awkwardly

Thursday

Lovecraftian story hidden in Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

In Chapter Five of Lord Jim, Marlowe (same character who narrates Heart of Darkness and some of Conrad's other tales!) tells about meeting with one of the other disgraced crewmen from the Patna. As you may recall, the novel revolves around this inciting incident, an old steamship called the Patna overloaded with Muslim pilgrims hits something submerged in the water and begins to leak. Knowing that they don't have enough lifeboats for the passengers, the mostly White and English officers jump into a lifeboat and try to get away before the passengers start to freak out. They row away into the fog. A few days later they discover that the ship didn't go down and was towed into port. The officers are then put on trial for abandoning ship, clearly not trying to rescue passengers in a situation where they thought passengers would die.

So Marlowe meets one of the officers or crew or whatever who rowed away with our "hero" Jim. This character under our scrutiny is not named, but has "drooping white moustache". The usual interpretation is that this guy is hallucinating. He reports having seen the ship sink as they rowed away, but makes other claims that are either fantastic or psychotic:

'But it so happened that I had a man in the hospital at the time, and going there to see about him the day before the opening of the Inquiry, I saw in the white men's ward that little chap tossing on his back, with his arm in splints, and quite light-headed. To my great surprise the other one, the long individual with drooping white moustache, had also found his way there. I remembered I had seen him slinking away during the quarrel, in a half prance, half shuffle, and trying very hard not to look scared. He was no stranger to the port, it seems, and in his distress was able to make tracks straight for Mariani's billiard-room and grog-shop near the bazaar. That unspeakable vagabond, Mariani, who had known the man and had ministered to his vices in one or two other places, kissed the ground, in a manner of speaking, before him, and shut him up with a supply of bottles in an upstairs room of his infamous hovel. It appears he was under some hazy apprehension as to his personal safety, and wished to be concealed. However, Mariani told me a long time after (when he came on board one day to dun my steward for the price of some cigars) that he would have done more for him without asking any questions, from gratitude for some unholy favour received very many years ago--as far as I could make out. He thumped twice his brawny chest, rolled enormous black-and-white eyes glistening with tears: "Antonio never forget--Antonio never forget!" What was the precise nature of the immoral obligation I never learned, but be it what it may, he had every facility given him to remain under lock and key, with a chair, a table, a mattress in a corner, and a litter of fallen plaster on the floor, in an irrational state of funk, and keeping up his pecker with such tonics as Mariani dispensed. This lasted till the evening of the third day, when, after letting out a few horrible screams, he found himself compelled to seek safety in flight from a legion of centipedes. He burst the door open, made one leap for dear life down the crazy little stairway, landed bodily on Mariani's stomach, picked himself up, and bolted like a rabbit into the streets. The police plucked him off a garbage-heap in the early morning. At first he had a notion they were carrying him off to be hanged, and fought for liberty like a hero, but when I sat down by his bed he had been very quiet for two days. His lean bronzed head, with white moustaches, looked fine and calm on the pillow, like the head of a war-worn soldier with a child-like soul, had it not been for a hint of spectral alarm that lurked in the blank glitter of his glance, resembling a nondescript form of a terror crouching silently behind a pane of glass. He was so extremely calm, that I began to indulge in the eccentric hope of hearing something explanatory of the famous affair from his point of view. Why I longed to go grubbing into the deplorable details of an occurrence which, after all, concerned me no more than as a member of an obscure body of men held together by a community of inglorious toil and by fidelity to a certain standard of conduct, I can't explain. You may call it an unhealthy curiosity if you like; but I have a distinct notion I wished to find something. Perhaps, unconsciously, I hoped I would find that something, some profound and redeeming cause, some merciful explanation, some convincing shadow of an excuse. I see well enough now that I hoped for the impossible--for the laying of what is the most obstinate ghost of man's creation, of the uneasy doubt uprising like a mist, secret and gnawing like a worm, and more chilling than the certitude of death--the doubt of the sovereign power enthroned in a fixed standard of conduct. It is the hardest thing to stumble against; it is the thing that breeds yelling panics and good little quiet villainies; it's the true shadow of calamity. Did I believe in a miracle? and why did I desire it so ardently? Was it for my own sake that I wished to find some shadow of an excuse for that young fellow whom I had never seen before, but whose appearance alone added a touch of personal concern to the thoughts suggested by the knowledge of his weakness--made it a thing of mystery and terror--like a hint of a destructive fate ready for us all whose youth--in its day--had resembled his youth? I fear that such was the secret motive of my prying. I was, and no mistake, looking for a miracle. The only thing that at this distance of time strikes me as miraculous is the extent of my imbecility. I positively hoped to obtain from that battered and shady invalid some exorcism against the ghost of doubt. I must have been pretty desperate too, for, without loss of time, after a few indifferent and friendly sentences which he answered with languid readiness, just as any decent sick man would do, I produced the word Patna wrapped up in a delicate question as in a wisp of floss silk. I was delicate selfishly; I did not want to startle him; I had no solicitude for him; I was not furious with him and sorry for him: his experience was of no importance, his redemption would have had no point for me. He had grown old in minor iniquities, and could no longer inspire aversion or pity. He repeated Patna? interrogatively, seemed to make a short effort of memory, and said: "Quite right. I am an old stager out here. I saw her go down." I made ready to vent my indignation at such a stupid lie, when he added smoothly, "She was full of reptiles."

