Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
is available for $16.00 from FootHills Publishing, P.O. Box 68, Kanona NY 14856 or see www.foothillspublishing.com.

Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

The other books are also available from the author William Seaton. Write seaton@frontiernet.net.

A categorized index of all work that has appeared on this site is available by looking under the current month in the Blog Archive section and selecting Index.

This site is listed in BlogCatalog and
Literature Blogs
Literature blog

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Conrad's Shadow-Line

Page references in parentheses are to the 1928 Doubleday Malay Edition in which The Shadow-Line is bound with A Personal Record and features “Decorations by William Kemp Starrett” including a chart of Conrad’s voyages as endpapers. Oddly, this edition sometimes uses the hyphen in "shadow-line" and sometimes does not.

Conrad’s The Shadow Line is at once a coming of age story, an existential tale of the sea, and a ghost thriller. Far from being mutually exclusive, these descriptions parallel people’s perception of lived reality, constructing in their multi-leveled focus a simulacrum of the human consciousness. Though it might seem a mere artifice, a senseless tour de force, the polysemy of literature mirrors daily experience; indeed, even the most complex art is a reductive simplification. Rather than competing, the various registers of value systems sketch out the many simultaneous overlaid patterns of a human life.
On a simply realistic level the story recounts considerable elements of autobiography. The sea clearly tests people’s capacities in an unusually demanding environment where sudden death is always a threat. As a captain the narrator not only faces this challenge himself, but, in addition, must be responsible for the lives of others. When the drama thus generated is placed in an exotic locale, its appeal is further heightened. Conrad’s own life provided all of these elements. His concluding lines in the Author’s Note offers a heartfelt tribute to the men under his command in a tone convincingly sincere. The story’s subtitle “A Confession” reinforces the notion of a personal reminiscence.
Yet Conrad generalizes through the namelessness of the protagonist, through his ironic reflection on his own youth, leading sometimes to overt moralizing, and through the insistent coming-of-age theme. The dedication to his son Borys and his reference to World War I as “the supreme trial of a whole generation” provides a historical locus though without specific political content. The text explicates its own title saying “one perceives ahead a shadow-line warning one that the region of early youth must be left behind, too.”
The shipboard setting is a stage which well supports the rite of passage to adulthood since on board the terms of life are reduced to their simplest and most disturbing. The unnamed hero passes through a shadow which is at once his youth and the Oedipal threat of the deceased former captain. When Conrad objects in his Author’s Note that he lacked the imagination to feature the supernatural, he was simply insisting on the reality of metaphor. His insistence that “the world contains enough marvels and mysteries as it is,” surely assumes the inclusion of art among those fascinating wonders.
The plot is generated when the narrator, halfway round the world from his home, resigns his position without being able to explain just why. “I don’t know what I expected. Perhaps nothing else than that special intensity of experience which is the quintessence of youthful aspirations.” (83) His captain understands, as seamen are generally unstable (though in this only a special case of the instability of all humankind). (6)
