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Lord Jim in the 21st Century

Joseph Conrad’s novel Lord Jim first appeared in book form in 1900, the same year as Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams. Discussions of Conrad’s “free and wandering tale” over the past century can also be seen as an ongoing attempt to interpret the conflict between the romantic daydreams of a young British sailor and their consequences in the real world of colonial imperialism. In his own imagination, Jim is “always an example of devotion to duty, and as unflinching as a hero in a book”; but as his mentor Stein explains, he does not know “how to be”: “He wants to be a saint and he wants to be a devil – and every time he shuts his eyes he sees himself as a very fine fellow – so fine as he can never be. . .  In a dream.” Marlow says in Heart of Darkness that “We live, as we dream – alone”; but once Jim sets himself apart from his kind by a notorious act of apparent cowardice, his quest is to find a community in which he can open his eyes without being reminded of his shame.

August 1, 2017 - Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska - Conrad

Conrad in 1874 800x1351

Slavic romantic and cultural traitor

Lord Jim has long been hailed as a masterpiece and like all canonical works it continues to respond to changing critical fashions and shifting explanatory paradigms. It was translated into Polish as early as 1904 by Emilia Węsławska who, in her preface, attributed its merits to Conrad’s Slavic roots: “One wonders whether a born Englishman would create a Jim imbued with such romanticism and sensibility. For that, one must have the dreamish Slavonic blood.”

At the same time, Conrad was sharply criticised by novelist Eliza Orzeszkowa and others as a cultural traitor who had deserted his homeland and chosen to write in a language other than Polish. Jim’s abandonment of the Patna has been seen as a fictional allegory for what Conrad himself described in A Personal Record as his “taking a, so to speak, standing jump out of his racial surroundings and associations”. Lord Jim has undergone Freudian analyses (Gustav Morf, Bernard C. Meyer) and also generated excellent historical and biographical research (Zdzisław Najder, Norman Sherry, Ian Watt), studies of sources and influences (Yves Hervouet, Andrea White), archetypal and ethical criticism (Jacques Berthoud, Tony Tanner), narratological and deconstructionist studies (Jeremy Hawthorn, J. Hillis Miller), postcolonial readings (Edward Said, Christopher GoGwilt, Agnes S. K. Yeow), queer-theoretical approaches (Richard Ruppel), and a substantial Marxist analysis by Fredric Jameson, who noted that “even after 80 years, [Conrad’s] place is still unstable, undecidable, and his work unclassifiable, spilling out of high literature into light reading and romance…”.

Over the past 50 years, scholarly journals and newsletters devoted to Conrad have been published in the United Kingdom, the United States, France, Japan and Italy. Lord Jim’s 100th birthday was celebrated with special conferences and centennial volumes in England and France. Since 2007 scholars have had the benefit of the Cambridge edition of Conrad’s Collected Letters in nine volumes. The first properly critical edition of the text of Lord Jim appeared in 2012 along with a transcription of the original manuscript, both meticulously edited by J. H. Stape and Ernest W. Sullivan II. That same year witnessed the publication of four volumes of contemporary reviews of Conrad’s works, the first of which includes some 75 early reviews of Lord Jim in England, America and elsewhere. Sufficient evidence for a definitive interpretation appears to be on hand, yet arguments about the novel’s deepest meanings continue.

The margins of the empire

Lord Jim is structured in two roughly equal halves, one focused on the fateful voyage of the pilgrim ship Patna and the other on Jim’s lordship of the remote village of Patusan. Critics have generally tended to share Conrad’s sense that this dual structure was an artistic flaw; they have praised the first half as a complex and innovative triumph of high modernism, but have found less to say about the relatively straightforward narrative of the second half, which more closely resembles a popular and melodramatic tale of Victorian adventure. The first half of the novel is devoted to Marlow’s account of how Jim, who is “one of us”, loses his professional honour and becomes a homeless vagabond seeking anonymity among “them”. More recent interpretations have challenged the presumptions of Marlow’s eurocentrism and paid closer attention to the mixed and marginal “others” of the novel’s second half, who occupy a forgotten upriver outpost which Tony Tanner described as Jim’s “stagnant dream world”.

Although they may appear stagnant and timeless elements of local colour, the residents of Patusan are not a homogeneous and indigenous tribe but a complicated and volatile mixture of migrants and refugees with specific histories of their own. Various “bush-folk” from the interior are led by “an Arab half-breed” whom Jim defeats in favour of two Malay groups, one of them represented by sixty families of Bugis settlers exiled by the Dutch from their ancestral homelands in Celebes. Jim’s own servant, Tamb’ Itam, is a dark and bilious Malay “from the north, a stranger.”

As a Polish orphan, whose childhood was similarly marked by exile and statelessness, Conrad had an acute and sympathetic eye for the plight of the dispossessed, and as a mariner in the East Indies he had witnessed first-hand the effects of centuries of territorial rivalry among the colonial powers – the Dutch based in Java, the Spanish in the Philippines and the English in Singapore and parts of Borneo – which resulted in prolonged wars and displacements throughout the islands. The refugee settlements on the remote margins of the empire provide unstable and provisional settings for Conrad’s Malay fictions. In a 2004 essay on “Colonial Space and Movement” in Lord Jim, Sanjay Krishnan calls attention to Conrad’s treatment of native peoples as relatively fixed and “immobile” in space and time compared with the movements of colonial traders and adventurers.

