Disappearing Act

by Kenneth Champeon, May 1, 2002 | Destinations: Malaysia

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Review of Joseph Conrad's An Outcast of the Islands.

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Ever since Alexander the Great tried (and failed) to conquer India and Marco Polo succeeded in tramping all over China, Europeans have played a substantial part in Asian history. The jottings these adventurers left behind should therefore be counted as part of Asian literature. If JFK could declare to copious cheers and whoops that he was a Berliner, could not Joseph Conrad, say, be an Asian? Nationalism after all is not a matter of a mailing address, but a matter of emotional identification. If Conrad wrote successfully and sympathetically about Asia, his nationality (Polish, then English) should be ignored. A man who spent nearly 20 years at sea as Conrad did should be thought of as a citizen of the world. And the fact is, all of us are immigrants or descendants thereof. All of us live on stolen ground.

Read in the right frame of mind, Conrad can be a riot. I say this with the utmost gravity. He is the village curmudgeon whom all the schoolchildren like to tease, a Scrooge without hope of redemption, a Bert to the Ernies of the world. Conrad straddled the threshold dividing the terrible from the ridiculous. His characters are funny because they are kept alive chiefly by their hatred of life. They are grotesque caricatures of which the most prominent feature is not an enlarged head but a suppurating heart.

Conrad's An Outcast of the Islands has been called one of the best novels about Southeast Asia. And true to my thesis, it has us rolling in the isles from the beginning. The novel's epigraph reads: "Pues el delito mayor / Del hombre es haber nacido" (For the greater crime / Of man is to have been born.) Apparently Conrad lifted these words of Calderon from Schopenhauer, philosopher of pessimism. But Schopenhauer seems only to have buttressed Conrad's chronic peevishness, which may have derived from his long travels in the tropics and especially the Malay Archipelago where Outcast and a number of other Conrad novels (Almayer's Folly, Lord Jim, and Victory, et al.) are set. In Conrad's taxonomy, man is not a god. Nor is he plant and ghost. Man is a bug.

The outcast Willems is a typical Conrad anti-hero. Little or nothing is known about his past, as if God had hurled him half-grown into the Macassar Strait where he conducts his obscure business. What is important about Willems is that he thinks himself squeaky-clean. But a single indiscretion, the "borrowing" of his employer's money, makes him dirty as a dog. Like Lord Jim he departs with his honor. And as Conrad thought honor to be as irrecoverable as virginity, Willems' only recourse is revenge.

The plot of a Conrad novel is never very extraordinary. His actors do not act so much as dwell morbidly on their few actions. A Conrad plot is only a mannequin dressed up in his psychological insights, which are usually intended to show that seemingly noble men under certain circumstances are susceptible to base behavior.

Writers of the colonial era often showed that white men among the savages become savage. But Conrad opts for the view that savagery is latent in anyone, regardless of race or location. Some of his most sinister characters (the Teuton of Victory, the terrorist of The Secret Agent) are as white as they come.

Thus the only point on which the Malay and the white man in Outcast agree is that the other is a liar. Not because of communication problems, nor because of different notions of what truth is, but because anybody with any ambition is apt to lie in order to succeed. And because the white men and the Malays are very much on the make, they weave many a tangled web.

Without truth there is no trust, and without trust there is no empathy. Thus the typical Conrad character is locked in a solitary confinement of the soul. Lacking anyone to talk to, he talks to himself. Sometimes he talks in interior monologues, sometimes he barks like a dog. And almost always he talks with very little effort at self-editing. Interjections abound. At these times Conrad is at his merry and melancholy best. The sting of his dishonor still smarting, Willems ponders his prospects as he walks home to his "half-caste" wife:

"Horrible! Of course he could not abandon her and the child to certain misery or possible starvation. The wife and child of Willems. Willems the successful, the smart; Willems the conf....Pah!"

His tirade against himself does not elicit sympathy so much as bemusement. Surely it's not all that bad? Conrad assures that it is, and that it will probably get worse in his Murphy's Law universe. On either side of "the straight and narrow path of [Willems'] peculiar honesty" is nothing but the deep and wide pit of oblivion. And there is no proper response to oblivion but laughter. I daresay humanity can be partitioned into those who laugh at the following passage and those who do not (I myself have "HA HA HA" penned in the margin.)