The motive force of the narrative is the main character’s flight from meaninglessness. “that obscure feeling of life being but a waste of days, which, half unconsciously, had driven me out of a comfortable berth . . . to flee from the menace of emptiness.” (22-23) While yet lingering in the “twilight region between youth and maturity,” (26) he could simply take life as it came experiencing “the kicks and the halfpence” (3) without reflection. To him his first command, to prove so harrowing an experience, was a dream come true and his ship “an enchanted princess.” (40) At this point human pride swells within him, and he feels “that illusion of life and character that charms one in men’s finest handiwork radiated from her.” (49-50)
It is, however, only an illusion, and the maturing hero must pass the shadow-line to emerge with an enriched, if more somber vision, an enhanced gravitas that signifies open-eyed acceptance of the terms of life.
The rules by which one must abide are prescribed in part by loyalty to the group, one’s shipmates, one’s fellow-countrymen. Even the venal Harbour Master must acknowledge “the fellowship of seaman.” (33) Ransome’s unselfish personal loyalty in the face of his own vulnerability is proof of the mate’s early judgment of him as “the best seaman on the ship.” (68) The ship’s previous captain provides the contrary type: he had “wished all hands dead.” (70) Threatened by physical danger as well as by Angst, many resort to further prudential codes of conduct, among them what Giles refers to as “keeping white.” (14)
This loyalty to a group, be it professional or tribal or national, defines respectability, what the Victorians might have termed “manliness,” the character that exemplifies the adult. The antitype of such a team player is the deceased former captain whose malevolent spirit Mr. Burns thinks haunts the vessel. A man of sensitivity, a violinist (50) and a lover (58), as well as a leader, this man yet wished all hands dead (69), the very opposite of his responsibility to his crew. His fault was isolation, “He had made up his mind to cut adrift from everything.” (62) He “hated everybody and everything, but I think he was afraid to die” (94) Such a monster inspires even in the rationalist Conrad theories of diabolic intervention: “It appeared that even at sea a man could be the victim of evil spirits.” (69) We develop a vocabulary that signifies in the first place that we seek to name something we don’t understand.
By the time the narrator recoils from a suffering human body as, calling it a “Thing” (115), he is suffering from a Swiftian disgust with corporeality, the vulnerabilities of the body having become so monstrous as to be all-but-unfaceable. But he persists in spite of his overwhelming aversion, and he survives, and by the tales’ end, he is exchanging chipper chit-chat with the good Captain Giles. “There’s no rest for me,” he comments, “until she’s out in the Indian Sea and not much of it even then.” “Yes,” replies the captain pointedly, “that’s what it amounts to.” (132) Out of this restlessness arises both life and stories..
The realistic, the psychological, the historical, the magical, and the philosophical function in this story side by side, in harmony just as in one’s individual life, these strains and others are all present. To one critic one element may dominate dramatically, but the next may hear it differently. As in a grand symphonic orchestra, there are times when the string leads and times when they are silent, ceding to horns and winds, but all are woven together in the texture of our days, and all are together in first-rate fictions.

