Soul-searching aplenty…

I think it can be safely said that the expanse of time since my last blog entry – 3 months! – is testament to the fact that reading and writing for pleasure has taken a back seat of late. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. Work ambles along, progress is steadily made.

But blog oh blog, you have crept about in the recesses of my mind.

So I thought I would at least jot down the last couple of books read.

1. J . D. Salinger, Franny & Zooey (1955 &1957 respectively), and 2. Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim (c.1900)

There is no obvious connection between the two, no particular reason for the choice of reading matter. I’ve read books by both authors before; in both cases “the book they’re famous for” as it were: The Catcher in the Rye and Heart of Darkness respectively. There’s not much point wondering whether their fame is based upon their “best” work or not as is sometimes done with authors. Salinger at least was not a particularly prolific author (he was a recluse for much of his life), and both men throughout their literary careers meditated upon recurrent themes so consistently that their works might be seen together as one continuous thread, one side of an unbroken dialogue.

The eponymous Franny and Zooey belong to the Glass family, in which two ex-vaudeville performers are parent to seven precocious children who achieve some fame during radio quiz shows during the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. Salinger wrote often about these fictional Glass children, fiercely intelligent but also spiritually thirsty. Franny is a short account of the youngest Glass child’s awkward encounter with her all-American boyfriend on a visit to see him at Yale; Zooey tells the story of what follows after her apparent mental breakdown as she, clutching a copy of The Way of a Pilgrim, grapples toward enlightenment while convalescing on her parents’ sofa. Zooey, the second youngest, is on hand to prod and goad her new-found spirituality, all the while convinced that he and his brothers exposed her to too many ideas too young. Recurring are ideas of Buddhism, Zen philosophy, literary and artistic fulfillment, and a sort of monkish, aesthetic Christianity. Ideas prevalent in The Catcher of madness and mental and emotional breakdown, and of youth and its struggles, are also developed. I liked how unfulfilling these stories were, how they didn’t seek to demystify even though they were written in an age that while flirting with eastern philosophies was also moving culturally and irreversibly towards secularism.

Lord Jim is masterful. Its format is surprising for its age, shifting from an initial third person narrative to an extended first-person account by Marlow (a character in Heart of Darkness), to a long letter by Marlow two years later to a privileged listener of his original story. Marlow describes in deeply romantic terms the eponymous Jim’s journey from a moment of moral cataclysm aboard the pilgrim boat the Patna to near-salvation among a group of Muslims  somewhere in Southeast Asia, to ultimate ruin. Perhaps it is a little like Franny’s journey, since both battle with inner demons in quest of some guiding truth. But where Franny leans heavily on external sources of thought, Jim appears at all times frighteningly alone (despite Marlow’s friendship) and always his own judge, jury, tormentor and executioner. This novel dwells on the morality of European expansion into the world and the white man’s conquest of other people’s incidentally – if Jim cannot master himself, how can he claim to master the people of this supposedly backward land? It demonstrates how critical an ideology of the moral right to govern was critical to late imperialism, but also how fragile that ideology was, how susceptible it was to scandal and self-doubt. There is a moral too about how quick the people of this land are to place all their faith in “the white man”, to turn them into their earthly ‘Tuan’/Lord – this is no doubt part of Conrad’s cultural bias, but is interesting in that it shows how European self-conceptions were partly based upon interpretations of other people’s perceptions of them… Conrad’s style in Lord Jim is a little high-blown at time – the novel feels bloated for one in which very little ‘action’ actually happens until the last few chapters – but that I think reflects something of the huge expanse of time that one had with one’s own thoughts in between episodes of adventuring in this age. Long journeys on trans-oceanic ships, long, dark nights among a few common fellows, a potential epoch stranded in a foreign land among foreign peoples, where letters were difficult to receive even if one were lucky enough to have someone at “home” to send them – one’s own ghosts had ample time to play mischief I expect. Marlow’s account is also that of a romantic retelling the tale of a romantic – so we might excuse his indulgent style.

As in Heart of Darkness there is an uncomfortable fact that much of Conrad’s writing is racist, prejudiced, and culturally reductionist as has been argued vociferously by Chinua Achebe in An Image of Africa (1977). It is difficult to ignore the fact that people of other races are variously fat, dirty, and deceitful, and universally backward. But then, whites too are portrayed as remarkably fallible and corrupt to boot (especially the ironically named Captain Brown). The one redemptive character in the whole mess is Jewel, a Eurasian no less, who falls in love with Jim despite his tormented soul. As a historian rather than literary critic I find it hard not to see Conrad’s work as a valuable insight into the psychology of a previous age – an incredibly significant age when the “modern world” was forged. Anything that adds to our understanding of capital, culture, religion, and hierarchies, and of course their asymmetries, connections and movement in relation to each other in this period necessarily adds to our understanding of our own world more than a hundred years later.

