Arresting Heart of Darkness

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ER's visit to the Congo was revealing in unintended ways.

ER recently took a holiday from the urban nightmare of Chicago on the verge of collapse. Doctors Carter and Kovac, the intense and melancholy leads, went off instead to taste (briefly) the more tangible violence of the Congo, in the episode called 'Kisangani'.

As always, it was well made, well acted, tense and urgent. The violence was suggested, if not actually shown - and most of the episode shot in a kind of threatening semi-darkness. A week later Sam Kiley's Dispatches on Channel 4 walked through an eastern Congo in blazing, brutal colour. He walked in and out of makeshift clinics where human beings with severed limbs talked with a strange kind of blankness about their own terrible experiences. On the news bulletins the Liberian tragedy was represented by lines of frightened and paralysed people waiting for rescue. They didn't seem to know that those they were looking to for hope had fuelled and often financed the violence that was destroying their lives.

It may well be that ER sent its good-looking heroes to the Congo with the best of intentions. After all, it has a liberal take on urban America and a healthy distaste for managers, corrupt politicians and the exploiters of the poor. But in the end it is always about individuals and their choices rather than the external realities that shape and limit those choices.

Perhaps there was a thought that the insular US, which has even less knowledge or understanding of the continent than the ex-colonial European powers, might learn something about the horror that was Africa. But if that was the intention it failed. Instead, yet again, it emerged as a kind of rerun of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. In the novel - still a startlingly powerful insight into Europe's visions of the Other - Kurtz has become mad, or at least violent and primitive, as a result of entering the 'heart of darkness'. His later reincarnation, Marlon Brando's Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, transformed him into a Special Services officer 'gone native' in South East Asia.

However it was reinterpreted, the 'darkness' of Conrad's universe was a place of moral bankruptcy, a wilderness without the civilising rules of the west. Critics have argued for years over whether Conrad's vision was racist. It seems pretty clear that it was. Of course, the writer was making a general point about what happens when people lose their moral focus, their ethical judgment. The consequence was barbarism. But it was equally clear that for him the moral world was firmly established in the west - and it was the primitive world of the colonies that still harboured those powerful forces and instincts that brought crisis and destruction in their wake.

Viewers should not panic, however. I see little danger that Kovac or Carter will strip to a loin cloth and paint themselves white like Brando's Kurtz - although there is a darker side to Luka Kovac which occasionally surfaces in drinking bouts and monologues in Serbo-Croat.

Because, in the end, Africa is a backdrop - the real interest is in their personal dilemmas. Carter needs to shrug off the burden of class and his overly delicate sensibilities - he needs, in a word, to become a man. Luka is shrugging off his demons there - and incidentally experimenting with sex in a tent. Africa here is not reality but a metaphor for their inner turmoils. Once resolved, they'll return to that other, urban, jungle and get on with holding off chaos there.

'Kisangani' purported to confront the violent reality of Africa. In fact, it presented a blank sheet imprinted with Carter's guilt and Kovac's bad memories. In the real Kisangani (once Belgian Stanleyville), however, the huge hospital buildings paid for by western aid that mostly went into the private bank accounts of the dictator lie empty. In the east of the country, as Sam Kylie showed, educated men in shirts and ties organise massacres.

The simple response would be to see all this as a confirmation that Africa is a wild, savage and barbaric place. The reality, of course, is that the organisers of mass murder are often articulate and invariably western-educated men, like Charles Taylor in Liberia. What's more, they are usually engaged in a commercial war for the enormous wealth that those endless pictures of poverty and desperation conceal. The weeping men and women have nothing to eat - but under the ground there are billions of dollars worth of diamonds, gold and oil - 'diamonds in the soles of their feet' as Paul Simon put it once.

The savagery that we are presented with as a kind of cultural practice is in fact a very modern war fought with modern arms over the commodities that fuel a global economy. The 'heart of darkness', the source of moral corruption and violence, may in the end be much closer to Chicago than Kisangani.