EN 4223 Seminar 10 Handout – Outcast, “Isle of Voices,” “Bottle Imp”
These 3 works, and many of the writings of Conrad and Stevenson in general, give us an insight into the “island” concerns of the geopolitical period. (Both Stevenson and Conrad were deeply involved with the sea and sea-travel, Conrad as professional in the merchant navy and Stevenson as one who undertook long sea voyages for pleasure and edification, and finally settled on Samoa – incidentally, his father designed lighthouses). If the sea is such a crucial symbol and site of contested meanings in the geopolitical era, then the island is its corollary meaning: small, vulnerable site of land, surrounded by the sea and thus so much more dependent on its agency (and its facilitation of trade, cultural contact, communications) than a large land-mass like a continent would be. Islands are in a sense liminal spaces (especially low-lying ones like atolls – or even bigger islands, which in their coastal/riverine areas like Sambir, are prone to the influence of tides, floods, ebb-and-flow rhythms, the appearance and disappearance of sandbars etc), which mark the liminal nature of modern commercial/transnational existence, subject to cultural and commercial flows. Of course, the obvious symbolism of islands for modernity is their representation of the isolated nature of man, cut off from (what some Marxists would see as) the pre-capitalist social relations, living lives made abstract and aloof by the mediating effects of market relations. (And we can’t overlook the historical-geopolitical significance of islands: the rise of the island England to global dominance in the 19th C was the effect of maritime power and commerce since the 17th C; and geopolitical expansion in the 19th C onwards meant the increasing significance of the hitherto insignificant island territories like Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, the Pacific Islands, etc).
In narrative terms, it might be argued that both the modernist-impressionist style of Conrad (which swiftly “transports” the reader from one character’s point of view to another), as well as Stevenson’s episodic island-stories (which introduce us to a new set of protagonists and quickly develops their lives/careers before swiftly bringing the story to an end), are corollaries to the island-ideology – i.e. “insular” form follows “insular” thematics (follows “insular” ideology).
I. Outcast and modern man: one the one hand, as the novel’s title suggests, the notion of being an outcast and isolated is a central theme. Yet to follow the novel’s logic is to see this as a paradoxical, perhaps contradictory, theme. Sambir on the one hand is isolation: jealousy guarded by the secret of the entrance to the Pantai, its interior consisting of “deceptions” of jungle trails that lead “nowhere” (p. 52), cut off from “the superior land of refined delights” (p. 253), even the populace of Sambir cut off and divided from each other by “the breadth of the river” and their competition. On the other hand, the irony is precisely that Sambir is not isolated enough, for people like Willems and Almayer: both go there to oblige Lingard, and thus in hopes of recuperating their wealth and fortunes and enabling their return in state to Europe/the colonial world: Almayer wants to leave with his daughter, “first for Batavia, then for Europe” (p. 227), and all that he endures and schemes for on Sambir is part of that spatial orientation. Willems’ discontent on Sambir is precisely because he can only conceive of this as a continuation, a stage, in his lofty self-conception that depends on his exaltation amongst white men: thus when he sees Joanna, despite his desperation to escape, he is still careful to “preserve before his wife the lofty purity of his character” (p. 266). Willems’ failure on Sambir is due to his inability to leave his white identity behind, even temporarily: “…I can’t stand this. Take me away. I am white! All white!” (p. 209).
This is not only a white man’s condition, but also the condition of the ambitious natives like Lakamba, Abdulla and Babalatchi (perhaps even Aissa, with her ambitions to conquer and subdue the strong white man, bend him to her will). Thus the image of the river which divides native camps (Patalolo’s and Lakamba’s), reinforced by their stockades and weapons. Aissa’s ambition, while different in nature from Willems, is juxtaposed with his: they are “surrounded each by the impenetrable wall of their aspirations” and thus are “hopelessly alone, out of sight, out of earshot of each other” (p. 256).
The duality of Sambir (simultaneously apart, yet also a part [of the commercial order]) reinforces the reach of that order – not just that it extends to this apparently remote outpost, but that it is internalized in individuals even when they seem to leave the colonial-commercial world to come here. Its reach obtains even in natives, and manifests itself in a number of seemingly heterogeneous (but really akin) human characteristics such as “ambition,” plotting/scheming, treachery (which makes an unlikely pair/double out of Willems and Babalatchi, Willems and Almayer, Willems and Joanna), seamanship (which becomes ways of serving one’s pride and ambitions – not just in Lingard’s and Abdulla’s matching navigation of the Pantai river, but in the echo of that in minor key by Lakamba and his seaborne people, in Mahmat Banjer and his seaborne “Bajow” squatters (p. 238), and even in Almayer’s tidal trick to get deliberately stranded and abet Willems’ escape and death), etc.
