Recently a happy accident put me in possession of a rarely seen film by Andrzej Wajda, Smuga cienia, from 1976. It is an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s short, openly autobiographical novel The Shadow-Line (1916). Wajda conceived the film as a modest docudrama based on Conrad’s last mission at sea. The British government, in the thick of the First World War, had enlisted the ageing celebrity for a brief, hopefully not too dangerous foray in the North Sea to hunt for German U-boats. The trip was undertaken without incident and – as its captain, James Sutherland, recorded – without any great satisfaction either. Conrad wrote very little during the war, with the exception of The Shadow-Line, which draws on memories of his first command in the British merchant navy some thirty years earlier. So it seems Wajda ended up combining these two episodes, the North Sea expedition and the first command, in a scenario from which Captain Sutherland and the U-boats disappeared altogether.
F.R. Leavis would not have approved of The Shadow-Line, whose broken-backed structure is perhaps no less objectionable than the double plot Leavis deplored in Daniel Deronda. Nearly a third of the novel is given over to bureaucratic machinations on shore, which Wajda wisely shortened but was unable to omit entirely. This opening part of the book turns on the inexplicable decision of the unnamed protagonist, the Conrad figure, to abandon his position as mate on ‘an Eastern ship’ and return to England, effectively giving up his career. He doesn’t say why (acte gratuit? existential choice?): there is a lot of speculation, people try to dissuade him, rumours abound. The hum of activity is calculated to heighten the shock of what happens next, an unexpected reversal. The captain of a barque has died at sea, and his place is offered to the protagonist, who accepts it just as impulsively as he had earlier decided to drop out of the game.
First command in Conrad is as romantic as first love, and is never disillusioned. An alternative version of the unique experience is offered by Marlow in ‘Youth’ (1898), where the longing ‘to see the East’ encounters as many obstacles as in The Shadow-Line but reaches a different and more wondrous conclusion (Francis Ford Coppola borrowed it for Apocalypse Now, his film version of Heart of Darkness). Touching shore at long last in the dark, Marlow wakes from the sleep of exhaustion to a silent dawn:
I opened my eyes … and then I saw the men of the East – they were looking at me. The whole length of the jetty was full of people. I saw brown, bronze, yellow faces, the black eyes, the glitter, the colour of an Eastern crowd. And all these beings stared without a murmur, without a sigh, without a movement. They stared down at the boats, at the sleeping men who at night had come to them from the sea. Nothing moved.
For the human animal, the experience of being looked at is profoundly ontological, and often traumatic. Conrad wanted to leave London, an acquaintance testified, because ‘the crowd in the streets so terrified him. “Terrified? By that dull stream of obliterated faces?” He leaned forward with both hands raised and clenched. “Yes, terrified: I see their personalities all leaping out at me like tigers!”’ This ‘first contact’, the enigmatic silence of otherness, is the moment of imperialism: Achebe called it racism in his denunciation of Heart of Darkness. It is carefully excised from The Shadow-Line, where there are only European sailors, the stay in Bangkok is non-exotic, and the destination is Australia.
This is perhaps the moment to say something about Conrad’s relationship to empire. I would suggest that what is asphyxiating about Heart of Darkness is not, in the first place, what so exasperated Achebe, but a personal crisis in Conrad’s life that is rarely discussed: the historical transition to steam, the replacement of the sailing ship by machine power in the 1870s and 1880s, a development repugnant to the seamen of Conrad’s generation. It surely played a part in his change of profession, his abandonment of maritime commerce for the perilous new métier of writing for a living. Indeed, I conjecture that Conrad unconsciously projected this existential choice onto the unmotivated decision that opens The Shadow-Line. Conrad’s choice may be interpreted as a response to what might be called the dialectic of success.
The shift from sail to steam power made ‘freshwater shipping’ possible, to the great contempt of traditional seamen. This is the kind of work into which, in Heart of Darkness, Marlow is forced by his assignment in the Congo. (‘What more did I want? What I really wanted was rivets, by heaven! Rivets. To get on with the work – to stop the hole. Rivets I wanted.’) The steamboat facilitated the prodigious expansion of the British Empire into such backwaters, the aquatic capillaries of world conquest. The age of empire is a success that brings discomforts and sacrifices along with it (‘Winner loses,’ as Sartre liked to put it): from the literary standpoint, a loss of the romance of the sea and adventures of exploration, to be replaced by a more worldly realism, if not the mysteries of syntax. Marlow’s story also illustrates the modern dilemmas of employment and unemployment that have only been exacerbated by automation and computerisation in the present.