'This made me pause. What did he mean? The unsteady phantom of terror behind his glassy eyes seemed to stand still and look into mine wistfully. "They turned me out of my bunk in the middle watch to look at her sinking," he pursued in a reflective tone. His voice sounded alarmingly strong all at once. I was sorry for my folly. There was no snowy-winged coif of a nursing sister to be seen flitting in the perspective of the ward; but away in the middle of a long row of empty iron bedsteads an accident case from some ship in the Roads sat up brown and gaunt with a white bandage set rakishly on the forehead. Suddenly my interesting invalid shot out an arm thin like a tentacle and clawed my shoulder. "Only my eyes were good enough to see. I am famous for my eyesight. That's why they called me, I expect. None of them was quick enough to see her go, but they saw that she was gone right enough, and sang out together--like this." . . . A wolfish howl searched the very recesses of my soul. "Oh! make 'im dry up," whined the accident case irritably. "You don't believe me, I suppose," went on the other, with an air of ineffable conceit. "I tell you there are no such eyes as mine this side of the Persian Gulf. Look under the bed."

'Of course I stooped instantly. I defy anybody not to have done so. "What can you see?" he asked. "Nothing," I said, feeling awfully ashamed of myself. He scrutinised my face with wild and withering contempt. "Just so," he said, "but if I were to look I could see--there's no eyes like mine, I tell you." Again he clawed, pulling at me downwards in his eagerness to relieve himself by a confidential communication. "Millions of pink toads. There's no eyes like mine. Millions of pink toads. It's worse than seeing a ship sink. I could look at sinking ships and smoke my pipe all day long. Why don't they give me back my pipe? I would get a smoke while I watched these toads. The ship was full of them. They've got to be watched, you know." He winked facetiously. The perspiration dripped on him off my head, my drill coat clung to my wet back: the afternoon breeze swept impetuously over the row of bedsteads, the stiff folds of curtains stirred perpendicularly, rattling on brass rods, the covers of empty beds blew about noiselessly near the bare floor all along the line, and I shivered to the very marrow. The soft wind of the tropics played in that naked ward as bleak as a winter's gale in an old barn at home. "Don't you let him start his hollering, mister," hailed from afar the accident case in a distressed angry shout that came ringing between the walls like a quavering call down a tunnel. The clawing hand hauled at my shoulder; he leered at me knowingly. "The ship was full of them, you know, and we had to clear out on the strict Q.T.," he whispered with extreme rapidity. "All pink. All pink--as big as mastiffs, with an eye on the top of the head and claws all round their ugly mouths. Ough! Ough!" Quick jerks as of galvanic shocks disclosed under the flat coverlet the outlines of meagre and agitated legs; he let go my shoulder and reached after something in the air; his body trembled tensely like a released harp-string; and while I looked down, the spectral horror in him broke through his glassy gaze. Instantly his face of an old soldier, with its noble and calm outlines, became decomposed before my eyes by the corruption of stealthy cunning, of an abominable caution and of desperate fear. He restrained a cry-- "Ssh! what are they doing now down there?" he asked, pointing to the floor with fantastic precautions of voice and gesture, whose meaning, borne upon my mind in a lurid flash, made me very sick of my cleverness. "They are all asleep," I answered, watching him narrowly. That was it. That's what he wanted to hear; these were the exact words that could calm him. He drew a long breath. "Ssh! Quiet, steady. I am an old stager out here. I know them brutes. Bash in the head of the first that stirs. There's too many of them, and she won't swim more than ten minutes." He panted again. "Hurry up," he yelled suddenly, and went on in a