Conrad and the Darkness
One of Conrad’s ever-present themes is submersion into the negative – the submersion of his characters, his readers, and himself, into the negative aspects of life, the negative sides of the imagination, the darkness. This theme is particularly clear in Lord Jim, The Heart of Darkness, and The Secret Sharer. “The imagination can be one of those most negative forces,” Conrad says at the beginning of Lord Jim. “He has to live in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is also the detestable,” Conrad states at the start of The Heart of Darkness. And, in The Secret Sharer, Conrad takes this theme to the very limits: “I won’t say in the shadow of the land, but in the very blackness of it, already swallowed up as it were, gone too close to be recalled, gone from me altogether.” But just as this theme is explored in all three of these works, it is progressed in Conrad’s imaginative and artistic growth from the furthest, Lord Jim, to the latest, The Secret Sharer.
Conrad says of his own artistic pursuits:
The artists’ appeal is less loud, more profound, less distinct, more stirring – and sooner forgotten (than the essayist). Yet its effect endures forever. The changing wisdom of successive generations discards ideas, questions facts, demolishes theories. But the artist appeals to that part of our being which is not dependent on wisdom; to that in us which is a gift and not an acquisition – and therefore, more permanently enduring. He speaks to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives: to our sense of pity, and beauty, and pain: to the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation – and to the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts: to the solidarity in dreams, in joy, in sorrow, in aspirations, in illusions, in hope, in fear, which binds men to each other, which binds together all humanity – the dead to the living and the living to the unborn.
As I said in my essay on Lord Jim, that is the power of Conrad: to cut to the heart of universal emotions. And when he does this, his force lasts throughout generations, from the dead to the unborn. If we take this as a standard by which to judge the success of his work, we can definitively see that he progressed his artistic pursuit for the negative side of the imagination, and the reconciliation thereof with the positive, from Lord Jim, to The Heart of Darkness, and finally, to The Secret Sharer.
To follow the thread I drew out from Lord Jim, Conrad’s exploration of the negative side of the imagination is particularly pertinent to the post colonial world, because the negative power of the imagination that haunted Lord Jim haunts Kurtz, The Narrator of The Secret Sharer, and us – modern readers. It haunts modern readers because we realize the same thing that all three of Conrad’s characters realized – that our nations laws may not match our morals – that often there are dilemmas between the two when the wider implications are seen. Conrad dealt with one of the wider implications of this in Lord Jim – the tragedy of not allowing oneself to have a fulfilling personal life despite shadowy dilemmas of ideals. In The Heart of Darkness, he explores another element. And in The Secret Sharer Conrad gives us his final word on the issue.
Lord Jim submerges himself in the negative and becomes completely lost in it, never to emerge again – he loses himself to the negative power of the imagination, plaguing himself with the follies of his culture, and the similar follies of himself. In this work, Conrad’s character, Lord Jim, does not escape from that horror; And Conrad’s narrator, Marlow, does not find a hint of justification in it; Leaving the reader with a tragic “final effect” – to use Conrad’s words – resonating from this quote, “He goes away from a living woman to celebrate his pitiless wedding with a shadowy ideal of conduct.”
In The Heart of Darkness, Kurtz has a similar fate to that of Lord Jim’s. Kurtz falls prey to a separate ailment of the negative power of the imagination than Lord Jim. They both realize the darkness inherent in their country’s laws and power. But where Jim becomes depressed with his ability to do wrong therein, Marlow becomes obsessed with it. And at the end of The Heart of Darkness, Marlow finds a spark of something that he could not find at the end of Lord Jim.
At the end of Heart of Darkness, Kurtz comes to see the horror of imperialism itself, and the effect it has had on him. He realizes that in abusing the Africans’ humanity, he was abusing his own humanity, and his country was doing the same. This is why Kurtz was a remarkable man: because even after his submersion into the negative, he could use his positive imagination to articulate the horror of it, in the simplest of terms, in those two words, “The Horror, The Horror.” It is in these words that Marlow finds a way to redeem Kurt’s submergence in the negative, from which Kurtz himself could never return. Marlow does so by lying to Kurtz’s wife at the end of the novel, “The last thing he said was – your name.” This comment is at best ambiguous, but at worst only disquieting. It is not horrible – it shows that Marlow could see the horror, and still progress a positive ideal – comforting a living woman. The reason this is still no better than ambiguous, is because the progression of the positive ideal is not carried out by the character who actually saw the horror, the one that submerged himself in the negative – Kurtz himself. Instead, it is given to us by a separate narrator, the one that heard the horror – Marlow himself. But that is Conrad’s art, and we can see that it has gotten even more powerful in making us feel the negative side of the imagination as it has gotten a step-closer to reconciling the negative and positive sides of life – the realistic and the ideal.
