"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Conrad’s ‘The Secret Sharer’ And The Myth Of Uniqueness


Most of us are convinced that we are unique.  The most religious of us believe that we are God’s special creations, each endowed with a personally exclusive soul and each striving for perfection and salvation in our own ways.  The most secular see human beings as a random collection of genes and experiences which, while unique, have no particular purpose except for the continuation of the species.



It is hard not to buy into the culture of uniqueness.  After all, except for identical twins we share little enough genetic material to make us very much like our siblings.  Yes, there is the Blakely nose or the Sider eyes, but if one were to track the trajectories of those members of even the closest families, the lines would be incoherent tangles.  Once one leaves the genetic nest, general humanity is a diverse hodge-podge of behavior, culture, color, and preference.  Moreover very individual within these circles is as unique and different as any other.  The permutations of possibility are infinite.  

Yet despite these significant personal differences are we really that unique?  For one thing we are all endowed with human nature which, for better or worse, is aggressive, territorial, self-protective and self-interested and has been for the million or so years of human history.   Every human being through every stage of his life exhibits the same, predictable, and apparently ineluctable traits.  Toddlers compete for attention and their fair share.  Adolescents fight for respect and identity.  Adults contest everything. 

Every bit of human history and every significant piece of drama or fiction repeat the same story over and over again.  Shakespeare’s Histories, laid out in chronological order from end to end chronicle the familiar, predictable and repetitive lives of kings.  John, Henry IV, Richard II, and Henry VIII might all have been unique in their particular wars, wives, and court intrigues; but war, arranged marriages, and palace plots are common to all. 



Albee, O’Neill, Williams, Ibsen, Strindberg, and Lillian Hellman’s dramatic families are all very different, live in different ages and countries, and are conditioned by culture, tradition, and economics.  Yet they all are beset by internal competition for wealth, power, and influence.  The characters  most expressive of this very aggressive human nature – Goneril, Regan, Volumnia, Tamora, Cleopatra, Hedda Gabler, Laura, Richard II, and Miss Julie – are really no different from anyone else except for their absolute willful amorality.

For another thing we are all products of family and long before Freud dissected it and its powerful formative nature, Sophocles wrote about Oedipus and the tragic consequences of maternal love and paternal jealousy.  Hamlet is nothing if not a play about psychologically incestuous jealousy.  The Prince does not so much despises his uncle but hates his mother for sharing his bed.   Edward Albee called marriage the crucible of maturity.  There is no escape from the confines of family and the jealousies, suspicions, and hatreds that they encourage.  Yet without the experience of family, one would be ill-prepared to face the outside world.


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In other words since families are the same biological and social units throughout the world and throughout human history, they necessarily must act in the same ways upon us all.   We, if Freud and Oedipus are right,  all want to sleep with our mothers and kill our fathers.  Women are Daddy’s girls until they die; and men fight with their fathers until their own end. 

Families are at the center of the concentric circles of society, and their patterns of behavior are repeated throughout the system.  Offices, churches, and voluntary associations are all similar in their organizational structure and all operate on the same principles which have held families together – authority, respect, obedience, structure, and well-defined roles.  Countries necessarily follow the rules of human nature, society, and organization.

The concept of free will has been debated for millennia.  Either we have it or we don’t, but except for the most committed determinist, we all believe we do.  Only I can choose to pick up the pencil or not; eat or not eat; cross at the crosswalk or through traffic.  Whatever confected me – God or randomness – I am still the composite product of an infinite number of gene pairings and past experiences. 

A young friend of mine travelled to a rarely-visited quarter of Washington, DC to a restaurant that was recently opened and known only through a few, not necessarily reliable sources.  It was small, out-of-the-way, and edgy.  It was still a local restaurant featuring soul food, some Salvadoran entrees, but with the arrival of a new chef had introduced some California items. 

My friend would be one of the first to discover it.  He would be unique in his choice and that choice would validate his personal image as an urban risk-taker, on the leading edge of social trends.
Everyone seated at the restaurant looked exactly like him.  The same clothes, hair style, demeanor, tone of voice, choice of partner, and look of indifferent interest.  Not only was he not unique, he was part of a herd.

As people age, they follow their demographics.  Diners at the restaurants they prefer all tend to be older, white-haired, and subdued.   The same retired professionals whom they knew in their pre-retirement years attend the very same adult education classes.  Their preferences in literature, art, and economics parallel if not mirror theirs.