A Memorable Roomer

When I was very young, my parents rented out rooms on the second floor of our home, the same floor where we children slept. My father was perhaps accustomed to strangers in his corridors, having himself grown up in the Seaton Hotel, a sort of boarding-house that welcomed long-term tenants as well as transients . He said that he had no personal space as a child, taking a vacant room when one was available and sleeping in a cot in a public area if the beds were full.
I remember few of those who passed through our central Sioux City home. I often heard about the polite man, a periodic tenant during my infancy, who said he was a seed salesman until he was arrested in a bank robbery. “Such a well-dressed fellow, too,” my mother mused. I do possess vague memory flashes of the college student who would play Monopoly with my brother and me, forming Realpolitik alliances to defeat the one player and then turning mercilessly on his ally.
There was one, though, of our roomers of whom I retain distinct and powerful memories: a small and slender man with an accent and numbers tattooed on his forearm. During my father’s army service in Europe he had met this young Holocaust survivor, a German Jew named Daniel Sonntag. This unlucky victim had been taken from locksmith school and sent to the camps at the age of sixteen and was somehow still alive at the war’s end six years later. My father said after years of malnutrition he couldn’t hold down his first meal. Sonntag spoke readily, even to us young children, about his ordeal. I remember his saying that he always claimed to know any trade that might be useful to his captors, claiming to be a cobbler, for instance, and then muddling through the tasks assigned him as best he could. He told us little Midwestern Christian boys what it was like to be examined by a physician to determine whether one might live a bit longer or not. As a preschooler the more monstrous horrors doubtless passed my capacity to appreciate. I recall being particularly impressed to hear his description of how the people packed into cattle cars were obliged to excrete as they stood.
I have always thought that being exposed to all of this first-hand information at such a young age gave me a greater understanding of the depths of evil. For all of us who grew up in the shadow of World War II, the Nazis are an unsurpassed archetype of wickedness. It took some years before I began thinking that Hiroshima and Nagasaki had changed the world as much as Auschwitz and Dachau. Indeed, in the World War II story, the Allied forces made a reassuring counterpoint to the fascist threat. (The Nazi villain was perhaps easier to process, especially once defeated, than the specter of nuclear annihilation, quite real in the age of John Foster Dulles’ brinksmanship and “mutually assured destruction.”)
Our roomer, the object of absurd and senseless aggression, a sufferer from the most recent episode in long centuries of exploitation and mistreatment, reminded me what happens when push comes to shove in human affairs. In the end force rules now as much as when the Greeks fought the Persians. Were I altogether enlightened, I suppose I would be a pacifist, but at present I know I would defend myself (perhaps ineffectually) if attacked, and I see no reason why the same imperative should not hold for social groups as well.
It is idle to speculate about what may have happened had the United States not entered the war, but who today would say the decision to fight was wrong-headed? My father’s uniform hung in the storage area under the eaves. When we asked him about his decorations, he would explain, “This I got for brushing my teeth; this was for doing what I was told, this for going to bed on time . . .” His souvenirs were in box nearby: a parachute, a disabled grenade, a Luger, and -- second most marvelous of all – a set of extraordinarily ingenious German mechanical toy cars. Unquestionably most impressive to a small boy were three military blades: a bayonet, an SA dagger inscribed “Alles für Deutschland,” and a Luftwaffe officer’s dress sword so grand and marvelous it looked as though it should belong to some dashing officer on the operetta stage.
But these visible signs all pointed to the great battle between good and evil in which the virtuous forces had come out on top, as Joe Palooka and the Blackhawks did. A Vietnam era war protestor and draft evader, I have generally considered the American soldiers to be victims, largely unaware of their assignment as the bully boys of the American Empire. Yet on this Memorial Day 2014 I can also honor the unquestionable sacrifice of veterans like my father (and his grandfather in the Civil War) who enlisted with a simple desire to do their part, to do the right thing, to combat tyranny. In this current era many parents who consider themselves enlightened seek to shield their children from the knowledge of racism, sexism, war, and exploitation. In my own experience, knowing the depths to which human nature may sink and knowing at the same time an equally human great-hearted reaction, a simple decision to extend a hand in solidarity, has been both enlightening and empowering. While secure in my status as a white middle-class American with healthy college-educated parents and a reasonably functioning family during a time of increasing prosperity, I was aware as well that my comfort was purely my good fortune, and that I was more kindly treated by fate than others, people otherwise like myself, and that exceedingly dark events might unfold in apparently civilized corners of the world at any moment, transforming ordinary people into a pack of rapacious, unstoppable beasts.

Notes on Pan

Mythology is always elastic and dynamic, and Pan strikes me as more given to shape-shifting than some. A divinity that might have seemed likely to dwell in the humbler precincts of Olympus, half beast in fact, and patron of backward herdsmen, Pan developed into a personification of both principal god and devil. Though an importunate sexually aroused serial rapist, Pan has been as well the occasion for a vision of Ultimate Reality. These observations stubbornly would not cohere, so I present them as a series of notes.

