Friday, September 12, 2014

Joseph Conrad's 'Outpost of Progress' by John Gray

In The Silence of the Animals; On Progress and Other Modern Myths, by John Gray; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, N.Y. 2013

Joseph Conrad wrote ‘Outpost of Progress’ in 1896, and it is a story at least as ferocious and disabused as his later and better-known novella Heart of Darkness.

It is about a pair of traders sent by a Belgian corporation to a remote part of the Congo, 300 miles away from the nearest trading post. Most of their work was done by a native interpreter, who used a visit by some tribesmen to sell some of the outpost’s workers as slaves in exchange for ivory tusks. Initially shocked at being involved in slave trading but finding the deal highly profitable, Kayerts and the other European Carlier accepted the trade. Having made the deal, they were left with little to occupy their time. They passed their days reading cheap novels and old newspapers extolling ‘Our Colonial Expansion’ and ‘the merits of those who went about bringing light, faith and commerce to the dark places of the earth’. Reading these newspapers, Carlier and Kayerts ‘began to think better of themselves’. Over the next few months they lost the habit of work. The steamer they were expecting did not come and their supplies began to run out. Quarrelling over some lumps of sugar that Kayerts held in reserve, Carlier was killed. In desperation, Kayerts decided to kill himself too. As he was hanging himself on a cross, the steamer arrived. When the Managing director disembarks, he finds himself face to face with the dead Kayerts.

Conrad describes how Kayerts ‘sat by the corpse (of Carlier) thinking; thinking very actively, thinking very new thoughts, His old thoughts, convictions, likes and dislikes, things he respected and things he abhorred, appeared in their true light at last! They appeared contemptible and childish, false and ridiculous. He reveled in his new wisdom while he sat by the man he killed.’  But not all of Kayert’s old convictions had vanished and what he still believes in leads him to his death. ‘Progress' was calling Kayerts from the river. Progress and civilization and all the virtues. Society was calling to its accomplished child to come to be taken care of, to be instructed, to be judged, to be condemned; it called him to return from that rubbish heap from which he had wandered away, so that justice could be done.’

In setting his tale in the Congo, where he had observed the effects of Belgian imperialism at first hand when he visited the country in 1890 to take command of a river steamer, Conrad was making use of a change he had himself undergone. Arriving with the conviction he was a civilized human being, he realized what in fact he had been: ‘Before the Congo I was just a mere animal.’ The animal to which Conrad refers was European humanity, which caused the deaths of millions of human beings in the Congo.

The idea that imperialism could be a force for human advance has long since fallen into disrepute. But the faith that was once attached to empire has not been renounced. Instead it has spread everywhere. Even those who nominally follow more traditional creeds rely on a belief in the future for their mental composure.  History may be a succession of absurdities, tragedies and crimes; but –everyone insists – the future can still be better than anything in the past. To give up this hope would induce a state of despair like that which unhinged Kayerts.

Among the many benefits of faith in progress may be that it prevents too much self-knowledge. When Kayerts and his companion ventured into the Congo the aliens they met were not the indigenous inhabitants but themselves.

They lived like blind men in a large room, aware only of what came in contact with them (and of that only imperfectly), but unable to see the general aspect of things. The river, the forest, all the great land throbbing with life, were like a great emptiness. Things appeared and disappeared before their eyes in an unconnected and aimless kind of way. The river flowed through a void. Out of that void, at times, came canoes, and men with spears in their hands would suddenly crowd the yard of the station.

They cannot endures the silence into which they have come: “stretching away in all directions, surrounding the insignificant cleared spot of the trading post, immense forests, hiding fateful complications of fantastic life, lay in the eloquent silence of mute greatness.’ The sense of the progression of time, which they had brought with them, begins to fall away. As Conrad writes towards the end of the story, ‘Those fellows, having engaged themselves to the Company for six months (without having any idea of a month in particular and only a very faint notion of time in general), had been serving the cause of progress for upwards of two years.’ Removed from their habits, Kayerts and Carlier lose the abilities that are needed to go on living. ‘Society, not from any tenderness but because of its strange needs, had taken care of those two men, forbidding them all independent thought, all initiative, all departure from routine; and forbidding it under pain of death. They could live only on condition of being machines.’

The machine-like condition of modern humans may seem a limitation. In fact it is a condition of their survival. Kayerts and Carlier were able to function as individuals only because they had been shaped by society down to their innermost being.

Two perfectly insignificant and incapable individuals, whose existence is only rendered possible through the high organization of civilized crowds . Few men realize that their life, the very essence of their character, their capabilities and their audacities, are only the expression of their belief in the safety of their surroundings. The courage, the composure, the confidence; the emotions and principles; every great and every insignificant thought belongs not to the individual but to the crowd: to the crowd that believes blindly in the irresistible force of its institutions and of its morals, in the power of the police and of its opinion.

When they stepped outside their normal surroundings, the two men were powerless to act. More than that: they ceased to exist.

For those who live inside a myth, it seems a self-evident fact. Human progress is a fact of this kind. If you accept it you have a pace in the grand march of humanity. Humankind is, of course, not marching anywhere. ‘Humanity’ is a fiction composed of billions of individuals for each of whom life is singular and final. But the myth of progress is extremely potent. When it loses its power those who have lived by it are –as Conrad put it, describing Kayerts and Carlier- ‘like those lifelong prisoners who, liberated after many years, do not know what to make of their freedoms’. When faith in the future is taken from them, so is the image they have of themselves. If they opt for death, it is because without that faith they can no longer make sense of living. 

The myth of progress casts a glimmer of meaning into the lives of those who accept it. Kayerts, Carlier and many like them did nothing that could be described as significant. But their faith in progress allowed their petty schemes to seem part of a grand design, while their miserable deaths to seem part of exemplary futility their lives had not possessed.

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