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Society’s Expectations of Evilness
A main talking point that we have had in class recently about the actions of Kurtz in the Congo as a murderer and how he portrays himself as a god-like figure to the Africans has brought up the nature of one knowing they are undoubtedly evil. I thought that the point made that evil is a word that does not hold as much vivid description compared to more specific terms such as ignorance or apathy. I think that this shows how the purpose of the word evil is for it to be all encompassing and irrefutable in practice. However, this connotation also makes the definition of the word “evil” rather ambiguous and subjective based on society’s expectations of it. It seems strange on the surface to think about how society’s expectations can lead to a completely different concept being signified by a word such as “evil.” Therefore, what is the true nature of evil within this novel? Is the only moral compass we abide to within the expectations that society places upon us? I know that we would all like to think that we have some form of internal moral compass, but has this, too been conditioned into us by the expectations of civilization? In my opinion, I don’t think that any of us would be able to determine what we would do if we were faced with a situation that was even somewhat comparable to that of Kurtz or Marlow. Does my acknowledge of this fact at some level make me evil as well?
I agree that there really isn't one definition of evil. It's such a subjective concept, one thing can be evil to someone while to another it may be fine. I started to think about things that would be considered evil in Heart of Darkness. There's selfishness, greed, loss of self restraint, etc. in regards to Kurtz and African imperialism as a whole. Are these things evil or something else entirely? One could say that these things are the "darkness" or the "horrors" described in the book, but that brings up more questions. Is "darkness" synonymous with "evil"? Is something described as a "horror" evil? I know Chisnell says that synonyms don't exist but do you guys think these words are essentially the same or do they express different concepts?
I think the fact that evil has so many definitions and different ways that it can be applied allows for the word itself to lose its significance. "Evil" has turned into a less common, but just as ineffective, "bad". Evil can be used to describe someone who has malicious intentions or actions, but stating behavior this way makes for a much more appealing story than blankly saying that someone is "evil". Bad and evil have become somewhat synonymous as well, which is never something to be excited about. Words are different because of the different meanings they bring to sentences and stories, so the fact that the opposite of good is now "bad" and "evil" is disappointing to say the least.
Something I noticed while considering Kurtz is the relativity of "evil" or even just "bad". Kurtz obviously saw himself as doing the right thing, and the Russian said that typical moral standards didn't apply to him. The Africans in the Congo saw Kurtz as evil, but the people he worked with didn't judge him by the same standards. In addition to that, he was treating them much better than he was treating the Africans. To both sets of people, he was seen in drastically different lights, appearing evil to one. Furthermore, Kurtz's intended viewed him as almost incapable of doing any wrong. She was eager to believe that everyone Kurtz met loved him, and Marlow was almost shocked by her perception of him. It seems almost as if Kurtz presented different versions of himself to different groups of people. Is it possible for some of these versions to be evil and others to be good? Can we separate the bad from the good, or if part of Kurtz is evil does that make all of him evil?
Recently whenever I read or hear someone call someone else evil in a book or TV show or whatever else it makes me cringe a little. I feel like just classifying someone as evil doesn't make any effort to understand that person and why they do the things they do. Calling someone evil, in my opinion, is a quick judgement for when you don't even want to try to understands someone else's motivations for actions you don't agree with.
Honestly not sure when I last used the word evil in every day conversation, so I am feeling dated. Words with a heavier signification like sinister or evil, only ever occur in my thoughts and never make it out through my mouth. I guess I am almost scared of the words my self. Even If I describe HOD to someone unfamiliar, Kurtz is lightly placed as just "bad". Maybe I either dont want to seriously associate with words like evil, or society has simply moved past heavier connotations. Everything is just 'bad'.
Evil is an extremely nonspecific word that I find is thrown around way too often. In our real world, we have democrats calling the president evil, republicans calling democrats evil, some people calling the Chinese evil for "spreading the virus", etc etc. But we never view ourselves as evil. Everyone sees the world through different lenses; Hitler must have thought he was a good person, as for Kim Jong-Un, Darth Vader, etc. It just depends whose morals we view them through.
I agree with all of these points, and I'd like to add one or two others specific to Heart of Darkness.
To my thinking, "evil," uttered in Western civilization, inevitably carries some Judeo-Christian connotation, so there is a heavy load on this term that we so blithely or glibly drop about. This casualness of its use, therefore, strikes me as intensely problematic, invariably inaccurate, and therefore a falseness to most any description of social action. I'm not saying that we can't call Hitler's choices evil, but notice how extreme we have to go to reach that level of label. To call the unnatural orange dust on a cheese doodle "evil" only cheapens language.
But this is one of the activities of civilization: to create claims about the world which are inherently lies: chocolate is innocent fun, we need a new iPhone every two years, only bad people do drugs, etc. All of these acts of language carry judgment, even moral claims.
So for Kurtz, every label is problematic. He is "apart from" civilization, not "a part of" it. He has separated himself so that the violent acts committed carry no judgment, at least in principle. The Russian says that "you can't judge Kurtz as you would an ordinary man." Marlow calls him "remarkable," which, if you break it down, simply means that he is worthy of notice (the most nonjudgmental of words). He has separated himself from the binary judgments of good/evil that lay on top of our behaviors. (Remember that society/syphilization is a superstructure; its sub-stance is the wild nature, so yes, Hannah, you are evil in society, just doing things while outside of it.) When the Manager claims that Kurtz's "method is unsound," Marlow corrects him to say that it is "no method at all." At every turn, Conrad works to avoid labels of judgment.
It does not follow, though, that Kurtz has not himself carried these labels psychologically into the jungle; nor that he doesn't at some level even desire them (he has turned the heads to face his own hut). He dies in horror, but what horror is possible without the moral terror motivates it?
@mereprevo I completely agree. I also find that the word evil is used very often, not just by politicians trying to make the other party look bad, but by the general population as well. My step brother called my other stepbrother evil yesterday for eating a piece of popcorn from his bowl while he wasn't looking. The word "Evil" seems to be less about an extreme and more of a description of something one doesn't like. This reminds me a little of some religions popular in the western world such as christianity calling those who follow Islam evil in general. rather than calling terrorists evil, they group the whole religion together with it which isn't correct since many many many people who are muslims disagree with the terrorists people recognize.
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