‘All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz.’
– Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, 1902
This notorious statement, from near the end of Conrad’s famous novella, still resonates to this day. Although the reality and idea of Europe is fairly credited with the absence of an all-out European war in our time, what tends to be forgotten in the evocation of Europe as bastion of freedom, culture and civilisation, is the darker history of its own colonial violence whose afterlife, its legacy of global inequality, is playing its part in the migration crisis that has fuelled – or has served to fuel – Brexit. In Conrad’s story, Kurtz is the emissary of that colonial vision. Commissioned to write a report on the suppression of ‘savage’ customs, he is living deep in the Belgian Congo, where the narrator discovers him in the clutches of jungle frenzy, his outpost surrounded by stakes topped with the dried severed heads of murdered natives. He has gone mad, we are told, but in this extraordinary statement the narrator implies that his insanity, far from being the infectious madness of the ‘uncivilised’, has grown out of the very heart of European civilisation itself. Back in England, the narrator hands Kurtz’s report over to the Company official, but tears off its postscript: ‘Exterminate all the brutes!’ Conrad could not have foreseen the genocide that would sweep across Europe in the midst of the century ushered in by his novella. Any more than he could have predicted the flight of migrants from the exploited reaches of the earth, which is today pushing parts of Europe, and not only Europe, into the hands of the far right. But, Conrad’s story suggests, we will get nowhere in understanding the present crisis unless we, as Europeans, are willing to look into the dark heart of ourselves.