An Ode to Conrad, Dostoevsky and the Poets.
I went to a poetry reading. One of the poems that I had particularly liked was the poem entitled “Unchained”. The poem bore no relationship to the song and or any literature I had previously read. However it conjoined other fatuous phrases of yesteryear and It linked The Heart of Darkness and the Gambler in a unique overlay. Distinctly chained and unchained, coupled and uncoupled a literary slight of hand that is poetry. Two distinct but similar virtues defined through greed and lust. Two of the seven deadly sins which pockmark the characters in whom we lay our vested interests.
The one line that stood out the most to me in the poem was “Like a game of cat and mouse, catch, catch me if you can. I no longer feel restraint, yet I am no longer a free man.” Which I thought related back to Freedom. And also freedom within two characters, as Kurtz and Alexi.
The first character would be Kurtz, courtesy of Conrad, from the Heart of Darkness. Kurtz is a man who was particularly free. He had a white collar job. He came to Africa at the height of the ivory trade, to make his riches like many people in that period. But something had changed and he decided to stay and live amongst the people, and become like this god like figure to them. The other character in the book Marlow, was lured to Africa to search for Kurtz, so Marlow would almost be like the cat in the poem and Kurtz the mouse.
Kurtz, was free, and he lavishly lived out his own rules in Africa. He had all the power he could essentially want. But yet there is some inner darkness and he isn’t all too happy with this freedom. So even though a man with all this supposed power and freedom wasn’t really free at all. He chained himself in without even acknowledging it, till the end of the book. The chains were the realized horrors he had witnessed or even caused. Kurtz pretty much restrained himself in to his own made up Dantesque world. Karma is known for being insidiously bitchy.
The second character is Alexei from the Gambler. Here is a man who lives by the thrill of gambling, and is pretty much restrained by his own addiction. To me he really isn’t experiencing any sort of freedom. He wins everything but in the end he loses his relationships, well his relationships were never good to begin with.
Alexei is playing a game of cat and mouse at the roulette tables. Trying to win big for Polina, so he can prove his so called love to her. But he is also restrained by this effect she has over him. He claims he would kill someone if she told him to do it. So from this, on the surface he would look like someone with all these freedoms, spending his money on gambling and living the life, La Dolce Vita. But in the end he is restrained with darkness as well, by his obsession with Polina and the thrill of gambling. Addiction is the Champs Elsyee, the proverbial Elysian Fields.
Refrain redoux, “Like a game of cat and mouse, catch, catch me if you can. I no longer feel restraint, yet I am no longer a free man.”
I thought that this was an interesting, freedom as a game, yet these two characters Kurtz and Alexi were caught up in the game of life. Kurtz’s figure was very dark and reminded me a lot of a poem by John Keats, Addressed to Haydon, demonstrates a closer fit to Kurtz’s character and the Kurtz-Marlow association is more of a schism in the author, Joseph Conrad.
Conrad was a British colonial searching for a balance between what he thought was right and proper as in British, as Marlow in contrast to the darker forces in Africa that savagery, murder madness vs. genius conundrum that was Kurtz, but really I thought that Conrad was caught up in a more spiritual debate as reflected in “Addressed to Haydon”. Conrad in no doubt was influenced by Keats as Kurtz was as tortured a man as Haydon. This poem was a tribute to three of Keats’ heroes: Wordsworth, Hunt, and the painter, Benjamin Haydon. The Triumvirate emerges as CONRAD – MARLOW- KURTZ.
So his, the maestro’s poem I will quote and discuss may be a better match to the Cat and Mouse game in this darker sense. Keats knew the game only too well.
Great spirits now on earth are sojourning;
Wordsworth, Hunt and Haydon are sleeping or death is the great sleep. Kurtz finally slept/ died. And for reasons, I don’t agree with he was considered a Great Spirit.
He of the cloud, the cataract, the lake,
Who of the Helvellyn’s summit, wide awake,
Haydon painted Helvellyn’s summit, the lake and the clouds. Helvellyn’s is in Britain’s Lake District. The Congo is the Heart in the Darkness of Africa. Both are famous bodies of ‘Dark”water.
Catches his freshness from Archangel’s wing:
A spiritual reference- to perhaps a wing and a prayer.
In some ways this may refer to Haydon himself, a deeply troubled man who committed brutal suicide.
Where as Kurtz never seem to reflect on the lighter side of life. There was no freshness, no angels – just a darkness.
He of the rose, the violet, the spring,
The Violet and the Spring. Refer to a time of year where Roses and violets would be in bloom. A british reference to their love of gardens. The darkness was also a theme – to reflect the African foest and Mangrove, the complete opposite of the Rose and the Violet.