Pan’s Sphere

Pan’s name was derived from “pasturer,” and the god governed the opposite pole of Zeus’ royal court: those semi-wild heights, unowned by any so free to all, where sheep or goats could find fodder. His pipes resemble those used by Greek shepherds from the third millennium BCE. Like the land that could sustain domestic animals, he was a blessing, with the epithet of “luck-bringer,” but at times, both in the mountains and on the battlefield, he could bring on panicked terror as well. He personifies sexual desire, but sometimes pursues females with selfish passion, according to the stories of Echo and Pitys. His frightening aspect could be beneficent as in Pheidippides’ report of his aiding the Greeks by causing panic among the Persians is told by Herodotus, [1] but it gave even the Arcadians pause. His intimate appeal to the individual is perhaps implied in the fact that the archaeological remains reveal a great many dedications but few dedicated temples. Offerings to Pan were often left in the wilderness.
Philologists tell us that the folk etymology pan=all (accepted in late antiquity) is inaccurate, yet it has a broad unfocused appropriateness for a deity of generation, and Pan has often been used to represent paganism as a whole. Human awe at the ability of life to generate new plant and animal life led to exaggeration of his sexual characteristics and his frequent ithyphallic representation in art.

These characteristics are attested by the poets. Pindar refers to Pan’s archaic identity as an attendant of the Great Mother, a role consistent with his association with fertility. [2] Stories of Pan’s human mother (said to be Penelope in her wild older years) [3] doubtless encouraged people to feel closer to Pan than to the full Olympians. In Euripedes’ Helena Pan’s capacity for exciting terror is the focus, here with reference to the rape of a naiad. [4] Pan stands at the very opening of Theocritus’ Idylls. In an atmosphere both rural and erotic, Thyrsis praises the Goatherd’s music as second only to Pan’s, associating both with ample meat to complete the festive note, yet he also refers to the threat of Pan’s anger when disturbed at his siesta. One delights in food and in love only if one also is liable to the pains of a lack of either. The same interdependent complex is implied in Theocritus’ VIIth Idyll in which the poet appeals to Pan for success in love, but incidentally refers to the custom of flagellating Pan with onions when food proves insufficient.

Pan in Plato

In his Cratylus Plato echoes Hesiod’s muses who warned humans (whom they called “mere bellies”) that, while they may deliver the truth, they also “know how to speak many false things as though they were true.” [5] Socrates tells Hermogenes that Pan is “double-formed” because “speech signifies all things (pan), and is always turning them round and round, and has two forms, true and false.” [6] This striking anticipation of modern concepts of the inherent limitation of language occurs in a dialogue which has, quite appropriately, itself been viewed with uncertainty by readers who cannot tell what is meant to be Socrates’ position on the issue of whether the signifier is linked to the signified or is wholly arbitrary. Socrates changes his mind, or at least the direction of his argument in mid-dialogue. Further, the lengthy presentation of fanciful etymologies has been considered satirical by some and serious by others.
Socrates does trace a pattern in these weird imaginative speculations on the origins of words: the repeated mention of flux. To him this signifies a fundamental doubt at the basis of the world-view of the “name-givers” which has led them to insert hints of instability into the verbal code. “Namemakers believed everything to be in flux. Suppose it should prove that although those who gave the names gave them in the belief that all things are in motion and flux—I myself think they did have that belief— still in reality that is not the case, and the namegivers themselves, having fallen into a kind of vortex, are whirled about, dragging us along with them.” [7]
In the end Socrates is not so distant from Huang Po who directed his listeners to gaze to the Mind behind phenomena, reinforcing rather than negating everyday experience in the process. Lacking the nonverbal intuition by which both Greek and the Chinese thinkers apprehended truth, Cratylus can only play the part of the absolute skeptic.
In the Phaedrus Pan was Socrates’ god of choice to whom he offers a most philosophic prayer, directing his words also, in a pleasantly ecumenical gesture, to “whatever gods may be present.” Socrates asks for inner perfection and for only such possessions as a reasonable man can handle, noting that the only true wealth is wisdom. [8]

