Thursday, November 01, 2007

King Leopold’s Soliloquy

Mark Twain’s King Leopold’s Soliloquy engages the atrocities in the Congo differently than Conrad—through satire. While the subject matter hardly seems like it would lend itself to such an approach, Twain does a good job at lampooning King Leopold II and issuing a call to end the hellish arrangement.

The American Museum of Natural History has a pdf version of the second edition of the booklet. Highly recommended to experience it as it was released, including artwork, photographs, and supplementary information. Text supporting Leopold II is at times put in the shape of a cross, highlighting the irony and hypocrisy of the words. Also, there is a note from the publisher saying that Twain directed the proceeds of the booklet to be used “for relief of the people of the Congo State.”

The booklet is a very quick read, following an imaginary soliloquy of Leopold II reading and reacting to pamphlets revealing atrocities in the Congo done in his name. Some of the speech is over the top, but at times Twain makes pointed remarks to goad the American public to action:

Oh, well, let them blackguard me if they like; it is a deep satisfaction to me to remember that I was a shade too smart for that nation that thinks itself so smart. Yes, I certainly did bunco a Yankee—as those people phrase it. Pirate flag? Let them call it soo—perhaps it is. All the same, they were the first to salute it.

In pointing out that the International Association of the Congo was first recognized by the US, Twain implies the country’s obligation to assist the people of the Congo. (Ironic that such an argument today is used as a reason not to rectify a wrong.)

So how successful is Twain’s tract? For me it didn’t really resonate as the approach is clearly over the top (and needless to say, meant to be that way). Yet Twain definitely pushes the right buttons for an American public, including the King’s musing on the fact that kings are inherently sacred and blessed by God himself, so therefore criticism of his acts are blasphemy. The approach of having Leopold read summaries, headlines, chapter titles, etc. from Congo reports was a great tactic of making sure his readers see the reports. Painting Leopold as cold, aloof, and self-righteous would surely solidify his being a bad guy to people that had not heard of him.

Roger Casement’s The Congo Report (a credible listing of atrocities which created an outcry) inspires Twain to successfully lampoon Leopold, raising laughs as well as relaying part of the report:
That is their way; they [missionaries] spy and spy, and run into print with every foolish trifle. And that British consul, Mr. Casement, is just like them. He gets hold of a diary which had been kept by one of government officers, and, although it is a private diary and intended for no eye but its owner’s, Mr. Casement is so lacking in delicacy and refinement as to print passages from it.

Leopold then quotes part of the report, which includes one of the malevolent practices in the Congo: bringing back a human hand for every rifle cartridge spent. The quotes from damning reports pile up and are the most moving part of the work. Twain seems to go off-track having Leopold attack poets, but quickly recovers by his rant against the easier availability of cameras: “The only witness I have encountered in my long experience that I couldn’t bribe.” When the next page is full of photos of mutilated natives, you understand the new power such a medium would have had for the public. Leopold ends his speech after reading one work’s conclusion about how troubling the many reports and pictures are from the Congo and how it makes one shudder and turn away when someone sees them: “Why certainly--that is my protection. And you will continue to do it. I know the human race.”


Unknown said...

Thanks so much!

Dwight said...

You're welcome. The more I read of Twain's later writings the more I like his earlier pieces.