The Nightmare of One's Choice
Congo, Anthony Bourdain, and the Heart of Darkness
There was a moment in college when it occurred to me that I ought to have a look at my transcript. I felt there would be a certain judiciousness—a wisdom, even—in determining whether I’d fulfilled all the requirements necessary for graduation. For me, this moment came in the final term of my final year.
It was at this point I discovered that I had not in fact satisfied the university's standards for a “general education.” I was missing a class, and now in the final term of undergraduate, I was too late to enroll in one that would rectify this oversight.
The fix was to take an online class during the summer after my senior year. I was able to walk at graduation. I was able to start the job I had lined up. So this seemed like a good solution. And anyway, I would use the method which had got me through English classes in high school. I would forgo reading the actual book, opting instead to browse through a summary online.
This was the context for my first encounter with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
It’s the only book I remember being assigned during the course. There must have been others. But I think, even in the moment, I was struck by just how little I cared about it. I knew this was a much vaunted work in the canon of English language literature. But I couldn’t drum up a single shit to give about it.
I was working at a venture-backed start-up in Silicon Valley. I had no use for Conrad. I had no use for the Congo. And I had even less use for some esoteric work where the entire second section is some guy who isn’t even the narrator going on about some story which had, from what I could tell, only a tenuous connection to the actual “plot”. What I did have use for—even took pride in—was my ability to perpetrate bullshit. This was the muscle I decided I would exercise during this course. Not the literary, actual reading-of-books one.
In putting together the piece you’re reading now, I went back through my college docs and found my original essay. I can see why I chose not to read the book. The relevant assignment was only a single page. Hardly seems worth it to scrutinize an entire novel just to put together a few hundred words on it. I wrote about Conrad’s conception of “human nature.”Instead of going in-depth on the text, I connected its major (read: obvious) themes with general insights from cognitive science. This sort of move is often regarded by the grading class (i.e., grad students) as evidence of “critical thinking.”
The instructor singled out my contributions on the class discussion board as being especially incisive. I got an A in the course, and officially received my diploma. But I never made it into the Heart of Darkness. I didn’t even make it to the delta of the Congo River. I never even ordered the book.
“Everyone gets everything he wants. I wanted to see the Congo. And for my sins, they let me.”
This is the line Anthony Bourdain uses to open his exposition in his episode on the Congo for the television show Parts Unknown. I’m not sure what it means. But it’s a badass thing to say.
The episode is structured, self-consciously, around Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Bourdain quotes it throughout in the voiceover. He makes reference to the characters in the footage from the trip, for example pointing out which buildings in the modern Congo were the inspiration for the book’s “inner station.” Bourdain makes it clear that Heart of Darkness looms large in his imagination.
I’ve watched every episode of Bourdain’s Parts Unknown at least twice. And it’s common for Bourdain to riff on the themes and imagery of a book or movie to structure an episode. For example, this shot from Bourdain’s Tokyo episode clearly alludes to the shots of the hotel bar at which Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson find themselves in Lost in Translation (one of my own favorite movies).
But the Congo episode is one of the ones I’ve returned to most often. It is the episode that perhaps capture’s Bourdain worldview most directly, in its most naked form. The cinematic climate of the episode is when the crew attempts to make dinner while drifting down the Congo River. This is their descent into madness, the closest they get to penetrating into their own heart of darkness.
In the show, we see Tony attempt to prepare coq au vin for dinner while on board. His logic is that this dish will be an effective use of the scraggly chickens they brought on the boat. But, it turns out, the knife is dull. It’s an ineffective tool for butchering the chickens, let alone slaughtering them. Then the generator goes down. No generator, no fire. And without heat there’s no coq au vin, just chickens in wine. The scenes are tense. Tony curses on camera. They don’t eat the meal until, like, two in the morning.
That Tony obviously was so personally moved by Heart of Darkness was the first clue that I ought to revisit the work. But I didn’t appreciate just how deep this connection went until I read the excellent In The Weeds by Tom Vitale, Tony’s long-time producer.
