Lord Jim©. 1
Except for an ontological context, the antipodal – the two-sides to every story, in fact, in this day and age, an infinitude of sides to every story should be the adage’s normative – marks the sensibility of Joseph Conrad’s
“[From] the depths of the ship, the harsh scrape of the shovel, the violent slam of a furnace door, exploded brutally, as if the men handling the mysterious things below had their hands full of fierce anger, while the slim high hull of the steamer went on evenly ahead, without a sway of her bare masts, cleaving continuously the great calm of the waters . . .”
“[Jim] would stretch himself till his joints cracked with a leisurely twist of the body, in the very excess of well-being . . .”
“Parallel rulers with a pair of dividers reposed on it; the ship’s position at last noon was marked with a small, black cross, and the straight pencil line drawn firmly as far as Perim figured the course of the ship . . .”
“They [valorous dreams] were the best part of life, its secret truth ,its hidden reality.” 2
A descriptive-metaphysical, an active-passive, a tumultuous-ontological, a detailed-entirety are some of the antipodes exhibited in these quotes. That these quotes represent an antipodean facet is informative, that they also all occur on a single page of 257 pages is nearly overcoming.
Without dragging out a synopsis of the narrative, Jim – the same Jim of the title ‘Lord Jim’ – begins as a youthful ship’s hand or trainee. Romantically and rather heroically minded, his fate is other than heroic – at least other than a normative heroic. For Jim, the romanticism which guided his youthful beginnings proved a sham as he neither achieved the heroic ideals which motivated him nor suffered a martyr-like death. Instead, he is put before a court tribunal before throngs of spectators . To say Jim was something akin to an animal in a zoo would not be entirely wrong. As a result of the tribunal and its decrees Jim can only see himself as an outcast. Jim is set adrift , apparently, looking for nothing yet, looking for something before finding some contentment in Patusan, a primitive, junglesque village which is part of an eastern or Asian geography.
Two main themes of the book run in parallel fashion, notwithstanding the antipodean facets. One of these themes is romanticism or more specifically bovarysme, in particular, the infixed quality of bovarysme. The second main theme is curtly described as patronage. Patronization is detailed via the novel’s realist style and also, partly, by Jim as a synecdochic representation of the whole of western society.
The western, occidental societal become patrons to the primitive, the autochthonal. ( The facts or rationale regarding this patronization may be debatable but the west as patron is the presumptive starting point of the novel’s depiction. ) It seems safe to say British colonialism is bound up with this patronizing theme, but to consider the theme as specifically colonialism is to ascribe too much political importance to the theme, as well as to not ascribe enough importance to the ‘inalienable enfranchisement’ aspect of the patronage. ( I use ‘inalienable enfranchisement’ because ‘autonomy’ and ‘self-rule’, although apt and synonymous, seem to me to be, at the present time, buzzwords and rather heedless and dismissing of the importance of individuation. Instead of trying to dig ‘autonomy’ and ‘self-rule’ out of an encasement of heedlessness I simply relabeled the concept ‘inalienable enfranchisement’. )
“He [Jim] must have led a most exalted existence. Can you fancy it? A succession of adventures, so much glory, such a victorious progress! And the deep
sense of his sagacity crowning everyday of his inner life.” 3
The cornerstone of this extenuating lies with the ternion relationship between Jim, Marlowe, and another character, Stein. A continuum exists which all 3 occupy. While Jim sits at one end – the romantic end – of this continuum, Stein sits at the other end which is not inappropriately although somewhat vaguely labeled resourcefulness or felicitous. Marlowe occupies someplace between Jim and Stein i.e. the middle of the continuum; This suggests Marlowe as having notions of both the romantic and the felicitous, which I believe Marlowe exhibits.
Stein, a character of some business acumen, creates in the midst of a tribal setting an effective and functional commercial enterprise. Jim, after taking a working position associated with Stein transcends his bovarysme inclinations and develops a felicity consequent of Stein’s felicitousness. Jim becomes less daydreaming and more workmanlike, less abiding more assertive. As a result of this new-found pragmatism, Jim becomes, like Stein, somewhat gilded. The Patusan natives have taken to referring to Jim as ‘Lord Jim’.