Pan and Christ

Herodotus suggests that Pan is, along with Dionysus and Heracles, a younger god [9] yet he adds that, among the Egyptians (who, he assures his readers, kept excellent records) he is considered to be very ancient. The archaic character of his role as producing fertility, both plant and animal, in wild regions, might seem to support the latter judgment, at least as far as a local cult in Arcadia is concerned. He shares with Christ, Dionysus, and Heracles the non-Olympian characteristic of a mixed human/divine parentage and a career including the human experience of death.
Plutarch [10] tells the story of Thamus, the Egyptian ship’s pilot, who learned in a divine vision of the death of the god, news which eventually reached Tiberius who launched an investigation. As the date of this incident happened to coincide, roughly, at least, with the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the story has been used to signify the end of paganism and the triumph of the Christian deity with his resurrection. For Eusebius it added to what he saw as considerable evidence that the pre-Christian gods has departed to make way for his god. [11] By the time of the Renaissance, the death of Pan had come to signify not the departure of the Greek deities, but Christ’s redemptive death itself. Orthodox authors such as Rabelais (for whom, of course, Panurge and Pantagruel are heroes) and Guillaume Bigot identified the two gods and treated Pan’s death as a figurative way of speaking of Christ’s own. [12] Rabelais says, “For my part, I understand it of that great Saviour of the faithful who was shamefully put to death at Jerusalem by the envy and wickedness of the doctors, priests, and monks of the Mosaic law. And methinks my interpretation is not improper; for he may lawfully be said in the Greek tongue to be Pan, since he is our all. For all that we are, all that we live, all that we have, all that we hope, is him, by him, from him, and in him. He is the good Pan, the great shepherd, who, as the loving shepherd Corydon affirms, hath not only a tender love and affection for his sheep, but also for their shepherds.” [13]
This reading of Pan as a symbol of Christ reached England as well. In the month of “Maye” in Spenser’s Shepheardes Calendar Pan is simply a code-word for Jesus: “When great Pan Account of Shepherds shall ask.” (54) Milton follows in his “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity” in which the shepherds find that “the mighty Pan/ Was kindly com to live with them below.” [14]

Pan and the Romantics

Wordsworth and Byron both used Pan as the representative of a paganism which for them meant primarily aesthetic values. When Byron recounts the story from Plutarch of Pan’s reported death in “Aristomenes,” Pan represents paganism as a whole. The loss of the pre-Christian world-view seems to the poet an aesthetic loss.

How much died with him! false or true—the dream
Was beautiful which peopled every stream
With more than finny tenants, and adorned
The woods and waters with coy nymphs that scorned
Pursuing Deities, or in the embrace
Of gods brought forth the high heroic race

For Wordsworth this meant a gentle soothing landscape picturesqueness as in the sonnet “Composed By the Side of Grasmere Lake” in which “Great Pan” “low-whispers” “tranquility is here.” One recalls that in “The World Is Too Much With Us” the poet wishes that, as a pagan, he might be made “less forlorn” by such entertainments as the “sight of Proteus rising from the sea;/ Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.” This is religion reduced to the amusement of sight-seeing.
In Shelley’s “Hymn to Pan” the god is not, as in Wordsworth and Byron, the representative of a picturesque and charming mythology, but is instead a model for the very human experience of delusive desire.

“I pursu'd a maiden and clasp'd a reed.
Gods and men, we are all deluded thus!
It breaks in our bosom and then we bleed.
All wept, as I think both ye now would,
If envy or age had not frozen your blood,
At the sorrow of my sweet pipings.”

(Mary Shelley for her part wrote a play Midas -- which I have yet to read -- with two lyrics by Percy to open with the music contest between Apollo and Pan.)
Keats is far profound, original, and provocative in his use of Pan as a sort of objective correlative of negative capability. In Endymion [15] Pan is first described as a Romantic nature spirit ruling “desolate places, where dank moisture breeds/ The pipy hemlock to strange overgrowth.” to whom “yellow-girted bees” offer their honey. He is associated with the sort of magic likely among farmers “Breather round our farms,/ To keep off mildews, and all weather harms,” yet for Keats he is above all mysterious. The “Strange ministrant of undescribed sounds,” and “Dread opener of the mysterious doors/ Leading to universal knowledge.” At the hymn’s conclusion this has become a virtual mystic via negativa:

be still the leaven,
That spreading in this dull and clodded earth
Gives it a touch ethereal—a new// birth:
Be still a symbol of immensity;
A firmament reflected in a sea;
An element filling the space between;
An unknown

