The Long Dark Knight of the Soul

No, the Dark Knight does not refer to Batman, who is celebrating his 75th anniversary right now. It refers to Sir Roger Casement, an Irishman who was knighted by the King of Britain for his humanitarian exploits and then a few years later was hanged for treason.

The Dream of the Celt

Casement is the subject of Mario Vargas Llosa’s novel The Dream of the Celt.. It follows Casement’s life from nursery to noose. Except for the way it jumps around in time and the obviously fictionalized patches, it reads like biography. Casement was an Anglo-Irish Protestant who was fascinated by exotic places ever since his father told him about battles he fought as a dragoon in India and Afghanistan. When Casement heard about Stanley and Livingston as a boy, he knew he wanted to go to Africa. And so he did, working with Stanley himself for a rubber company.

Roger Casement

Even though he did not have a college education, Casement rose to the rank of His Majesty’s Consul to part of the Belgian Congo. He had seen some of the brutalities committed by Stanley (and some of the paradoxical kindnesses, too), but the stories that came down the Congo River were awe-inspiring in their cruelty. He obtained permission from the government to go upriver and observe with the purpose of writing an official report. What he saw was too terrible to repeat here. Whips made of hippopotamus hide were on every belt. The rubber from the trees was harvested with impressed labor and whole villages were destroyed.

Casement had believed that colonialism would bring trade, education, medicine–civilization in short–to Africa. Instead, it brought slavery and murder. (Casement was a friend of Joseph Conrad, who came to the same conclusions.) Casement wrote his paper and it made him famous. A few years later he went to the Amazon and did the same thing again with respect to the doings of a British-owned rubber company. Some reforms came of these efforts, but the guilty largely went unpunished. Casement, on the other hand, was rewarded with a knighthood.

So Casement seemed like a decent, upstanding subject of His Majesty. But he wasn’t. All the time he was looking at what Europeans did to Africans and Indians, he was thinking of what England had done to Ireland. Wasn’t it basically the same thing? No, the English no longer routinely murdered the Irish, but they had wiped out almost all of Irish culture and did not allow the Irish to rule themselves.

Thus it was that Casement became an Irish Nationalist. When World War One came, he concocted a plan to get the Germans to arm the Irish, who would rise up simultaneously with a German attack on British bases in Ireland, thus giving the tiny Irish forces a chance to achieve independence.

Things did not go as planned, and some of the more extreme nationalists staged a rebellion without any German assistance at all. They were promptly slaughtered. Casement was caught sneaking back into Ireland and tried for treason. Although Vargas Llosa tries to keep us in suspense about Casement’s fate, it is obvious what is going to happen to him from page 1.

What lessons are we to draw from all of this? I think the big one is that no government can truly be trusted unless it rules by consent of the governed. Belgium and England believed in individual rights, but when Belgians and Englishmen allowed themselves to be blinded by the glitter of gold, they would stop at nothing to get it, up to and including torture and mutilation of the innocent. The natives had no say, no effective weapons, no idea of the big picture of what was being done to them. It was far worse than what the Anglo-Americans did to Indians in the U.S. It was even worse than what white America did to African slaves.

The tragedy of it all is that Indians and black Africans of the colonial period did not have the culture or technological skills to play a part in the civilizations they encountered. Their only hope was that public opinion and the consciences of the ruling classes would prevent the worst abuses. That’s a slender reed to lean on.

The Irish case was different. Thanks to some extent to the British, they did have the culture and technology necessary for self-government. They did not have to depend on the good will of their colonizers and they did not want to. A few years after Casement’s death, they won their independence.

Flag of Ireland

There is a lot more to the novel than I have indicated. The sights and sounds and smells of Africa and Amazonia are vividly recreated. We get a lot of Casement’s inner life. The British tried to discredit Casement by releasing excerpts of his private diaries, which purportedly showed that he was a homosexual. Vargas Llosa accepts the authenticity of these claims, although he portrays some of what was in the diaries as fantasies and not real encounters. There’s an eerie parallel between the oppression of the Africans, that of the Indians, that of the Irish, and that of the gay. In no case is the oppressed allowed to be himself and love in an uncomplicated manner.