Meyers German Atlas of Asia, 1900

Not long after I finished Lord Jim, a good friend from Durban, South Africa, sent me a long email about life during the prolonged agony of writing up his thesis. Contained within it was a story so reminiscent of the Patna scandal in Lord Jim that I thought I should share it. It shows, I think, the timelessness of the seas, where every man is for himself, and where the possibility of rebirth is ever-enticing.

“… What can I report, you ask? Well, the news splashed across the paper this morning was transnational and sensational. May I share? 3 weeks ago, during a particularly nasty spell of tropical weather, the large container ship “The Phoenix” began a perilous drift toward the rocks to the north of the city near the small but prosperous town of Ballito. The houses along the beach belong to rich whites who long-time ago monopolized all the prime land in area. There they cower in their prime-property real estate from the city proper (because it is too third-world). As for The Phoenix: waves pummeled the vessel onto the rocks for several hours of African uncertainty. Helicopters were finally scrambled to rescue the imperiled crew (who were by then surely fretting that they were to be curried in a pot by the less well-off Ballito locals when the missionaries weren’t looking, or enslaved to perform intimate acts on the Zulu King). An armada of tugs set forth from Durban port to drag the ship away from the breakers to deeper, safer fathoms.

Thankfully the crew were rescued, hoisted above the churning currents like inebriated Mary Poppinses, swaying and singing while the crowd looked on. The attempt on the ship itself, however, failed. The Phoenix eventually struck and then lay broken against the rocks: like some seditious peasant flung on the steps before an Emperor in some ancient oriental country. My sister was one of many rubberneckers to visit in the following days and capture some images of the monstrous misadventure of the Phoenix. So far so good.

Until this morning’s papers. During the week just gone, one such rubbernecker had studied his photographs more closely than would be considered normal in a middle-class household. Perhaps he was bored, perhaps he was a shipspotter or just into nautical porn in a general way. Whatever his motivations, he discovered that the name of The Phoenix had been painted over another, fainter name, the E______. This didn’t quite chime, as your Cambridge brain might well suspect, Faridah. Further investigation revealed The Phoenix, registered either in Honduras or Belize, had been officially decommissioned and scrapped in India some years ago. The registration details of the E_____ were untraceable, perhaps lost in some distant, moth-eaten files cabinet belonging to a customs officer more concerned with keeping mosquitoes away from his ankles. It is now strongly suspected that “The Phoenix” was in fact an abandoned ship plucked from the Nigerian Coast, where many such maritime corpses lay. Renamed with a quick paint-job in the Bight of Biafra, the crew flogged her as far as our KwaZulu coastline – it is long way, believe me. With an evil wink and a quick toast of toddy wine for luck, the Indian crew MENDACIOUSLY ran “the Phoenix” ashore, so that a mighty fake insurance pay-out could be claimed, probably from a broker who was in on the flimflam.

This week the head of the rescue party, let us call him Capt. Mountebank, has also made some public statements. These surely confirm suspicions that we have on hour hands a transparent, in fact classic, case of bamboozlement and hornswoggle. The rescue party publicly admitted to a private bemusement: during the rescue attempt, the ropes they tried to attach to the ship had come loose inexplicably quickly. They felt, given developments, they should put this morsel of detail into the public sphere for the news-hungry public to chew, chomp and churn. It is now widely surmised, beyond much reasonable doubt, that the Phoeonix’s lascars cleverly undid the rescue knots to make double sure the ship foundered.

Now that the whole lid is off the scheme, everybody involved has gone to ground. There is a fellow suspected of being the kingpin, but he has “gone a bit quiet” and is “somewhere in India” according the SA Port Authority. The lascars are, presumably, throwing back Black Tooth Grins (Rum and Coke) in a Bombay Bar smelling of chaatni and incense. Until somebody claims the beastly wreck, it seems it is here to stay as an apocalyptic monument to our times. Those freckled and wealthy villagers of Ballito, they have acquired themselves a priceless view of a mammoth rotting hulk. Location, Location, Location, as they say…”

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