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Sunday, January 14, 2018

Immaturity And The Soul Of The Artist–Lord Jim And Son’s And Lovers’ Paul Morel

Lord Jim is a story of fantasy, naïveté, and stubborn idealism; but also one of strength, moral purpose, courage, and atonement. As a young man Jim 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, remained.  In his dreams he was a child of destiny.  The world, no matter how intrusive, mean, desperate, and destructive, could never touch him.  He was an idealistic dreamer – immature, naïve, and hopelessly outmatched in his attempt to achieve the greatness he envisaged even as a boy.  He would lead men with courage, discipline and compassion.  They would look to him and depend upon him for their well-being, their wealth, and their safety.  He would be respected by officers and admired by the men beneath him. He would be heroic, brilliant, and strong, captaining ships from England to the South Pacific.  He would become legendary for his skill, his acumen, and his leadership.

Image result for images book cover lord jim

Parallel rulers with a pair of dividers reposed on it; the ship’s position at last noon was marked with a small black cross, and the straight pencil-line drawn firmly as far as Perim figured the course of the ship—the path of souls towards the holy place, the promise of salvation, the reward of eternal life—while the pencil with its sharp end touching the Somali coast lay round and still like a naked ship’s spar floating in the pool of a sheltered dock. ‘How steady she goes,’ thought Jim with wonder, with something like gratitude for this high peace of sea and sky. At such times his thoughts would be full of valorous deeds: he loved these dreams and the success of his imaginary achievements. They were the best parts of life, its secret truth, its hidden reality. They had a gorgeous virility, the charm of vagueness, they passed before him with an heroic tread; they carried his soul away with them and made it drunk with the divine philtre of an unbounded confidence in itself. There was nothing he could not face. He was so pleased with the idea that he smiled, keeping perfunctorily his eyes ahead; and when he happened to glance back he saw the white streak of the wake drawn as straight by the ship’s keel upon the sea as the black line drawn by the pencil upon the chart.

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.

Yet not only did Jim’s 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 sank 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  not be the hero that he had imagined; but the courage to do the right thing even if it meant his death was heroism enough.

Paul Morel, the main character of D.H.Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers is no different from Lord Jim. He is a dreamer and a fantasist.  He dreams that he will become an artist, respected not only for the quality of his art but for the imagination and intellectual discipline and insight behind it. He will make his way far beyond the raw life of his miner’s family, he believes, achieve his mother’s ambitions for social status and recognition, and become recognized.

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Morel is Lawrence’s hero despite his illusions, prevarication, weakness, cruelty, and dependence. There is something to be said for the artist and the artist’s soul, one which has only visionary clarity as a means to staying alive. ‘There was no Time, only Space’, writes Lawrence. The final passage of the book is a poem of final epiphany.  Morel, after his mother’s death, can no longer intellectualize about place and belonging. He no longer has the patient ear of Miriam and the existential touchstone of this mother. All his intellectualism, spiritual quest, existential questions about love, belonging, and purpose are indeed part of his character but they have finally become relevant and frightening and not simply ways to deflect the issues of loving and belonging.

The town, as he sat upon the car, stretched away over the bay of railway, a level fume of lights. Beyond the town the country, little smoldering spots for more towns—the sea—the night—on and on! And he had no place in it! Whatever spot he stood on, there he stood alone. From his breast, from his mouth, sprang the endless space, and it was there behind him, everywhere. The people hurrying along the streets offered no obstruction to the void in which he found himself. They were small shadows whose footsteps and voices could be heard, but in each of them the same night, the same silence. He got off the car. In the country all was dead still. Little stars shone high up; little stars spread far away in the flood-waters, a firmament below.

Everywhere the vastness and terror of the immense night which is roused and stirred for a brief while by the day, but which returns, and will remain at last eternal, holding everything in its silence and its living gloom. There was no Time, only Space. Who could say his mother had lived and did not live? She had been in one place, and was in another; that was all. And his soul could not leave her, wherever she was. Now she was gone abroad into the night, and he was with her still. They were together. But yet there was his body, his chest, that leaned against the stile, his hands on the wooden bar. They seemed something.

Where was he?—one tiny upright speck of flesh, less than an ear of wheat lost in the field. He could not bear it. On every side the immense dark silence seemed pressing him, so tiny a spark, into extinction, and yet, almost nothing, he could not be extinct. Night, in which everything was lost, went reaching out, beyond stars and sun. Stars and sun, a few bright grains, went spinning round for terror, and holding each other in embrace, there in a darkness that outpassed them all, and left them tiny and daunted. So much, and himself, infinitesimal, at the core a nothingness, and yet not nothing.

What to make of Lord Jim and Paul Morel? It is easy to be antipathetic to both characters. Jim’s dereliction of duty was a crime against British law, an unconscionable dereliction of duty and moral authority, and an unforgivable lack of concern for the lives of hundreds of pilgrims left on board ship. It makes no difference whether he spends his life in search of atonement, he committed an unpardonable crime.

On the other hand he was victim of his own immaturity.  His exotic and unrealistic dreams prevented him from doing his duty, blocked the very courage he sought, and doomed him not only to a life of repentance but of lost illusions.  One should at least pity him if not admire him for his persistent efforts to redeem himself.  The artist will always fall afoul of himself, Stein – the only character who understood Jim and more importantly valued dreamers in an all-too-matter-of-fact, legalistic, and moralistic world – believed.  An inevitable tragic flaw. Even when Jim was so close to final redemption – saving Patusan from a brutal dictator, restoring tribal order, and vindicating himself – his immaturity and naïveté resurfaced once again.  No one but Jim would have trusted Gentleman Brown – an irremediably evil profiteer, slaver, and murderer – but he did; and in an act of misplaced tolerance and generosity, doomed the tribe and himself.

Does this final act increase our sympathy for Jim, recognize him – like Stein – as a tragic figure? Or condemn him finally for having been twice a betrayer? Can we forgive his immaturity or at least use it to excuse his most fatal derelictions?  Or should we be as harsh and unforgiving of him as we would be for any coward or self-centered blunderer?

The same is true of Paul Morel.  Many critics have seen him as a heroic character and use the last paragraph of the novel, quoted above, as their reason.  He finally rejected the selfish, importuning, demanding women in his life – Miriam, Clara, and his mother, all of whom cared less about Paul than they did themselves – and achieved the spiritual insight and emotional maturity that had for so long escaped him.

Others have had no patience with this self-serving, immature young man who refused to grow up and who demanded maternal love, care, and attention from all the women in his life.  He used Miriam, forced her to listen to his inchoate ramblings, to keep him company through his confusion and timidity; and saw Clara only as a convenient and simplified outlet for his sexual urges.  Miriam called him a baby, refused to care for him after his mother had died, and had finally had enough of his infantile dependency.

The most or best than can be said of both Paul Morel and Lord Jim is that an artistic temperament – heightened sensitivity to one’s feelings and the ability to transform them into creative expressions of more general truths – and immaturity go hand in hand.  Artists cannot be expected to be practical, responsible, disciplined, and right. For all their failings, moral lapses, and ignorant actions, they still contribute more than they take. Without Jim’s and Paul Morel’s fantasies, emotional tangles, and moral ups and downs, life would be flat and undemanding.

The Devil in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov tells Ivan that a world of uniform goodness and truth, faithfulness and honesty, would be painfully boring indeed.  I am a vaudevillian, says Ivan’s devil, out to make life interesting.

Image result for images ivan's devil bros karamazov

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