Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Lord Jim (Part 2)

While Marlowe does not spitefully attack Stein about his use of English, spitefulness does become a factor when Marlow shifts his focus from the white European Stein’s speech to a half-caste boatman’s use of English later in the chapter.  After saying his good-byes to Jim, and presenting him with a pistol, Marlow notices Jim has forgotten to take the pistol’s ammunition with him [1].  Marlow believes Jim needs the gun and ammunition, so he sets out to catch Jim and return the ammunition to him before his boat to Patusan sets out.  During this process, Marlow encounters the half-caste boat captain and participates in a dialogue, about Jim, with him.  After listening to the half-caste speak, Marlow describes his English as, “seem[ing] to be derived from a dictionary compiled by a lunatic’” after the half-caste informs him that the boat Jim will travel on will “ascend” the river (238).  Marlow is quick to point out what he considers to be the half-caste’s horrible diction.  There is nothing funny to Marlow, as there was with Stein’s speech, about the way the half-caste misuses English words and phrases.  Elsewhere in his conversation with the half-caste, Marlow points out the boatman’s misuse of the words and phrases: “reverentially,” “irresponsive,” “resignation to quit,” “propitiated many offertories,” and “plenty too much enough of Patusan,” among numerous others.  Marlow presents these examples of misused English and many times provides what he believes to be the correct usage the half-caste was seeking. 

While these phrases and words seem to irritate Marlow, a final phrase the half-caste utters, that Jim was already “in the similitude of a corpse,” shakes Marlow out of his grammatical condemnations of the half-cast’s speech (240).  “‘What?  What do you say,’” Marlow asks the half-caste after his comparison of Jim to a corpse, “‘Already like the body of one deported,’” replies the half-caste (240).  In this instance, Marlow is not bothered by the misuse of the word “deported,” but is struck by the reality of danger that faces Jim in Patusan.  While Marlow initially condemns the way the half-caste speaks English, he tempers this judgment by stating that, “The absurd chatter of the half-caste had given more reality to the miserable dangers of [Jim’s] path than Stein’s careful statements” (240).  The half-caste is unable to speak English well, but he is able to more clearly relate to Marlow the dangerous “truth” inherent in Jim’s Patusanian undertaking than Stein is with well-spoken English. 

Curiously, chapter twenty-three, a chapter obsessed with the English language and its representational power, closes with the Latin phrase “Absit omen.”  Absit omen literally translates into “let the omen be absent,” but according to the Oxford English Dictionary, a more specific connotation of this phrase is "May no ominous significance attach to the words.”  Significance for Conrad is still possible through language and texts, but the possibility of “ominous,” or improper significance, being attached to words by a dubious user of language (like Stein) or by a reader is a very real problem.  While I do believe Conrad is questioning the ability of language to present specific meaning in his text, I do not think he is going as far as later post-structuralist theoreticians would in presenting the idea that it is impossible for language to present some sort of “truth.”  For Conrad, as evidenced in the text of Lord Jim and specifically in Chapter twenty-three of the novel, “truth” can still be found, but it is much more difficult to arrive at than traditionally believed. The text, through language, can still point to something out there that is concrete and meaningful, but a writer must go about presenting what he or she considers to be meaning in new and novel ways and not rely solely on the ability of a single narrative form to accomplish this task.

[1] During his leave taking with Jim, Marlow also observes that Jim is taking the works of Shakespeare with him to Patusan.  In a longer version of this essay, it would be fruitful to explore in more depth the place Shakespeare holds in the historical development of the English language.  While Shakespeare is revered as one of the greatest writers in the English language, it could be argued that he, like the half-cast boat captain, derived his speech from a “dictionary compiled by a lunatic.”  The English language was in flux when Shakespeare was penning his plays and in order to convey the meanings he wanted, Shakespeare coined many of his own words and phrases.