To call doing a show in the Congo Tony’s ‘obsessive dream project’ was a gross understatement. He always said you tend to see your life as a book or a movie, and for Tony that story—if there had to be just one—was Joseph Conrad’s 1902 novella Heart of Darkness. The book, set in the Belgian Congo, and its cinematic reinterpretation Apocalypse Now, about the Vietnam War, had been recurring motifs throughout Tony’s work right from the beginning. Pretty much every river trip we ever filmed contained a Kurtz reference or some kind of homage to the theme of descending into madness deep in the jungle.
In the episode, we see their crew encounter logistical difficulties. They enter the Congo from the border with Rwanda. Their first experience in country is the war zone around Goma. Then they fly from there to Kisangani, where they’ll be able to access the river. As Vitale writes, “the Congo was in ruins: much of the country was a patchwork of lawless rebel controlled territories.” He continues:
Thinking it through logically it really demanded the question, Why the fuck were we going to the Congo? Was it just about satisfying one of Tony’s biggest obsessions? Or was it a way for him to use the show to shine a light on something bigger? When I asked Tony why he wanted to go to the Congo, he said, ‘Don't worry about why, did he tell you why in Apocalypse Now? No. He wanted a mission. He got one.’
He’s referencing the opening quote he uses in the episode. It’s a riff on the opening line from Apocalypse Now. They arrive at Kisangani, known to Conrad as the “Inner Station.” Tony points this out for the camera.
In fact, probably the very spot we were standing at that moment was the setting for his [Marlow's] encounter with the infamous Kurtz, an ivory trader gone mad, worshiped by the local population as some kind of god. Much like Marlow, Tony saw Kurtz as an alluring and enigmatic figure. Was he monster, demagogue, or prophet? Kurtz had gone to the Congo with “good intentions,” but ended up decorating his house with severed human heads. Kurtz, what the book represented, as well as Tony’s infatuation with it, were all somewhat... ambiguous and open to interpretation. Conrad quit after his first trip as steamboat captain on the Congo River, the horrors of what he witnessed having left him in a deep depression. Now 123 years later, it was our turn to embark on a river journey toward our own indefinite narrative conclusion.
Vitale summarizes the progression of their trip: “Over the last couple of days, Tony’s references had increasingly switched from Heart of Darkness to Apocalypse Now.”
Then there’s the dinner scene. In the book, Vitale gives us a behind-the-scenes look. Tony had instituted a rule that everyone had to kill their own chicken to contribute to dinner. According to Vitale’s account:
‘Tom, [Tony said] you might want to observe how it’s done, so you don’t cause the poultry any unnecessary suffering. Jerry, let’s go.’ Jerry put down his camera and—being a farm boy from Iowa—nonchalantly popped off the chicken’s head like it was a bottle cap.
‘Clean kill, Jerry, clean kill,’ Dan said, having adopted the role of execution commentator.
Holding the bloody severed chicken head, its beak still slowly opening and closing, Jerry asked, ‘What do we do with these?’
Tony looked proud, and I decided my best course of action was to slip overboard unnoticed, or at least disappear for a bit. I turned around to sneak away and slammed my head into the low beam so hard I fell back flat against the floor. My first thought was, maybe if I’m paralyzed, I won’t have to kill a chicken! Regrettably, I was uninjured.
‘It’s batter up, Tom,’ Tony said.
‘Please, I really don’t want to do this,’ I said.
‘If we don’t kill those chickens, we’ll starve to death,’ Tony said, thrusting the bloody knife in my direction. ‘You want to eat a raw onion for dinner?’
As much as I didn’t want to kill a chicken, I also didn’t want to look like a chicken in front of Tony. I know none of this makes any sense, but such refined notions as logic had been left a long ways upriver. Besides, both cameras were pointed in my direction—which in case you didn’t know has a way of making people do stupid things—so I took a deep breath and resigned myself to participating in Tony’s bizarre blood rite. I reached down and grabbed the chicken, who stopped struggling and stared up at me. As Tony had prophesied, I could tell the chicken was thinking, ‘Why me, Tom?’ Hovering, Tony said, ‘Don’t be gentle, you’re not going out on a date, C’mon, just do it!’ I looked away and plunged the knife into the chicken’s neck and sawed and sawed as hard as I could. Over the ringing in my ears and the horrified screams of the other chickens, I could hear voices shouting, “Hold it higher so I can get a better shot!” and “Kill! Kill! Kill!" The Congolese boat guys were all watching the spectacle and must have been wondering what the hell was going on. When I looked down, it seemed like the knife was barely penetrating, let alone going all the way through, and the chicken was still looking up into my eyes, and there was blood.