From the modernist point of view, this internalized isolation is the condition of modern existence, a (by now) stock trope of high modernist literature; yet Conrad’s novel shows us a (I believe) closer way to read this, by contextualizing this within the geopolitics of modern commerce, by tying it to the circumstances of an entire society profoundly affected by seaborne trade, competition, insular geographies, etc. Isolation is modernist, but it is also modernist because/by virtue of its commercialism. Conrad’s achievement was to make that commercialist geopolitics a deep and pervasive feature of the human condition.
II. Schizophrenia: Failure of an Internal “Compass”?
Many of the instances of schizophrenia we have seen in the other texts have been what might be called “cultural schizophrenia”: a profound confusion caused by an increasingly bewildering cultural contact/change (i.e. the entry of multiple “others,” changes in class relations, the actual geophysical/spatial confusion of expanding empire and the city, etc), resulting in a confused inability to locate oneself properly within one’s context (“Who/what is Kim?” etc), and also of course manifesting itself in narrative terms (confused central narrators/perspectives like those of Betteredge and Kim, narrative gaps and silences).
Conrad, typical of his “internalized” (modernist) vision, shows us a fundamental schizophrenia that is both individualized and pandemic – i.e. it is the condition of most characters (if not all – although it will obviously be seen most clearly in the major characters) rather than just one or two main ones, and it is very much part of their inner (mental, emotional, moral) landscape. One way to highlight his treatment of modernist schizophrenia is to contrast it with the detective version: in Sign of Four (and to a certain extent also in Moonstone), schizophrenia is largely seen as inhering in the bewildering (social/spatial/semiotic) conditions of modern society; the tricky question of identifying the real villain (Small, or Sholto, or the Rajah, or natives like Tonga and the Sikhs) is in significant part a function of the imperial order and its tensions/instabilities (cruelty, oppression, mutiny, temptations – rather like the Moonstone); the schizophrenic and confusing doubling of detective and villain, natives and whites, is to a significant extent the condition of professionalism and commodity culture.
In Conrad, these external/structural conditions are present, but pushed into the background, so that the focus is on the individual experience of schizophrenia. Some key moments include:
a. Lingard when he confronts Willems:
He could not see the man, the woman, the earth, the sky – saw nothing, as if in that one stride he had left the visible world behind to step into a black and deserted space. He heard screams round him in that obscurity, screams like the melancholy and pitiful cries of seabirds that dwell on the lonely reefs of great oceans. Then suddenly a face appeared within a few inches of his own. His face. He felt something in his left hand. His throat…Ah! the thing like a snake’s head that darts up and down…He squeezed hard. He was back in the world…..He watched his distance from that man increase, while he remained motionless, without being able to account to himself for the fact that so much empty space had come in between them. It should have been the other way. They ought to have been very close, and…Ah! He wouldn’t fight… (pp. 200-201).
Lingard’s shock to his system comes from the realization that a man he has nurtured/adopted, and seen as akin to himself (a man of the sea, a man of daring), is really an embodiment of the new man – manipulative, self-serving, unwilling to fight. The spatial disorientation comes from the schizophrenic shock of separation from Willems (signaled by the confusion of the pronoun “His face”), which is in turn a function of the (realization of the) abrupt switch from the romantic-adventuring world to the modern commercial one.
b. Willems just after the pronouncement of his exile:
Seeing him go away beyond his reach, Willems realized how much of himself belonged to that man; what an immense place that man had in his life, in his thoughts, in his belief in his own future; in all his aactions and in all his hopes…he had always looked unconsciously towards the image of that man. And now that man was going away. He must call him back.
…Willems looked on, as motionless as everything round him and above him. Only his eyes seemed to live, as they followed the canoe on its course that carried it away from him, steadily, unhesitatingly, finally; as if it was going, not up the great river into the momentous excitement of Sambir, but straight into the past, into the past crowded yet empty, like an old cemetery full of neglected graves, where lie dead hopes that never return (p. 217)
From under his feet a great vapour of broken water floated up, and he felt the ground become soft – melt under him – and saw the water spring out from the dry earth to meet the water that fell from the somber heaven. An insane dread took possession of him, the dread of all that water around him, of the water that ran down the courtyard towards him, of the water that pressed him on every side, of the slanting water that drove across his face in wavering sheets which gleamed pale red with the flicker of lightning streaming through them, as if fire and water were falling together, monstrously mixed, upon the stunned earth… (p. 218-219)
Similarly, Willems’ shocked realization of his dependence on Lingard is not only contrary to his own self-important individualism, but seems to assume a larger significance: the death of the “father,” of the controlling but benevolent patriarchal order, of its related value system. Willems’ condition at this point is the loss of orientation that comes with the loss of the entire patriarchal order.
