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

Saturday, January 28, 2017

‘The Beautiful And Damned’ And ‘Lord Jim’–Tales Of Illusion, Courage, And Ignorance

Conrad’s Lord Jim is a story of the loss of innocence.  Jim’s innocence, however, was protected by an invulnerable shield of fantasy.  As a young man he felt he was marked for bravery, heroism, leadership and courage; and invented fantasies that, despite actions that suggested that he was far from this ideal vision of himself, he held on to.  In his dreams he was a child of destiny.  The world, no matter how intrusive, mean, desperate, and destructive, could never touch him. 

Not only did his fantasies betray him, but the reality that existed behind them destroyed him.  Not only was he unable to heroically save anyone on board the Patna, he jumped ship as it began to founder with a cargo of 800 pilgrims.  He was derelict of duty and a coward; and for the rest of his life he tried to expiate his crime and to seek a redemption which eluded him.  His death, although caused by a former ally and admirer, was in fact suicide.  Facing him was the only honorable thing to do and a final end to his search for atonement.  He went to his death not only out of a desire to take the punishment that was due him; but in a final act of illusion.  He might be the hero that he had imagined; but the courage to do the right thing even if it meant his death was heroism enough.


Jim’s was an odyssey of self-realization and self-knowledge.  He was obsessed by the nature of his failure and felt that he had not only betrayed the pilgrims on board the Patna but mankind.  Given the gravity of his sin, it is no wonder that he could find no way to atone for it.  Only death would do. 
“Jim never ceases to react to charges of cowardice and irresponsibility; never ceases to strive earnestly to prove his moral worthiness. He never seems to be in a state of repose, is always under pressure, always examining his tensive state of mind and soul. Self-illumination rather than self-justification or even self-rehabilitation, is his central aim, and he knows too that such a process molds his own efforts and pain” (George Panichas)
“Not so much a case of self-deception as self-discovery…Jim’s discoveries produce defiance, indeed revolt, and thus impart a heroic resonance to the story of his life and death (Jacques Berthoud)
The acquaintances of Jim had different views of his leaving the ship while it was foundering.  A French Lieutenant thought that because he had broken a strict moral code, that he could never be forgiven regardless of the verdict of the courts and no matter how Jim fought to right his conscience.  Chester, an old sea hand, wondered what all the fuss was about.  Jim’s actions, although wrong, were no worse than those of the other officers who had also jumped ship, lied about their dereliction, escaped justice and presumably went on to lead lives uncomplicated by guilt.

Brierly, a respected sea captain who testified at Jim's trial, an extremely moral man of discipline and rectitude, saw Jim’s actions as so reprehensible and abhorrent that the entire code of conduct according to which he led his entire career was so easily abrogated, that he killed himself rather than live with the ugly truth.

But Jim was more complex than any of these men, his accusers, or at least those who could not understand anyone who could be two characters in one – someone who believed in fantasy and illusion but who could face the ugly world.  Someone who respected a code of discipline and honor, but one who defied it.  Marlow describes Jim this way:
At that moment it was difficult to believe in Jim's existence--starting from a country parsonage, blurred by crowds of men as by clouds of dust, silenced by the clashing claims of life and death in a material world--but his imperishable reality came to me with a convincing, with an irresistible force! I saw it vividly, as though in our progress through the lofty silent rooms amongst fleeting gleams of light and the sudden revelations of human figures stealing with flickering flames within unfathomable and pellucid depths, we had approached nearer to absolute Truth, which, like Beauty itself, floats elusive, obscure, half submerged, in the silent still waters of mystery.
There was indeed something tragic and grand about Jim, something beautiful and unique.  He was indeed someone of courage, defiant morality.  Stein admires Jim for his romance and illusions; because he knows that the world has too much ordinariness.  Jim was an artist, a philosophical painter; and like tortured geniuses died for the sake of his art.

Anthony Patch, the main character of Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned is also a man of fantasy and illusion; but Anthony is a vulgar, arrogant, and ignorant man who believes in what he feels his entitlement.  As grandson to a great man and future inheritor of his wealth, Patch  feels he is, in Marlow’s words, ‘one of us’ – an aristocrat with breeding, culture, and education.  But although he comes from a storied family, has a Harvard education, and is a polished member of New York society, he has none of Jim’s intelligence, sensibility, courage, or insight.

Image result for images cover the beautiful and the damned

Patch is certain that he will inherit millions and therefore he sees no need to work.  He and his wife Gloria party and spend, but when they find out that Anthony’s  grandfather has disinherited him because of disreputable behavior, neither he nor his wife can change their ways.  He remains trapped in the illusion that he is man of substance and worth, that his ships will come in, and that anything other than life of leisure and good taste would be beneath him.

As their resources dwindle and they begin to draw down on their capital, they move to more and more modest apartments until finally, after years of indolence and drink, he becomes an outcast, rejected by his now successful former party friends, a bum.  He has fallen to the bottom, but still fiercely maintains the illusion that he is fundamentally a man of worth. 

In Lord Jim, Chester says words mean nothing, and men must be judged entirely on their actions.  He had no sympathy for Jim for there could be no denying the fundamental fact of his desertion.  Although Stein and Marlow understood that  complex characters like Jim could never be judged by such simplistic measures, they too could not deny the facts.

Anthony Patch was only words.  His feeble attempts at employment were short-lived because of his impatience with the whole idea of work, menial and for the lower classes.  He refused to act and deserved his unhappy fate.

After Anthony Patch finally receives his inheritance, he has gone mad and cannot enjoy his riches.   Moreover despite his reverses, he has not learned a thing.  He is as obtuse and ignorant as he was at the beginning of his story.  The last lines of the book are these:
But the man in the plaid cap was quite wrong. Anthony Patch, sitting near the rail and looking out at the sea, was not thinking of his money, for he had seldom in his life been really preoccupied with material vainglory, nor of Edward Shuttleworth, for it is best to look on the sunny side of these things. No—he was concerned with a series of reminiscences, much as a general might look back upon a successful campaign and analyze his victories. He was thinking of the hardships, the insufferable tribulations he had gone through. They had tried to penalize him for the mistakes of his youth. He had been exposed to ruthless misery, his very craving for romance had been punished, his friends had deserted him—even Gloria had turned against him. He had been alone, alone—facing it all.
Only a few months before people had been urging him to give in, to submit to mediocrity, to go to work. But he had known that he was justified in his way of life—and he had stuck it out staunchly. Why, the very friends who had been most unkind had come to respect him, to know he had been right all along. Had not the Lacys and the Merediths and the Cartwright-Smiths called on Gloria and him at the Ritz-Carlton just a week before they sailed?
Great tears stood in his eyes, and his voice was tremulous as he whispered to himself.
"I showed them," he was saying. "It was a hard fight, but I didn't give up and I came through!"
He had not ‘come through’.  He survived no thanks to himself, his courage or his endurance (a favorite theme of Conrad).  The years-long court case to reverse his disinheritance was ruled in his favor, and thirty millions were his. 

Unlike Jim who knew exactly who he was when he faced his final bullet, Anthony Patch had no clue.  His madness ironically would prevent him from enjoying his gains, and would lock him into a dark, resentful, and bitter older age.

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