"Those three human beings abandoned by all were like shipwrecked people left on an insecure and slippery ledge by the retiring tide of an angry sea - listening to its distant roar, living anguished between the menace of its return and the hopeless horror of their solitude - in the midst of a tempest of passion, of regret, of disgust, of despair. The breath of the storm had cast two of them there, robbed of everything - even of resignation. The third, the decrepit witness of their struggle and their torture, accepted her own dull conception of facts; of strength and youth gone; of her useless old age; of her last servitude; of being thrown away by her chief, by her nearest, to use up the last and worthless remnant of flickering life between those two incomprehensible and sombre outcasts: a shrivelled, an unmoved, a passive companion of their disaster."

You can almost see the author copying ferociously from his thesaurus, the spine of which is broken at the category "HOPELESSNESS." Or perhaps he had committed it to memory. After all, Conrad on more than one occasion (at least twice in Outcast) suggests that life is overlong. And he was not yet forty years old when Outcast was published.

In his 1919 author's note Conrad confesses that "neither in my mind nor in my heart had I then given up the sea." This despite the publication and reasonable success of his first novel Almayer's Folly. The sea in Conrad acts much as the Mississippi in Huckleberry Finn, as a place where the vices of civilization fear to tread. Not the savage lands, but all lands are corrupt.

Some early reviewers of Conrad missed this point. Instead they implied that, outside of a few New Jerusalems in Europe and America, the world was nothing but stench and moral stew. Places and not people were the problem. A reviewer in the always pious Nation wrote in 1897 that "belief in the benefits of foreign travel has long been a cherished superstition." So has belief in the benefits of cowering forever in one's own country, where abound flush toilets and Congregational churches. But the reviewer persists. "The moral of [Almayer's Folly and An Outcast of the Islands] seems to be that white Christians can be much worse than black pagans, and generally are, along the Straits of Macassar." Nice end rhyme, that.

But the reviewer's effort to find a moral in these bleak books set in amoral universes is only slightly less absurd than this phrase "black pagans." The Malays in Outcast are not pagans. They are Muslims, and they are decidedly more Muslim than the whites are Christian. The only pagans in the book are "Chinamen," who seem to be the only reliable folks around. And they are reliable precisely because of their aloofness from the scheming, God-fearing Malays and Europeans.

Conrad did however detect some force in the tropics that could corrode the sterling European mind, accustomed to a certain moderation on Nature's part. In the tropics there is more life and consequently more death, while the excessive heat discourages the activity a European uses to forget his mortality. Brooding upon insignificance is a common tropical malady for the white man. It is humiliation above all that he cannot stand. Here is Willems, running his brain off, as it were, in the jungle:

"All this would remain - remain for years, for ages, for ever.... What for, then? He would be dead. He would be stretched upon the warm moisture of the ground...he would lie stiff, passive, rotting slowly; while over him, under him, through him - unopposed, busy, hurried - the endless and minute throngs of insects...would swarm in streams, in rushes, in eager struggle for his body...till there would remain nothing but the white gleam of bleaching bones in the long grass.... There would be that only left of him; nobody would miss him; no one would remember him."

The last two clauses are of course true of everybody on a long enough timeline. Nature shows some kindness in blinding us to the slow diminution of our puny glory, but in the meantime Nature has other ways of humbling. Like the monsoon, Conrad's descriptions of which are par none. Poor Willems "made a few hurried steps up the courtyard and was arrested by an immense sheet of water that fell all at once on him, fell sudden and overwhelming from the clouds, cutting his respiration." The drops fell "as if flung from all sides by a mob of infuriated hands."

On the other hand, getting whacked by a wall of water is an easy burden compared to the hurts Willems receives from his fellow human beings. Nature has no notion of justice, only law. It may kill but it never murders. The "moral" of An Outcast of the Islands may very well be that only man can be corrupted - white Christian, black pagan, all. Only Nature is pure in its blessed indifference.

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