To me, there is no mistaking the feeling we get from those words, “The horror, the horror.” That feeling has been ignored – put aside – by critics such as Chinwa Achebe, who think that Kurtz was horrified by the Africans themselves, and horrified by having to identify with them on the basest levels – and thus having to identify immaculate Western culture with beastly African culture – but as Conrad said, “If a critic’s conscience is busy with petty scruples and trammeled by superficial formulas, then his judgment will be superficial and petty.” Conrad, as he said himself about his art, was not trying to propose a theory about humanity, for theories change; he was doing something more lasting, he was capturing a feeling of despair, and he did it beautifully and unmistakably with Kurtz’s last words.
Possibly the only feeling Conrad captured more beautifully, is the feeling we get at the end of The Secret Sharer, where I feel Jim’s death and Kurtz’s horror is redeemed a bit, because there is an unmistakable feeling of redemption swimming with the negative side of the imagination in these words:
Walking to the taffrail, I was in time to make out, on the very edge of darkness thrown by a towering black mass like the very gateway of Erebus – yes, I was in time to catch an evanescent glimpse of my white hat left behind to mark the spot where the secret sharer of my cabin and of my thoughts, as though he were my second self, had lowered himself into the water to take his punishment: a free man, a proud swimmer striking out for a new destiny.
In The Secret Sharer Conrad grabs the marrow of his theme, and delivers it to us most directly, and with the most power. In this story, there is no narrator separating us from the character that submerges himself in the negative, the first-person narrator himself does so, and so we, and Conrad, go with him. It is the unnamed narrator, the everyman, who finds his double in a murderer. At the beginning of the story, the narrator asks himself, “Whether it was wise ever to interfere with the established routine of duties even from the kindest of motives.” This is central to Conrad’s ever-present theme. Is it? Is law infallible, or should one suspend the law to follow ones principles? The tragedy of Lord Jim is that he could not suspend his shadowy code of law, which he saw disintegrate under scrutiny, to stay with a living woman, and thus willingly walks to his death. But the narrator of The Secret Sharer is willing to suspend the law to follow his principles, and just like we would have felt Jim justified in doing so for a living woman, we feel The Secret Sharer’s narrator is justified in doing so, even for a murderer. Because of Conrad’s art, it is illusive why we think so: there are no solid moorings in the text upon which to tie a belief in this murderer, but we feel that saving him is the only morally defensible thing the narrator can do; and the story justifies this suspicion, when doing so saves the narrator’s life, and, “No one in the world should stand now between us, throwing a shadow on the way of silent knowledge and mute affection, the perfect communion of a seaman with his first command.” This seaman succeeds on his first command exactly how Lord Jim fails, and he succeeds by embracing the negative side of the imagination, and using the bearing of that speck upon the sea as a means of navigation: “And I watched the hat – the expression of my sudden pity for his mere flesh. It had been meant to save his homeless head from the dangers of the sun. And now – behold – it was saving the ship, by serving me for a mark to help out the ignorance of my strangeness.”This is a highly metaphorical passage, like all of Conrad’s writing, and his metaphors are shrouded in the same ambiguity as his narratives, but the immediacy of those metaphors are not shrouded, they are instantly accessible in the “final effect,” which we feel as we fall into those bottomless metaphors of Conrad’s. And this is exactly what Conrad thought most important about art.
And because of that – because Conrad achieved his artistic pursuit more wholly there than in any other place – its effect is most lasting and most meaningful. At the end of The Secret Sharer we feel that one can submerge oneself in the negative and pull through, and be all the better for it – we feel that we can embrace the negative aspects of our life and still live rich, fulfilling, positive lives. We feel that we can reconcile the things Jim could not: that though our law may be morally indefensible, we can live morally defensible lives, doing the right thing on a personal individual level. Of course, that final metaphorical passage could be examined forever, to find new conclusions, but it is that feeling, the feeling of art, that is most important, and Conrad’s last words on the issue of the negative power of the imagination were those: saying that it can be reconciled with the positive: He made us feel that: and that is the power of Conrad.