Pan and Neo-Paganism

The earlier use of Pan to represent all pagan deities persisted into the nineteenth century, though the associated values altered. Elizabeth Barrett Browning in the extended exclamations of “The Dead Pan” maintains a conventional preference for the new god, “one in Sion/ Hung for love’s sake on a cross,” but her successors did not prove always so orthodox. To some post-Romantic poets, this god’s resemblance to the Christian devil in his horns and cloven hooves proved more an attraction than an impediment to his renewed worship as an icon of eroticism, forbidden pleasure in general, and the unconscious.

This use of Pan as a mask to protest appears in Baudelaire. In “La Muse Malade” Pan is recognized as god of poetry together with Apollo, but the recognition is largely nostalgic. This belated author’s muse is characterized by “folie et l'horreur, froides et taciturnes.” In “L'École païenne” Pan is identified directly with revolution and his return with the end of the tyrannical reign of Christianity. Baudelaire details this view in The Painter of Modern Life [16] he maintains “The birthplace of Painting is the Temple. Its roots are in religion. The modern temple and the modern Religion are the Revolution. Thus let us create the Temple of the Revolution and the Painting of the Revolution . . . Pan must kill god. Pan is the people.”
Varieties of this counter-cultural Pan are discernable in paintings by Burne-Jones such as Psyche and Pan [17] in which a dubious looking naked female stands well below an amorous Pan whose coiffure is positively architectural. The excitable Swinburne identifies Pan with élan vital in “A Nympholept;” the even more irregular Aleister Crowley made Pan a major symbol of his Thelemic mysticism and sang wildly of his wish to “Thrill with lissome lust of the light,” [18]
Most readers of poetry can call to mind e. e. cummings’ balloon man, at first called “little” and “lame,” then “queer” and “old,” until the cat is let out of the bag and he is said to be “goat-footed.” [19]

1. Histories, (I, 105).
2. Pythian iii. 77, fr. 6. 1.
3. Apollodorus Epitome (7.38) says Odysseus’ Penelope conceived Pan after she was ousted for infidelity by the hero.
4. 167-190.
5. Theogony, ll. 26-28.
6. 408.
7. 439c.
8. 279.
9. Histories, II. 145.
10. Moralia, “The Obsolescence of Oracles,” 419.
11. Eusebius of Caesaria, Praeparatio Evangelica, Ch. XVII.
12. By the beginning of the 18th century this trend had become sufficiently pronounced to be ridiculed. Thus Fontenelle comments, “Ce grand Pan qui meurt sous Tibere, aussi bien que Jesus-Christ, est le Maistre des Demons, dont l'Empire est ruine par cette mort d'un Dieu si salutaire a l'Univers; ou si cette explication ne vous plaist pas, car enfin on peut sans impieté donner des sens contraires a une mesme chose, quoy qu'elle regarde la Religion; ce grand Pan est Jesus-Christ luy-mesme, dont la mort cause une douleur et une consternation generale parmy leg Demons, qui ne peuvent plus exercer leur tirannie sur les hommes. C'est ainsi qu'on a trouve moyen de donner a ce grand Pan deux faces bien differentes.” This passage and many more are included in O. Weinreich’s article “Zum Tode des Grossen Pan,” published in ARW 13 (1910) pp. 467-73).
13. Book. IV, Ch. 24. This is Urquhart’s version.
14. ll. 89-90.
15. The passages cited all occur in the episode in I, 232-306.
16. In Chapter 10, “Philosophic Art.”
17. See also “The Garden of Pan” in which a buff lad plays his pipes for a pair of lovers while gazing directly at the viewer.
18. “Hymn to Pan.”
19. “in Just-“