It is historically unsurprising that, in the context of an emerging mass culture, nostalgia for older forms should express itself in their revival and imitation as high-art products. The adventure story was promoted into literature. A taste for this ‘canon’, from Stevenson to Kipling, from gaucho stories to Westerns, was formative for Borges, whose admiration for Conrad was well known. It is a mistake to consider Borges a modernist; rather, when he was awarded the Prix Formentor in 1961, marking his belated arrival on the world literary stage (along with Beckett, who shared the prize that year), it was a harbinger of the postmodern return to plot, to intricacy and intrigue, and away from the densities of poetic language. Conrad’s ‘postmodern’ reversion to plot was, however, combined with a different kind of modernist supplement, namely the work of style. Conrad dealt with his traditional raw material according to a stylistic strategy very different from Borges’s superposition of alternating plots and narrative paradoxes; yet the affinity betrays a deeper contradiction in the literary production process common to their respective historical moments.
Conrad as modernist? Not exactly. Ian Watt’s idea of Conrad’s style as ‘delayed decoding’ – the bewildering perceptual fragmentation of an act or object only then belatedly identified – is more appropriate to, say, his friend and collaborator Ford Madox Ford, whose sentences (Parade’s End!) provoke just such reading operations and can, therefore, unlike Conrad’s mature writing, certainly be looked at through the optic of modernism. Watt’s reading of Conrad is more suggestive when applied to plot: in Conrad’s bravura moments it is the plot that displays the technical prowess of delayed decoding, and obliges us to remain in suspense with regard to one part of the plot, while the other, known and comprehended part waits for completion.
Still, what Conrad does with plot betrays the fundamental contradiction in modernism between plot and sentence. The Shadow-Line articulates this contradiction in terms of work and class. The ‘first command’ (the initial title of The Shadow-Line) designates a personal and sentimental experience, yes, but, to be blunt about it, it also literally signals a shift from labour to management. In The Shadow-Line, it would be wrong to interpret the first mate’s resistance to the new captain as mere jealousy, or frustration at his inferior status. The captain is endowed not only with a different kind of authority, but engages in a different kind of activity, involved with knowledge rather than production, at least at sea. In port, the captain is obliged to supervise the delivery and loading of cargo, as well as managing relations with the imperial authorities and the shipping company. Here, the implementation of Taylor’s ‘scientific management’ – in which there is a separation between the manager’s knowledge of the totality of the production process and the labourer’s carefully delimited individual tasks – is not yet complete: an ambiguity attested by the undecidable status of the eponymous protagonist of Nostromo, whose power and prestige derive from the uncertainty as to whether he is taking orders or giving them.
A surprise awaits us in The Shadow-Line, however. As well as the ill will, paranoid fantasies and physical debilitation of the first mate, Mr Burns, and amid the many misfortunes that meet the ship itself, another disaster occurs: a contagion that lays the crew low and leaves no one to perform even the most menial duties. The honest steward, Ransome, is the one man on board still able to function (though he has a heart condition, and so the captain’s first command will be Ransome’s last voyage). His loyalty, trustiness and reliability are Conrad’s ethical sweetening of the pill of imperialism’s ‘material interests’. None of this, however, alters the fact that under these circumstances the captain has to become a worker again, racing back and forth between mast and wheel, securing loose cargo, patrolling the deck, holding the watch on all sides, doing the work of three or four men at once.
And what is productive labour when it comes to the sea? Productivity is normally defined in terms of work on raw materials, the transformation of nature by human effort and toil into useful objects. But the crew’s struggle against the sea does not produce anything in that sense: it effects distribution rather than production, circulation rather than industry. The question has literary implications as well. Godard once remarked (in Passion) that, bodily and material as they were, neither sex nor labour could really be represented.
A little prestidigitation is required. The struggles of the Odyssey were set down to the ill will of a god. In The Shadow-Line, Burns in his delirium rambles about the malevolent power of the dead captain (the novel’s title designates the boundary that must be crossed to escape his baleful influence). In an ‘author’s note’ written in 1920, Conrad went to great lengths to deny that the novel was a ghost story, but I think he protests too much and that his concern had more to do with marketing strategy and a desire to distinguish his work from the competition. In any case, Conrad’s storms are intelligent enough: ‘A furious gale attacks a man like a personal enemy, tries to grasp his limbs, fastens upon his mind, seeks to rout his very spirit out of him.’
