The combination of “timid truth and audacious lies” makes for a people easily preyed upon. Joseph Conrad, considered one of the greatest novelists in the English language, sought to be bold with truth in all his books. Most famously, The Heart of Darkness was a masterpiece exposing the dark-side of colonialism. Conrad brought to light the exploitation and abuse Europe thrust upon India.
His work accurately portrayed the likes of the East India Trading Company; a remarkable connection with Burke’s exposure of the East India Trading Company’s manager, Warren Hastings. Conrad and Burke — both conservatives — opposed abuse and exploitation in their life’s work. Their lives refute the myth of the conservative hard heart.
But abuse and exploitation can, and does, work both ways. The masses can control the leaders in a quick turn of events. The poor can exploit the rich, and have. The victims can use their victimhood as leverage to victimize in return.
Perhaps Conrad’s most important work exposes a difficulty that must be overcome in the pursuit of racial reconciliation.
He tells the tale of a sick and dying man, or perhaps a man who’s a fraud, who uses pity and guilt to gain control of an entire ship, the Nacissus.
James Wait’s guilt tripping creates an unfriendly and unstable relationship between him and the crew. Always scolding, he says,
“I tried to get a wink of sleep. You know I can’t sleep o’ nights. And you come jabbering near the door here like a blooming lot of old women…. You think yourselves good shipmates. Do you?… Much you care for a dying man!”
The mark of a good writer is his ability to help us understand. The mark of a great writer is his ability to show us what we do not want to understand.
The crew had come to expect and “hated to hear, that idea of a stalking death, thrust at them many times a day like a boast and like a menace.” Whenever the crew did not show the level of pity expected, shame was dished out in generous measure.
A miserable crewman was not even able to “drive in a nail to hang his few poor rags upon,” without “being made aware of the enormity he committed in disturbing Jimmy’s interminable last moments.” The crew was disallowed singing, instruments banned, and wake-up call was done individually in whispers.
A man who has served a fair share of time in the military has come across such a fellow as James Wait. Privileges only make some men worse.
Once everyone knows James is dying, he comes to expect more; dying men are entitled to the best, of course. He would manipulate the cook, “Can’t you find a better slice of meat for a sick man who’s trying to get home to be cured or buried? But there! If I had a chance, you fellows would do away with it. You would poison me. Look at what you have given me!”
Racial reconciliation is hard when we do not begin with gratitude but entitlement.
A scoundrel of a seaman, and one of the most disliked men on the ship stole a pie to make James happy. Alas:
James Wait, with his elbow on the pillow, choked, gasped out: “Did I ask you to bone the dratted thing? Blow your blamed pie. It has made me worse, you little Irish lunatic, you!”
Not a “thank you” but blame for what good has been given. Yet when asaulted for his ingratitude , oddly enough, James seemed to enjoy being attacked and hated:
Under the spell of our accursed perversity we were horror-struck. But Jimmy positively seemed to revel in that abuse.
Being a victim, counterintuitively, only gave him more leverage. And James Wait knew it; he delighted in the “weird servitude,” that the ship was increasing being kept under.
James’ problem is that he doesn’t really want reconciliation. He doesn’t really want repentance and grace. Maybe he wasn’t really dying after all:
He refused steadily all medicine; he threw sago and cornflour overboard till the steward got tired of bringing it to him. He asked for paregoric. They sent him a big bottle; enough to poison a wilderness of babies. He kept it between his mattress and the deal lining of the ship’s side; and nobody ever saw him take a dose.
Eventually, James is moved to a private and spacious quarters, being waited on hand and foot by the cook. Of course, he couldn’t walk there. He needed to be carried by blanket through the labor of four men– yet, he was spotted walking around at night.
But the move was for the best. The ‘cruel’ and ‘heartless’ shipmates were given a needed reprieve; and James was more happy than ever.
In a Nietzschean move, James Waite, the victim of death and victim of ‘uncaring’ shipmates, managed to use his victimhood to triumph over all. Here is the point that Conrad helps us to see. Racial reconciliation easily can mean racial manipulation. But why not? Isn’t it only fair that other’s get their turn of exploiting and oppressing to make all things even?
Conrad writes a telling neo-Marxist secret:
“He had found the secret of keeping forever on the run the fundamental imbecility of mankind; he had the secret of life, that confounded dying man, and he made himself master of every moment of our existence.”
For Further Discussion:
Download Conrad’s book for free: The Nigger of the Narcissus
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