‘Saw harder!’ Dan laughed maniacally.
I was really trying, back and forth with the knife, and the chicken was still looking at the me. ‘Do it faster!’ Tony commanded. ‘You're making him suffer!’ And that's when the panic set in. ‘Stop it, stop!’ I yelled through tears. I felt myself let go of the knife, and I ran to the other side of the boat. Had it been an axe or even something sharp, it would have been bad enough. But that fucking knife was so dull, and I just couldn’t stand the thought of the poor chicken not seeing another sunrise.
When the red mist cleared, I felt pretty pathetic for freaking out over a chicken, considering I was in a country where horrific acts of cruelty and violence were facts of life. Worst of all, I’d failed the test. I was too chicken to kill the chicken, to chicken to say no, then too chicken to finish the job. The sad truth is I was the chicken all the along. I’d managed to hold it together very well on the Congo shoot thus far—and for the last ten years of working on the show—but Tony had finally broken me. He had a way of always getting what he wanted. Perhaps a consolation prize Tony put a smudge of blood on my forehead and said, ‘Now you can join our treehouse.’
With the chickens slaughtered, it was now time to prepare dinner. This is the footage that makes it into the show.
Trying to focus over the din of two clattering outboard engines and now a clanking, sputtering generator, Tony placed the first chicken on the cutting board, raised his knife, and the lights cut out, plunging us into complete darkness. ‘Jeee-zuuus,’ Tony said, drawing out the syllables for dramatic emphasis. ‘I need some fucking light so I can see what the fuck I'm doing!’ I felt around along the floor to my backpack and found a headlamp. Moose did the same, and soon a few beams of illumination cut through the inky void. Dez went to investigate why the generator was still whirring away but not providing power. Within a minute or so, the bulbs flickered on to reveal a pissed-off looking Tony. ‘This knife is as dull as a soup spoon,’ he said, going to work butchering the chickens. ‘Get me the machete, and I need another pot.’ Before either could be found, the lights wavered, dimmed, and failed again. ‘Fuuuuck,’ he moaned. As power returned, I was faced with an even more pissed-off Tony, arms folded. Wiping some blood off his Rolex to check the time, he said, ‘Tom if we’re going to eat at all, you need to unfuck this situation!’
Like it was my fault the generator wasn’t cooperating with Tony’s ‘Full Metal Julia Child’ fantasy of effortlessly preparing a jungle-style coq au vin.
At length, dinner was made.
While attempting to choke down a zinc-flavored onion, my mind drifted toward Kurtz. Maybe there’d been a method to the madness all along? Was Tony's point that—as in Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now—deep in the jungle everyone goes a little bit crazy? That we all have a Kurtz somewhere within us? We’d arrived in the Congo with good intentions, and ended up doing something as vulgar as playing with our food in a country of starving people... on TV.
The first thing that stood out to me in returning to the text is Marlow, in the beginning of the book, begins by noting what the Thames river must’ve been like a thousand years ago—in a sense, the original Heart of Darkness.
In her book The Dawn Watch, an exploration of the parallels between Conrad’s work and the currents of globalization, Maya Jasanoff writes:
When the Thames reminded Marlow of the Congo, he wasn’t simply saying: Look, Africa is more primitive than England. He was saying that history is like a river. You can go up or you can go down. You can ride the current by nesting Marlow’s experience in Africa inside the telling of his story in England, Conrad warned his readers against any complacent notion that savagery was as far from civilization as there was from here. What happened there and what happened here were fundamentally connected. Anyone could be savage. Everywhere could go dark.
My own interpretation differs slightly. One way to look at it, as Jasanoff does, would be in terms of the discontinuities of history. Like a river, one can move with or against it. In constant fluctuation, but with parts that are clearly up-stream or down-stream in accord with the river’s flow. But another way would be to see Marlow’s is, instead of the discontinuity of history, the continuity of human nature. A kind of There but for the grace of God go I. How you behave depends a lot more on when and where you were born than who you are as a person.
