12 November 2016

Lord Jim, Donald Trump, and The Plague

It was my intent to read Joseph Conrad’s novel Lord Jim. Fifty years ago it was an assigned text in a course I was taking as an undergraduate. I find myself today enamored of 18th and 19th century novels, even as I am drawn to the music of the 18th and 19th centuries. A year ago I read with my daughter Jane Austen’s six novels, and this past summer I read George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Adam Bede, Felix Holt, and The Mill on the Floss. In previous summers I read Tolsoty’s War and Peace and Anna Karenina, and before that Dostoevsky’s the Brothers Karamazov. I tramped through the Paris sewers with Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. Yes, I read contemporary novels—Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, and Nathan Hill’s The Nix most recently. And I adore Philip Roth, but to me there is something very 19th century about him, Henry Jamesian in style with long, engaged sentences working out characters and ideas, characters with ideas, characters with complexities that draw me in and reveal to me the world and myself.
     But I had chosen this time for a reason I am not sure (as perhaps Marlowe is not sure why Jim chooses Marlowe to tell his story) Conrad’s Lord Jim. I somewhat recalled the story the novel would tell: about cowardice. But I think it was the novel and not the theme that drew me to Conrad. And then came the horror of the presidential election and the unthinkable ascension of Donald Trump to the highest office in not only the United States but perhaps in the world. And suddenly this story of cowardice and moral strength took on new meaning. I began to read with new purpose.
     Jim has, at least as far as I have thus far gotten in the novel, despite his rather high opinion of himself, cowardly abandoned the wounded Patna which seemed about to sink and saved himself from the disabled boat aboard which remained eight hundred pilgrims who lay aboard sleeping and endangered. [Though as I read farther in the novel, I learn that the ship did not sink and the pilgrims did not drown, and Jim might have stayed aboard and not in cowardice have left his post. Worse and worser). At the time, however, Jim might have had the ability to awaken the sleeping passengers, but he chose not to do so. And Marlowe, to whom Jim tells his story, comments, “He was not afraid of death, perhaps, but I’ll tell you what, he was afraid of the emergency. His confounded imagination had evoked for him all the horrors of panic, the trampling rush, the pitiful screams, boats swamped—all the appalling incidents of a disaster at sea he had ever heard of. He might have been resigned to die, but I suspect he wanted to die without added terrors, quietly, "in a sort of peaceful trance.” Jim wanted to avoid the conflict, the messiness of the event, the futility of the attempt, the helplessness he knew to be his in this occasion. Jim wanted to retire and lose himself in a quietism.
     Many of us are devastated by the election results, and somewhat terrified of what the future (for generations) might hold now for the nation and the world. At our nation’s helm now is the captain of the Patna, the “incarnation of everything vile and base that lurks in the world we love,”  and in whose action has been and will be found “a more than criminal weakness.” He is a despicable man filled with hate and rage and a narcissism that borders on the psychotic. And we would, I suppose, like to retreat and ‘die’ without added terrors, quietly, in a sort of peaceful trance.” But I think like Father Paneloux, in Camus’ The Plague, that amidst the plague we must be the person who stays. Jim, despite his high ideals and his glorious opinion of his character, at the moment of crisis abandons his charge to save himself. This retreat must not be to what we resort. I don’t know right now what to do, but I am alert to all possibilities of resistance and fight. I cannot abandon my children, their world and their future.
     I am heartsick, and I see no end to the despair except in struggle and resistance to the menace we now face. “My brothers [and sisters], each one of us must be the one who stays,” demands Father Paneloux. Lord Jim’s cowardice can not be our choice.


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