Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Heart of Darkness-Understanding the Men Inside the Helmet.

In Notes From Underground, the classic short novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, we are introduced to the lead character with this complicated, yet simple statement “I AM A SICK MAN.... I am a spiteful man.”

Far too often, we as fans, our media counterparts and sometimes even the men in positions of power over the athletes we cheer feel as if we have some easy understanding of proper discipline based on our own interpretation of right and wrong. Most of the time, though, we are simply wrong.

As Dostoyevsky teaches us in his masterpiece of existentialism, things are not as they might appear to us. Deep inside their souls and minds, many men, be they twenty or forty believe themselves diseased and unattractive. Men, in their most raw state “know better than anyone that by all this I am only injuring myself and no one else. But still, if I don't consult a doctor it is from spite.”

Yet, there we are as fans, making judgments about the actions of men as if we are somehow affected by their choices. Certainly there is the potential for these bad choices to cause damage and despair if the worst possible consequences of their choices are realized. But that is a life of fantasy dread most of the time. In reality, when actions by young men like Kiko Alonso and Cliff Harris might have potentially caused great harm to others, they did not. The actions injured no one but themselves.

“It was not only that I could not become spiteful, I did not know how to become anything; neither spiteful nor kind, neither a rascal nor an honest man, neither a hero nor an insect. Now, I am living out my life in my corner, taunting myself with the spiteful and useless consolation that an intelligent man cannot become anything seriously, and it is only the fool who becomes anything. Yes, a man in the nineteenth century must and morally ought to be pre-eminently a characterless creature; a man of character, an active man is pre-eminently a limited creature.”

This is the struggle of everyman; a struggle to find his own identity. For some, this struggle is too much to bear and too difficult to comprehend and they lapse into forms of escape. At issue for this Underground Man is his conflicted feelings of his desires and his virtue. The Underground Man knows revenge to lack virtue, yet still feels compelled to make revenge. The incompatibility of his feelings and his knowledge lead to spite and spite towards the act itself with its incidental circumstances. This man believes he is not the only one to feel this way, yet is so focused on how own spitefulness that he purposely avoids that problem with which he is concerned.

Is it our duty, then, to simply acknowledge the problem of young men making choices to avoid coming to grips with their own underground selves? Or, is it more our duty as members of the same society to recognize their self-destruction is not about carelessness, but about their own internal struggle to become the man they want to be while still struggling with the way they feel inside.

The dilemma, here, is that Cliff Harris and Kiko Alonso cannot be lumped into a simple category. Cliff was raised in much less than ideal circumstances; it becomes easy to simply say “he did not know better” and slough it off as a mistake. Kiko, on the other hand, was raised in a very affluent neighborhood with all of the apparent amenities. Yet, there he is, struggling with the same inner demons so many of us struggle. There is no easy solution.

The first part of Notes From Underground gives an unpleasant critique of the philosophical concept of determinism, the general philosophical thesis that states that for everything that happens there are conditions such that, given them, nothing else could happen. Dostoyevsky believes this to be fallacy. In fact, he goes on to paint the portrait that despite our attempts to create some earthly Utopia, we cannot avoid the basic fact that anyone at any time can decide to act in a way which might not be considered good, and some will do so simply to validate their existence and to protest and confirm that they exist as individuals.

Certainly this theory cannot excuse the incredibly selfish actions of young men still struggling with their own identity and duality. Yes, I think we can see that, in Dostoyevsky's world, these actions were most certainly done as selfish acts. Not intentional in the same way which we choose to brush our teeth, but Harris and Alonso were selfish in their desire to validate their own existence through actions which are not considered good. 

Good, in the general sense is subjective. Specifically, the good that is approached with derision is the concept of egoism (enlightened self interest). The protagonist of Notes From Underground despises with all of his heart and soul this position of selfishness represented as logical and valid. Yet, in truth, by acting out in his own way to prove his own existence, he has acted selfishly. Though it is not rational self-interest with which he acts, it is still in his own interests that he chooses to do bad things to validate his existence.

