Senator Obama’s pre-emptive election victory tour through Europe has inspired a variety of comparisons, ranging from General Eisenhower’s post-war ticker-tape procession in New York City to Bill and Ted’s excellent adventures through time. Another analogy, one not cited yet (to my knowledge) in the gushing reviews of the senator’s voyage, can be found in a fictional quest based on an actual journey that took place near the end of the 19th century. The traveler was Joseph Conrad; the account of his expedition is Heart of Darkness.
This stunning novella never ceases to fascinate. Since its appearance in 1899, critics have mined the book’s passages for Conrad’s insights about European imperialism, gender relations, African customs, Victorian prejudices, racism, and most importantly, human nature. The plot outline is sparse and familiar: the narrator, Marlow, heads an expedition to the Inner Station up the Congo River to meet a certain Mr. Kurtz, a company official accused of practicing “unsound methods.” He is eventually greeted by Kurtz’s assistant, a loquacious sycophant who insisted, “you can’t judge Kurtz as you would an ordinary man.” Marlow commented on this point by saying that “he forgot I hadn’t heard any of these splendid monologues on, what was it? On love, justice, conduct of life—or whatnot.” In fact, Kurtz’s views mattered little to Marlow—mutterings of a madman, as far as he was concerned.
However, what did matter was the voice. In Marlow’s words: “The point was in his [Kurtz’s] being a gifted creature and that of all his gifts the one that stood out preeminently, that carried with it a sense of real presence, was his ability to talk, his words—the gift of expression, the bewildering, the illuminating, the most exalted and the most contemptible, the pulsating stream of light or the deceitful flow from the heart of an impenetrable darkness.” In short, before radio, before television, before talk shows, before a world suffused with and often smothered by public relations blather, there was Kurtz.
And now we have Obama. Certainly, he is not Kurtz. This attractive, likable, and voluble young politician may be many things, but he is not evil, he is not Kurtz. What is he, then? The senator’s July 24 Berlin speech offers some clues. After deigning to his congregants with pieties about shared destinies and melting icecaps, the senator launched into renditions of tearing down walls that divide our “common humanity”—between “races and tribes, natives and immigrants, Christians and Muslims and Jews.” More than that, renewed commitment to a world without nuclear weapons calls for shared sacrifices and, more specifically, “sending a direct message to Iran that it must abandon its nuclear ambitions.” End the “scourge of AIDS in our time,” support human rights in Burma, the bloggers in Iran, the voters in Zimbabwe, because “this is our moment, this is our time,” and “our aspirations are bigger than anything that drives us apart.”
A splendid speech in every way—articulate, inspirational, even heartwarming, and it was received as such by the throng of enthusiastic Berliners who witnessed it firsthand, as well as the millions who listened and watched the senator perform. The address was also meaningless. It was filled with allusions to “love, justice, conduct of life—or whatnot” given by a man whose admirers insist cannot be judged “as you would an ordinary man.” That is the problem with Senator Barack Obama: not that he is Kurtz, but rather a sort of Kurtz-lite, espousing verbiage that cannot possibly be taken seriously by any audience familiar with the realities of life. That is why Obama appeals to the young, the naïve, to those who are insulated from the bracing effects of a world of doers and consequences, and those who for two generations have lived in the verbal culture of a land under American military protection. Like the natives near the Inner Station, they adore their Mr. Kurtz. The media may be likened to Kurtz’s babbling toady: shallow, impressionable, ultimately cowardly, ready to flee if personally threatened, which is what happened in Conrad’s novel.
The danger of all this is not that the senator’s supporters will ultimately face what the fictional Kurtz did, eliciting his famous words, “The horror! The horror!” Rather, the danger is that Americans too late will arrive at Marlow’s conclusion, which was that Kurtz was “very little more than a voice.” Worse than that, “he was hollow to the core.” A journey into the 21st century led by such a person is likely to produce more catastrophes than even Joseph Conrad could imagine.