Today, our own ‘struggle against nature’ has as much to do with the global marketplace, with extraction, with containers and the delivery of goods and cheap labour, as it does with producing the commodities themselves. Marxian debates about value and immaterial labour are scarcely exotic or superfluous when they concern a system in which universal consumerism tends to conceal production in favour of distribution, a category that includes not only circulation and exchange as such, but also the full-blown ideology of communication and information that has become our dominant mode of understanding in a media society. The captain is now the locus of information that Taylor wished the manager to be; but the labourers have gone below deck.
Or else their place has been taken by the labour of language, which, it turns out, identifies what is unique about Conrad in literary history as well as what is most ambiguous – in some good, ever tantalising way – about his solution to his literary dilemma. This dilemma can be characterised philosophically as the tension, if not the contradiction, between the universal and the particular; but that is no doubt a most pretentious way of saying it. In fact, the increasing gap that characterises ‘the modern’ is what I have called a ‘contradiction’ between the overall plot and the individual sentence, or the ‘fabula’ and the ‘syuzhet’, as the Russian Formalists put it, the raw material of the story and its realisation in sentences or in dramatic acts. Conrad’s solution to this quintessentially modern form-problem is disarming: labour becomes the central theme at both levels, which thereby echo each other. I have already discussed the way the plot deals with the question of labour through the genre of the sea or adventure tale; in language, labour is a matter of what Conrad and Ford liked to call ‘impressionism’, the shouldering of the burden of ‘le mot juste’ bequeathed to them by Flaubert (who never used the expression but suffered the thing itself his whole life, thereby becoming the inescapable ideal and martyr of the writerly art). Conrad and Ford here violate a staunch British tradition and demonstrate fealty to a foreign language. In Conrad’s defence, it must be said that he thought in French, and that writing in English was for him a kind of translation process. The pair revelled in professional discussions on the rendering of qualia, and on the lack of ‘clean edges’ in English words as opposed to French ones: they would ask themselves ‘how we would render … a ten-acre patch of blue-purple cabbage. We would try the words in French … we would try back into English.’
This commitment to precision finds a striking contradiction – if it is not, in fact, a confirmation – in Henri Bergson’s sense that it is language which first imposes a spatialising deformation on experience. Noun, verb, adjective: the noun reifies the object by classification, the verb turns an act into a thing, the adjective ornaments this frozen reality like a Christmas tree. Leavis, indeed, saw the adjective as Conrad’s weak point and his gravest temptation: Heart of Darkness is notoriously a sink of adjectives, of which the famous ‘horror’ is the distillation, a symptom that reveals Conrad’s fundamental uncertainties and hesitations about the implications of that text. In fact, the doctrine of ‘le mot juste’ is for him essentially adjectival propaganda and, far from yielding precision, only really works when a slight gap between word and thing displays the writer’s virtuosic choice of an elegant and eyecatching substitute, his expertise in sidestepping cliché, the perfect word conveying not the thing itself but rather the bravura gesture of the writer. In Conrad, however, ‘le mot juste’ becomes a formula for translation from French to English, and the equivalent in literary production of the hesitation in the fabula between the status of captain or manager and that of subordinate or common seaman.
Why English? Conrad’s choice wasn’t made only for commercial reasons (he was always desperate for income), or even because English was the world’s lingua franca. Here it is worth taking a fresh look at Conrad’s Toryism, which has so often been a cause of reproach, or met with an indifferent acknowledgment of his singularity. Everyone knows by now that the apolitical is itself a political choice, even when it isn’t replaced by an ideological alternative such as aestheticism (which certainly characterises Conrad as well, but in an idiosyncratic way, not quite comparable to that of other fin-de-siècle European or Victorian figures). The political is a unique kind of passion in its own right, but mid-19th-century Poland (a land under foreign occupation, like Ireland) was in any case a boiling cauldron of social forces and political passions. Conrad’s father, Apollo Korzeniowski, was a distinguished poet and translator who took part in numerous patriotic actions (fortunately for him, he was in prison during the most dramatic of these, the Warsaw uprising of 1863). In this he was opposed by other members of his family, notably his uncle, Conrad’s lifelong patron and a resolute abstentionist, who ran his estate and didn’t trouble himself with militancy or subversive anti-Russian activity. In all this turmoil, which affected not only his own family but social life in general in the period following the great revolutionary awakening of 1848, one can imagine the young Korzeniowski seeking some serenity in the form of an attempt to escape politics altogether.