Somewhere in the hearts and minds of many young men, there is a Heart of Darkness. Though the original novel by Joseph Conrad deals more specifically with his trips into the heart of Congo near the turn of the 20th Century, there is yet some element of this Heart of Darkness that lives within us all. The book begins by meditating on how Britain's obscure image among Ancient Roman officials must have been similar to Africa's image among 19th-century European officials. I wonder if this is how future society will look back upon our days. As we cheer for players embedded in armor seemingly invincible to physical pain, do we not see their human frailty? Do we not understand the difficulty with which these men, supremely physically gifted, face a life of uncertainty? After all, they are rewarded for playing a sport that creates extensive physical contact, yet are also expected to expand their mind at a rate faster than others. We ask them to be mentally “more mature” then other young men their own age, simply because they have matured physically.

When Marlow, the lead character of Heart of Darkness, arrives in Africa, he discovers the other white men to be shallow and untrustworthy; he does not really like them and feels one is like “papier mache.” As the story progresses, Marlow comes to know of another agent within the British trading company for whom he works, a man named Kurtz. One night Marlow happens upon Kurtz, obviously near death. As Marlow comes closer with a candle, Kurtz seems to experience a "supreme moment of complete knowledge" and speaks his last words: "The horror! The horror!"

This, friends, might have so many meanings. While most writers will simply call out young men and demand long-term harsh punishments, far too few of them, well versed in literature will ruminate back to their own youthful days and their deeper understandings of human frailty. Can we not imagine any football player thinking to himself at night “The horror! The horror!”? Certainly we must be able to conjure up such an image in our brains.

The Underground Man continues on, always seeming to undermine his own happiness out of paranoia. In the second part, the underground man, lying silently with a woman named Liza confronts her with an image of her future. At first, she is not daunted by the picture he paints. Eventually, though, Liza realizes the plight of her position and how she will slowly become useless and will descend more and more, until she is no longer wanted by anyone. The thought of dying such a terribly disgraceful death brings her to realize her position, and she then finds herself enthralled by the underground man’s seemingly poignant grasp of society’s ills. Sadly, though, his position is no better. He is seeking to find himself by ridiculing others; he believes himself to be cursing others when he is truly only causing more pain to himself. As he eventually pushes away the one woman who attempted top care for him.
After she leaves, he attempts to stop the pain in his heart by "fantasizing",

"And isn't it better, won't it be better?...Insult — after all, it's a purification; it's the most caustic, painful consciousness! Only tomorrow I would have defiled her soul and wearied her heart. But now the insult will never ever die within her, and however repulsive the filth that awaits her, the insult will elevate her, it will cleanse her..." He recalls this moment as making him unhappy whenever he thinks of it, yet again proving the fact from the first section that his spite for society and his inability to act like it makes him unable to act better than it."

This is something so many people do to their own lives. We call it sabotaging their lives. It is a struggle all humanity must deal with on their own terms. For writers and pontificates to assume to know better how to handle our own real life, non-fictional underground men is not only arrogant, it is criminal. It is not the writers of the world that dictate what is right for any individual. In the end, the only one who can determine their future course is that individual. In a society of rules, we must understand that each of us, with our own unique identity, must be treated and handled uniquely.

Society has rules for a reason. No one debates this concept. There must be consequences for a violation of rules. However, once society has ruled via the justice system, writers and fans of opposing institutions do not get to make addendum's to those rules; they do not get to determine additional punishment that might be meted out by the institution responsible for the young, underground men. No, that responsibility belongs within the institution. This thought that you are teaching others a lesson and keeping them in shape is downright ludicrous. Ask yourself why the state with the highest rate of executions does not have the lowest rate of murder? Because harsh penalties do not act as a deterrent. You cannot treat a problem through fear.
Yes, at some point, there must be a point of no return for each individual. That is for the institution to decide, not the outsiders. If we allow outsiders to determine the course of the future, well, let us just say that it will end similar to Heart of Darkness.

“Marlow ceased, and sat apart, indistinct and silent, in the pose of a meditating Buddha. Nobody moved for a time. "We have lost the first of the ebb," said the Director suddenly. I raised my head. The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky--seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.”

Let us not lead our young men into the heart of an immense darkness.

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