Think London is so civilized? You should’ve seen it back in the day.
Think Congo is so brutal? You should see your own heart, under different conditions.
As a fresh college grad, these questions felt distant—or at the very least abstract. Now, more than half a decade later, they feel more pressing. I feel much better acquainted with my own propensity for madness. I feel a much greater need to symbolize darkness, to have a concrete way of reckoning with the inherent complicatedness of human life.
There’s a line from Heart of Darkness, which has come to be a kind of refrain for me on this front: “It was written I should be loyal to the nightmare of my choice.” Where was this written? Well, as far as I can tell, it’s canonical rendering is in Conrad’s novel itself. But there’s something about this notion that I can’t extricate from my mind.
Loyal to the nightmare of one’s choosing…
I think this line speaks to me because it directly contradicts the fundamental dictum of millennial life: you can always do better. In our place as the generation of infinite choice, we’ve been brought up with the idea that, since all possible outcomes are available to us, we should be able to find the one to which we are best suited. In short, not only to follow our dreams, but to reasonably expect to attain them.
This is the promise of optimality. Take mating, for example. Because, in theory, we have access, via dating apps, to the set of all possible mates, we expect that the mate with which we end up ought to be the very best possible option. The presence of suboptimality signals that we’ve not yet found that option and ought instead to keep looking. So we keep looking, until we find the ‘perfect’ choice—the choice entirely devoid of nightmare.
The same is true of careers. Millennials are more happy to switch companies, even industries or job descriptions, than any generation before them. The same is true of cities. The ‘global citizen’ seeks constantly to find the right product-market fit between the themselves and the milieu in which they live. This is the incessant quest for optimality.
But that’s not how life actually works, is it? There’s no such thing as the perfect choice, the option devoid of imperfection and suboptimality. If one only develops loyalty to the outcome of one’s dreams, then guess what. You’re never going to find anything to be loyal to—or, even at a less morally-upstanding level, to be content with. No, see, the trick is to realize is that the choice isn’t between nightmares and dreams, but only different kinds of nightmares. It is perhaps a dire a way to put it. But it paints the disparity in stark enough contrast to make it comprehensible.
The presence of suboptimality does not mean that you are on the wrong path. It is in the nature of paths to be suboptimal. Therefore, if something feels “wrong” about it—well, to some degree, that’s just par for the course.
The real key, then, is to accept the tradeoffs. If there’s an aspect of your current situation you don’t like, the appropriate question is not: “Would I trade this for something better?” It is: “Would I trade this for a different set of downsides?”
Loyal to the nightmare of your choosing.
To me, this isn’t a dire sentiment at all. It’s liberating. We don’t have to shy away from the presence of bad things, from negative emotions, from situations that feel like they ought to be improvable. Life doesn’t have to be a constant quest for optimality. This quest itself is only one of the many choices of possible nightmares. I don’t know about you. But that kinda makes me feel better.
Maybe that’s what Tony thinks it means for everyone to “get what they want.” We all chase after something. And when we find it, we discover it’s still, in its way, a nightmare. As far as I can tell, fame is like this. Success is like this. Wealth is like this. Having a family and settling down in the suburbs definitely seems like this. Doing a PhD is absolutely like this. But that discovery is only surprising—only detrimental to one’s evaluation—if one works from the premise that optimality is attainable. The sooner we let go of that notion, the sooner we become loyal to the nightmare of our choosing.
My opening paragraph in that essay reads: “Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” is relevant in the 21st century because Conrad intends his portrayal of human nature to be invariant with respect to culture or time. This intention of Conrad, given that his analysis may be either accurate or inaccurate, has two unique outcomes: (1) If Conrad’s conception of human nature is comprehensive and accurate, then his insights will be useful independent of any cultural changes over the past 200 years; and (2) If Conrad’s conception of human nature is inaccurate or unable to prove accurate over time, then the discrepancy will be telling of large-scale shifts in the public perception of human nature. To this end, “Heart of Darkness” is relevant to the 21st Century in as much as it is a benchmark to understand how human nature, and the perception of it, changes over time.”