“a seaman in exile from the sea”

Do you remember that haunting Conrad quotation from Heart of Darkness that says “The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.”  It is amazing and powerful, and then it is followed by this: “What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretense but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea–something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to”?

Conrad’s Lord Jim fully fleshes out this idea in its latter half.  There are morally driven imperialists and immoral, treacherous, villainous imperialists.  And the moral imperialists are manly and responsible and they rescue and love native women who tell them “go” but really mean “stay”.  The moral imperialists spend a lifetime repenting for their sins, and they willingly lay down their lives for their “native” friends (who, however good, brave and beautiful, can never match the moral imperialists).  The moral imperialists are “the visible, tangible incarnation of unfailing truth and of unfailing victory.”  And in the end, even if the native’s bullet kills the moral imperialist, it was actually the machination of the treacherous imperialists that has guided the bullet there. The engines of the story are always the imperialists.

But the story is not just that.  Conrad writes breath-taking prose.  His having been a seaman himself, and an exile, and someone who inhabits English only as a second home, all mean that there is a fullness to his sense of place and time on board ships, at ports, and among seafarers rarely matched in print.  And weirdly, this book is a book of two halves and while they are both beautifully written, the first half is far more interesting than the imperial morality play of the latter half.

In fact, Conrad is far less ambivalent about the white men who populate the story and their depredations -no matter their intentions- in the latter half of the book than he is in the earlier half.  Edward Said has written about Conrad’s Heart of Darkness that “Despite their European names and mannerisms, Conrad’s narrators are not average unreflecting witnesses of European imperialism. They do not simply accept what goes on in the name of the imperial idea: they think about it a lot, they worry about it, they are actually quite anxious about whether they can make it seem like a routine thing.”

And Marlowe, who is the narrator of Heart of Darkness, is also the narrator of Lord Jim, and it is in his voice that Conrad worries about empire and imperialism.  The structure of the story is a bit like a Russian doll, with stories within stories within stories, which is one way Conrad can at once write about empire, defend it, and disavow it.  The narrator of the story is going to always be unreliable because he is narrating Marlowe, who is narrating the story someone else told him,within which is yet another embedded story.  This nested story structure acts as an alibi for whatever is said inside the stories themselves.

As I read the latter half of the book – where Jim’s story is a rendering of the adventures of The White Rajah of Sarawak, James Brooke, I really just wanted to get through it.  Brooke had been an adventurer-imperialist who as part of a campaign to suppress piracy off the northern coast of Borneo was involved in atrocities against the natives there, and in fact destroyed the town of Patusan which gave its name to the village in which the moral imperialist, Jim, provides counsel to the local sultan.  There, Conrad writes, “three hundred miles beyond the end of telegraph cables and mail-boat lines, the haggard utilitarian lies of our civilisation wither and die, to be replaced by pure exercises of imagination,  that have the futility, often the charm, and sometimes the deep hidden truthfulness, of works of art” (251) The telegraph and the mail-boat, as the utilitarian instruments of commerce, and beyond them the romance of rule.  The adventure “season[s] with a pinch of romance the fattening dishes of his commercial kitchen” (204) and these noble adventurers are the core of moral imperialism.  They are the ones who “left their bones bleaching on distant shores, so that wealth might flow to the living at home.  To us, their less tries successors, they appear magnified, not as agents of trade but as instruments of a recorded destiny, pushing out into the unknown in obedience of an inward voice, to an impulse beating in the blood, to a dream of the future” (210).  In all, the latter half reads like the very imperial adventure stories and colonial romances that Conrad slyly dismisses in the earlier part of the book.

