"To Grapple with Another Man's Intimate Need": Trauma-Shame Interdependency (Masochism) in Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim (1900)

Article excerpt

Being a milestone of extraordinary modernity, Joseph Conrad's 1900 novel Lord Jim topographies what subsequently became the psychological core of British modernism: trauma and shame. The novel's psychologically oriented criticism engages these most basic of human experiences, in effct, pointing to its own awareness of the psychology and narrative relationship. Despite the intimidating nature of conceptualizing the mountains of analyses already brought forward on the topic, one can loosely parcel them into three groups, namely, the "proto-psychological," (1) the structural and the poststructural. Discussion of these three methodologies helps to provide a genealogy of the novel's psychological criticism.

Based on the work of Sigmund Freud, "proto-psychological" criticism of the novel surfaced as early as the nineteen-thirties, and like Gustaf Morfs 1930 work focuses on the appearance of doubling configurations in the narrative. Subsequently, New Criticism's understanding of narrative in terms of its seismological, topographical effects inaugurated exemplary socio-linguistic readings of the novel as in Albert J. Guerard's Conrad the Novelist (1958). More recently, poststructural methodologies have produced the lions share of debate amongst the critical canon. Post-colonialist critics read the novel as an artefact of colonialism, finally arguing that the novel's ambiguities serve as textual evidence for colonizer guilt and dysphoria. Frederic Jameson, for example, argues that the novel's allegory is overcome by its authorial ambiguity, a situation representing "the impossibility of narrative beginnings" and the "problematization of linear narrative itself' (208-209). Succeeding Jameson, Ursula Lord contends tha t Conrad's "doubt-ridden narrative complexity" infers the epistemological theme of the elusiveness of truth, [that] is in turn paradigmatic of the self-doubt and incipient failure of imperialism" (147). Nevertheless, one of the essential qualities of this work of art is its capacity for coalescing the interlocutor's experience with universal human expressions such as shame, trauma, and humiliation that continues to make this novel a classic.

Picturing Jim and Brown as symbolic of the fragile univocity in naval values, many psychoanalytic critiques stigmatize Brown while clarifying the antiheroism of Jim. Brown's diabolic appearance, for example, has often encouraged the view that his nemesis is less a sinner than one sinned against, and, therefore, dies as an essentially Christlike figure (Verleun 1979). Likewise, Ian Watt (1980) and Cedric Watts (1993) see Jim's final decision on Patusan as emblematic of his noble adherence to an honorable naval code. Similarly, Zdzislaw Najder benevolently addressed me after I first presented this paper (at the 2000 International Joseph Conrad Conference at Texas Tech), suggesting that Conrad's sense of heroism undoubtedly was different from a present-day view of such a notion, and that Jim's fulfilling of his word is, in actuality, an honorable deed. Nevertheless, I fail to see how the novel's allegory could reside in anything but Marlow's rendition of the tragedies that are the lives of Jim and Brown.

In contrast to these approaches and indicative of a clinical pedigree, present-day psychoanalytic and psychiatric methodologies such as trauma and shame theories attempt to understand, rather than stigmatize, Marlow's representations of Jim Brown. Conrad's presentation of Marlow's narrative, when examined in terms of a trauma-shame methodology, permits an empathy practice consistent with a type of therapy. In effect, in solving the absence that Jim's identity is, Conrad creates a hermetic for those who have also suffered severe psychological woundings.


Conrad's disgust with Freudian theory is infamous. In short, he saw such critiques as indicative of an incoherent desire to subsume creative imagination to the reason of the dilettante. …