The Power of Conrad
“That man there seemed to be aware of his hopeless difficulty,” Marlow said of Lord Jim, upon first looking at him. The same can be said of Conrad, upon first reading him. But if we pursue Conrad’s novels with the tenacity with which Marlow pursued the essence of Lord Jim, we can find what Marlow could not, will can find, “Some profound redeeming cause, some merciful explanation, some convincing shadow of an excuse.”
In Hillis Miller’s essay on Lord Jim in Fiction and Repetition, he argues that there is no linear or Aristotelian movement to the novel, but instead, a repetitive circular movement, around which Jim remains on the Horizon, out of grasp. This is deliberate, Miller argues, as is evident by Conrad’s use of repetition, which consciously does not give us a linear timeline, nor Aristotelian plot; but instead weaves a novel out of un-chronological stories, which rap around Jim, and Marlow’s feelings toward Jim, so that Jim is constantly shrouded to us. While we, with Marlow, repeatedly come to the same conclusion about Jim, with every successive story, we get no closer to him as the novel progresses, Miller argues.
The problem with this interpretation is that Miller gives too much weight to the novel’s self-explication. This self-explication comes in the monologues of Marlow as he tries to explain Jim’s psychology to himself and his audience. But the art of Conrad lies beyond the novel’s self-explications, which are just a hint at the deepest levels of the novel. While Marlow does not get closer to explicating Jim’s true psychology through the novel, he does become increasingly horrified by it; which is a clue to the reader to ask why. And the place to look is not in the explications of Marlow, but in the stories of Marlow. This is where Conrad’s art begins to shine through his shrouded novels. There is a narrator greater than Marlow in these stories, even greater than the omniscient narrator of the first few chapters; That narrator is the Conrad himself, who arranges the sequence of the stories and explications of Marlow in such a way, that while Marlow becomes more terrified and less willing to explicated them, the stories themselves become more telling, progressing our understanding of Jim as the novel progresses. As Conrad said in the Heart of Darkness, “If you focus on the surface things, the reality – the reality, I tell you – fades.” When reading a Conrad novel, one must look beyond the plot, into the workings of the art itself, to understand its deepest levels; and if one does that with a Conrad novel, as Cedric Watts says, “One will be rewarded for ones careful reading.”
For the most part, in Watts’ study of Conrad, The Deceptive Text, Watts refers to covert plots, arguing that once these covert plots are discovered, they reveal Conrad’s novels to be more complex and highly ordered than they seem on the surface. This is true, but he does not choose the most fruitful places to look for these plots. He generally looks for them in the stories of the narrators: in the narrator’s motivations, in the narrator’s ability to move throughout time and place, etc.; but the deepest levels of Conrad’s novels, which reveal the most complexity and highest order, are in the covert plots of the art itself. Once these artistic plots are discerned with the careful readings Watts describes, the Aristotelian progressions Miller was looking for becomes clear, and the power of Conrad can be felt.
The power of Conrad is his ability to cut to the universal emotions of his conflicted characters, causing us to identify with them immediately. Before the shrouding begins, before the repetitions and horrors begin, Conrad clearly shows us the emotional states of his characters. In Under Western Eyes we feel the terror of having everything ripped from us by a random, uncontrollable force, totally altering our lives. In Lord Jim we feel the anguish of feeling like ones life and oneself is morally unconscionable. The exploration of this emotion is particularly pertinent among Conrad’s themes to the post-colonial world. Like Marlow tells his story of Jim, “Many times, in different parts of the world,” so Conrad’s grand tale is applicable many times, in many parts of the world. It applies to the post-colonial world in that Lord Jim becomes disillusioned with the world of the British Empire similarly to how Westerners have become disillusioned with the post-colonial world. Lord Jim loses his romantic notions of himself when he jumps from the Patna, and he also loses his romantic notions of the system on which his self-image was built: the noble travel novels of his youth, and the noble British Empire, and becomes disillusioned. Similarly, many Westerners realize that their flourishing society is the same society that devastated many other nations and peoples, and they simultaneously lose their romantic ideas of Western Culture, and – since we are all products of our culture – lose romantic ideas of themselves as well. Readers are immediately drawn in by Conrad’s ability to capture such a universal feeling of disillusionment, and want to see where he takes this thread. Indeed he does take it in enlightening directions, but he does so shrouded in his unique art – in a modernist style of art, which is intentionally not linear, but that if followed, reveals an even deeper exploration of this emotion than could arise from a linear telling.