Some of my readers probably know that Vargas Llosa is libertarian who defends capitalism by citing Friedman and Hayek. I think colonialism might be one of the thorniest problems for those who like to extoll the virtues of nineteenth-century liberalism. Vargas Llosa meets that problem head on and never lets us get too comfortable with our nostalgia, while never suggesting that collectivism is the answer.

Mario Vargas Llosa

So what kept me engaged in this book? I really don’t like dreary settings and inevitable doom in my art. What kept me going is that through it all, Roger Casement was an idealist. He was an idealist even when he was wrong, as he was about the benefits of colonialism and the virtue of reviving the Gaelic tongue. He was sometimes tired, sometimes sick, but he never gave up on trying to find the truth and do what was right, as best he saw it. Lesser men would have become cynical or defeated in the face of the things he witnessed, but he remained determined and even hopeful. To my mind that makes him a hero, even though he didn’t live to see the ultimate victory of the causes he fought for.

After all, what is more heroic than struggling to find the truth and bring it to the world?

Honor in the Concrete

Steven Knight’s tidy little film Locke has given me more to think about than any other recent movie. The story concerns Ivan Locke, construction director for big buildings in the UK. It is the evening before millions of metric tons of concrete are to be poured in the foundation of a 53-story building, the biggest pour outside of nuclear reactors in European history.

Locke is in love with his buildings. He goes on at one point about how this one will be visible from twenty miles away and cast a shadow a mile long at sunset. He doesn’t work for his employer or for the money–he works for the building. He is a master of his profession. Give him a problem and he’ll solve it.

Poster for Locke

But now he faces a problem that’s a little harder to solve. It appears this quiet, organized man who loves his wife and sons has made a mistake and the consequences are going to be very painful. I’m not going to spoil the story by telling you what the mistake is. Let me assure you it’s nothing revolting like child molesting or even embezzlement. But it was a moral lapse.

Locke means to put things right, to the extent that that is possible. He gets in his car and drives to London in an effort to do so. The entire movie takes place in his car and Tom Hardy, with his sleek beard and sleeker Welsh accent, is the only actor we see. All the dialogue is on the car phone. Locke abandons the building and leaves the pour to his assistant, who is good at his own job but not up to the task. He has to explain to his wife why he’s not coming home. He has to face the wrath of his boss. But he’s made his decision. He’s not going to let the bad situation he’s caused get worse.

So what is this movie actually about? Honor. Locke is going to do the right thing even if his life crashes around his head. Now, I am very suspicious of honor. As a student of the Civil War era, I’ve seen a lot of Southern pseudo-aristocratic honor, which is the honor of arrogant hypocrites who like to rape women. I also think of honor killings in the Middle East. Cultures of honor are often cultures of collective shame and violent retribution. I know that not all honor is like this, but let’s say that honor has left a really bad taste in my mouth. (For another view, see Kirsti Minsaas’ review of the movie Rob Roy at http://www.theatlasphere.com/columns/121008-minsaas-robroy.php.

This film redeems the concept of honor for me. It redeems it for me because there is no pomp in Locke’s honor. He is just a rational man taking responsibility for his deeds. He’s basically an Objectivist with some emotional baggage. He speaks in terms of solving problems. If he has a tragic blindness, it’s one that perhaps some Objectivists would share with him: he believes that every problem can be solved if you just “draw a circle around it.” The movie teaches him some powerful lessons on that subject. But he does not swerve from his course.

This is a thinking person’s movie. Look at the pun of the protagonist’s name: Ivan Locke. Ivan is Russian for John. Ivan Locke pours concrete. John Locke believed that only concretes exist. And Ivan Locke is trying to hold up something like an implied social contract when he goes to right his wrong, echoing John Locke’s political concept.

This film came at a serendipitous time in my writing. I’m working on a book called Killing Cool: Fantasy vs. Reality in American Life. During the last two or three days I have been writing about the nature of adult wonder, which I define as the virtue of choosing to be open to the world and not taking it for granted. One of the examples I give is how I feel wonder at the operation of conscience in a man. (Think Oskar Schindler.) Ivan Locke gives us an impressive example of a man of conscience to wonder at, a man as solid as concrete, a demonstration that a tragic hero is still a hero.