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

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Not A Walk In The Woods–Conrad, The Zapotecs, And The Transformative Power Of Nature

For Joseph Conrad, the sea is simple, profound, and elemental. Although it can change in personality with the sun, wind, rain, and storms; it is fundamentally eternal. For the sailor on a boat (The Nigger of the Narcissus) it is infinite. It can be capricious and unexpected, but its storms, never cease to be frightening and unholy. For Conrad the sea is an expression of the essential, universal power of nature, the spiritual contrast to the imperfections and inconsistencies of man and the corrupted land on which he lives.

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His description of the storm in Narcissus is one of the very best in English literature.
A big, foaming sea came out of the mist; it made for the ship, roaring wildly, and in its rush it looked as mischievous and discomposing as a madman with an axe. One or two, shouting, scrambled up the rigging; most, with a convulsive catch of the breath, held on where they stood. Singleton dug his knees under the wheel-box, and carefully eased the helm to the headlong pitch of the ship, but without taking his eyes off the coming wave. It towered close-to and high, like a wall of green glass topped with snow.
The ship rose to it as though she had soared on wings, and for a moment rested poised upon the foaming crest as if she had been a great sea-bird. Before we could draw breath a heavy gust struck her, another roller took her unfairly under the weather bow, she gave a toppling lurch, and filled her decks…
She gave another lurch to leeward; the lower deadeyes dipped heavily; the men’s feet flew from under them, and they hung kicking above the slanting poop. They could see the ship putting her side in the water, and shouted all together:—“She’s going!” Forward the forecastle doors flew open, and the watch below were seen leaping out one after another, throwing their arms up; and, falling on hands and knees, scrambled aft on all fours along the high side of the deck, sloping more than the roof of a house.
From leeward the seas rose, pursuing them; they looked wretched in a hopeless struggle, like vermin fleeing before a flood; they fought up the weather ladder of the poop one after another, half naked and staring wildly; and as soon as they got up they shot to leeward in clusters, with closed eyes, till they brought up heavily with their ribs against the iron stanchions of the rail; then, groaning, they rolled in a confused mass.
The immense volume of water thrown forward by the last scend of the ship had burst the lee door of the forecastle. They could see their chests, pillows, blankets, clothing, come out floating upon the sea…Men were slipping down while trying to dig their fingers into the planks; others, jammed in corners, rolled enormous eyes.
They all yelled unceasingly:—“The masts! Cut! Cut!...” A black squall howled low over the ship, that lay on her side with the weather yard-arms pointing to the clouds; while the tall masts, inclined nearly to the horizon, seemed to be of an immeasurable length… At that moment the topsail sheet parted, the end of the heavy chain racketed aloft, and sparks of red fire streamed down through the flying sprays.
For Conrad the jungle was akin to the sea and like it essential, fundamental, and a contrast to the vagaries and inconsistencies of man.  He writes in The Heart of Darkness:
The smell of mud, of primeval mud, by Jove! was in my nostrils, the high stillness of primeval forest was before my eyes; there were shiny patches on the black creek. The moon had spread over everything a thin layer of silver—over the rank grass, over the mud, upon the wall of matted vegetation standing higher than the wall of a temple, over the great river I could see through a somber gap glittering, glittering, as it flowed broadly by without a murmur.
All this was great, expectant, mute… I wondered whether the stillness on the face of the immensity looking at [me] were meant as an appeal or as a menace. What were we who had strayed in here? Could we handle that dumb thing, or would it handle us? I felt how big, how confoundedly big, was that thing that couldn’t talk, and perhaps was deaf as well. What was in there? I could see a little ivory coming out from there, and I had heard Mr. Kurtz was in there.
The jungle is immense, dense, and dark.  It is a place of savagery – primitive, unexplored, frightening, and more dangerous than any civilized place could be.  A civilized man should never enter the jungle.  Kurtz did but because of it saw, at the moment of his death, only “The horror….the horror”.  The primitiveness of the jungle and those who lived in it were no less civilized than anyone outside it.  It was human nature, as primitive, savage, and unforgiving as nature, that was savage and brutal, neither the forest nor the tribesmen who lived there.

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Like most Mesoamerican religious systems, the Zapotec religion was polytheistic.  Zapotecs tell that their ancestors emerged from the earth, from caves, or that they turned from trees or jaguars into people, while the elite that governed them believed that they descended from supernatural beings that lived among the clouds, and that upon death they would return to such status.