But the first part of the book -where we get Jim’s potentially fatal transgression on the Patna (a ship whose story is modelled exactly on the story of SS Jeddah) and his extraordinary sense of guilt is so much more likeable, so much more plausible, and of course, so much more about the sea, and ships, and the labour that the sea and  ports demand. Here he is on labour on board ships:

He made many voyages.  He knew the magic monotony of existence between sky and water: he had to bear the criticism of men, the exactions of the sea, and the prosaic severity of the daily task that gives bread – but whose only reward is in the perfect love of work.  This reward eluded him.  Yet he could not go back, because there is nothing more enticing, disenchanting, and enslaving than the life at sea.  Besides, his prospects were good.  He was gentlemanly, steady, tractable, with a thorough knowledge of his duties; and in time, when yet very young, he became chief mate of a fine ship,without ever having been tested by those events of the sea that show in the light of day the inner worth of a man, the edge of his temper, and the fibre of his stuff;that reveal the quality of his resistance and the secret truth of his pretences, not only to others but also to himself (50)

The hierarchies of race and status and class he sketches aboard ships feel revolting and real.  And what is striking is that while aboard ships whiteness guarantees a place at the apex of labour, the ships can be, are, owned by Arab and Indian and Malay owners.

And there is a way in which Conrad loves the ship as a place of homeliness and shelter.

There is something peculiar in a small [life]boat upon the wide sea. Over the lives borne from under the shadow of death there seems to fall the shadow of madness,  When your ship fails you, your whole world seems to fail you; the world that made you, restrained you, took care of you. It is as if the souls of men floating on an abyss and in touch with immensity had been set free of any excess of heroism, absurdity, or abomination.  Of course, as with belief, thought, love, hate, conviction, or even the visual aspect of material things, there are as many shipwrecks as there are men, and in this one [the atrocity that is the engine of the first half of the story] there was something abject which made the isolation more complete – there was a villainy of circumstances that cut these men off more completely from the rest of mankind, whose ideal of conduct had never undergone the trial of a fiendish and appalling joke (132).

And in this part of the story, in this half, Jim is not a White Rajah.  Strangely, this passage reminds me of Melville’s Billy Budd:

…he was outwardly so typical of that good, stupid kind we like to fell marching right and left of us in life, of the kind that is not disturbed by the vagaries of intelligence and the perversions of -of nerves, let us say.  He was the kind of fellow you would, on the strength of his looks, leave in charge of the deck – figuratively and professionally speaking (75).

But Billy Budd was never an imperialist and never responsible for the deaths of brown people.  I have also found a weird little piece of meanness towards Melville attributed to Conrad:

Years ago I looked into Typee and Omoo, but as I didn’t find there what I am looking for when I open a book I did go no further. Lately I had in my hand Moby Dick. It struck me as a rather strained rhapsody with whaling for a subject and not a single sincere line in the 3 vols of it. (Letter to Humphrey Milford, January 15 1907). 

I wonder if Conrad disavows Melville because of the ways in which Melville is far more open and worldly than Conrad would be (even if there is always a subcutaneous wish for this worldliness hovering under the pages of Conrad’s stories), or because Melville is seen as too much of a rival. Certainly stylistically they are worlds apart.  Conrad is a craftsman (perhaps in the way that a person not native to a language but with a sense of its poetry would be), and Melville is an exuberant exulter in language.  There is a tautness in Conrad (no matter how many digressions) and a kind of enthusiastic generosity of language and story and coruscating cascades of words in Melville. Said calls Moby Dick “undomesticated and unruly” and “wonderfully attractive, hypnotically turgid.”  And there is no question that Said loves Conrad’s writing and returns to him again and again and again.

Said also finds the two far more interconnected than Conrad would have allowed. Aside from their colonial and seafaring settings, Said comments on the “unaccustomed irregularity of their idioms” written in an English with “self-conscious, shifting, and unpredictable accents.”  And I love it that whereas Said often writes about the care Conrad takes in writing his stories, in writing about Melville, he sings about the “carelessness” that is “one of the main keys to [Moby Dick’s] imposing magnificence” (and god, how I love to read Said’s prose of criticism).

So I begin with Conrad, and end with our Lord Melville… to whom I must return.