15 December 2006

Forgotten, Unforgiven, and Excessively Romantic

Filed under: First Lines — ktismatics @ 4:58 pm


He was an inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built, and he advanced straight at you with a slight stoop of the shoulders, head forward, and a fixed from-under stare which made you think of a charging bull.

– Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim, 1900

The bulge in the thin hull would burst at any moment. The pilgrims, oblivious, slept, eight hundred of them: could their mystic dreams have brought them any closer to Paradise than their real peril? It was too late, and the lifeboats too few. Silently lowering two boats, the officers slipped away into the night.

The officers failed to recognize that Allah held the Patna in the palm of his hand. How could they have known, when they told of her capsizing, that the inevitable had through some miracle been averted, that days later the drifting hulk would still be afloat, its passengers still alive to tell the tale to their rescuers?

Of the would-be Ishmaels only Jim did not disappear; only Jim stood trial.

They wanted facts. Facts! They demanded facts from him, as if facts could explain anything! …He spoke slowly; he remembered swiftly and with extreme vividness; he could have reproduced like an echo the moaning of the engineer for the better information of these men who wanted facts. After his first feeling of revolt he had come round to the view that only a meticulous precision of statement would bring out the true horror behind the appalling face of things. The facts those men were so eager to know had been visible, tangible, open to the senses, occupying their place in space and time, requiring for their existence a fourteen-hundred-ton steamer and twenty-seven minutes by the watch; they made a whole that had features, shades of expression, a complicated aspect that could be remembered by the eye, and something else besides, something invisible, a directing spirit of perdition that dwelt within, like a malevolent soul in a detestable body. He was anxious to make this clear. This had not been a common affair, everything in it had been of the utmost importance, and fortunately he remembered everything. He wanted to go on talking for truth’s sake, perhaps for his own sake also; and while his utterance was deliberate, his mind positively flew round and round the serried circle of facts that had surged up all about him to cut him off from the rest of his kind: it was like a creature that, finding itself imprisoned within an enclosure of high stakes, dashes round and round, distracted in the night, trying to find a weak spot, a crevice, a place to scale, some opening through which it may squeeze itself and escape.

Believing themselves to be the only survivors, the officers constructed a myth about the sinking of the Patna. Myth drowns in facts, brutish things that offer no salvation to drowning heroes. Later Jim would recreate himself in the interior, a profligate world where only facts do not grow. A lone European knew Jim’s fate; only the one could bear witness to the legend of Lord Jim:

And later on, many times, in distant parts of the world, Marlow showed himself willing to remember Jim, to remember him at length, in detail and audibly. Perhaps it would be after dinner, on a verandah draped in motionless foliage and crowned with flowers, in the deep dusk speckled by fiery cigar-ends. The elongated bulk of each cane-chair harboured a silent listener. Now and then a small red glow would move abruptly, and expanding light up the fingers of a languid hand, part of a face in profound repose, or flash a crimson gleam into a pair of pensive eyes overshadowed by a fragment of an unruffled forehead; and with the very first word uttered Marlow’s body, extended at rest in the seat, would become very still, as though his spirit had winged its way back into the lapse of time and were speaking through his lips from the past.



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