Gaia is the word for "unity-of-life-processes". The experiment here is to unify the various threads of voice and sense of self together into an undivided unity. Spirituality, economics, politics, science and ordinary life interleaved.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

How Reflection Creates the Past: On Reading Conrad's 'Youth'.

Joseph Conrad writes with great style and heart!

I just read aloud 'Youth'. Into this little book which Conrad wrote as a youth of 24 years he poured all the experience of aliveness and joy from his formative years.

Reciting 'Youth' disclosed the breath and the silence and the difficult play of words in the author's throat. So when the narrator, old Marlow, asks his listeners to pass the bottle of claret, I reached over and sipped my cup of peppermint tea, and mindfully breathed a moment. Conrad means you to rest when Marlow rests, because he requires you to work when Marlow remembers. If you do not rest when Conrad/Marlow rest, you will probably miss much of the meaning of the story, which is encoded in the emotion and style. This kind of reading is great fun, too!

"...the whole terrestrial globe had been one jewel, one colassal sapphire, a single gem fashioned into a planet."

See how Marlow piles up the three clauses on one another? He uses this technique for three quarters of the text. It happens whenever young Marlow, the hero of the story, is powerfully moved. The effect when recited is rhapsodic - it builds complex waves of feeling and image - it crests and foams into the last quarter of the story, which is written very simply. If you do not follow the waves, you probably will not feel the impact of the simply written last scenes. That is why recital is best for this story. But it also expresses the emotional rollercoaster of being young so very well!

If being young is like being asleep, or like being in a dream, then becoming an adult is like waking up and remembering the dream even as it fades from memory's lips and leaves a faint bitterness. Likewise, I didn't understand 'Youth' until I had slept on it. When I woke up all of a sudden the mind cleanly took hold of the whole story as a single object, and I understood what Conrad is up to.

This is not a coming of age story at all. This is a dream of youth and age, as mythical as the sport of the gods, and as golden. The sweetness of immortality and the bitterness of age come together and heighten one another. The authentic taste of the passing of time is here in these pages, intangible and subtle.

"Allegory" is a dead word for a living form. According to wikipedia it comes from αγορευειν, agoreuein, "to speak in public". Wiktionary tells us that allegory is "the representation of abstract principles by characters or figures". I see many problems with the use and meaning of the word (too many to go into here), because it presupposes a break between presentation and representation, between the abstract principle and the concrete image.

In my experience, sometimes the abstraction IS the character - these is no difference between Achilles and vengeful wrath, is there? Likewise, in Conrad's 'Youth', there is gap between abstract and real, presentation and representation. The thing is the idea is the thing.

And in this case the thing is Youth and Age. The story shows the essence of both so well, so powerfully, that is is almost jejune of me to speak of it with ordinary words. It is a very powerful presentation of poetic truth!

The entire story of 'Youth' is an allegory for the nature of youth, complete with invocations to Jove, the god of juveniles. The moments when Marlow uses the triple repetition signal the efforts to hold back the unconscious contents of the actual event - the twining repetitions of threefold horrors are gorgonic snakes of words that ward off the actual experience of youth from Marlow's weather-beaten consciousness.

Marlow's story, with its rhetorical flourishes, is old Marlow's defense against the authentic experience of youthfulness. The story is not just about a sea adventure, but about the life Marlow has lived since then. That is why the first three quarters of the story are charged with such sorrow and sagacity.

And what about the actually young Marlow? We remember pumping water til the cook goes mad, waiting in dry dock til the rats abandon ship, and sailing til the ship burns and sinks. But what do we feel about all this stuff we see of the young Marlow?

We feel the moody turbulence of adolescence in the constant rain and water pumping. We feel the sense of waiting to become an adult in the social embarrassment of dry dock. We feel the fiery concupisnce of puberty in the smouldering invisible fire beneath the vessel which bears a freight of fragile human lives to a new unknown world in the East.

Conrad's 'Youth' is a precise allegory for adolescence! Every detail provides an exact imagining-forth of the essence of being juvenile. So 'Youth' is immortal. And so what? Every adult of character has been through the same transformation in her or his own way.

Old Marlow's perspicacious warding-off of genuine feeling breaks down at the end of 'Youth'. This is signalled by the loss of complex language when young Marlow wakes to see the faces of the East, loses the repetitions altogether. It is simply written. The faces of the East are an image out of dreamtime; consciousness has been broken down by the storms of adolescence, but in being broken, has become adult.

And so what? We wouldn't want to repeat the ordeal of losing these sweet illusions so bitterly, nor would we want to forget the pleasure that the delusions of youth brought us.

For old Marlow in his drink youth is a bitter illusion, until the moment when he breaks through to the direct experience of young Marlow once again, and for a moment the old man is soft and vulnerable once again.

But Conrad seems to be saying also that as adolescence dreams of the man he is to become, so the adult who reflects on her adolescent dreams can always take the opportunity to make them real... reflection is the work of a well lived life.

This is the greater attainment of 'Youth': Conrad through the voice of Marlow realizes his own adult self through reflexively investigating, probing, testing and deepening his perceptions of his own youth.


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