill it with bits and odds and ends and thoughts piled up randomly in people’s minds, then sell it as art. Destroy beauty, and you can own the world; destroy talent and you can stand together; destroy reason – and you can rule.

I just finished “Six Characters in Search of an Author” by Nobel prize winning Luigi Pirandello. I mention the prize to highlight what Rand was trying to highlight with her representation of Toohey. “The world of the future. That’s what I want. A world of obedience of and unity. A world where the thought of each man will not be his own, but an attempt to guess the thought of the brain of his neighbor who’ll have no thought of his own…”

The fear that, because Pirandello’s “magnum opus” is incoherent, I must refrain from calling it so in the fear that I be singled out as having “missed something”, that I in fact am dense and thick – too great a risk to take, instead we should lean on the minds of others – the Nobel community maybe, or the other absurdists (like Toohey) who revel in their private joke while they ply us with garbage. I read through the reviews of this on Goodreads, and on Amazon. Five stars, four stars – “magnificent” or “deep” when it is clearly none of them. I believe in good writing – like I believe in good painting that represents talent and skill and discipline and practice – like I believe in good sports that pit hard work against natural ability.

I do not really believe fashion is a “thing” – but if it were, “Six Characters” is to writing what to fashion would be a Paris show with models wearing nothing at all. A show which would probably be called daring and innovative just like “Six Characters” is called genius. Sigh – I’ll go back now to Ayn Rand and C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien and Lord Byron, licking our collective wounds as we are while history charges mightily forward into great madness – led by Pirandello.

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“Why Should I Listen To You?”

“Why should I listen to you?” wise man said;
“You hatched that fool plan in the small of your head;
It has no more chance in the world to succeed;
Than does son of a horse and a donkey to breed.”

You say we should give for to all and for free;
And so shall we live to an equal degree;
But propose you not how we might pay for the feat;
For goods made for nothing do tend to deplete.

Nevertheless you insist with great vigor;
That mass social programs will make our hearts bigger;
“Let us try Gramsci” you preach from robbed wealth;
Though we remind, famine’s bad for your health.

“Or ‘haps tis through blood we will settle the score;
For to who and to what that a government’s for;
To race and to state we’ll surrender our young;
To the camps of creation where anthems are sung.”

But how many know that which runs through your blood?
And countries? their lines oft erased with a flood;
To spend days sorting skin is pathetic, morose;
And thinking with organs is often quite gross.

“No, none of that works!” insist those left behind;
“We’ve tried all those things, and they’ve rendered us blind;
To see, for the truth is in front of us fast;
So for sure to religion we must look at last.”

“The path for to justice is found in the book;
And ‘tis only there for to which we must look;
To end all the misery, right all the wrongs;
The rules are all set, and the punishments…?? strong.”

“Let us supervise”, your kind yet still invents;
“The world is complex, friends, and y’all are so dense;
We shall do the task, we shall cover the spreads”
And that while your fast jets fly over our heads.

Through cash printed long on machines that you own;
And managers working we stiffs to the bone;
With speed-bumps and ladders to keep us fools down;
Your clip-boarded nobles are knighted and crowned.

Yet all of these schemes, they are old, none are new;
And all of them benefit only the few;
We’ve seen them before and we fought them off all;
And each one itself led to quite bloody brawl.

So leave us alone, moral hazard we know;
And we won’t be acting again in your show;
Leave now, for to us those who shoulder the yolk;
Wish you would move on, before we’re all broke.

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“After The Flight 93 Election” – A Book Review

Most of humanity lead lives of quiet desperation. Yes, I think I’ve heard that somewhere… We awake, we go to work, we fight with a colleague or eat too much for lunch and then back home fighting traffic – feed the baby; bath; bed. Sure, we strive to be noticed. Maybe employee-of-the-week; a banquet in our honor, realtor of the year for having offloaded the most sub-prime mortgages on an unsuspecting public. We try and get by on our fading looks; our better-than-average car; our nicer-than-most vacation which we Instapost on Facegram in the not-at-all-desperate search for more hate-likes than others with whom we compare ourselves (I may not have a castle like Brad Joley – but I can afford a sea-view at Sandals, and I want you to know it!!) We like to hold our lives as a prism against those of our peers; it’s part of the natural order of things – and Angelina Pitt does it too – wondering what Amal had for dinner, and if the castle grits were somehow more sumptuous on the other side of the pond. Powerlessness, it is the true human condition in a world of seven-billion-plus souls. There are simply too many of us; and the prizes too mean – too fleeting – too few-and-far-between to stroke our emaciated egos. We are all measured and found wanting, it is for us only to choose the rod.

Yet occasionally, very occasionally in fact, we humans do something extraordinary. Think Jesse Owens winning the Gold Medal in Berlin with old Adolf glaring on. What would have happened if Owens had gotten a cold that day? Maybe he would have run the race four years later – and won, but with his victory not juxtaposed against the dower gaze of a racist tyrant, would it have been remembered? Futile inquiry, because that isn’t what happened – and Owens, a poor lad from Phoenix, defied history’s most evil man; if only for a moment (though a very public one). It is a comedy of errors which leads some people to a flash of fame; after which they fade away, always remembering – pointing back to the moment when they did something remarkable, when they were noticed, when they – for a flash – were important; and then they are gone, never to be heard from again.

