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Saturday, February 18, 2017

Joseph Conrad’s Vision Of Moral Order–Is Solidarity Enough?

Lord Jim broke the most sacred code of the sea – he abandoned ship as it was sinking with 800 pilgrims aboard – and led the rest of his life trying to atone for his sins, restore his dignity, and achieve the heroic dreams he had had long before the Patna incident.  Although he did indeed atone for his sins by bringing peace and civil accord to the colony of Patusan, the social cohesion he promoted was only temporary.  The arrival of Gentleman Brown, a malevolent transient disrupted and destroyed all Jim’s hopes for atonement and heroism.

Brown was a latter-day buccaneer, sorry enough, like his more celebrated prototypes; but what distinguished him from his contemporary brother ruffians, like Bully Hayes or the mellifluous Pease, or that perfumed, Dundreary-whiskered, dandified scoundrel known as Dirty Dick, was the arrogant temper of his misdeeds and a vehement scorn for mankind at large and for his victims in particular.
The others were merely vulgar and greedy brutes, but he seemed moved by some complex intention. He would rob a man as if only to demonstrate his poor opinion of the creature, and he would bring to the shooting or maiming of some quiet, unoffending stranger a savage and vengeful earnestness fit to terrify the most reckless of desperadoes.
Jim, who felt that giving Brown free passage out of the colony despite his obvious and continuing threat to it would be an act of generosity which would complete his image of heroism.  Not only did he lead a military battle against terrorists who threatened established rule and promote a more tolerant and respectful civil society after his victory; but this act of largesse would be the final testament to his honor and wisdom.  His legacy would be that of a general, a lord, a governor, and an enlightened leader.

It was not to be.  For all the seeming honor of his actions, they were only expressions of his fantasy.  Everyone but Jim could see that Brown was a treacherous, evil man, and that only treachery and evil would come from his release.

Brown indeed never leaves the colony but doubles back to slaughter – for no reason other than malignity and hatred – to slaughter sleeping members of the ruling tribe and the son of their chief, Doramin. Jim accepts the responsibility for the slaughter and dies willingly at the hand of Doramin.

The colony will certainly return to the social disorder, ethnic hatred, and civil dysfunction that had characterized it upon Jim’s arrival.

Jim had rejected solidarity when he abandoned the Patna.  By leaping into the lifeboat with the deserting captain and officers of the ship, he abandoned any and all respect for moral order, a civic code, and the rule of just laws.  His actions in Patusan were to be his final atonement for that dereliction.

The forces of evil, however, were to intrude upon his redemption.  Gentleman Brown summarily and remorselessly destroyed the growing civic cohesion encouraged by Jim. Evil declared Conrad, must be reckoned with, and there is never any guarantee that good will prevail.

In Victory Axel Heyst, influenced by his father’s cynicism and misanthropy, spends his early years – like Jim – wandering the Pacific in search of nothing, only avoiding the inevitably immoral, treacherous, and threatening life of society.   He, like Jim, feels that he has found a resting place, a small, tropical island far from the shipping lanes, visited only occasionally, forgotten by those who did stop, and ignored by everyone else.

He like Jim never expects his idyll to be violated.  He is unprepared for the arrival of Mr. Jones, Ricardo, and Pedro – pirates, murderers, and destroyers as malevolent and immoral as Gentleman Brown. 

At first Heyst refuses to believe that after years of successfully avoiding any possible confrontation with men like Jones, they have come to him – and a far more dangerous form than he ever could have imagined.  Not only is he threatened, but so is the girl he has rescued.

In an earlier moment of epiphany, Heyst helps out a stranger in need, feeling that by this act he has expunged all his father’s dark cynicism and moral despair.  His rescue of Lena is to finally put to rest his timorous view of the world and to live peaceably and harmoniously with others.

