Friday, April 30, 2010

Joseph Conrad, The Absurd, Life, and Meaning




Throughout my life, my dear mother always encouraged me to “find my voice”. That has been some of the best advice I’ve ever heard. I will encourage you to do the same. Finding one’s voice is not an easy process. Some discover it early out of necessity, and for others it can take a lifetime. My belief is that it takes a certain amount of life experience mixed with love (or lack of it from those closest to you). Adversity also plays an important factor. As the spiritual teacher Richard Rohr says, “Great suffering and great love” are moments when we can reach a non-dualistic way of thought.

Joseph Conrad found his voice later in life, and only after encountering a great deal of his own adversity. For example, Conrad once attempted suicide after being told he couldn’t sail for the French. He knew no English, but found work on a British route instead. This transformed Conrad. Obviously, he eventually was fluent in the English language, and became one of the most prolific writers of the past two hundred years. Had he not been refused service for the French, we may have been deprived of his art.

“One truth, many expressions”. You have heard me say this quote from Rohr in the past, and the idea flourishes in Conrad’s narratives. We describe life and its common thread of truth through the lens of the settings to which we have grown accustomed. This can refer to religion, career, country, culture, race, time period, etc. Conrad was a sailor. His metaphors and allegories revolved around life on the sea. The sea…a vast expanse of water. What can it possibly teach us about life, history and humanity?

Conrad was able to draw so much out of the vastness of the space, the reliance on self and community, and the indifference of the waters. Entire books could be written on the way he used the sea as allegory, and have been. Edward Said wrote his first book on Conrad, and Said was my introduction to the author.

Many of Conrad’s first writings were shorter novels. The three I most recently read were Youth, Heart of Darkness and Typhoon. It’s obvious that the sea is transformed to life, almost a living being of its own. But no, maybe it only represents life and the process of growth that comes with age and experience. Or IS the sea itself alive? Is it a passage between one level of consciousness and another? Is it the way that we are able to shed our prejudices and narrow field of vision through its routes to new and exciting ways of seeing the world through the eyes of the other?

Does all of this sound familiar? Perhaps like something you’ve heard before, but in a different way? That’s the thing about truth. There’s a united aspect in all expressions of the truth because truth is ONE. Humanity is ONE. Whatever it is that we use to describe the truth comes back to the common thread of love and justice.

Youth shows the young Marlow on his first voyage as a second mate. It becomes a series of life lessons for Marlow. Things never go perfectly to plan. The voyage may be mapped to perfection, but something always gets in the way, whether it’s life, humanity or the sea. We see Marlow struggling with xenophobia, racism and disdain for those who are not of his own culture. Marlow has a certain suspicion of his French and German comrades because they don’t do things exactly as the English. However, in the time of crisis that came upon them when the ship’s hold caught fire, none of that mattered. Here, they all united around a common cause of keeping the ship afloat and completing the voyage. For days, they worked together as one. That is what extreme adversity will do for you. That is what imminent death will teach you. That nothing matters but how you feel about humanity. It will pull out either the adverse feelings or discard any dogmatic presuppositions and replace it with love.

His ship destroyed, Marlow has to row the additional number of miles to the shore in the East. Exhausted, he and his comrades awaken to find themselves surrounded by the inhabitants of that Eastern land. The land that was disdainful in the eyes of the Europeans. Obviously, these Europeans perceived their way of life to be “benevolent”. It’s a common human trait that one’s own life and culture, the FAMILIAR is better simply because it’s what we know. However, as Wade Davis says: “Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you, they are unique manifestations of the human spirit”.

Next, I take you into the Heart of Darkness. The absurd starts with the very title. You immediately conjure in your mind something sinister, fearful, a place that you are averse to exploring. Fear is bred from unfamiliarity. Marlow illustrates this from the beginning by describing the typical man of the sea as someone who explored only the shores of distant lands, and then believes he knows everything there is to know about the culture.

This can be applied to today. We never learn from history or literature. Knowing nothing of deep Middle Eastern and Eastern politics and traditions, our own country has engaged in two quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have done this out of fear. Fear that we will lose our place in this world and have to adjust our lifestyle and position of power. What is it that we’re so afraid of? Why do we have to be constantly in control? Why can’t we WORK to UNDERSTAND instead of attempting to dominate and destroy?

Heart of Darkness is an example of this kind of colonialism, but it is also so much more. Marlow is sent to the very center of Africa to find an isolated trader, a Mr. Kurtz. Kurtz has far too many representations for the length of this review, but I will try to touch on only a few.

