Vox clamantis in deserto

And the Spirit immediately drove him into the wilderness.  He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

The wilderness … had taken him, loved him, embraced him got into his veins, consumed his flesh, and sealed his soul to its own by the inconceivable ceremonies of some devilish initiation.

These contrasting passages describe two human beings being tested in the wilderness.  In the first extract, taken from the Prologue to Mark’s Gospel, Jesus, ‘a new Adam in Paradise’, is on a spiritual quest having heard ‘the voice crying out in the wilderness’  and is preparing to contend with dehumanising forces; in the second extract, from Joseph Conrad’s novella The Heart of Darkness, Kurtz has no spiritual resistance, no internal restraint, and has become corrupted by these forces.

The word ‘darkness’ evokes a number of ideas. There is the literal meaning of a physical absence or lack of light, the opposite of day, which itself implies impairment of vision where something may not be quite within one’s field of view, or even blindness, either temporary or permanent; or a mental state of confusion resulting in lack of comprehension.  And there is the abstract meaning that is imbued with a sense of something unpleasant, a space where a malign force may be in control.

When Jesus went to the River Jordan to be baptised, he heard a voice from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’  Then the Spirit drove him into the wilderness.  Jesus was alone in the Judean desert, in the sense understood by Mark’s community that the wilderness is a non-human place, but he did not lack divine assistance because angels were with him, a sign of Jesus’ relationship with God. Significantly, he was also ‘with’ the wild animals.

Juxtapose this with Kurtz, the antitype of Jesus, whose typology is of Adam ejected from the Garden, and from God’s presence, who does not lack human company (more accurately, he has enslaved the indigenous people to his demonic task) and is antipathetic towards the wild animals because he is slaughtering elephants for their ivory. Earlier in the novella, we are persuaded to believe in Kurtz is a charismatic leader, yet this is not the whole truth for it is not until the end of the book that we discover that Kurtz’s real motive for setting out to the Dark Continent was to make money.  Thus he was an evangelistic free marketeer as well as a poet, a painter, a musician and an orator.  Unlike Jesus, who lived in a way that was self-consistent in his central commitment of loving faith, Kurtz had not set out with good intentions and consequently he had been easily corrupted, because he had no spiritual resistance or internal restraint.

…the wilderness had found him out early, and had taken on him a terrible vengeance for the fantastic invasion. I think it had whispered to him things about himself which he did not know, things of which he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitude – and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating. It echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core….

When Marlow finally reaches Kurtz, he encounters a moral vacuum within a skeleton, “a speaking soul, a direct effluence from the heart of darkness”. A lost voice crying in the wilderness.  Humans, Conrad is saying, are naturally competitive and self-seeking and the story is emblematic of our contemporary ecological crisis; a measure of the gulf between humankind and God’s creation.  The potential for darkness exists in every heart. The failure to live sustainably is a failure not only in our material but in our spiritual ecology. Marlow is full of admiration for Kurtz. But Kurtz stares into the future and sees no exit strategy, for Kurtz remains god-like to the last, finally exercising judgement on himself,

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!”

In Mark’s Gospel the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness to confront Satan, be ministered to by the angels and to establish an ideal association between a human being and the wild animals, affirming their intrinsic value in God’s love.  To inaugurate the Kingdom of God.  But as Richard Baukham says in Bible and Ecology, p.129, we do not have to wait to the escaton for this idealistic future, we can anticipate its realisation by respecting and preserving God’s non-human creatures and their environment.

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