An Incomprehensible Alliance: Mind, Body, and Responsibility in Lord Jim

By Hannis, Alexia | Conradiana, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

An Incomprehensible Alliance: Mind, Body, and Responsibility in Lord Jim


Hannis, Alexia, Conradiana


In a letter to the New York Times "Saturday Review," Joseph Conrad writes what is perhaps his most profound description of the exigencies of fiction:

Besides this here is nothing evident, nothing absolute, nothing uncontradicted; there is no principle, no instinct, no impulse that can stand alone at the beginning of things and look confidently to the end. Egoism, which is the moving force of the world, and altruism, which is its morality, these two contradictory instincts of which one is so plain and the other so mysterious, cannot serve us unless in the incomprehensible alliance of their irreconcilable antagonism. [...] The only legitimate basis of creative work lives in the courageous recognition of all the irreconcilable antagonisms that make our life so enigmatic, so burdensome, so fascinating, so dangerous--so full of hope. They exist! And this is the only fundamental truth of fiction. (CL 2: 348)

For Conrad, then, fiction is "legitimate"--that is to say, justifiable or, more abstractly, authentic--"only" if it honors the "irreconcilable antagonisms" that simultaneously enrich and plague existence (CL 2: 348). That is to say, the novelist is implicitly bound to engage with what Conrad describes as a shared experience of contraries. At first it might seem that he is merely discussing manifestations of paradox, here; and yet, careful reading shows that Conrad precludes the possibility of clever resolution with his use of the word "irreconcilable" and the phrase "incomprehensible alliance" (CL 2: 348). At the same time, it should be noted, even as he uses the universal pronoun "our" and the singular noun "life," Conrad insists upon the unreliability of absolutes, and refuses a teleological line of thought (CL 2: 348). In other words, contradictory instincts of egoism and altruism, the former directed inwardly toward the self and the latter, outwardly toward the other, might be made to "serve us" not by forcing them into conciliatory consistency (CL 2: 348); nor is the alliance going to make good, comprehensive sense. Rather, it seems from Conrads formulation that the point is not to resolve or close but to see and to sense the gap between the contradictory aspects.

True to his rigorously demanding philosophy of literature, there persists in Conrad's fiction an interrogation of a most potent antagonism that of mind and body, what Elizabeth Klaver has identified as "the most stubborn of all the Western binaries," (158). According to Conrad, the antagonists need to be brought into an "alliance" if they are to work for, rather than against, human life--and, as his fiction shows time and time again, this relation is difficult to achieve, indeed (CL 2: 348). Certainly, many of his central characters show a dangerous tendency towards intellectual or imaginative detachment. Debra Romanick points out, for example, "[Kaspar] Almayer, Jim, Jasper Allen, [Kyrilo Sidorovitch] Razumov, Axel Heyst, even Jukes, to name a few. All of these characters run into difficulties when their thinking abstracts and detaches them from concrete realities around them which must be engaged" (190). The dangers of detachment are perhaps most obviously registered in the teacher of languages of Under Western Eyes; Jeremy Hawthorn notes that the linguist-narrator is "one character in the novel whose eyes, and whose body, are never described," an absence through which "Conrad bestows thematic significance on what we can see as the teacher of languages' 'half-life': he becomes a warning of the perils of uninvolved observation" (xxviii). On the whole, in Conrad's works, a life of the mind offers a compelling wealth of possibilities, but such limitlessness can become an ironically paralyzing force that betrays the initial promise of eternal expansion. Then again, as John Stape points out, in works such as The End of the Tether, "a lack of imagination is as fatal as the possession of one constantly caught up with its own processes" (72-3). …

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