When the Penn State child sex abuse scandal rocked not only the college football world, but America as a whole, I could not help but think about Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The thought lingered in my mind for days, and I finally endeavored to re-read the novel. As I scanned the almost sacred words on those hallowed pages, I was not looking for an answer, or a contrast, or an argument. I was simply lost in the powerful themes of the book. In retrospect, however, I returned to my original hypothesis: one can, loosely, compare Heart of Darkness to this disgusting affair.
So... I was inspired to write this after I read Heart of Darkness. Forgive any rambling, if you care to read it. It was written quickly and likely will be revised soon. Enjoy.
At its core, the novel is an examination of man’s propensity for evil, and the limits of human morality. The two main characters, Kurtz and Marlow, represent the various roles of the enablers and the perpetrator himself in the case of Penn State. And the innocent, oppressed people of the Belgian-controlled Congo clearly parallel the boys whose lives were, very likely, destroyed forever because of Sandusky. While these boys were not murdered, in a sense, their dignity was taken away, and unfortunately, that will never be restored. The heinous acts committed in Congolese wilderness, as described in the novella, are beyond comprehension. As I read the disturbing grand jury indictment, I could not help but compare the atrocities committed by the Belgians to the utterly unthinkable acts done by Sandusky. The Congolese, at least in the novella, were victims of a man and a country taking advantage of their ignorance. They were ignorant enough to believe that Kurtz was some sort of deity, and as such, were persecuted. In the grand jury indictment, several of the boys say that they did not understand what was happening, but still felt leery. Their childhood ignorance was used maliciously, in the same way that Kurtz used the Congolese ignorance.
Marlow is the image of an enabler, someone who reluctantly participates in the atrocities. And if he is not a participant, he does not speak out against Kurtz and lacks the courage to stop the acts of violence. One can point to the scene, well into the novella, in which Marlow is talking to a first-class agent about Mr. Kurtz. Here, I suppose, is where the similarities become much more abstract. As Marlow converses with the young fellow, he begins to distort and exaggerate his standing in Europe, although his narration suggests that he is very conflicted when he lies:
“You know I hate, detest, and can't bear a lie, not because I am straighter than the rest of us, but simply because it appalls me. There is a taint of death, a flavour of mortality in lies -- which is exactly what I hate and detest in the world -- what I want to forget. It makes me miserable and sick, like biting something rotten would do. Temperament, I suppose. Well, I went near enough to it by letting the young fool there believe anything he liked to imagine as to my influence in Europe. I became in an instant as much of a pretence as the rest of the bewitched pilgrims.”
Here, we glimpse the sort of mentality that must have influenced Joe Paterno to protect Sandusky. He had the appearance of a good person, a moral man, and perhaps he was before this ordeal. We will never know, of course, whether Joe Paterno was truly a good human being, and whether he would feel remorse about the cover up had he not been caught. This passage is a prime example of how a man is far too quick to renege on his principles, especially when he is under pressure. Paterno was caught in a lie and could not dig his way out, although there were plenty of chances to do so. Marlow does something similar. His values stated a disdain for lying, yet when faced with the opportunity to tell the truth, he gives in to darkness. Paterno certainly could have--or rather, should have--called the authorities, and this passage exhibits man’s weakness when his self-indulgence overrules his natural, inherent obligations.
There were certainly other enablers within Penn State’s hierarchy, and to some degree, Marlow represents all of the guilty men. But Paterno is a man who identifies most with Marlow’s journey. Yet now I feel I should focus on the most guilty man in all of this: Jerry Sandusky. As I mentioned at the beginning, Heart of Darkness is a reflection on the limits of goodness, and how easy it is to give in to one’s darkest tendencies. To preface, I am in no way defending what Sandusky did, but rather, I believe the novella gives a sort of explanation of why he committed his awful crimes. I believe the most powerful and important scene in the story is found towards the end, with Kurtz on his deathbed:
“Anything approaching the change that came over his features I have never seen before, and hope never to see again. Oh, I wasn't touched. I was fascinated. It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw on that ivory face the expression of sombre pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror -- of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision -- he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath: "'The horror! The horror!'”
Of course, based on Sandusky’s hair-raising interview with Bob Costas, it seems that he will never be remorseful, even if he is locked away for the rest of his life. Again, in that, the Penn State scandal strays from the book. Yet, Marlow tries to reason with what Kurtz did, and how he could have surrendered to the darkest part of his heart. Kurtz was a truly horrible character. His acts were unspeakable, and Marlow implies that his expression of guilt is hollow. Essentially, these two characters--one real and one fictional--are the ultimate displays of evil. What drove Kurtz to do what he did? Power, greed? What drove Sandusky to do what he did? Power, and highly immoral sexual feelings? These feelings come from the darkest depths of the human heart, and the two characters demonstrate an inexcusable weakness. At that point in the book, Marlow was not forgiving, but he was fascinated. At this point in time, no one can forgive Sandusky, but perhaps we can examine what could have compelled him to sexually abuse children, however difficult and emotionally draining that examination may be.
I decided to end with another Marlow-Paterno comparison. Of course, when Marlow returns to Europe, he is too stunned and ashamed to tell the truth about Kurtz. Maybe Paterno’s refusal to call the police had to do with the respect he felt for the man, and what the implications of revealing his crimes would be. It is a sorry excuse, certainly, but the psychology of platonic love is complicated, and often inexplicable. I cannot pretend to explain the actions of Sandusky and his enablers, yet I find some answers in Heart of Darkness. Whether these assumptions are true is up to you. Thanks for reading if you bore with me.