That is exactly what he did. Figuratively (though it is a figure that would be literally dramatised again and again in his writings), he jumped ship. At the age of 16 he signed aboard a French vessel. Leaving Poland meant leaving politics behind for ever. The problem was, however, that no nation-state at the time could match the extraterritorial isolation provided by the ship itself. Every nation in Europe was wracked by political antagonisms, from the Commune and its republican sequel in France, to the various ethnic nationalisms and official state patriotism of Central and Eastern Europe (and of the post-Civil War US, to the idea of which so many oppressed Europeans took flight). The one place Conrad found tranquillity was in a supranational system from which such domestic tensions appeared, to a foreign observer at least, to have been banished: namely, the British Empire. This is not to say he didn’t have any political opinions (he loathed Leopold II, for example, though he evaded the Irish question and the fate of his friend Roger Casement); but here he was at least free from the strife in Poland, and the empire’s seemingly neutral non-national framework was what eventually decided his choice of language, too (that is, his decision to write in English rather than French; for obvious reasons, Polish doesn’t come into it). In English, his literary constructions would be sheltered from national concerns, just as his various vessels and cargo ships were from the flags under which they navigated, whose provenance only came into play in port (and even in port the worldwide network of British naval and maritime outposts served as something of a universal shield against local jurisdictions). To call all this ‘Toryism’ is a gross oversimplification of a complicated existential situation, which obscures the political as well as the historical meaning of Conrad’s texts.
In The Shadow-Line, imperialism safely bracketed, the decks seem to be clear for a straightforward account of the author-protagonist’s first encounter with space and the sea. Yet what happens is in a sense the opposite. Not the subtle and probing, exhaustively varied, sometimes overpowering trials of Typhoon (‘It was as if Nature itself were an intelligent being trying deliberately to destroy them’), but rather indifference, and as it were the absentmindedness of God. Far from being storm-battered, the unnamed ship is beset by something worse: no sooner does it leave harbour than the wind falls and the vessel is fatally becalmed. The violence of the tempest, in which time is virtually abolished by the urgency of tasks to be performed, is raw material with which words, from the Odyssey to Conrad himself, can deal just as well as film images. Language cannot, however, begin to compete with cinema when it comes to the windless emptiness of time at a stop: ‘calme plat, grand miroir/De mon désespoir’. Baudelaire’s great lines, which serve as the epigraph of The Shadow-Line (and are then borrowed back by Conrad’s French translator André Gide for the cruise sequence of The Counterfeiters), capture the desperation of the ship in its doldrums and the slackness of the sails whose imperceptible stirring Wajda starkly underscores, along with the idle impotence conveyed by the captain’s aimless rushing back and forth across the deck. (‘All the ills of man come from this, the inability to sit still in a room.’) And suddenly we understand: it isn’t so much the genius of Wajda and the glorious images of this magnificent ship in full span that convey the metaphysical significance of this moment. It is the inexorability of the projector and the unreeling film, and the condemnation of the audience to immobility throughout the ordeal, which are the condition of what we now perceive: the emergence of pure empty Time, devoid of content, Proustian or otherwise.
This is the real or ‘simple’ time beyond human temporality that Bergson sought to express in an eloquent language nonetheless doomed to remain human. The Greeks were seemingly unable to dissociate time from movement: even the tortuous Aristotelian formula (‘Time is the number of motion with respect to the before and after’) was unable to do without it, while it is the very movement of the sentence that led Derrida to his judgment of futility: ‘In a sense, it is always too late to talk about time.’ Even the contemporary versions of Bergson’s insistence fall back, tainted by movement, when they evoke the ‘arrow of time’. Still, Wajda’s camera is able to share Conrad’s glimpse, through the gap between his adventure stories and his Flaubertian art-sentences, of that Bergsonian time beyond temporality, which, neither eternity nor living present, neither ephemerality nor fulfilment, beyond all ennui and anxious waiting, neither an ending nor a beginning, consists in the essence of pure and empty Time in itself and as such, the Time of changeless yet irreversible succession.