Most of us come to the inevitable conclusion that far from being unique, we are indeed part of a herd.   Others refuse to accept this ignominy and hang on like terriers to their particular political or social causes.  They admit that in their passionate commitment to the environment, progressivism, or world peace they are part of a movement, but it is this collectivity of individual, unique passions which gives it energy.

The Secret Sharer is a short novella by Joseph Conrad about the captain of small ship who rescues a naked swimmer whom he finds clinging to a ladder inadvertently left hanging aft.  The swimmer tells his story.  He has murdered a man out of rage at his ignorance and insolence which have put his ship, foundering in a gale, at risk of death.   After weeks in an onboard brig, the swimmer escapes and tries to make for the nearest island; but instead, near exhaustion but fortuitously comes upon the captain’s ship.



The captain develops an immediate bond with the swimmer, considers him his double and hides him from the ship’s crew until he can land him on a nearby island.   The swimmer looks nothing like the captain, nor acts like him; but nevertheless he senses an unexplainable kinship.  He always refers to him as ‘my double’.
He was not a bit like me, really; yet, as we stood leaning
over my bed place, whispering side by side, with our dark heads
together and our backs to the door, anybody bold enough to open
it stealthily would have been treated to the uncanny sight
of a double captain busy talking in whispers with his other self.
The captain cannot explain the kinship, but suggests it might have to do with strangeness and unease.
I didn't know either the ship or the people. Hadn't had the time in port to look about me or size anybody up. And as to the crew, all they knew was that I was appointed to take the ship home. For the rest, I was almost as much of a stranger on board as himself, I said. And at the moment I felt it most acutely. I felt that it would take very little to make me a suspect person in the eyes of the ship's company.
He had turned about meantime; and we, the two strangers in the ship,
faced each other in identical attitudes.
None of this was disconcerting to the captain, but consoling.  There was something important about discovering a double perhaps only because circumstance was far more important than simple similarity.

Yet there was far more to the kinship than the captain had realized.
I had become so connected in thoughts and impressions with the secret
sharer of my cabin that I felt as if I, personally, were being
given to understand that I, too, was not the sort that would
have done for the chief mate of a ship like the Sephora.
I had no doubt of it in my mind.
Inexplicably he and the swimmer were so much the same that they shared not only circumstance and nature but morality, justice, and right.  No greater bond or similarity could there be.
The sense of existential kinship increases as the ship nears the island where the swimmer is to be dropped; but the sense is not one of harmony but emotional dislocation.
This is not the place to enlarge upon the sensations of a man
who feels for the first time a ship move under his feet to his
own independent word. In my case they were not unalloyed.
I was not wholly alone with my command; for there was that stranger
in my cabin. Or rather, I was not completely and wholly with her.
Part of me was absent. That mental feeling of being in two
places at once affected me physically as if the mood of secrecy
had penetrated my very soul.
It get’s worse.  The captain begins to doubt the reality of the double and of himself.
For some time longer I sat in the cuddy. Had my double vanished
as he had come? But of his coming there was an explanation,
whereas his disappearance would be inexplicable. . . . I went
slowly into my dark room, shut the door, lighted the lamp,
and for a time dared not turn round. When at last I did I
saw him standing bolt-upright in the narrow recessed part.
It would not be true to say I had a shock, but an irresistible
doubt of his bodily existence flitted through my mind.
Can it be, I asked myself, that he is not visible to other eyes
than mine? It was like being haunted.
Finally the swimmer is let overboard to swim to shore; but in his escape from the ship, he loses his hat.  At the very moment the captain is desperately looking for anything floating thing to help him gauge headway, the hat appears.  The captain’s double, inadvertently, but meaningfully has saved him and the ship.
Walking to the taffrail, I was in time to make out, on the very edge
of a 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.
The fate of the swimmer, a free man, is not the destiny of the captain, for the first time alone with his ship again, and bonded with it.
The foreyards ran round with a great noise, amidst cheery cries.
And now the frightful whiskers made themselves heard giving various orders. Already the ship was drawing ahead. And I was alone with her.
Nothing! 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.

The discovery of a double, far from challenging  the captain’s sense of personal identity and worth, helps him to discover something about ineffability – circumstantial, temporal kinship which should have no lasting value but does.  The captain’s feeling of isolation from the ship and the crew – a stranger on board – disappears with the swimmer.  The short, happy, unexplained friendship has attuned him to other relationships – even to the ship – which to Conrad are more important than individuality or individual enterprise.

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