[Ryan] In ‘Wake in Fright,’ Hell is Human Nature

I’m told that Wake in Fright (1971) is no more popular in the Australian outback than Heart of Darkness (1899) in Congo. The latter, though beloved in my neck of the woods, has not met such warm reception among the colonized. “To the African reader the price of Conrad’s eloquent denunciation of colonisation is the recycling of racist notions of the ‘dark’ continent and her people,” writes Caryl Phillips. “Those of us who are not from Africa may be prepared to pay this price, but this price is far too high” for the Congolese, and beyond.

This much is hardly surprising – our best efforts, on closer examination, are rarely as noble as we imagine them to be. Perhaps Conrad meant to unmask the horrors of Britain’s imperialist crusades, his critics grant, but in the process only reinforces the stereotypical images of “African savages” that made colonial expansion so easy to justify. Today’s “progressivism” is always tomorrow’s bigotry.

Which is not a complaint: Reading Heart of Darkness, alongside Wilberforce’s A Practical View of Christianity,* forced me to reckon with the abject wrongness of violent expansionism as a senior in high school. Growing up in a suburb of Dallas, this was no small feat: This was Reagan country, Bush country; This was “why don’t we just march in and annex Iraq?” country. We had no qualms about “imperialism.” We were “civilization,” we said in our hearts, and we owed it to “barbarians,” near and remote, to relieve them of their territories (and, if necessary, their lives).

Of course, there was dissent. A case-and-point would be my parents: I was pilloried, once, after casually suggesting that we simply nuke the “middle-eastern threat” and settle there once the radiation dissipates. Such unsavory opinions were not limited to children like myself. An elderly gentleman – unsolicited, I should add – once shared his proposed solution to what seemed like our endless sojourn in Iraq: “Make an ocean out of them” (This was in line at a McDonald’s).

Into this context, Conrad’s opus gave legs to my parents’ admonitions: “If another country dropped a bomb on us to protect themselves,” they asked, rhetorically, “would that be a good thing?” Of course it wouldn’t, I thought, that would wipe out the good Americans with the bad. It took Conrad’s jostling, nearly a decade later, before I’d even understand the question. We can acknowledge his good intent, and even usefulness, while renouncing his regressive undertones. I doubt he’d have it any other way.

His point was identical to that of Wilberforce: The heart of humankind does not vary according to geography. We’re all made of the same stuff. Wilberforce was pushing against starry-eyed notions of “noble savages,” that those untouched by “society” were uncorrupted by “sin”; Conrad against the draconian assumption that Jungle-dwellers were scarcely more than beasts.

Both men assume, thornily enough, that the mechanics of “civilization” (as envisioned by the European empire) serve to “restrain” the innate “bestiality” of human nature, a notion which has not aged well and often bore unspeakable consequences, but their liberal aims are visible enough. To acknowledge as much is hardly to suggest that his critics are wrong. Quite the opposite. To name Conrad a bigot is to pay him due respect. That our distaste for yesterday’s colonialism is now so basic as to turn back in ambivalence on the man himself simply means that Conrad made his point, and then “passed the mic,” so to speak, even if involuntarily.


All of this could be stated differently: There is no Bundanyabba (the fictional outback town in Wake in Fright), but Bundanyabbans are everywhere. A school-teacher heads toward Sydney for the holidays. Gambling his money away on layover, he becomes stranded in “the ‘Yabba,” as the locals call it.

With no money, he can’t afford a hotel room. But the locals are hospitable, offering at turns sex or lodging or alcohol. He winds up staying the weekend with Doc Tydon (Donald Pleasence), a seasoned medical professional with an almost mythic propensity for drinking (everyone’s an alcoholic in the ‘Yabba, it seems). The accommodations are sparse, as Tydon seems to have taken up residence in an abandoned shanty. There are holes in the walls, but the gas-oven does burn.

The weekend is a drunken stupor, debauchery ensues. Grant and the Doc have a scholarly debate. “I cannot accept your premise, Socrates.” The doctor slurs his words. “Affectability . . . progress. . . are vanities spawned by fear.” Grant is miles away, half-conscious. “The aim of what you call civilisation is a man in a smokin’ jacket, pressing a . . . a button, to destroy a planet a billion miles away, kill a billion people he’s never seen . . .” Grant falls over in his chair.

Doc Tydon is a former “John Grant,” a med-school graduate from Sydney who happened on the ‘Yabba when his patients expelled him on account of his libertine proclivities. “Sex is just like eating: it’s a thing you do because you have to. Not ’cause you want to, but most people are afraid of it.” His “backwater hedonism” is translucent gloss; It overlays a tired modernity.

They embark on a kangaroo hunt. Grant is repulsed, and then allured. Joining in, he guts his first animal. He’s one of the boys, now. For Kenneth Cook, on whose novel the film is based, “civilization” is a coat of paint. The mechanism of city-life burnishes, it does not “transform.” We can, by stigma or “social contract,” restrain human nature, yes, but cannot “root out” the brutality of the human animal – “a man in a smokin’ jacket, whiskey and soda, pressing a button to destroy a billion people he’s never seen.” We are “bestial.” We simply are.

