Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Looking Into a Lunatic's Dictionary: Lord Jim and the Possibilities of Language Based Representation

Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim is a text that interrogates the structure of traditional forms of narration and the ability narration, or more generally language, has to represent ideas.  Throughout Lord Jim, Conrad places numerous types of narration in tension with one another in order to show the benefits and limitations each has in the presentation of the overall story he is attempting to tell to his readers[1].  Be it through the genres of romance, oral story telling, or epistle, the intermingling and placement of different forms of narration in his text allows Conrad to explore the efficacy of language to capture and present the meaning of particular actions.  While this process unfolds over the entirety of the text of Lord Jim, a microcosm of this literary technique can be seen in chapter twenty-three of the novel.  In this chapter, Conrad places into tension different manifestations of the English language, including that of a Native English speaker (Marlow), a European English speaker (Stein), and a non-Western speaker (the half caste boatman) to interrogate the ability of language to convey meaning. 

Chapter twenty-three of Lord Jim is a pivotal point in the text in terms of both plot and language use.  In this chapter, the reader of the novel sees Jim for the last time before he leaves for Patusan and, effectively, exits the stage of the “civilized” world.  Marlow, who has set this action into motion by introducing Jim to Mr. Stein, narrates Jim’s departure and relates conversations he has had during this process with Stein, Jim, and a half-caste boatman who will ferry Jim to the mouth of the river that leads to Patusan.   

At certain junctures in this chapter, Marlow self-consciously interrupts his narration to comment on the way people use the English language.  “‘Mr. Stein called [Doramin] “war-comrade.” War-comrade was good.  Wasn’t it?  And didn’t Mr. Stein speak English wonderfully well?  Said he had learned it in Celebes—of all places!  That was awfully funny.  Was it not?  He did speak with an accent—with a twang—did I notice?’” (233).  Marlow here reveals that Stein is not a native English speaker and marvels at Stein’s ability to speak English “wonderfully well” and capture reality with clever diction [2].  By referring to Dormain as a “war-comrade,” Stein effectively conveys to Marlow that a relationship exists between the native chief and himself that goes beyond mere acquaintance and needs no more explanation than a two-word phrase.  The term “war-comrade” does not come as a shock to a reader of Lord Jim, as earlier in the text Marlow relates Stein’s adventurous past that includes descriptions of battles Stein participated in with native tribes. 

Marlow, however, is not merely relating the relationship between Dormain and Stein to the listeners of his narration, rather he is marveling at the power aptly chosen words have to hide truth.  Conrad, by having Marlow interrupt his narration and self-consciously point out Stein’s diction, is challenging his readers to take a second look at what has just been presented.  The phrase “war-comrade” covers a multitude of sins, particularly the economic advantage Stein is taking of Dormain.  As a businessman, Stein is not interested in Dormain as a comrade, but rather in the economic gain Dormain can bring him through his position of power within the Patusan community.  By calling Dormain a war-comrade Stein presents a picture, of his own creation, to the world that portrays his relationship with Dormain in a way that includes what he wants to be seen, “comradery,” but excludes the colonial undertones of this particular European/Native relationship.  

Elsewhere in the chapter, Marlow relates that, “‘Mr. Stein instructed [Jim] to wait for a month or so, to see whether it was possible for him to remain, before he began building a new house for himself, so as to avoid “vain expense.”  He did make use of funny expressions—Stein did.  “Vain expense” was good.  .  .  .  Remain?  Why!  of course.’” (236).  Stein knows that in order for Jim to survive in Patusan he will have to construct a house of some kind, but it would be a waste of capital if a house is built and Jim decides not to stay.  Stein does not want to lose money, so he instructs Jim to wait to build a house in order to avoid “vain expense.”  Stein could have told Jim not to build to avoid extra expense, but he chose to modify the word “expense” with the word “vain” that connotes, in an economic sense, any cost that will not produce a return.  The phrase “vain expense” highlights Stein’s overarching concern with economics and furthers the position that he is not sending Jim to Patusan because he cares personally for Jim.     Looking under the surface of Stein’s words, a reader can come to the conclusion that Stein sends Jim to Patusan to protect his trading investments and to aliviate problems (including factional fighting and the incompetence of Cornelius) that have brought trade with Patusan to a stand still. 

In presenting Stein’s speech, Marlow finds himself in a tenuous position.  While he admires Stein’s turns of phrases, he also sees them as being “funny.”  Funny here can be read as either a term connoting humor or in, what I believe to be the case, the sense that something is not right.  What is not right about Stein’s speech is that it hides unpleasant truths Stein wants to cover up.  Marlow seems to recognize the duplicitous nature of Stein’s speech, but he does not directly question Stein about the “truth” he sees hidden underneath his aptly constructed phrases.  Marlow is unable to directly confront Stein on this issue because if he pushes too far he may have to come to terms with unpleasant realities about himself.  Stein, in the text, is representative of both a paternal and cultural father figure to Marlow.  Even thought Stein is not English, or a native English speaker, he is still a European and shares with Marlow, as such, a legacy of colonization.

[1] Fredric Jameson discusses the disparity of narrative technique in Lord Jim and refers to the shifting of narrative forms in the text as “ruptures” in the novel.  Jameson, Fredric.  The Political Unconscious: Narrative as Socially Symbolic Act.  New York: Cornell UP, 1981: 206-280.  
[2] The subject place non-native English speakers had in society and in fictional works is a topic of great interest to the Polish Conrad who himself learned English as a non-native language, but chose to present his fictional works in it.   

Next time...Lord Jim (Part 2)

No comments: