[caption id="attachment_3216" align="alignright" width="252"] Cartoonist Akram Raslan, murdered in Syria.[/caption]
Among the many hand-sized clichés we often reach for is the one that says that evil is beyond our powers to describe. Yet the phrase ‘I really don’t understand how they can do that’ is surely one of the most cowardly in our language because what it really means is: ‘I really don’t want to understand how they can do that’. We play linguistic games in order to find that easy path out of difficult areas. We resort to words like ‘madman’ to describe Hitler when his motivations and actions were based in a cold realm of logic taken straight from Nietzsche who argued that pity weakens us all.
It’s in this sense that Kurtz in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ is not a mad man. He is man who has gone utterly sane. Kurtz has stripped back the layers of culture, behaviour, and morality to locate himself in a simpler world free from values. ‘There was nothing either above or below him, and I knew it,’ says Marlow. ‘He had kicked himself loose of the earth. Confound the man! he had kicked the very earth to pieces.’
The message of Conrad’s book is that civilisation must maintain a state of partial insanity in order to continue. In one of the great final chapters of literature, Kurtz’s intended asks Marlow if Kurtz mentioned her before he died. Marlow makes a profound choice, choosing to tell a lie because the truth – that Kurtz died expounding ‘the horror, the horror’ – would give her no solace. It’s like the many lies we tell ourselves: that our governments are benign, that politicians care about every single one of us, that good guys win, that talent triumphs, and that owning an iPad is the thing to do and totally without consequence. The truth is that we in the West live the lives we live because we exploit people in other countries. The even larger truth is that we are fighting the same battle for survival that has gone on for ten thousand years, only our tribe no longer slaughters the woolly mammoth outside the cave. We no longer see our fathers, brothers, and sons killing the rivals who covet our resources.
Reason taken like this to its logical extreme is ultimately nihilistic. We are just lumps of cells bound to a planet we might never escape before our civilisation is doomed by the death of the sun. Yet even if our far decedents find other planets to colonise, it will merely be a pause before the ultimate heat death of the universe. There is no greater meaning against that backdrop. Good and evil are relative temperatures; morality merely a state of warmth between something being hot and then becoming cold forever or until time itself comes to an end.
Such talk should rightly be offensive to our sensibilities. To paraphrase the advice given to the young Alvy Singer in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall: the entropic decay of the universe doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do our maths homework. Similarly, we want to leave the problems of ‘evil’ in some dark corner while we instead consider the things that make life worth living. In this sense, we all would be Kurtz’s bride. We don’t want the truth. We need lies in order to survive.
Call it habit, behaviour, tics, prejudices, programming, instinct or conditioning: we are all ‘mad’ in some small way and we should be glad of that. Cartoonists in particular are bred to exploit that madness. Their humour warms us because it’s borne out of the friction caused by our fractured subjectivity rubbing against the cold sanity of the objective world. It is the job of the cartoonist to revel in our human faults, fragilities, pretentions, delusions, and, yes, the madness that is sometimes needed to keep our blood pumping. The alternative is to succumb to the rising power of reason, systems, and programming. The sane act is to dress all our window cleaners in the same uniform. It’s to make call centre staff adhere to a corporate image and respond to every call by mechanically following a flowchart. Such things strip away our humanity, the unique eccentricity that comes from being living breathing people. The postman no longer cracks jokes as he does his round because he’s now a professional. We’re told it makes sense, that it’s surely the rational thing to do… Yet it’s the cartoonist who points out that none of this actually makes life better. The cartoonist points out that conformity is only a short step from the police, the army, and, eventually, the secret apparatus of a repressive regime. It is the cartoonist’s job to remind us that Hitler was not mad. He was sane. Criminally sane and the same is true of the tyrants butchering innocents in Syria.
Today I read that the cartoonist Akram Raslan has been murdered by the Assad regime. The full report is here but, really, what needs to be said is that Raslan’s only crime was to lampoon the President of Syria. Raslan stood up when others cower down, an act braver than anything I can imagine. Perhaps he is one of the very few really worthy of the honour of calling themselves ‘cartoonist’ because the true cartoonist defends the madness of our culture, our society, our manners, our faiths, beliefs, prejudices, pretentions, and hopes. The cartoonist maintains the humour that fires the human spirit in the face of those cold, rational, and deeply corrupt minds that routinely calculate that millions can die so a barbarous few can survive. True cartoonists do that regularly. It is their job to stand up and speak mad truths. It’s why the best are so very few and the rest of us merely scratch around in the dirt hoping to find significant meaning in the dust.
I suppose Akram Raslan wasn’t what every cartoonist should aspire to be. He was what every human being should aspire to be. You might say that it was an act of madness to defy a government ruled by cowards and thugs but surely it is the same madness that defines the noblest among of us. Sometimes our finest accomplishments make no rational sense but are supremely meaningful because of that: Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, Michaelanelo’s Pietà, the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup. Rationalists rightly attack religion and accuse it of being the cause of much of the world’s trouble but we should not forget that the alternative they offer is one step closer to the gas chamber than anything found in scripture. The last century’s most notorious genocides were perpetrated not in the name of God but in the name of Nazi and Stalinist ideology where God had no place.
That isn’t to defend religion but to simply point out that sometimes we, as human beings, need the mystery of the established lie. Freedom is non-conformity, rule breaking, individual expression, and a love of things that make no sense. It sometimes makes us an enemy of the state but that is as it should be. Some call it anarchy but we never choose that entirely or, at least, never choose is entirely for very long. Civilization is founded upon the compromises we always make between order and chaos, truth and lies, silence and laughter. Cartoonists explore those compromises for the purposes of humour and sometimes enlightenment. Akram Raslan explored it to express the most important statement any person can make. He dared to laugh and then some coldly rational bastard silenced him for that and in the process they kicked the very earth to pieces.