Kurtz (Heart of Darkness)
Kurtz is a central fictional character in Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness. A trader of ivory in Africa and commander of a trading post, he monopolises his position as a demigod among native Africans. Kurtz meets with the novella's protagonist, Charles Marlow, who returns him to the coast via steamboat. Kurtz, whose reputation precedes him, impresses Marlow strongly, and during the return journey Marlow is witness to Kurtz's final moments.
In the novella
Kurtz is an ivory trader, sent by a shadowy Belgian company into the heart of an unnamed place in Africa (generally regarded as the Congo Free State). With the help of his superior technology, Kurtz has turned himself into a charismatic demigod of all the tribes surrounding his station, and gathered vast quantities of ivory in this way. As a result, his name is known throughout the region. Kurtz's general manager is jealous of Kurtz, and plots his downfall.
Kurtz's mother was half English, his father was half French and thus "All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz.” As the reader finds out at the end, Kurtz is a multitalented man—painter, musician, writer, promising politician. He starts out, years before the novel begins, as an imperialist in the best tradition of the "white man's burden." The reader is introduced to a painting of Kurtz's, depicting a blindfolded woman bearing a torch against a nearly black background, and clearly symbolic of his former views. Kurtz is also the author of a pamphlet regarding the civilization of the natives.
However, over the course of his stay in Africa, Kurtz becomes corrupted. He takes his pamphlet and scribbles in, at the very end, the words "Exterminate all the brutes!" He induces the natives to worship him, setting up rituals and venerations worthy of a tyrant. By the time Marlow, the protagonist, sees Kurtz, he is ill with jungle fever and almost dead. Marlow seizes Kurtz and endeavors to take him back down the river in his steamboat. Kurtz dies on the boat with the last words, "The horror! The horror!"
Kurtz's persona is generally understood to derive from the notoriously brutal history of the so-called "Congo Free State", which was later taken over by Belgium and became a Belgian colony in 1908. In his history book King Leopold's Ghost, Adam Hochschild suggests that Leon Rom, an administrator in King Leopold's Congo, i.e. in the Congo Free State, was the principal inspiration for the Kurtz character, citing references as the heads on the stakes outside of the station and other similarities between the two. Hochschild and other authors have also suggested that the fate of the disastrous "rear column" of the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition (1886-8) on the Congo may have also been an influence. Column leader Edmund Musgrave Barttelot, "went mad, began hitting, whipping, and killing people, and was finally murdered". Bloom notes that Kurtz's sophisticated brutality is closer to that of Barttelot's associate slave trader Tippu Tip. The expedition's overall leader, Henry Morton Stanley, the principal figure involved in preparing the Congo for Leopold's rule, may also have been an influence.
A personal acquaintance of Conrad's, Georges Antoine Klein, may also have been a real-life basis for the character. Klein was an employee of the Brussels-based trading company Société Anonyme Belge pour le Commerce du Haut-Congo, and died shortly after being picked up on the steamboat Conrad was piloting. Further, "Klein" means "little" in German, and as Marlow muses in the novella, "Kurtz" means "short" in the same language.
Conrad also expressed an admiration of Robert Louis Stevenson's Pacific Ocean writings, in particular the stories "The Beach of Falesá" and The Ebb-Tide, as well as the non-fiction account of Tembinok' of the Gilbert Islands that appeared in In the South Seas. All three texts contain megalomaniacs who manipulate their circumstances and remote settings to assert power over others. It is widely believed that Conrad drew influence from these characters, as well as Stevenson's plot lines, when writing Heart of Darkness.
In other works
Francis Ford Coppola's Vietnam War film Apocalypse Now (1979) centers on the protagonist's mission to find and kill the renegade Colonel Kurtz (played by Marlon Brando), based on Conrad's character, who has gone rogue far up a river, deep in the Southeast Asian jungle. The script acknowledges Heart of Darkness as a source of information, and the last words of Colonel Kurtz, "The horror! The horror!", echo those of his namesake in the novel.
The video game Fallout: New Vegas (2010) features a character in many ways similar to Kurtz; a man who refers to himself as Caesar. Caesar was originally a diplomat who went out into the post-apocalyptic world in an attempt to both increase the knowledge of the now tribal inhabitants and learn from their cultures to facilitate understanding in the wasteland. Caesar eventually went mad with power after becoming the de facto leader of one such tribe and led them in dismantling other tribes who then assimilated into his group. Now, he is the ruler of Caesar's Legion, a large army of tribals modeled after the Roman Empire. Like Kurtz, Caesar is an educated, charismatic figure who is worshipped as a god by his underlings; in Caesar's case, his followers believe him to be the reincarnation of Mars, the Roman god of war.
James Reich's novel Mistah Kurtz! (Anti-Oedipus Press 2016) is a prelude to Heart of Darkness that presents meticulous and controversial solutions to the origins, mystery and messianic deterioration of Kurtz.
Notes and references
- Bloom 2009, p. 16
- Hochschild, Adam: King Leopold's Ghost. New York, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998, pp. 98; 145,
- Conrad, Joseph (September 1997). Heart of Darkness. Introduction by Joyce Carol Oates. Penguin Putnam. pp. 4–5. ISBN 0-451-52657-0.
- "Spec Ops: The Line Preview - The Horror, The Horror". GameFront.