Despite this apparent transformation, there is an infixed quality of the bovarysme, which I will get to shortly but first something about the patronage theme.
This is the narrator and character Marlowe describing Jim’s bovarysme at the book’s beginnings. The bovarysme mindset is evinced by Marlowe as maladjusted and Marlowe is a bit exasperated by it. Because of the facets of maladjustment the novel portrays a process of extenuating the romanticism, what might otherwise be considered a maturation – or if you’re a bit more cynical a relinquishment.
Lord Jim© is mostly an attitude. The attitude centers around patronization as an issue of ‘havoc created’. It is the seeming dismissal of inalienable enfranchisement within the patronal relationship which piques Conrad’s interest.
Patronization as an issue within
“at the call of an idea they had left their forests, their clearings, the protection of their rulers, their prosperity, their poverty, the surroundings of their youth and the graves of their fathers. “4
Say one takes a hammer to a fix a piece of china. Not only will the china likely be broke but the ignorant use of the hammer may engender other negligent uses.
In the case of the west’s high-minded sympathizing, the ‘call of an idea’ becomes profiteering, gain and influence, and the like. Like a rabid contagion, western patronage becomes, rather than ministrating, dogmatic and opportunistic. The character of Brown – he of the ‘mad self-love’ – seems an example of this rabid mindset. Jim, Brierly, and Stein all evidence, at least occasionally, strangeness which contravenes generic claims of western superiority or exemplar status.
For Conrad the autochthonal losses are tragic on levels both individual and societal . The nature of Burkian organic society being eclipsed by the sudden messianic attendance of the west and an imprudence of the associated patronal.
Another illustration of the imperiousness of western conceits is the tribunal at the grounding of the ship Patma. Themes of titularly judicious white men meting out decrees, a spectacle of indigenous onlookers with no apparent stake mirroring the neoteric west’s interloping among indigenous peoples and lands, utilitarian concerns overwhelming more august notions, all suggest an, at best, idleness and an, at worst, misguidedness of the western societal.
This quote actually refers to a Muslim population which ostensibly esteems the west. Yet like much of literature, the quote is also something of an inferential. In this case, the inferential is in the form of circumlocution . Replacing the subject of Muslim esteem of the west and its associated pilgrimage with western patronizing of the indigenous and its associated beneficent, the quote serves a different connotation. The west, in its patronage of the primitive situation, is the entity acting ‘at the call of an idea’. From this ‘call’ one can infer that – rather than a Muslim pilgrimage – the west is on an ostensible pilgrimage in its patronal relationships with indigenous, autochthonic societies. Admittedly, the pilgrimage has intents of charitableness, beneficence, and aiding. However, to a significant extent, this patronal is also an interloping. The west’s interloping – no matter how well intended – disturbs an autochthonous, organic, societal developement. This despite the developement being an eventuation which the west itself and all of the world has undergone and is even now undergoing. (This sentiment implies some superficial take or understanding by me of the organic society of Edmund Burke.) The interloping is not only adverse to the organic developement of the autochthonic but also ends up – in its misguided ministration – transforming the west itself.
“He [ Jim or the synedochic white, western world which Jim represents] – he – he comes here devil knows from where – comes here – devil knows why – to trample on me till I die – ah – trample (he stamped softly with both feet), trample like this – nobody knows why – till I die . . .” 5
Within patronage, one party is more powerful than the other. Does that power entail virtuousness? Are westerners and the facts of their choices, values, claims, etc. an optimization of life? Is the west a ‘tour de force’, a ‘piece de resistance’?
“Felicity, felicity – how shall I say it – is quaffed out of a golden cup in every latitude: the flavor is with you – with you alone, and you can make it as intoxicating as you please.” 6
All the west’s wealth and know-how cannot brake an interloping and trespassive nature to its patronage.
Infixed quality of romanticism
Concerning the romantic-minded, we left off with Jim transformed from the romantic into something more felicitous and pragmatic. So, is Jim cured of the maladjusted romantic ? It seems not. Conrad details the infixed nature of Jim’s romanticism which seems affixed with the western experience. Westernism engendered Jim’s romanticism, westernism burst the bubble of his romanticism, and unfortunately for Jim, westernism returns – like the aforementioned plague or contagion – as Marlowe visits Jim and his new-found pragmatism in the backwoods of Patusan. During Marlowe’s visit the interloping nature of western concerns reignites within Jim a romanticism detrimental to his newly pragmatic ways.