It is easy to live in those moments. You wake up thinking “I did this!” and go to bed with your last breath one of gratitude at being selected for meaning, if only for an instant.

So I just finished “After The Flight 93 Election” by Michael Anton (no longer Publius Decius Mus). This book includes a new essay, an old(ish) essay responding to his critics (a way to stoke the controversy I suppose in the hopes that another ember will yet again ignite some dried timber of outrage still lying around), and is built around a reprint of Anton’s famous article “The Flight 93 Election”, published in September of 2016 for the Clairmont Review of Books (I’d never even heard of that journal before Anton’s article) which crystallized the impressions of many of us regarding the erstwhile candidacy (and potential presidency) of Hillary Clinton, as Anton efficiently summarized, “One of the Journal of American Greatness’s deeper arguments was that only in a corrupt republic, in corrupt times, could a Trump rise. It is therefore puzzling that those most horrified by Trump are the least willing to consider the possibility that the republic is dying.” BOOM!

This article marches into history, taking its author with it and joining the likes of Robert Kaplan with “The Coming Anarchy”; Francis Fukuyama and the “End of History”, Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations”, Lina Sergie Attar’s “The Land of Topless Minarets and Headless Little Girls” (and my own “Suicide of Venezuela”, of course) in crystalizing the narrative surrounding something epic happening at a particular moment in time. “The Flight 93 Election” may in fact have paved the way for a Trump presidency – or not, its hard to prove a counterfactual. But it was Anton’s courage and clarity of thought which brought the piece into existence at the right time to help us consider the dangers which might have befallen our benighted republic with another eight years of Obama/Hillary madness.

Michael Anton himself has continued writing and reading and studying; pleased with the role he played in a pivotal moment in our nation’s history and content (one would assume) to have had the privilege to be heard. And that itself is a remarkable thing.

Maybe we are not so powerless after all…

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“Monsoon” – A Book Review

I have now read enough of Robert Kaplan to understand the central thesis of his writing on geo-politics: that geography matters. That the world has not changed much, not really, from the days when the dhows plowed the Indian Ocean and sailors had to make their long way around the cape of good hope in the perilous pursuit for treasure, bounty and prosperity.

“Monsoon” is about this: the geography of the Indian Ocean specifically; the competition between China and India over who will control the access points to 80% of the world’s commerce which traverses the Indian Ocean long after sailors stopped relying on the natural rhythms of the monsoons to help them along their paths.

And, of course, the sub-text of all Kaplan’s writing: that fundamental question of what is America’s role in a world which is becoming less unipolar and more reliant upon the emerging powers of India and China, as the dramatic populations of the Indian Ocean put stress in ways positive and negative upon a world in flux. And what to do about the rough neighborhood in which this is developing, places where Iran’s revolutionaries attempt to apply asymmetry (terrorism) to naval routes and proxy wars between Iran and Saudi have begun to play out all across the region as Persia attempts to reassert its influence in a crescent atop the Sunni world – an arc from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean.

I have liked Kaplan’s sweeping prose – telling the story of nations in the form of an epic, where the rise and fall of empires grace the pages, emphasized by the stories of individuals – change agents mostly unknown to the rest of the world who nevertheless have had a role to play in the rollout of history. However Kaplan’s emphasis on geography brings with it a certain determinism, albeit heavily caveated: that things cannot be changed and that people are imprisoned to their tiny patch of land. For who among us can move mountains?

I’m not saying that he is wrong – and his voice in a world of “flyover states” and globalist hubris is certainly welcome, reminding us of the rock upon which we all spin day and night as we fight and scheme and die.

But it does make me wonder often about the idea of human “agency”; about the “arc of history” as some have liked to refer to things, and how it does not necessarily bend in any specific direction but depends mostly upon the talents and the scrappy luck of we humans as we try and build the cushions between ourselves and those who would harm us. Yes, I think that is more the story of the coming political Monsoons in the Indian ocean. Less about what the planners in China are doing with new roads silken and otherwise and more about, as once was said, the “unknown unknowns”. For history oftentimes looks inevitable, if perhaps not exactly organized, in the pages of Gibbon, but rarely is it written aforehand.

And that, I think, is what makes the fight so interesting.

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America: On Time and Abundance

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It is quiet now, there is a temperate wind rustling the thick foliage that climbs upward, summer leaves grasping for the sun. The nourishing rains have stopped and billowing clouds now and then again slip above like a cooling blanket, extinguishing the agonies of summer. Occasionally a car drives past, or a man walking his dog. “Goodday,” he says, smiling. Retired now, he was maybe a policeman – his duty – our protection – our law-made nation’s glory; or perhaps an insurance salesman or a banker. His hair is white and there is a thickness about him which insinuates age and while serving as a witness of many winters it also radiates the tranquility of wisdom and experience. The end of revolt. For life does not end in revolt, as some have said; there is rarely a raging against the dying of the light, instead a quiet gentle acquiescence; for that which has been was good, and there is only gratitude.