Marlow is fascinated by the legend of Kurtz from the start. He wants to meet this man who has not only conquered the culture of the “savages”, but has gained their trust (or is it their fear?). Kurtz has apparently used his knowledge of the African continent and the people to amass a huge personal fortune of ivory. As a typical European colonialist and industrialist, Marlow wants to meet and learn from a man of success.

Ah, colonialism is such an arrogant concept. It is seen in our mission work, and in the belief of the masses that we really are trying to bring democracy and religious “salvation” to these poor blind people of distant lands. It was quite effective as a back up plan to the WMD excuse for war in Iraq. “Benevolence”, that pompous word, has been used to justify the repression and control of another’s culture for centuries.

Kurtz is driven to the African jungle out of a desire for fame and fortune. To achieve this success, he is determined to let nothing get in his way. This is a faulty way of thinking derived from his English culture which he finally understands when looking back on the absurdity of his life. Kurtz steps on everyone from his fellow countrymen to the unfamiliar natives of Africa to achieve his own selfish ends. Kurtz is a sick man, reflective of a sick society, whose concern as he is being taken to recovery is mine, mine, mine; My girl, my ivory, my possessions, my power, my control, my piece of land in the colonialist world.

Kurtz is both a dying empire and a dying man who is grasping at materialism in his last breath. He wasn’t out to love or aid in mutual assistance to the “savages”. They were terrified of him and anything that threatened their own way of life. Perhaps they were as guilty as he in not wanting to learn of the other. However, Kurtz (and Kurtz as England) was the oppressor and the Africans were (and still are to this day) the oppressed grasping for nothing but survival, mutuality, respect, and a place of equality in the world. But the drive to domination is a human trait, and we can see this today in the corrupt leadership of many African countries. They have seen the plundering of their continent and now in turn want to hoard as much as they can after centuries of forced poverty and slave labor.

The absurd must be confronted to be subdued in one’s life. Kurtz never faced the absurdity of the drive for temporal matters until his dying breath. Then everything came back to him. His dissatisfaction with the ideal of the “perfect life” dictated to him by his home country. His leaving a woman who loved him to satisfy what culture told him he must achieve. Then there was the great cost of achieving that success by the subjugation and oppression of another people. “The horror, the horror” Kurtz breathes at his end. Marlow seems to respect this ability to face life’s reality, although he is still wrapped up in some of the faulty thinking of Kurtz. Marlow has never achieved the material successes of Kurtz and we are left believing that there is a certain part of him that wants to.

The only person who seemed to see the human side of Kurtz was the woman who already had it all. She was the woman who loved Kurtz. She didn’t want him to prove anything, and saw the goodness in his heart, his ability to love. She, perhaps more than any other, realized his TRUE potential. To me, she represents the shining example of what we all can achieve as humanity by believing in one another and living for PEOPLE rather than the oppression that is necessary to gain material success. Success by our culture’s definition is a divide of humanity into winners and losers. True success is win/win, equality, justice, love.

Typhoon is a story that is bigger than the oppression of one by the other. It is representative of the adversities of life that we all face. However, our characters fail to realize that the bigger picture of life itself and the way it can destroy also represents the way people can trample on others. The “coolies” or Chinese passengers on board the English vessel to the East are second class citizens in the eyes of the crew who have little regard for their lives or comfort.

Captain MacWhirr is an even-keeled matter of fact man who has a job and will work to fulfill his duty at all costs. Jukes is the slightly unstable person who is reactionary and cautious. In times of great distress and fear, Jukes is shown to direct that fear onto the coolies in the form of repression and confinement. How typical is this man’s life? How much do we fail to understand that we are all human, each valuable in his own way? We all must face these storms of life together! None of us in the end will escape alive. The typhoon that almost destroyed the Nan-Shan would have destroyed each and every person on board EQUALLY, regardless of how they viewed themselves in respect to the other.

The sea and death DO treat all equally. The worst parts of our existence are no respecter of person. Shouldn’t this be a model as well for the best parts of life? Shouldn’t we strive for mutuality and respect and face the fact that the end of life as death is the same for all of us? Shouldn’t our time on this earth be one of the utmost happiness and satisfaction; one of love and the fulfillment that comes from giving and helping our fellow man? Why must we be so selfish? Who do we try to impress? Riches and materialism only breed contempt in others, do not bring satisfaction to ourselves, and kill us in the end while leaving us always wanting more.

Joseph Conrad did indeed find his voice. He had his own way of expressing the truth of love and equality, which is the most important reason for our existence. However you choose to exemplify it in your own life, I hope that you can find the peace and love that we all desire. “One truth, many expressions”.

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