Mistah Kurtz — he dead

“Clear sky this morning. A nice Lake breeze.”

I often think this would make a good column, or rather, a sufficient column to get the Comments going. By the third comment, someone would attack Pope Francis; or Trump, or Obama, or Hillary, or Justin; and we’d be off to the races. (See my venture this morning at Catholic Thing, here.)

Another possible column would be the Conrad epigraph before T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men,” which I now use for my title. Or for that matter, the second epigraph, “A penny for the Old Guy,” might turn readers’ attention to my PayPal link.

To be fair, one may learn a lot from Comments, directly or (more often) indirectly. This morning it was a reference to Dr Paul Kurtz, self-appointed doyen of the Secular Humanists, former perfesser in the State University of New York (about which the less said the better). On checking his entry in the Wicked Paedia, I learn that he died in 2012. This was on the 20th of October, if anyone wants to celebrate it.

Somehow I missed that news, and here we are forty-five moons later, in a world where someone else must be the doyen of the Secular Humanists. But there is another sense in which we may think of all human decease as occurring in a simultaneity of death and resurrection, on the Day of Judgement. In that view, the story remains topical.


The original Mistah Kurtz (in Joseph Conrad’s novella, Heart of Darkness) was an ivory trader, somewhere up the River Congo. As the beuk seems to have been assigned to everyone who attended a North American college through the baby boom, and later, I needn’t reprise the plot. I don’t think Conrad himself ever thought it such an important work. The question of why it was found so significant by the mediocrities in American academia would make the better doctoral thesis, I should think; but then we might stray into sociology, which gives mediocrity a bad name.

When I came to the novella myself, entirely of my own volition — I have 98.6 degrees, but only in Fahrenheit — I was fascinated chiefly by such information as it could provide on the history of the ivory trade. I have always loved ivory, though not always approved the uses to which it is put.

Don’t get me wrong: I have nothing against rhinoceros horn, the casks of hornbills, walrus morse, the ribs of dugongs, narwhal spikes, hippopotamus canines, the dental extensions of wild boars and sperm whales, or any tusks, horns, or antlers. All are suitable materials for art. And I will admit that Plaster of Paris presents the longitudinal lines along which an artist may carve to advantage, although it is inconveniently flammable. But the ivory from elephant tusks is best; and as the Chinese discovered, by the Sung dynasty, the elephants from Central and East Africa concede an ivory more noble even than those of India and South-east Asia.

The colouring is sublime: creamier than the Indian; or from where Mistah Kurtz was harvesting in the jungles, a brown above that of any pigment soil. A rose tint appears from out of the bamboo forests; and as I am given to understand, the tusks from farther west in Africa, which at first glance seem too brightly white again, develop with age chromatic values of engaging subtlety.

The working of ivory takes great skill. The dental enamel must be removed with care, and the obdurate rind sawed through with stiff blades thoughtfully lubricated. The Chinese at Suchou, the Japanese at Nara, found that a complex regime of heating and cooling could be employed to prevent any sort of cracking.

Having no personal experience of this craft, I will not presume further to describe: it is enough to say that elephant ivory makes the finest imaginable scrimshaw, and should be delivered into the hands of the most capable artists as a treasure of great price. Unfortunately, such artists may be as extinct as some magnificent elephant species. (The fossil ivory of mammoths draws our attention to a terrible loss.)

Yet we must not exclude revivals.

It follows that the cultivation of elephants for their tusks (as sheep for their wool, or deer for their hides, or goats for their milk and meat) should itself be conducted with skill and refinement. I am persuaded by some accounts that the poachers who now dominate the trade, thanks to what governments have arbitrarily made illegal, show little propensity to connoisseurship.

Lately I was utterly appalled to read that the Kenyan government is again burning ivory captured from the poachers. The scene was the more ludicrous because ivory does not easily burn. It takes jet oil and a week to reduce one of these ivory pyramids to ashes. It is political theatre that, far from reducing the demand, increases the price of illegal ivory, thus inspiring poachers to ever more heroic efforts against species whose numbers are running low. (The USA authorities now pulverize the ivory instead. On the instigation of the infernal United Nations, most of the countries of this world have now joined in these incomprehensible acts of destruction.)

But there is no room for gloom. The finest of all ivories is yet to be seen. In the face of all the world’s disorder, we must diligently pray, eventually to see it.