steady scream: "They are all awake--millions of them. They are trampling on me! Wait! Oh, wait! I'll smash them in heaps like flies. Wait for me! Help! H-e-elp!" An interminable and sustained howl completed my discomfiture. I saw in the distance the accident case raise deplorably both his hands to his bandaged head; a dresser, aproned to the chin showed himself in the vista of the ward, as if seen in the small end of a telescope. I confessed myself fairly routed, and without more ado, stepping out through one of the long windows, escaped into the outside gallery. The howl pursued me like a vengeance. I turned into a deserted landing, and suddenly all became very still and quiet around me, and I descended the bare and shiny staircase in a silence that enabled me to compose my distracted thoughts. Down below I met one of the resident surgeons who was crossing the courtyard and stopped me. "Been to see your man, Captain? I think we may let him go to-morrow. These fools have no notion of taking care of themselves, though. I say, we've got the chief engineer of that pilgrim ship here. A curious case. D.T.'s of the worst kind. He has been drinking hard in that Greek's or Italian's grog-shop for three days. What can you expect? Four bottles of that kind of brandy a day, I am told. Wonderful, if true. Sheeted with boiler-iron inside I should think. The head, ah! the head, of course, gone, but the curious part is there's some sort of method in his raving. I am trying to find out. Most unusual--that thread of logic in such a delirium. Traditionally he ought to see snakes, but he doesn't. Good old tradition's at a discount nowadays. Eh! His--er--visions are batrachian. Ha! ha! No, seriously, I never remember being so interested in a case of jim-jams before. He ought to be dead, don't you know, after such a festive experiment. Oh! he is a tough object. Four-and-twenty years of the tropics too. You ought really to take a peep at him. Noble-looking old boozer. Most extraordinary man I ever met--medically, of course. Won't you?"


Terror. "Spectral horror". BATRACHIAN! An arm "thin like a tentacle"! I added emphasis but I am not making this shit up or adding any words. Those pink toads the size of mastiffs with single eyes on each head? Would you describe them as CYCLOPEAN???

So here's my theory. The steamship Patna brushed the towers of R'lyeh as that sunken city tried to rise again, called into prominence by hundreds of yearning pilgrims. Perhaps the officers and crew wouldn't have freaked out and abandoned ship under normal circumstances, but when you come that close to eternal, abysmal horrors, it's no wonder they'd behave irrationally, that this experience would haunt them the rest of their days. Perhaps the engineer did see pink toads the size of mastiffs on the ship, and he can't stop seeing it now, no matter how much he self-medicates. Perhaps Jim's reactions through the rest of the story can be explained by his brush with madness. Perhaps there was more than just a lack of civilization in "the horror, the horror" that Marlowe witnessed in the Congo. Perhaps Lovecraft read Conrad and had some other thoughts about what it meant.

(I imagine Joshi or someone has already documented any letters or comments that Lovecraft made about Conrad, if any.)

2 Comments:

  • At 7:07 PM , Blogger O. G. R. Raymond said...

    Very interesting pick-up, I'm writing an essay on Heart of Darkness for a postcolonial lit subject at the moment, and I'm trying to bring in the Lovecraft element. Coming back to reread Conrad after discovering Lovecraft, it was fascinating to see the similarities in their styles. It seems as though Lovecraft was tapping into the same horror that Conrad evoked. To me, it quite eerily lends credence to the idea that there is a kind of horror and madness that certain enquiring minds stumble across through the years...

     
  • At 11:00 AM , Blogger Robert T. Northrup said...

    Thanks. If you end up posting your essay on the web, could you post a link here in the comments?

     

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