Wednesday, June 12, 2013

a tale of the forecastle

The plot of Conrad's The Nigger of the 'Narcissus' (1897) is hardly worth mentioning. It "does not matter." It is a "tale of the forecastle" holding nothing more in its empty description of one voyage than its narrator's love for "a devoured and forgotten generation" of sailors, a generation represented only by the "colossal" Singleton:
[A]lone in the dim emptiness of the sleeping forecastle he appeared bigger, colossal, very old; old as Father Time himself . . . Yet he was only a child of time, a lonely relic of a devoured and forgotten generation. He stood, still strong, as ever unthinking; a ready man with a vast empty past and with no future, with his childlike impulses and his man's passions already dead within his tattooed breast. The men who could understand his silence were gone—those men who knew how to exist beyond the pale of life and within sight of eternity. They had been strong, as those are strong who know neither doubts nor hopes. They had been impatient and enduring, turbulent and devoted, unruly and faithful. Well-meaning people had tried to represent those men as whining over every mouthful of their food; as going about their work in fear of their lives. But in truth they had been men who knew toil, privation, violence, debauchery—but knew not fear, and had no desire of spite in their hearts. Men hard to manage, but easy to inspire; voiceless men—but men enough to scorn in their hearts the sentimental voices that bewailed the hardness of their fate. It was a fate unique and their own; the capacity to bear it appeared to them the privilege of the chosen! Their generation lived inarticulate and, indispensable, without knowing the sweetness of affections or the refuge of a home—and died free from the dark menace of a narrow grave. They were the everlasting children of the mysterious sea. Their successors are the grown-up children of a discontented earth. They are less naughty, but less innocent; less profane, but perhaps also less believing; and if they have learned how to speak they have also learned how to whine. But the others were strong and mute; they were effaced, bowed and enduring, like stone caryatides that hold up in the night the lighted halls of a resplendent and glorious edifice. They are gone now—and it does not matter. The sea and the earth are unfaithful to their children: a truth, a faith, a generation of men goes—and is forgotten, and it does not matter! Except, perhaps, to the few of those who believed the truth, confessed the faith—or loved the men.
The love of such men is, according to Conrad, the sort of "less obvious" love to which the artist appeals. In the preface, he writes:
[The artist's] appeal is made to our less obvious capacities: to that part of our nature which, because of the warlike conditions of existence, is necessarily kept out of sight within the more resisting and hard qualities—like the vulnerable body within a steel armour. His appeal is less loud, more profound, less distinct, more stirring—and sooner forgotten. Yet its effect endures forever. The changing wisdom of successive generations discards ideas, questions facts, demolishes theories. But the artist appeals to that part of our being which is not dependent on wisdom; to that in us which is a gift and not an acquisition—and, therefore, more permanently enduring. He speaks to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives; to our sense of pity, and beauty, and pain; to the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation—and to the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts, to the solidarity in dreams, in joy, in sorrow, in aspirations, in illusions, in hope, in fear, which binds men to each other, which binds together all humanity—the dead to the living and the living to the unborn.
If those "lighted halls of a resplendent and glorious edifice" are the halls of civilization itself, it is Conrad's duty to remember what "did not matter" in its being built as it is also his duty to plumb the mystery of the countenance of the "heart of darkness" as it appears both to the man looking into it and on the face of the man looking out of it. These "effaced" men--as strangely "colossal" as the jungle itself--can be as obscure to us as the "black fellows" who in Heart of Darkness "had faces like grotesque masks—these chaps; but they had bone, muscle, a wild vitality, an intense energy of movement, that was as natural and true as the surf along their coast." And Singleton and his brothers, "men enough to face the darkness," are received back into oblivion ("And this also," said Marlow suddenly, "has been one of the dark places of the earth.") like the beaten "criminal" black Marlow encounters months before he leaves for Kurtz's Inner Station: "I saw him, later on, for several days, sitting in a bit of shade looking very sick and trying to recover himself: afterwards he arose and went out—and the wilderness without a sound took him into its bosom again."


Tony said...

Philip Jenkins, writing in The Next Christendom:

The church's message has an appeal completely separate from the imperial power by which it was originally carried. There are eerie parallels here to the original spread of Christianity in Europe, which enjoyed its greatest successes after the collapse of the Roman political regime. To quote Kenneth Woodward, some church historians now "see history doing a second act: just as Europe's northern tribes turned to the church after the decay of the Roman Empire, so Africans are embracing Christianity in face of the massive political, social, and economic chaos."

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