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Toward the Light or Toward Darkness: Moral Trajectories in Conrad and McCarthy

What the German-American philosopher Eric Voegelin has called “the Drama of Humanity” is manifestly not over: if it was then who would be discussing it anyway? That might seem an obvious enough retort; nevertheless, in his novel The Road Cormac McCarthy takes us almost to the final scene of that drama. In the remorselessly bleak landscape of  what he has referred to as a “post-impact event” world, human beings seem to be about as reduced as they could be, while being still recognizably human – in some cases barely so. In his novella, Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, too, presents us with a vivid depiction of humanity in extremis, but this is, as I will go on to explore, a qualitatively different vision, in many key aspects, to McCarthy’s; and this difference will inform the inherent moralities presented in the worlds of each text, which will nevertheless come to be seen as curiously similar.

At the risk of sounding glib, if Conrad’s characters’ (Kurtz certainly; probably others) journey leads them to an ultimate or fundamental darkness at the innermost heart of things, after the “veil ha(s) been rent” to reveal “The horror! The horror!”, McCarthy’s characters seem to find themselves somewhere that is virtually the antithesis of this, among “the good guys” who are “carrying the fire.” The heart of darkness: horror, “craven terror” and being utterly alone (even if in the presence of another) “in the dark waiting for death” in contrast to the welcome and fellowship that “the boy” in The Road finally finds at the novel’s end as “The woman when she saw him put her arms around him and held him.” We are presented with “the mystery” of the “breath of god” as it passes “from man to man through all of time.” McCarthy does not use the word “love” here, but we seem to sense its presence and the embracing agape of something both greater, more mysterious than ourselves, and yet curiously of and with us. Whereas Kurtz will tell us that life is a droll thing, a “mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose.” A very different kind of mystery indeed!

What has led Conrad and McCarthy to such contrasting presentations of “the nature of the mystery” which may be assumed to be the very mystery at the heart of human existence itself? Clearly enough they live in different eras and thus see and understand the world differently. For Conrad, recovering from the very real horrors of his personal colonial experience, yet still writing before World War 1, is still living and writing before the conflagrations of the twentieth century make apocalypse an all-too-real possibility; whereas McCarthy is our contemporary and thus is like us, at least  to the extent that he has to confront annihilation as a logical possibility: perhaps the final “futile purpose” of that “merciless logic” which, paradoxically, is only purposelessness itself; perhaps even the final “horror;” or perhaps it will be something quite different to this.

So our authors would seem to necessarily have very different historical agendas; but this is not to suggest that the same can be said about their moral agendas. The main moral burden would seem to be carried by “the man” and, to a lesser extent, “the boy” in The Road, and by Kurtz and, to a lesser extent, Marlow in Heart of Darkness. The nature of this moral burden would seem to consist in what may be called an attitude to life. Kurtz is a man of an egregious selfishness: specifically the intense selfishness of someone who puts the satisfaction of their own desire at the heart of their existence. Kurtz has an exploitative personality: the rapaciousness with which he pursues ivory is our first illustration of this as we are quickly told that he “Sends in as much ivory as all the others put together . . . ”  Yet Marlow will observe that “The word ‘ivory’ rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it” and already we can see that there is something almost erotic about this obsession, and that Kurtz is the most dedicated worshiper and lover. But Kurtz’s obsessional desires will push him far beyond the whiteness  of ivory into a much darker encounter with the consequences of lustful surrender.

In a curious similarity which is yet entirely different and thus in contrast to Kurtz, the man in The Road too is driven by desire, but in his case it is desire for an other: he desires no more or less than a future for the boy, his son. It is the selflessness of this desire that finally reveals it as being of a qualitatively different substance. McCarthy has the man symbolize his desire to himself and the boy (and us) as a “fire”:

And nothing bad is going to happen to us.

That’s right.

Because we’re carrying the fire.

Yes. Because we’re carrying the fire.

In this exchange between them the man presents the fire as a kind of talisman that protects them, it is the symbol both of his love for his son and what we might call his need to have faith in the future, or a future. It is as selfless a gesture as a human being can make, I suggest. What motivates both Kurtz and the man is thus, and the point is worth emphasizing, seen as desire in both cases, but a substantially (and I am using this word in the Aristotelian sense which would include spiritual as well as material substance) different type or quality of desire. This will have serious consequences, both for the characters and for our understanding of the novels’ moralities.

Marlow has described Kurtz as “under” the “spell – the heavy, mute spell of the wilderness” and by “the awakening of forgotten and brutal instincts, by the memory of gratified and monstrous passions.” Neither Conrad nor Marlow illustrates these “monstrous passions” in any detail, but we are left in no doubt as to their pernicious character and how they “had beguiled his unlawful soul beyond the bounds of permitted aspirations.” With this observation, which amounts to a description of a man who has indeed followed his desires (instincts) beyond the boundaries of any human, or even God-sanctioned, acceptability, we begin to understand the nature of “the horror” that Kurtz comes to dread as it consumes him and he finally realizes the depth of his depravity and the price he must finally pay for it. It is that hatred of the world which inevitably becomes a hatred of the self. Marlow can say, “he had kicked himself loose of the earth . . . he had kicked the very earth to pieces.” But the earth has a curious way of kicking back. “He was alone” but Marlow’s first impression of Kurtz’s alienation from the rest of humanity is finally resolved into nothing more or less than the utter loneliness of the guilt-ridden individual facing their own death.

