Neither in His Own, Nor in His Neighbor’s Eyes

Let me also wear

Such deliberate disguises

Rat’s coat, crowskin, crossed staves

In a field

Behaving as the wind behaves . . .

                                            TS Eliot, “The Hollow Men”

It’s been my fate for the last twenty years or so to explore Heart of Darkness each spring with sixteen-year-olds.  The novella provides a rich cache – not of ivory – but of literary artistry, historical relevance, and profound prophecy.  I also find Marlow’s rebellious disdain for the soullessness of the people he encounters during his journey good role-modeling. By the end of his odyssey, Marlow has, as he puts it, “some difficulty in restraining [himself] from laughing in their faces so full of stupid importance.”  He resents the sight of his fellow citizens “hurrying through the streets to filch a little money from each other, to devour their infamous cookery, to gulp their unwholesome beer, to dream their insignificant and silly dreams.”  Marlow’s experience in the jungle has shredded the veil of illusion, or to move a bit westwardly metaphorically, he has stumbled out of Plato’s cave and can now see beyond the flickering shadows projected on the walls of his former existence.

Jeffrey Bren
Self-portrait watching television

The pressure of conformity weighs down adolescents like sodden woolen coats, whether it be the pressure to join a gang, the Fellowship of Christian athletes, or the circle around the bong.  Our narrator Marlow is a loner, the father of Nick Adams and Sam Spade (not to mention Philip Marlowe), an individual who remains true to his non-conformist core convictions.  As Marlow is telling his story to his colleagues on the deck of the Nellie, he’s also speaking directly to those adolescents – mocking hollowness and extolling independence and courage.  Given the barrage of images that assault young people each day through their various media –  images of air-brushed celebrities as insubstantial as Plato’s shadows, images of smiling actors succeeding at DeVry University, images of Vaseline-enhanced Big Macs beaming down from billboards – Marlow’s example of delving beneath the surface is more relevant than ever.

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(To leaven the proceedings for a moment.  What do you think Marlow would think of this cover?)

Romance, Terror, and Exotic Adventure (rendered in 3.5-page sentences!)

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TS Eliot in “The Hollow Men” quotes Heart of Darkness in the epigraph and employs Conrad’s symbol of the scarecrow to embody people without true convictions, people who go with the flow, behaving as the wind behaves, people who will say whatever it takes to get what they want – and then again, unsay it, with a mere shake of the Etch-a-Sketch.  The hollow men, the stuffed men.

Shape without form, shade without colour,

Paralysed force, gesture without motion . . .

In contemporary American politics, I can’t think of a better embodiment of those hollow men Marlow describes than Lindsay Graham.  If we’re going to draw analogies from “real life'” to Conrad’s novel, Trump comes off like Kurtz (albeit without his learning, Kurtz’s appreciation of and facility in creating art).  Kurtz sees himself as the center of the universe, as a god, a god worshipped by the natives as Trump is by his ardent xenophobic MAGAs.

Graham, on the other hand, obviously “behaves as the wind behaves.”

That was then, this is now.

“I am like the happiest dude in America right now,” a beaming Graham said on “Fox & Friends.” “We have got a president and a national security team that I’ve been dreaming of for eight years.” (19 April 2019).

Here’s Marlow on lying:

You know I hate, detest, and can’t bear a lie, not because I am straighter than the rest of us, but simply because it appalls me. There is a taint of death, a flavour of mortality in lies–which is exactly what I hate and detest in the world–what I want to forget. It makes me miserable and sick, like biting something rotten would do. Temperament, I suppose.

But, like I said, Trump is more like Kurtz or Guy Fawkes from Eliot’s epigraph, “lost/ Violent souls.” Graham lies for the sake of power; I doubt if megalomaniacal Trump even realizes he’s lying.

I guess it’s possible that Trump will be caught one of these days doing something that upsets the populace and that Graham will do some reverse flip flops, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

I guess it makes more sense to take Yeats’ advice:

Now all the truth is out,
Be secret and take defeat
From any brazen throat,
For how can you compete,
Being honor bred, with one
Who were it proved he lies
Were neither shamed in his own
Nor in his neighbors’ eyes;
Bred to a harder thing
Than Triumph, turn away
And like a laughing string
Whereon mad fingers play
Amid a place of stone,
Be secret and exult,
Because of all things known
That is most difficult.