“Thank you for your service,” I said to an old man in the gym; an aged fighter, from a long storied war – our greatest war in fact, our second world war when men like him, dashing and strong and agile traversed the oceans to save humanity from tyranny. As had happened many times before, and has many times since; a story as old as America in fact – we fight over there, for our tender tranquility of home. Service; it is a word that we don’t hear very much anymore – at least meaningfully. Service; it implies sacrifice – but regarding those who are said to serve us, do they really? How often have you turned on your television or opened the pages of a paper and listened to the angry cries to revolt from our ‘servants’ – and wondered, in fact, who are they really serving? Calls to hate and anger penetrating into our verdant refuges; making the winds intemperate as we – too – often rage.

But why rage? That aged soldier fought an evil greater than any we have today; and yet the America for which he sacrificed weathered that storm, and returned stronger; remembering him while he was in harm’s way and welcoming him home, back to the green valleys of the Smokey Mountains where he became old. Does he still worry about our world, so soon to leave it and after so great an investment? It is his world after all, bequeathed to us to safeguard – does he doubt our valor? Our commitment? Our stoicism? Or is he contented – because he knows that things do not change quickly in America. She is too vast, too broad and deep and with so great a prosperity to listen easily to the silken voices of prejudice.

Revolution – people long to call for it. One for the workers; another for the aggrieved. Now they are calling for one green – communists all, our old adversary, taking the vessels of thought, emptying them of meaning and filling them with hate and envy and greed. But what would the old man in the gym say, about the madness? “Time,” he would probably respond, and with a gentle good-natured shrug. “Time polishes over the rough edges of our ambition, of our rage and our dreams and the toxic mix that rushes around with the hormones of youth making that which is good and true seem somehow faulty. Slow – when things should change faster. Though often they should not change at all. But this is all ashes and dust; passing like birth-pains and then we are through, and we realize that of which we had been so convinced was grasping for the wind, as the preacher said so many centuries ago.”

Or maybe the old soldier is not a warrior-philosopher, and he simply smiles and winks at the shenanigans and says “Don’t worry,” a pat on the shoulder and he is off again along his unchanging routine. And that, too, is prescient – wise even. No, America is not easily changed – the green valleys of Tennessee prove that. She is preserved in hardship and discipline; in violence and fortitude and suffering – as the nearby battlefields of Shiloh can attest. For those today who call for revolution, tomorrow will have children – and then grandchildren. They will see that what is more wise to preserve far outweighs that which needs tweaked; and as the abundance settles around them like a great wreath, those of hearts true will find the rage slipping away into the silent Tennessee valleys as the nourishing silence fills their hearts with something greater – and far older – than the also-ancient prejudices which they cradled for a season: peace.

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Ernest Hemingway: A Moveable Feast – A Book Review

I decided to give Hemingway another try. I liked “The Old Man and the Sea” enough (having read it in high-school), but found “Green Hills of Africa” insufferable, involving mostly Hemingway wandering around the African Savana whiskey-in-hand talking about what he was going to shoot. Hemingway’s “punchy” style, with short direct sentences has always seemed to me rather acerbic, fitting perhaps journalism (where he learned the style) but which does not capture my imagination’s need for beautiful prose. But I have learned that the same authors can often – and quite surprisingly – come up with both a masterpiece as well as garbage. So this time I decided I would give “A Moveable Feast” a try.

This book can best be described as an auto-biographical prequel. Though it was perhaps his last written work and was published three years after his suicide, it is about his time in Paris (with his first wife of four) and before he had published any of his novels. That time when a novelist is hungrily accumulating and accumulating and accumulating experiences and impressions before plunging into the world of writing – before they have anything to say, they must live life; for Hemingway this meant Paris.

The book was interesting, to a degree. The annees folles (Paris in the ‘20s) were a heady time for (ironically – or not) English-language literature (as well as perhaps Spanish painting). They were the years when Hemingway and Ezra Pound and F. Scott Fitzgerald and James Joyce would hang out with Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali at Shakespeare and Company with Sylvia Beach or at Gertrude Stein’s apartment and drink too much and fight and talk about daily affairs and a full panoply of unimportant things.

It is also the place where his destructive love of alcohol started. Alcoholics don’t realize how much they infuse mentions of liquor into daily conversation. “I need a beer” and “then we ordered a bottle of Cinzano”, etc. This book was about a man in his 20s in Paris during the ‘20s drinking his way through life. It did take some shine off the annees folles – with less-than-flattering depictions of Fitzgerald and Stein and Pound; it might be the anti-thesis of “Midnight in Paris”, a more romanticized view of that special period in art-history.

I sort of wish Hemingway would have written a full auto-biography, like Gabriel Garcia Marquez did. Had he done so, “A Moveable Feast” would have been condensed and would only represent the first chapter or section of the much larger story of man rising to the highest levels of his profession – only to be knocked down by our indefatigable penchant for human frailty. Now that would have made an amazing story.

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