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“The Horror!”: Conrad, Jesus, and Solitude

I’m nearly two years late on this it seems, but yesterday I came across a lecture delivered by William Deresiewicz to the plebe class at West Point. In that address, Dereseiwicz draws heavily on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to make a case for solitude as a necessity for true leadership. He argues against the hoop-jumping that makes up most Ivy Leaguers’ and other high achievers’ paths to influence and accomplishment. Instead of dozen or more extracurricular activities both in and out of school, he suggests that good decision making, a fairly important talent for soon-to-be military officers, will come more from a singular focus and time to commune with oneself. The lecture points out that the time to prepare for those difficult decisions does not come in the moment of crisis but in the education years.

How can you know that unless you’ve taken counsel with yourself in solitude? I started by noting that solitude and leadership would seem to be contradictory things. But it seems to me that solitude is the very essence of leadership. The position of the leader is ultimately an intensely solitary, even intensely lonely one. However many people you may consult, you are the one who has to make the hard decisions. And at such moments, all you really have is yourself.

If you know Conrad’s novel or the film adaptation Apocalypse Now, you probably wonder about the wisdom of this argument. After all, the most isolated character in the book is the apparently mad Kurtz, Marlon Brando in the movie. While I wouldn’t aspire to the career accomplishments of Kurtz–“The horror, the horror”–his life is probably no more ghastly, and certainly more self aware, than the respectable lives that lurk in the darkness of London as Marlow begins his story.

It’s no wonder, I think that Jesus lives a life that features solitude and solitary work. That the patient fishermen, mending their nets on the Sea of Galilee, respond more freely to Christ than do the constantly compromised, constantly interrupted Pharisees should not come as a surprise. The assumption that Jesus learned at least some of his father’s trade as a carpenter again leads us back to the sort of solitude and focus that Dereseiwicz champions.

While his use of Conrad’s book might be less than spot-on, the argument that Dereseiwicz forwards is worth the read.

Posted in Commentary, English Literature, Modernism.

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