If one were to follow the cues that Miller does in his explication of Lord Jim: Marlow’s repetitive assertions of ambiguity, as Marlow says, “The views he let me have of himself were like those glimpses through the shifting rents in a thick for – bits of vivid and vanishing detail, giving no connected idea of the general aspect of a country;” than one would not see how Conrad does get closer and closer to Jim’s emotions throughout the novel. Marlow expresses Jim’s actions and emotions the same throughout the novel: as confusing. He always searches for a lesson in Jim’s story: “You may call it an unhealthy curiosity if you like; but I have a distinct notion I wished to find something in Jim, some profound redeeming cause, some merciful explanation, some convincing shadow of an excuse:” but he never finds that. In stead, he goes in circles telling Jim’s stories, using the same rhetoric with each one. But when the covert plot beneath this repetitious main plot is discerned, we can follow Jim’s explorations through Conrad’s arrangement of the stories themselves, and takes Marlow’s horrified mutterings as cues to what we should find there.
“He had no business to look so sound,” says Marlow as Jim begins his wanderings, moving from place to place, job to job, trying to feel settled. But as Marlow points out, he was not, he was never settled, he was aware of his hopeless difficulty, and had no business looking so sound. Jim did not feel settled living among any of the civilized places arranged for him. Any mention of his abandoning the Patna caused him to flee. But to recognize this only as far as Marlow’s words go – as an ambiguous psychological ailment – is only to read half the story. Jim could not stay in any of these places, because they were all still part of the civilized world, and in them, any mention, any murmur, or any look that reminded him of his error, reminded him of his self-asserted fallen state, and his culture’s façade of nobility.
“He was simply a romantic, it was so clear,” Marlow decides when Stein presents the idea. It is a valid assessment of Jim’s character, but it is merely a repetition of things Marlow had said before, bringing him no closer to understanding Jim’s emotional state than any other repetition had, as Miller would point out. But if one reads beyond this main-plot as conveyed by Marlow, into the story commenced by this meeting between he and Stein, a still deeper level of Jim’s disillusionment is revealed. That story is of Jim’s retreat to the uncivilized world, where he finds the first place he can remain without guilt; and finds the first thing he can do that makes him feel justified: he serves an uncivilized peoples. This action cuts to the heart of Jim’s disillusionment, and need for redemption, and is again a mirror for post-colonial westerners, who often find justification in serving peoples of the nations their culture has decimated.
“He goes away from a living woman to celebrate his pitiless wedding with a shadowy ideal of conduct,” Marlow observes at the end of Jim’s story. Noting Marlow’s word choice, one could easily argue Miller’s point – this phrasing still sounds so vague that it can be construed as a repetition of earlier misunderstanding of Jim by Marlow. But if one has followed the thread of Jim’s personal, emotional struggle, then this action is a step deeper into the chilling reality of Jim’s mind. While living with the uncivilized society, Jim had cultivated a life he felt justified in, and even more importantly, he had cultivated a relationship with another human being. But when he realizes that even in that capacity he cannot stop senseless, inhuman destruction, he gives up, and resigns to death. Instead of being satisfied that he could overcome the inhumanity he so despises on a personal level, with a living woman, he takes the ultimate turn of dissatisfaction – death – because he cannot extend the humanity he has found in love, to all mankind.
The power of Conrad is his ability to cut to the universal emotions of his conflicted characters, to make us feel their anguish. And the art of Conrad is his ability to take these most horrifying of universal emotions, and not simply show us how they can ruin a life, but make us feel it, and understand the follies in it, if we can follow his illusive threads. Conrad is a tireless storyteller, his novels contain stories about stories, about stories in stories, by characters in stories, told by story-tellers, all wrapped up in a story, told by another story-teller, overheard by yet another story-teller, written down by a third, read by a fourth, and re-told by a fifth. In this repetition a reader can easily get lost, feeling like he’s getting no closer to the heart of the novel, or one can see that the horrified responses of these story teller, and these shifts in perspective – like the great shift from story-telling to a crowd, to writing to a lone-skeptic in Lord Jim – are indications to the deepest levels of the novel, the covert plots, that if discovered, are infinitely rewarding because we can see the power of Conrad, the power to put the most horrific aspects of ourselves before us with his characters, and explore them.