It is not to be. Like Jim, Heyst’s illusions are only that.  His supposed conversion from cynic to compassionate realist only made him more vulnerable to the destructive forces of evil.  He, again like Jim, dies willingly; but his suicide is more like the death of Kurtz in Heart of Darkness.  In his last moments Kurtz utters, “The horror…the horror” and sees in a frightening vision the utter brutality and inhumanity of life.

Allistoun, the Captain of the Narcissus, is a man of discipline, authority, and rectitude.  He understands the absolute necessity of moral order on board ship.  There must be a uniform solidarity so that men under the harshest conditions pull for the ship and for each other.  Any breach in such solidarity and camaraderie is a serious dereliction of duty.  Once any individual member of the crew begins to think about things other than the smooth sailing and performance of the ship, concentration is lost, mistakes are made, and the entire crew is compromised.

Once the black man from St. Kitts, James Wait, comes aboard, all concentration is lost.  Men for different reasons become distracted by Jimmy.  Donkin, a scheming and selfish malingerer, sees Jimmy as a threat because he is no different.  Both men look out only for themselves, avoid work and responsibility, and are disruptive to the ship’s order.  Padmore sees Jimmy as a soul to be saved.   The dying Jimmy inspires compassion and caring in Belfast.  The first mate, Baker, and the Captain know Jimmy for a slacker, Donkin for a mean-spirited low-life, and the rest of the crew impressionable, excitable followers.

The crew comes aboard as individuals, bond through the common work of the sea, achieve real, unselfish solidarity in the storm, drift apart because of James Wait, are relieved and relaxed when he dies, then go their separate ways once they are on shore.

For Conrad solidarity can come only through hard work which forces men to focus only on the practical tasks of seamanship thus avoiding useless and meaningless deliberations about life, death, and beyond.  On the Narcissus it is only Singleton, the old sailor who has spent no more than a few months on land in his many years sailing, who embodies this ideal.  He thinks only of his work, his duty, and his performance.  He understands men only as performers of duty and whose actions are either in conformance to it or disrespectful of it.

Solidarity, however, is only an ideal.  Good men like Lord Jim who are ultimately more human than any code can contain and in many ways superior to it; and bad men like Gentleman Brown and Mr. Jones whose only purpose in life is to destroy order and social integrity co-exist and will always engage in a test of wills with each other.  There is no way for the good men to escape bad. 

Lord Jim had such an impossibly inflated image of his own heroism and ultimate ability to do good that he could never even imagine men like Brown.  Heyst was naïve in his assumption that pure unquestioning compassion – such as that he showed Morrison – could prevail over evil.  Mr. Jones was as much of surprise to him as Gentleman Brown was to Jim.

Conrad’s vision is very consistent.  There are and must be codes of honor necessary for the structure and discipline they give the weak, for the barriers they represent to the evil.  Yet human nature being what it is, there is no way that the solidarity promoted by a respect for such codes can be impermeable or even stable.  The harmoniously civil societies that Lord Jim and Heyst try so hard to build in Patusan and Samburan will always be assaulted by damaging and destructive forces.  Order, law, and solidarity do not always prevail.

Conrad, then, falls somewhere between the cynicism of Heyst’s father and his son’s compassion; somewhere between Captain Brierly’s (an officer who testifies at Lord Jim’s trial for desertion) absolute moral rectitude and Stein’s (a wealthy merchant philosopher and Jim’s benefactor) reverence for imagination, fantasy, and dreams as the more valuable character of humanity.

Societies and individuals all have to deal with such conundrums; and few escape the moral choices that they present.  Captain Allistoun was right in his insistence on rules, order, and discipline; but even he gave in to Jimmy Wait as he lay dying. There will always be the malevolent Donkins, the Stoic Singletons, the dreaming Lord Jim’s, the existentially doubting Heysts; and the Gentleman Browns, Ricardos, and Mr. Joneses.

There is a point to establishing order; but an even more important point in understanding the motivations of those good men who cannot always conform.  There is an imperative to understand and anticipate evil, but never to flee or ignore it.  Heroism is made of people like Lord Jim and Heyst who, however naïvely, at least stand and confront it.

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