The Modern Heart of Darkness
We sat on the rock that overlooked the mountain stream that lead down to the waterfall our companions were risking their lives to find.
As the tropical rain lashed down, our clothes soaked and sodden, I tried to gather my composure, smoking the cigarette that had been passed to me by friend, sharing it like two soldiers who had seen too much.
I attempted to understand what had compelled them to cross this stream, our River Styx, to brave the narrow, muddy, winding path that was deteriorating second by second.
Why had even the more cautious members of the group, now nowhere to be seen, joined this race into hell where we turned back? We had sensed the ground becoming more treacherous, less secure, and we knew that one slip would result in death.
Indeed, one of the group did slip. He was only saved by his own quick reactions, grabbing on to some creepers growing out of the mountainside, and the fact that the others rushed to haul him up as he dangled above the drop.
This experience, in a remote northern province of Vietnam, is just one example of the total collapse of rational decision-making in the minds of Western travellers that seems to take place when we relocate to an unfamiliar, often tropical, setting in the developing world.
As far as examples go, my experience is pretty vanilla.
I believe that erratic, out-of-character behaviour on the part of Westerners share a common thread, one that has existed for as long as we have stepped out of our comfortable, developed, ‘civilised’ settings: the Heart of Darkness.
Joseph Conrad’s novel explored the process whereby the thin veneer of Western civilisation and rationality slips when we cross into the (post)colonial world.
The Heart of Darkness is, rather than a place such as the Congo, Vietnam or Indonesia, the heart of the Westerner, who loses all inhibition when outside the set of rules that normally governs their behaviour.
The dark heart in sex tourists who take local mistresses despite vast differences in culture, and often age.
The dark heart in an American woman who screams at a Vietnamese street vendor for getting her order wrong.
The dark heart in an Australian man brutally and randomly kicking an innocent Indonesian man off his scooter as if he were a traffic cone.
Something in the psyche shifts when we are removed from the clean, urbanised, safe world in which we live.
In her book, Origins of Totalitarianism, the German-American philosopher Hannah Arendt refers to a ‘play of shadows’, in which Western colonisers, regardless of social class, justified committing atrocities against the ‘phantom-like’ native population on account of their status as members of the dominant race outside all social restraint.
While the racism has become less overt, it still persists. And, when combined with the arrogant feeling of cultural superiority, as well as the fact that we have more money and can speak English, its easy to see why interacting with the locals can still feel like a play of shadows with little consequence.
It would be a dilemma for the guy sitting at a table in a seedy bar in Hanoi with a young Vietnamese girl on each arm if they were able to talk to him about school, boys they liked, or their favourite TikTok video in fluent English.
The ethics concerning buying cocaine in Colombia become a lot more apparent when you hear first hand about kidnappings and roadside executions in the dead of night.
Genocide and slavery are no longer the atrocities of choice - we have adapted to the times, employing more subtle, more surreptitious forms of cruelty.
They all rely on us perceiving our hosts as less than us. How else could we justify the misery wrought on people by the way we behave and by the trades we finance through our buying power?
Communication is important, and the ability to converse in the same language betrays our lived experiences, hopes, dreams and fears.
Exploiting someone is much more difficult when empathy is heightened through the ability to share these things.
The simple act of making eye contact, saying some poorly pronounced words, and sharing a smile.
That is the antidote to the play of shadows - making connections, establishing rapports and acknowledging the awkward irony of belonging to one species with 7,000 different systems of communication.
We all go abroad to let go of something, whether it is stress, sobriety or cynicism. When this period of isolation and repression comes to an end, the temptation will be to let go in an unprecedented manner.
At that golden juncture, let’s prove to ourselves, and to the people kind enough to accommodate our frivolous escapades in their countries, that we are capable of rational thought and common decency, and begin to bring to an end a sordid tradition of Western cruelty and exploitation, and condemning the Heart of Darkness to the annals of history and the pages of literature.
- Gabriel Speechly