The Zapotecs lived in a world of natural, immanent power.  Spiritual forces were in the lightning and thunder, the violent storms, predatory animals, and in the rising and setting of the moon and sun.  They were brooding in the massive mountains or in the night sky.  They were everywhere, frighteningly real.  There was no distinction between human life, nature, and the gods. 

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This religion was not a tame animism like that still found in India where a tree trunk might be painted red and garlanded with marigolds to honor the spirit who lived there;  a quiet presence to be revered and respected. In the Oaxaca valley under a powerful sun and surrounded by mountains, there was no escaping the temperamental and eruptive forces of Nature and the gods. 

Farther north in the Aztec civilization, warriors dressed as panthers, wolves, mountain lions, and bears and became them as they engaged the enemy.  They were human soldiers and animals and gods all at once.


The Zapotecs also performed ritual human sacrifice; and as barbaric as the practice seems today, it was anything but in the early days of Mesoamerica.  Human sacrifice was the only way to appease the gods and forestall the savagery of their storms, earthquakes, and floods.  Life in the Oaxaca Valley, fertile and calm, was only borrowed from the gods who made their presence known every day.  Sunrise, sunset and the dark silhouettes of northern mountains reminded them of the immanence of the gods.  Even if they were not angry or retributive, their power was still felt.  The forces of nature and the forces of deity were one.

By comparison today religious ceremonies seem tepid.  The sacrifice of the Catholic Mass is evocative only of the physical torment and sacrifice of Jesus Christ.  The transubstantiation – the changing of bread and wine into the body and blood of the Savior – is at best divine allegory; and at its most mundane, a respectful ritual of myth.

Even Pentecostal revivals and the ecstatic discoveries of a personal Jesus cannot possibly compare with a ritual human sacrifice performed on an altar in the middle of a broad valley surrounded by mountains with the presence of the gods real, imminent, and intimidating.  The moment of sacrifice was more ecstatic for worshippers than for any Christian believer today.  There is nothing to compare the absolute sacrifice of a human being to visible, magnificent, real and powerful gods.

Conrad was no animist.  Yet his descriptions of the jungle and the sea are almost reverential.  They are never just backdrops to his stories nor even just symbolic of forces beyond man.  They are characters in and of themselves in his novels.  Men interact with them.  Marlowe does not just sail upriver.  He penetrates and braves the jungle to find Kurtz and the heart of darkness.  The jungle is alive in and of itself.  It is never described in its component parts; but as an organic whole; a being. 

The crew of the Narcissus do not simply sail from Bombay to England, but brave the sea.  According to Conrad no understanding of their human condition nor their personal courage or resoluteness without confronting it. 

Other writers have used nature as an element of their fiction.  Poetry especially uses natural metaphors to express desire and fear.  Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying is as much about the river as it is about the dead woman or her relatives carrying her body to a distant grave.
So I went down into the water so I could still keep some kind of a grip in the mud, when I saw Jewel. He was middle deep, so I knew he was on the ford, anyway, leaning hard upstream, and then I see the rope, and then I see the water building up where he was holding the wagon snubbed just below the ford.
So it was Cash holding to the horse when it come splashing and scrambling up the bank, moaning and groaning like a natural man. When I come to it it was just kicking Cash loose from his holt on the saddle. His face turned up a second when he was sliding back into the water. It was gray, with his eyes closed and a long swipe of mud across his face.
Then he let go and turned over in the water. He looked just like a old bundle of clothes kind of washing up and down against the bank. He looked like he was laying there in the water on his face, rocking up and down a little, looking at something on the bottom.
We could watch the rope cutting down into the water, and we could feel the weight of the wagon kind of blump and lunge lazy like, like it just as soon as not, and that rope cutting down into the water hard as a iron bar.
We could hear the water hissing on it like it was red hot Like it was a straight iron bar stuck into the bottom and us holding the end of it, and the wagon lazing up and down, kind of pushing and prodding at us like it had come around and got behind us, lazy like, like it just as soon as not when it made up its mind.
There was a shoat come by, blowed up hike a balloon: one of them spotted shoats of Lon Quick's. It bumped against the rope like it was a iron bar and bumped off and went on, and. us watching that rope slanting down into the water. We watched it.
 Yet few authors have endowed nature – sea and jungle – with such immanent, spiritual, and transformative power as Joseph Conrad.

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