“you take a different view of your actions when you come to understand, when you are made [sic] to understand everyday that your existence is necessary – you see, absolutely necessary – to another person. . . . And me finding her like this – as you may go out for a stroll and come suddenly upon somebody drowning in a lonely dark place . . . No time to lose. . . I believe I am equal to it.” 7
Compare this quote of Jim’s to the above quote of note 3. Marlowe is characterizing Jim: ‘a most exalted existence’, ‘so much glory, such a victorious progress’, and ‘deep sense of his sagacity’. The similarities are unmistakable. The felicitous, pragmatic Jim cannot save himself from Marlowe’s – and by inference – the west’s interloping. It seems the romanticism of Jim is of an infixed nature beget of western engagements. ( This interpretation speaks to Rousseauian man; Man made ill by engaging a misguided, or worse, corrupt societal. )
Recall the fiction writers adage ‘show rather than tell’. In telling is a more objective project, while showing is a rather more subjective aspiration . Were fiction writ more objectively it is likely not to be fiction but rather something more essayistic. So, ‘showing’ is an essential aspect of the subjective which in turn is also an essential aspect of fiction. Marlowe as narrator is ‘telling’ but as character Marlowe is ‘showing.’ Marlowe’s showing is in keeping with subjective qualities. So, while Marlowe tells – thus performing a discoursive, ontological facet – he is also showing. It is in this excogitative, ontological showing of Marlowe’s that we experience an aesthetic. Conrad, not likely intentfully but nonetheless manifestly, is sharing with the reader the experience; In the same way an author might share with the reader a natural setting or various charactorial empathies thus creating an aesthetic, so too is the sharing of Marlowe’s excogatative, monologic narration an aesthetic. In other words, there is beauty within the oracle.
It may be modernism is or will be distinguished by a realization of ontology as having an aesthetic quality which in its expressive attempts transcends knowledge itself. Maybe it goes beyond the aesthetical, with the thematic becoming the aesthetical and/or the aesthetical becoming the thematic. Maybe this interoperability of the literary elements will be modernism’s impartment.
Though published nearly 20 years before WW I Conrad confronts disillusionments similar to those of the fin-de-sicle and the ‘lost generation’ era. Lord Jim© doesn’t have the answers to such an era. Sometimes it languishes with understandable uncertainties, probably not unlike other modernist literature, yet Conrad obviously attempts to prevail over the languishment. The effort does seem both herculean and tranquil. Herculean of necessity, yet tranquil in its seeming awareness an ineluctable inadequacy attends the effort. Yet the effort evidences literature’s value. That literature has remained valuable to us over the decades is, in part, due to the exigency and efforts of people like Joseph Conrad.
Earlier, I mentioned an ontological aspect along with the antipodal. It is an excogitative, ontological extent which most accompanies the novel. Even more important than the extent of the ontological is the character of this ontological. Generally, I think of the ontological as something of a thematic, contemplative facet. What can we know? How can we know it?, etc. But Conrad through the character narrator Marlowe turns the thematic of ontology into an aesthetic of ontology.
1 Lord Jim, Joseph Conrad, © 1993 Wordsworth Editions Limited, Ware, Hertfordshire, England
2 Ibid, pg. 13
3 Ibid, pg. 60
4 Ibid, pg. 10
5 Ibid, pg. 205
6 Ibid, pg. 110
7 Ibid, pg. 190
Other consulted material
‘The Moral Sense in Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim’, George A. Panichas http://www.nhinet.org/pani13-1.pdf
‘Beyond the Bildungsroman: Character Development and Communal Legitimation in the Early Fiction of Joseph Conrad’, Tobias Boes tobiasboes.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/25758969.pdf
‘Social Action Theory’ http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/sociology/theories-in-sociology/social-action-theory/
‘Edmund Burke: Conservative Statesman Par Excellence’ http://www.edmundburkeinstitute.org/edmundburke.htm