This was scarcely a new insight in 1971; It wasn’t even novel in Conrad’s day. “Having made it manifest that in ourselves we were unable to enter into the kingdom of God,” writes one nameless second-century Christian, “we might through the power of God be made able.” Classical polemics often took the form of “micro-histories”; If you wanted to convince a crowd at the Areopagus, for example, that “Art” is wasteful (a bad copy of a bad copy of some ethereal “forms,” as the Sparknotes version of Plato might say), you might deliver a “natural history” of the universe, highlighting along the way the lamentable process whereby flaccid empaths beguiled great men (always men) into finding some otiose value in aesthetics.

Christian examples of “history as polemic” might include the works by Eusebius of Caesarea (in long form), or Paul’s speech to the philosophers in Acts 17 (in short form). Or, our nameless Christian: “When our wickedness had reached its height, and it had been clearly shown that its reward – punishment and death – was impending over us; and when the time had come which God had before appointed for manifesting His own kindness and power, how the one love of God, through exceeding regard for men, did not regard us with hatred, nor thrust us away, nor remember our iniquity against us, but showed great long-suffering, and bore with us,” she writes, “He Himself took on the burden of our iniquities.”**

Our nameless Christian wasn’t innovating either. The language of Paul, the most famous of the first-century missionaries, echoes throughout her historical polemic: “But God commendeth his own love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us,” “For while we were yet weak, in due season Christ died for the ungodly.” Even moreso the dour beat poem he lays down in his most famous letter –

There is none righteous, no, not one;
There is none that understandeth,
There is none that seeketh after God;
They have all turned aside, they are together become unprofitable;
There is none that doeth good, no, not so much as one:
Their throat is an open sepulchre;
With their tongues they have used deceit:
The poison of asps is under their lips:
Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness:
Their feet are swift to shed blood;
Destruction and misery are in their ways;
And the way of peace have they not known:
There is no fear of God before their eyes.

An interested reader may notice that even Paul wasn’t particularly creative on this point; The above poem is a patchwork of Hebrew poetry that was already ancient. Before committing to die young as a Christian missionary, Paul had an (apparently successful) career as a Hillel Pharisee, whose “Bible study” methods emphasized, almost exclusively, the application of “old” ideas to “new” contexts. In other words, Paul was not inventing the wheel; He was simply rolling it onwards.

So Wake in Fright enters into an old discussion. And it issues a well-worn conclusion: After everything, it would seem, Grant makes peace with his bestiality, first by shooting himself, and when that fails, by returning home, resigned but no longer bitter. If the relevant question is “What can be done about the hell of human nature?” then the answer is “Not much.”

Our nameless second-century Christian might’ve rolled her eyes. Cook’s well-worn conclusion was ubiquitous in second-century Rome, whose refrain might be summed up in “The world is cruel, and everyone in it. Keep your head down and protect your interests.” Into this age of complacency, she offered a strange counter-history: “God gave His own Son as a ransom for us, the holy One for transgressors, the blameless One for the wicked, the righteous One for the unrighteous, the incorruptible One for the corruptible, the immortal One for those who are mortal.” To paraphrase, hell is human nature, sure, and on the cross God Himself made a way to rescue us from the hellest of hells.

“For what other thing was capable of covering our sins than His righteousness?” she writes. “By what other one was it possible that we, the wicked and ungodly, could be justified, than by the only Son of God?” We cannot “enter the kingdom of God,” to use her words (and Paul’s, and a host of Hebrew forebears), because we are sinful – all of us, painted up like the city or unloosed in the ‘Yabba. We are captives, of some devils or debaucheries, and unto death. Only the Son, Jesus, “true God of true God,” has the purchase to ransom us to freedom. It’s hard to grow up in America (or Cook’s Australia, or Conrad’s Britain) and never hear that “Jesus died for you.” The sentiment is true, but vague. Our nameless Christian isn’t. “The wickedness of many is hid in a single righteous One,” she writes, “and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors!” Jesus died instead of you. This is good news that Wake in Fright never hints at.

And, as is always the case in Christian theology, whatever comforts also challenges. The mercy that is available in the cross does not lamely exonerate the architects of imperialism, then or now. The monstrosity of Western expansionism was and is sufficiently horrific, to the bone, as to necessitate the crucifixion of the Son of God to merit our forgiveness. And a forgiveness that cost God’s own blood demands our transformation, and more. There is no cheap grace. It cost God everything and, over the course of a life, it will cost everything from each of us. To colonize is to kill God wherever you find Him, to rob God wherever you meet Him, to put God underfoot, His neck to the pavement. The glory of God in the cross of Christ means we are freely forgiven, forever, on account of the faithfulness of Jesus, and that we are forever bound to our victims – noosed, even – to make whatever reparations repentance may require, to leave our sacrifices at the altar until our chattel is no longer chattel. The glory of God in the cross of Jesus Christ is to make “good and faithful servants,” humbled and redeemed, out of “rich (and, damned) young rulers.”

No wonder her polemic turns into praise – “O sweet exchange! O unsearchable operation! O benefits surpassing all expectation!”



*The original title of Wilberforce’s book was A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians, in the Middle and Higher Classes in this Country, Contrasted with Real Christianity. A reprinted version can be purchased here.

**The Epistle to Diognetus is anonymous, but assuming that the author was female will annoy all of the right people, so I’ll run with that.

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