“Us” and “them”

Films are also forms of interpretation and the reality and variety of these marginalised peoples has typically been ignored in the two film adaptations of the novel to date. Victor Fleming’s 1925 silent film is a classic example of Hollywood exoticism: the natives of Patusan were played by African Americans and in the end Jim staggers across a Japanese bridge to die operatically in the arms of his beloved. Richard Brooks’s 1965 film version, starring Peter O’Toole in the title role, is a useful marker of attitudes about the limits of “us” and “them” in the context of the wars of national independence of the 1960s. The film adds a scene in which Jim heroically thwarts native revolutionaries who attempt to blow up a cargo of gunpowder; and instead of driving the Arabs out of Patusan, Jim wages war in order to liberate native slaves from a mine run by a brutal French villain.

Unlike the novel, the film ends with the deaths of Jim’s misnamed nemesis “Gentleman” Brown and his crew, since villainy must not be allowed to go unpunished. The film was made in Cambodia with an Israeli actress playing the part of Jewel, and includes dances and costumes that are alien to the world of Jim’s refuge, not to mention Buddhist monks who join in the struggle against their oppressors. 

Along with the racial opposition between “us” and “them”, Conrad’s novel also sets up an opposition between two types of “us”: a small group of daring adventurers and dreamers who bravely sought their fortunes in uncharted seas, and a large and lazy mass of others who “loved short passages, good deck-chairs, large native crews, and the distinction of being white”. It remains unclear to which of these two groups Jim ultimately belongs, but the temptations of ease and privilege may help to explain his sudden decision to join the disreputable crew of the Patna.

Recent interpretations of Lord Jim have challenged a number of common assumptions about the novel, especially with regard to racism and the morality of colonialism. For example, Sir James Brooke, an English subject who founded a dynasty of “white rajahs” in Sarawak that lasted a hundred years, has long been considered a positive model of colonial success; but in a 2012 essay entitled “White Rajas, Native Princes and Savage Pirates”, Andrea Rehn argues, citing the work of Carl Schmitt and Giorgio Agamben, that the actions of the historical Brooke and of Conrad’s Jim are indistinguishable from acts of piracy in the name of “white sovereignty.” This issue is brought into sharp and ironic relief at the end of Conrad’s novel, when Jim’s sovereignty is threatened by a white rival in the form of the pirate Gentleman Brown. In a 2015 essay titled “Racial Stereotypes as Narrative Forms”, Marta Puxan-Oliva uses Homi Bhabha’s concept of stereotypes to explore the contradictions between the colonial stereotype of the (white) English gentleman and other forms of racial discourse, and examines the narrative strategies in the novel that deny full humanity to characters like Jim’s mixed-race companion Jewel.

A political manifesto

In claiming repeatedly that Jim is “one of us”, Marlow implicitly defines “us” as a body of maritime officers and gentlemen who respect what he describes as “the sovereign power enthroned in a fixed standard of conduct”. Marlow’s efforts to comprehend Jim’s inexplicable actions call the fixity of this standard into serious doubt and reveal its racial substrata, and in this sense the novel anticipates much of postcolonial theory. For example, Dain Waris, the Bugis prince and “distinguished youth” who represents the political future of Patusan, is credited with having “a European mind”, but is also endowed with a “silent disposition” – one indeed so silent that this noble subaltern is sacrificed in the end without ever having been given a voice of his own.

The difference between “us” and “them” is central not only to Conrad’s novel but also to the political theories of Richard Rorty – as Jay Thomas Parker notes in a recent essay arguing that Lord Jim should be classed with Conrad’s more overtly political novels, like Nostromo, The Secret Agent or Under Western Eyes – because it “engages political ideas and ideals and pushes them to their limits”. Parker interprets the novel’s ironic narrative voice as a critique of Rorty’s idea of “liberal ethnocentrism” and the mutual “redescription” that enables us to overcome the differences between “us” and “them”. According to Parker, “Conrad reminds us that irony in particular, and fiction in general, are both forms of sham; and that while irony may be an effective strategy to perpetuate doubt, it is equally effective in promoting deception and exploitation.”

While earlier generations found it easier to appreciate Lord Jim as a tale of a flawed hero who ultimately finds moral redemption in a tragic and suicidal death, latter-day critics have paid closer attention to the gaps and inconsistencies in Marlow’s narrative, and nowadays tend to regard the novel not only as a complex masterpiece of high modernism but also as an ironic revelation of the human cost of white colonial sovereignty. When Conrad’s first volume of memoirs was printed, his fellow artist Henry James wrote to congratulate him: “You knock about in the wide waters of expression like the raciest and boldest of privateers.”

The daring of Conrad’s expressive style and the complexities of his narrative presentation enabled him to raise questions about the evils of racism and the horrors of colonialism in subtle ways that would take more than a century to become fully apparent. Marlow’s fascinations and frustrations with Jim involve the reader in a similar effort to comprehend the full psychological, historical and cultural implications of Jim’s “case”. Like Marlow’s description of the demeanour of the French lieutenant, the novel has “had that mysterious, almost miraculous, power of producing striking effects by means impossible of detection which is the last word of the highest art”.

The iconic status of Lord Jim has also had a small but persistent influence on the world of commerce: Lord Jim clothing and shoes can now be found online, along with leather handbags made in India. There is also a Lord Jim Pub in Geneva and a Lord Jim Hotel in the London borough of Kensington.

Gene M. Moore is a professor at the English language and culture department at the University of Amsterdam. His main research interests are in modernism and literary theory with particular attention to the works of Joseph Conrad and William Faulkner. Among his many writings on Conrad, he was a co-author of the Oxford Reader’s Companion to Conrad.



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