Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Conrad and Cruelty

A friend sent me a link to a very interesting article by Chris Hedges about Joseph Conrad's observations on the cruelty of human nature. It's entitled "Man is a Cruel Animal." Here are some excerpts:

It was Joseph Conrad I thought of when I read an article in The Nation magazine this month about white vigilante groups that rose up out of the chaos of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans to terrorize and murder blacks. It was Conrad I thought of when I saw the ominous statements by authorities, such as International Monetary Fund Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn, warning of potential civil unrest in the United States as we funnel staggering sums of public funds upward to our bankrupt elites and leave our poor and working class destitute, hungry, without health care and locked out of their foreclosed homes. We fool ourselves into believing we are immune to the savagery and chaos of failed states. Take away the rigid social structure, let society continue to break down, and we become, like anyone else, brutes. ...

Conrad saw cruelty as an integral part of human nature. This cruelty arrives, however, in different forms. Stable, industrialized societies, awash in wealth and privilege, can construct internal systems that mask this cruelty, although it is nakedly displayed in their imperial outposts. We are lulled into the illusion in these zones of safety that human beings can be rational. The "war on terror," the virtuous rhetoric about saving the women in Afghanistan from the Taliban or the Iraqis from tyranny, is another in a series of long and sordid human campaigns of violence carried out in the name of a moral good.

Those who attempt to mend the flaws in the human species through force embrace a perverted idealism. Those who believe that history is a progressive march toward human perfectibility, and that they have the moral right to force this progress on others, no longer know what it is to be human. In the name of the noblest virtues they sink to the depths of criminality and moral depravity. This self-delusion comes to us in many forms. It can be wrapped in the language of Western civilization, democracy, religion, the master race, Liberté, égalité, fraternité, the worker's paradise, the idyllic agrarian society, the new man or scientific rationalism. The jargon is varied. The dark sentiment is the same.

Conrad understood how Western civilization and technology lend themselves to inhuman exploitation. He had seen in the Congo the barbarity and disdain for human life that resulted from a belief in moral advancement. He knew humankind's violent, primeval lusts. He knew how easily we can all slip into states of extreme depravity. "Man is a cruel animal," he wrote to a friend. "His cruelty must be organized. Society is essentially criminal, - or it wouldn't exist. It is selfishness that saves everything, - absolutely everything, - verything that we abhor, everything that we love."

Conrad rejected all formulas or schemes for the moral improvement of the human condition. Political institutions, he said, "whether contrived by the wisdom of the few or the ignorance of the many, are incapable of securing the happiness of mankind."

Read it all.

To be sure, Hedges has a political axe to grind in his use of Conrad. But that doesn't mean we can safely dispense with Conrad and go on our merry way. Indeed, the basic gist of what Conrad is saying should come as no surprise to Christians who take seriously the doctrines of the Fall and Original Sin (not to mention the doctrine of Total Depravity). The world is a messed up place. Human beings can be (and often are) violent and vicious beyond imagining. And even our most noble efforts to change things on our own steam almost always seem to either fail or set unintended consequences in motion that often bear tragic fruit.

So Christians can offer qualified agreement with Conrad's understanding of human nature. I say "qualified" because as much as Christianity recognizes the cruelty of fallen human nature, it also maintains that what for Conrad is "the irredeemable corruption of humanity" has, in fact, been redeemed in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. (I've written before about the dissonance that holding these two truths together - that the world is still a messed up place and that something decisive has been done about it in Jesus - can and perhaps should cause.)

Reflecting on Conrad's piety of pessimism this close to Christmas may seem odd. What does all of this gloom and doom have to do with the joy and beauty we celebrate in our Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services? Why focus on the negative when it's the season to focus on the positive?

We do well to remember that just a few days after Christmas, on December 28, the Church commemorates the Massacre of the Innocents. So while it may be true that he disdained Christianity, perhaps Conrad would approve.

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