The social smile, the chain of Freedom’s sake:
And lo! – whose steadfastness would never take
A meaner sound than Raphael’s whispering.
Haydon was self-willed to perversity, associated with so much vehemence and passion. His suicides was brutal, he shot himself and then cut his own throat. He prayed with fervor as witnessed by the many short prayers interspersed in his autobiography. There was always a dark spirit in reference to The Heart of darkness, of savagery, doom and gloom and madness.
A meaner sound – both Hayden and Kurtz demons were very active and we know that Kurtz’s last words were. Oh the Horror ! A meaner sound than Raphael’s whispering.
And other spirits there are standing apart
Upon the forhead of the age to come;
Kurtz cried out Oh the Horror, the Horror, perhaps in reference to the spirits that came for him. Kurtz dies as he lived violent and in despair much as Haydon did.
These, these will give the world another heart,
And other pulses. Hear ye not the hum
Of mighty workings? –
Again, the Heart is referenced, is The Heart, The Heart of Darkness? Also Disease, illness, Despair?
Others would be born (the world would have another Heart)
And the heart beats with a pulse and a hum, of mighty workings, within all is the Almighty workings of God.
The Heart of Darkness had similar themes. The Darkness of Africa, the people, The Congo and always a sense that Marlow/ Kurtz were having a discussion through the parable of life and to God. And the river the Congo was the lifeblood leading to and flowing from the Heart.
Listen awhile ye nations, and be dumb. Pay heed to those who pass on and be SILENT!
In the end Marlow, was silent about the way Kurtz died, he let other believe as they will. So he was silent. And he let, the nations, or people think what they would. Also a sign of respect to the dead. a moment of Silence.
“The one line that stood out the most to me in the poem was “Like a game of cat and mouse, catch, catch me if you can. I no longer feel restraint, yet I am no longer a free man.”
Alexei is playing a game of cat and mouse at the roulette tables. Trying to win big for Polina, so he can prove his so called love to her. But he is also restrained by this effect she has over him. He claims he would kill someone if she told him to do it. So from this, on the surface he would look like someone with all these freedoms, spending his money on gambling and living the life. But in the end he is restrained with almost a darkness as well, by his obsession with Polina and the thrill of gambling.
Alexi was caught up in a Cat and mouse game with Polina. But Polina was more of the Cat playing with Alexi. For Alexi to survive in that Dostoevskyian world he had to figure out the rules of the game, from not just roulette, but who and what were the Cat and mouse going to be through all these characters. I love this scene, where the “cat’ was out of the Bag, so to speak. Alexi and Polina share confidences.
A- “All of you are on the tiptoe of expectation? ” I queried.
P- “Of course–all of us, and every minute of the day. For a year-and-a-half now we have been looking for this.”
A-“Looking for it?”
P-“Yes, looking for it. I am not her blood relation, you know–I am merely the General’s step-daughter. Yet I am certain that the old lady has remembered me in her will.”
A-“Yes, I believe that you will come in for a good deal,” I said with some assurance.”
P-Yes, for she is fond of me. But how come you to think so?”
The game is on. The Rich – “Grandmother” is dying and Polina is playing the Cat but is also the mouse caught in the game. They all think that they wil inherit upon the grandmothers death. Except, she is not dying.
Alexei Ivanovich, is a tutor working for a Russian family living in a suite at a German hotel. The patriarch of the family, The General, is indebted to the Frenchman De Grieux and has mortgaged his property in Russia to pay only a small amount of his debt. Upon learning of the illness of his wealthy aunt, “Grandmother”, he sends streams of telegrams to Moscow and awaits the news of her demise. His expected inheritance will pay his debts and gain Mademoiselle De Cominges’s hand in marriage.
So, The Cat and Mouse Game is reflected in many ways in this story of the gambler. It just depended on which page the Cat would play with what Mouse and vice versa.
Deception is the name of the Cat and Mouse game. What a tangled web we weave when we first practice to deceive. Round and round we go, where do we stop nobody knows. The Cat and the Mouse are interchangeable. And the Game is life. I guess in all of these themes we are Gambling at life. Kurtz, gambled with his life for Ivory, Alexi for love and money. And I as well. The message here is clear to me, the underlying affliction this darkness and destruction and its mastering of literature and the arts, I claim these artistic licences in the name of Treponema Pallidum and those that know it well, conceived with, infected with it, write of it and its many guises, but ultimately death, destruction and suicide are its calling cards.
By Cristoph De Caermichael
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