As Americans prepare to vote in November, we are encouraged to do what we can to make ourselves more powerful as a nation, even if that means ignoring or trampling on the weak to make our chosen space safer, more pleasant.
There have been many references to German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, in the news lately—perhaps not always directly by name, but indirectly by rhetoric and ideology. In a recent New York Times article “The Theology of Donald Trump,” Peter Wehner discusses the way Trump’s rhetoric sounds more informed by the teaching of Nietzsche than by the teachings of Christ (Christianity being, as of July, the religion Trump attests):
“What Mr. Trump admires is strength. For him, a person’s intrinsic worth is tied to worldly success and above all to power.”
In fact, Trump expresses great disgust for those he considers “weaker” than himself: women, the disabled, immigrants. A large portion of the American public, many self-labeling as Christians, are ingesting and chanting this ideology. But a quest for power in the interests of self-preservation and pleasure is nothing new. It is a tendency within human nature, a mark of deceitfulness in the human heart.
This quest for power has been documented, explored, and interrogated in literature that pushes the nature of the quest to its limits, painting a graphic picture of the insatiable desire to consume. Two novels of prophetic critique come to mind: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. One is a (muddled) nineteenth century critique of the European Imperialist mindset, and the other is a grim late twentieth century satire of the underside of the Wall Street elite; both central antagonists, however, are motivated by the same lust for power, pleasure, and self-preservation.
In Heart of Darkness, the journey down the river with Marlow to find the mysterious, feared, and adored Kurtz is, so to speak, the heart of the novel. But Conrad’s novel intentionally has no heart. We long for it as we attend to Marlow’s journey, hoping to find the answer in the person of Kurtz at the end of the river, but both the reader and Marlow are left wanting because the man, Kurtz, is “hollow to the core.” While listening to Marlow on the deck of a boat going down the Thames, the unnamed narrator tells us that this bard’s yarns are not like those of “other seamen” who tell simple stories, the “whole meaning of which lies within the shell of a cracked nut.” In fact, the only meaning in Marlow’s storytelling is not found at the end of the tale, projecting sense onto all that leads up to it, but in the telling, itself, which might provide us with very hazy snippets of information and, at best, some moments of devastating self-realization.
Traditional narratives are formed around character change, a moment of epiphany and transition, but there is no such moment in this novel. When Marlow meets Kurtz, we see that he, like the story, only causes us to question our own depravity, and provides us no nugget of revelation about the meaning of the story, either. The non-traditional narrative is one of the first true modernist novels and teaches that when one is defined by a lust for power, there is little hope for character change. In the absence of a narrative denouement, there is also the absence of character transformation. And as Conrad is showing us Kurtz’s anti-climactic ending, he forces us to ask if this, too, is our end when our hearts are darkened by the same drive to consume.
We do find out that Kurtz is, if anything, a prototypical consumer. Working for a Belgian company, he’s found a home deep in the Congo only to acquire ivory. Like many involved in similar colonialist projects, he sees the Africans around him simply as cogs in his imperialist machine. His quest to, as he says, “exterminate all the brutes” because he has the strength, rhetorical skills, and brilliance to do so is almost completely justified by much of the (very disturbing) Social Darwinist ideology of the time (a toxic combination of the ideas of Nietzsche and Darwin).
But Kurtz goes beyond using the local people as tools and commodities; their awe of his power and brilliance propels them to set him up as a god to be worshiped. He naturally concedes. Marlow tells us that “everything belonged to him … [that he would speak of his] intended, [his] ivory, [his] river.” Kurtz’s lust to consume is never satisfied; interestingly, he is physically emaciated and weak when Marlow finds him. This visual depiction is a profound indication of his hollow spiritual state, a picture of one who can consume while getting less nourished, never recognizing his own illness. Many of Conrad’s insights hold complex theological resonances, including this poignant image of an inner vacuum that, as Pascal would argue, can only be filled with the infinite but is continually stuffed with finite things that never provide such fullness.
Marlow tells us that “all of Europe” went into the making of Kurtz. He is Imperialism. He is the Nietzschean Overman. He is the ultimate consumer, a philosophical materialist — the logical conclusion of a Western mindset that is driven by progress and efficiency at all costs.
And Kurtz is just not a shadowy figure from our distant literary past. Bret Easton Ellis’s novel, American Psycho, is about many of the same values (or the negation of all values in the name of self serving consumption). Patrick Bateman, the novel’s central character, is an acquisitions specialist on Wall Street. Like Kurtz, he is in the business of taking. Everything is an object to be consumed, including people.
Also like Kurtz, Bateman—a young, attractive yuppie with a large inheritance—constantly wants more. His desires are never satiated. These desires become ever more dehumanizing and cruel as Bateman lives the double life of a venture capitalist and serial killer. Ellis clearly makes the point that this connection, like the connections between Kurtz’s cruelty and his Imperialist project, are not incidental. Bateman is the logical result of the American religion of consumption, the worship of greed and pleasure, the desire for progress and efficiency at all costs.
I will spare you the gory details, but both Bateman and Kurtz enjoy the lustful power they experience when they maim and kill others; Kurtz puts heads on stakes to decorate his compound, while Bateman keeps them in his refrigerator. They are trophies of power, reminders of the sick thrill of playing God. At one point in American Psycho, Batemen tells us that “there are no more barriers to cross,” words that could also be one of Marlow’s many descriptions of Kurtz.
But my main interest in the comparisons between these two sinister literary figures is that their existence is a metaphor for the logical result of worship at the altar of consumption-driven modernity. Kurtz and Bateman never progress as characters; their cruel hedonism is a supposed benefit of their wealth and power. And as they dehumanize others, they become less human themselves.
There is something deeply moral in the depiction of both of these characters, a reminder that Nietzsche’s Overman, who desires “not contentment but more power…not virtue but efficiency” will end up imploding, only after destroying anyone who challenges his delusional authority. Although set in our glossy, contemporary context, these are age-old questions about human nature’s heartbreaking tendency to seek power, destroy, and devolve. Characters like these experience no character change, no epiphany, no real “story” in the traditional sense. Both can be seen as poignant and prophetic warnings of the dangers of consumption, objectification, materialism—critiques of the dark corners of the supposedly progressive, efficient Western mindset.