The death of the man in The Road presents a startling contrast. His death is curiously consecrated to life; he “can’t hold [his] dead son in his arms” cannot “take” him with him into death. Even as he lies dying, his thoughts are entirely toward his son and his hopes for the boy’s future. Almost his final words to his son are “You have my whole heart. You always did. You’re the best guy. You always were” invoking a love that, in a very real sense, does exist before and beyond the individuals that feel and express it. It is the love that sustains the world. Even beyond language-in-time itself, he tells the boy, “if I’m not here you can still talk to me.” Their final words are when the boy tells his father, “it’s okay Papa. You don’t have to talk. It’s okay.” Their love has moved beyond language and transcended time and space itself. This is perhaps a startling claim, but the novel, as we shall see, can sustain it.

Marlow tells us of Kurtz’s “intense and hopeless despair” as he faces death, and goes on to ask, “Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender in that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision – he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath” – the breath of the utterly mortal man breathing his last faced, to re-iterate the point, only with the complete knowledge of his own guilt. In a complete contrast, in The Road, “the woman” near the novel’s end will talk, as we have seen, to the boy about “the breath of God [that] was his [the boy’s] breath yet though it pass from man to man through all of time.”

This breath is not any temporal breath, it lasts through “all of time:” it is immortal. Kurtz’s selfish love has amounted to no more than a craving and a giving in to its negative appetites which have become the sum of what he is. The situation of the man in The Road is entirely different to this; he has passed on to the boy something timeless and perhaps immortal: his undying love, a guiltless selflessness. When the woman tells the boy, effectively confirming what his father has already said, that “the best thing was to talk to his father,” she must mean in a language that itself is reaching towards the beyond, in the type of “reflective distance” that Voegelin has called “speech as the divine silence breaking creatively forth in the imaginative word that will illuminate the quest as the questioner’s movement of return to the ineffable silence” (Voegelin, 1987, 103) for his father has, in a very real sense, become timeless, or beyond time, at least in his love for his son; to this extent can we consider him immortal, an aspect of the “divine silence”?

As I said above, both Joseph Conrad and Cormac McCarthy are telling us something important about the period and situation in which they each live. Conrad seems to be reflecting a kind of cultural guilty conscience in Kurtz, which he has Marlow come to realize and express as the reader realizes it for themselves. In Kurtz we can detect an almost anti-Christ-like figure, or a pseudo-Christ, who functions, by proxy as it were, as a type of sacrifice: he has experienced more, done more, inflicted the full consequences of the imperial/colonial rape of the land, its creatures, its people, but, finally, too, on himself. Kurtz dies in horror so that we don’t have to, his death atones for the crime’that has been committed, or perhaps it could do if only we could escape our own desire.

Marlow, at the end, reminds us that Kurtz had wanted “that justice which was his due . . . he wanted only justice.” Did he or we get it? Marlowe cannot tell Kurtz’s “lover” (when he gets back to London) or us: “I could not tell . . . It would have been too dark – too dark altogether. . . . ” We leave Marlow “in the pose of a meditating Buddha” and it is entirely appropriate (and deeply ironic) that we do so, as it was of course the Buddha himself who most emphatically pointed out to humanity the dangers of desirous over-attachment to the physical world. Yet, even here Marlow himself is finally only “in the pose,” whether he and rest of us can ever free ourselves of the negative aspects of our desire is not for Conrad to answer: he only poses the question. This is the heart of Conrad’s depiction of morality in the novel: moral behaviour will be impossible for the person who lacks the self-understanding and self-reflectiveness to grasp the consequences of their actions.

McCarthy’s characters face an entirely different world, and yet they are still faced with the possibility of choices. The man makes a manifestly conscious and deliberate choice to be or become one of “the good guys:” he will not murder, he will not be reduced to the cannibalism so horrifically described and practiced by some of the survivors, neither will he kill himself (unlike his wife) nor can he kill his son. McCarthy’s man burns with morality, it is the “the fire” inside him, which he gives to his son, the light of understanding granted to them both through self-knowledge and self-reflective meditation. Is this “fire” real? The boy and the man can speak for themselves. The boy asks:

Is it real? The fire?

Yes it is.

Where is it? I don’t know where it is.

Yes you do. It’s inside you. It was always there.

I can see it.

In the post-impact world that McCarthy describes we seem to have arrived at the drama of humanity’s almost-final scene. Yet, to return to our opening point, all tales are penultimate: they cannot end. And not only because someone has to tell and someone has to read the story, but because the story is actually not over: history has not concluded. But McCarthy’s tale does have a curious quality because, unlike Conrad, McCarthy, like us, does live in a world which knows that the conclusion of human history is not unimaginable, we do know the various ways that it could happen. Apocalypse is thus not something to be trifled with, or presented lightly, and McCarthy gives it its full due. His story is a kind of Big Bang theory in reverse. If science is trying to take us back to as close as possible to the beginning of time, what McCarthy seems to be doing is taking us as far forward as is possible towards the end, where indeed the contemplation of ‘the Beyond’ must begin, as in The Road it does.

Both McCarthy’s and Conrad’s moralities, for all the qualitative differences between their main characters, are seen as similar: morality is an attitude to life; it is a function of the self-knowledge, self-reflection and self-understanding that can only lead to selflessness. The man has it; Kurtz does not. Finally, neither Conrad’s nor McCarthy’s stories can end because The Drama of Humanity, to re-iterate the point one final time, is not over: the “fire” still burns; “darkness” has not triumphed.



Voegelin, Eric (1987) Order and History, Volume 5, Complete Works Volume 18. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.

Stephen H. Conlin

Steve Conlin is an independent scholar whose Master's thesis was on Hans-Georg Gadamer's "Truth and Method" from the University of Southhampton in England.

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