Friday, October 6, 2017

Kurtz and the Angry Saviors

In the past, this was the time of year in which I taught Heart of Darkness. As my teaching year has been shortened by testing and other demands on time, I've cut bits and pieces of my curriculum, so Kurtz and Marlowe are gone.

It's a work that sticks with me. It's a problematic work, a work that calls out racism even as it is itself terribly racist. But it also opens up larger questions, like the question of how evil gets into the world. Conrad only half answers that question, by suggesting that darkness and evil are part of the world's primordial soup, always barely held back by a thin veneer of civilization.

But Conrad never really offers a solution to one of the great mysteries at the work's core-- how did Kurtz, who entered Africa as an "emisarry of light," a gifted man of possibility, intent on uplift-- how did that man become the dark, twisted, murderous soul that Marlowe encounters? How is it that Kurtz comes to rage against the people he came to save? Conrad has Marlowe muse that somehow the darkness spoke to Kurtz, entered him through some weak spot, all of which has a nice metaphysical ring to it, but doesn't really explain anything. William Golding would later try to add to Conrad's work with his Lord of the Flies (and makes sure we get the reference by having Ralph weep for the "darkness of men's hearts" at the end), but I have a theory of my own.

There is something that happens when a person sets out to "save" other people, especially when the savior believes that he is inherently superior, that the folks who need saving are defective, broken, less than. Because they are broken in his eyes, he doesn't try to know them, to understand them, to so much as listen to them-- even though he approaches them with nothing but love and good intentions.

Imagine that a group of monkeys discover a lake filled with fish. "Brothers and sisters," they declare, "These poor fish know nothing about climbing trees, know nothing about fetching and eating bananas, know nothing about the joy of picking bugs out of each others' fur. We must go to them. We must help them. We must show them a better way to live."

Bet it's been at least a week since you've seen this cartoon

There are giraffes in the same area that mock this idea. "The fish are our inferiors, and they must always remain our inferiors, and we should take steps to make sure that none of them ever rise above their station." But the monkeys disagree. "We can give them the chance to rise just as far as we monkeys," they say.Because monkeys assume that since climbing trees is what they do, it must be what everyone who matters does. Only by climbing trees can one succeed in life,

So the monkeys raise up a group of missionaries to travel to the lake, to save the fish.

Some begin the careful and heartfelt work of taking the fish out of the lake and trying to teach them to climb trees. Some get the clever idea of growing trees in the lake itself.

Over time, very few fish learn to climb trees. But other things happen.

One is that some monkeys offer to "help." "Brothers and sisters," they say. "Your work would probably be easier if the lake were not quite so wet. To help with your important and uplifting work, we will gladly undertake the removal of water from the lake." And those monkeys, spouting endless pieties, go on to make a ton of money selling lake water. But they are not the worst.

The monkey missionaries, utterly convinced of their own superiority and righteousness, become increasingly frustrated. Because almost none of the fish learn to climb.

Says one group of monkeys, "Well, they're lazy. They just don't have the grit and ambition to climb trees. They need stronger discipline, tighter structure. It's the only way their kind will ever get ahead."

Inevitably, a day comes when some fish dare to speak up, perhaps even criticize the tree climbing policy, and the monkeys who had previously been so vocal about helping and uplifting fish get hurt-- and angry. "How dare they. Where's their gratitude? Where are the thanks for the benefits we've allowed them to have?" It does not occur to the monkeys that, implicit in their complaint, is the notion that they assume the fish are less than, that the fish deserve no voice in their own lives. That they are in fact just as species-ist as the gorillas.

And the monkeys get angrier and angrier. "These fish aren't just lazy. They are deliberately resisting us, deliberately refusing to climb the trees as we have so lovingly explained they ought to. We've told them and told them and showed them and given them all the help in the world and the GOD DAMN MOTHER-EFFING FISH STAY IN THE DAMNED LAKE ALL DAY!!" And then the monkeys pick the fish up and fling them at the trees, hollering all the time.

This metaphor is flawed in that we are all the same human species, doing this to each other. Golding's expansion of Conrad's point omits the racial factors of Heart of Darkness-- the boys are all from the same culture and class. But Goldings is right-- the source of this evil is in us.

I see this dynamic in many places. Not just in the colonialism of No Excuse charter schools, but in every classroom where a teacher thinks, "Lazy little bastards-- I hope they all fail." Or in the ed reformers who angrily dismiss teachers who won't see how much better the reformsters can make things.

It's the repeated arc of every situation where folks decide they are going to "fix" other folks as a big-hearted generous favor, but they never take the time to actually listen to the people they want to "fix." Of course we are not as different as monkeys and fish, but if we are going to attempt this manner of missionary work, we might as well be. There is no anger like the anger of a thwarted self-proclaimed savior.

[PS. Only now have I discovered that Fishtree is actually a company that is flogging a computer platform for personalized education. So I guess what the monkeys really need is a computer, and then the fish will finally catch on.]

1 comment:

  1. This reminds me of the fact that a sizeable portion of our nation's public education system was built by good Eastern girls going West to do "God's work" by educating those poor pioneer children -- thereby creating the low-paid-young-white-female-teacher-as-savior model which persists today.