on impostors and space

Wednesday, April 14th, 2004

With Conrad, Beowulf comes full circle. This is a big statement and one that won’t go fully supported in these next few posts on British Literature. But I think it’s fair to say that the reader can distinguish between the text of Beowulf and Conrad’s text in the way they approach a “sense” of history, and why this matters to both.

Does the sense of history have to do with time or space or both? We can talk of a historical space: a time ago with panoramic quality, depth of field. To know it all we have to do is penetrate, as Marlow in Heart of Darkness penetrates the wilds. Yesterday. Is a week ago “history”? Actions past that still influence. For Conrad the “sense of history” is articulated in the exposition of Heart if Darkness, mentioned both by the narrator and Marlow. The narrator envisions it as something glorious. “We looked at the venrable stream not in the vivid flush of a short day that comes and departs forever, but in the august light of abiding memory. And indeed nothing is easier for a man who has, as the phrase goes, “followed the sea” with reverence and affection, than to evoke the great spirit of the past upon the lower reaches of the Themes. The tidal current runs to and fro in its unceasing service, crowded with memories of men and ships it had borne to the rest of home or to the battles of the sea” (1959). Water is the carrier, a foundation and a path that “tells,” reminds, bring in the story of the past.

Marlow on the other hand break through that surface or romaniticising of the past. He’s fascinated and fearful of it. “I was thinking of very old times, when the Romans first came here, nineteen hundred years ago — the other day. . . . Light came out of this river since — you say Knights? Yes; but it is like a running blaze on a plain, like a flash of lightning in the clouds. We live in the flicker — may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling! But darkness was here yesterday” (1960). He goes on:

“Imagine the feelings of a commander of a fine — what d’ye call ’em? — trireme in the Mediterranean, ordered suddenly to the north; run overland across the Gauls in a hurry; put in charge of one of these craft the legionaries — a wonderful lot of handy men they must have been, too — used to build, apparently by the hundred, in a month or two, if we may believe what we read. Imagine him here — the very end of the world, a sea the colour of lead, a sky the colour of smoke, a kind of ship about as rigid as a concertina — and going up this river with stores, or orders, or what you like. Sand-banks, marshes, forests, savages, — precious little to eat fit for a civilized man, nothing but Thames water to drink.”

Still further: “‘They were conquerers, and for that you want only brute force–nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the eakness of others” (1961).

This interpretation, a personal judgment, comes from Marlow’s experience, which he will soon get into. He will tell a story of “personal history,” whose greater context is the great “historical space” of Leopold’s holdings in the Congo, a colonized, economic “space in time”

Metaphorically, Marlow, described as an idol and gesturing like one, draws in the notion of darkness and the savagery of the characterized wilderness (past as place). This reminds me, of course, of Tennyson’s Idylls, of the time before the order-bringing of Arthur, the world brought to waste and disorder in the narrative of that story.

Or think of a decent young citizen in a toga — perhaps too much dice, you know — coming out here in the train of some prefect, or tax-gatherer, or trader even, to mend his fortunes. Land in a swamp, march through the woods, and in some inland post feel the savagery, the utter savagery, had closed round him — all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men. There’s no initiation either into such mysteries. He has to live in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is also detestable. And it has a fascination, too, that goes to work upon him. The fascination of the abomination — you know, imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate.” (Conrad 1960)

The Roman in this conception moves from order to chaos to order. That’s the (grand) historical narrative with lots of paths in between. As an aside, we have two Romans–the real Roman who walked who knows when and the Roman of Marlow’s story. Which is the impostor?


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