c. Joanna at her long-awaited reunion with Willems:
She seemed to be dazed by the sun in her eyes; bewildered by her strange surroundings. She moved on, looking quickly right and left in impatient expectation of seeing her husband at any moment. Then, approaching the tree, she perceived suddenly a kind of a dried-up, yellow corpse, sitting very stiff on a bench in the shade and looking at her with big eyes that were alive. That was her husband. (p. 263)
The female position in this modern world is additionally complicated by its subordination to the male (and possibly to other orders as well): Joanna marks this multiple layers of dependency, the way in which she orientates her identity in relation to so many others (her family, Leonard, her mother, and having finally broken through their lies, she now returns to Willems again). The spatial disorientation just before she re-encounters Willems, is (like the Willems and Lingard relationship) the sign of the schizophrenic nature of her dependency, as well as the deathly and disappointing realization that the object of her dependency is the “yellow corpse” of the alienated modern man.
d. Aissa when Joanna comes for Willems:
There was nothing in the outer world but enemies. She and the man she loved were alone, with nothing round them but menacing dangers. She did not mind that, for if death came, no matter from what hand, they would die together. (p. 270)
Hate filled the world, filled the space between them – the hate of race, the hate of hopeless diversity, the hate of blood; the hate against the man born in the land of lies and of evil from which nothing but misfortune comes to those who are not white. And as she stood, maddened, she heard a whisper near her, the whisper of the dead Omar’s voice saying in her ear: “Kill! Kill!” (p. 274).
Her initial world-view – a hate-filled outside space, a loving inside one – is the native view of the European geopolitical world, a view distorted by greed and oppression. This is exacerbated by the realization of Willems’ treachery – his conformity to, rather than (as she earlier thought) his difference from, white exploitative oppression. Her final condition is a homicidal, schizophrenic madness (just before she kills Willems, and subsequently to the end of the novel) in which “hate” becomes the contours of the landscape in her eyes/mind.
Thus for Conrad, schizophrenia is an intensely personal and individual experience on the one hand: he takes us evocatively into these (and there are others) different sensations, feelings and experiences of schizophrenia. Yet, because there is a multiplicity of such individual schizophrenic experiences, he ultimately affirms the truth of the universal condition of schizophrenia (although he approaches this from these collectively individual perspectives, rather than from the “cultural” or “structural” schizophrenia more evident in writers like Doyle or Collins – especially true of the detective narrative). This universal schizophrenia, while depicted in highly individualized terms, nevertheless manifests itself as a spatial condition – the impossibility of orienting oneself within the surrounding space, as well as within the surrounding society – which gives us a sense of Conrad’s vision of modernity: isolated individuals, but conditioned by the abrupt, confusing and disorienting break from an older order and its values, into a new and disorientingly individualistic/commercial order.
III. Stevenson and “The Isle of Voices”
Born 1850 in Edinburgh, d. 1894. Troubled career (studied engineering, gave that up, studied law, gave that up for a full-time literary career). Could do so in part because of financial support from father, with whom he had a very troubled, love-hate relationship. (Formed a society, in his youth, with his friends, the constitution of which began with "disregard everything our parents taught us"; fought with father on issue of agnosticism).
Many of Stevenson’s writings also deal with money – the abstracting nature of capitalism and market relations, the way in which money intrudes into relationships between individuals, transforming the family and indeed all of modern society.
a. IoV as pseudo- or geopolitical-romance: like many geopolitical narratives (and like “Bottle Imp”), IoV seems to begin life as a romance: story of 2 young lovers, Keola and Lehua, with the typical senex iratus (angry old man/blocking figure) Kalamake whose fearsome powers and dislike for Keola block their happiness. Their world is a quasi-idyllic one where new spaces (other islands, which can be reached by both conventional means like sailing, as well as magical ones) are possible retreats for individuals or lovers who find the present world oppressive.
This (possible) romance world is subverted by geopolitical realities: Keola and Lehua are not idealistic young lovers, but (at least Keola is a) calculating “idle dog” who tries to blackmail his father-in-law, and is (at least by the laws of the European readers of the story) a bigamist who takes another wife on the Isle; while Lehua is compromised by her love for Keola, to save whom she betrays her own father. The “brave new world” of the magic isle is compromised at many levels: its attractions (friendly natives, new wife) conceal its rapacious nature (cannibalism), while its apparent remoteness and hidden nature (“it lay solitary the more part of the year; only now and then a boat’s crew came for copra”) is already compromised by the fact that it is like a World Bank caucus for magicians who come to make money. (It is thus, strangely, a hub: Keola also finds his way back there after deserting his ship seemingly at random; and there he is reunited with Lehua as well). It turns out, at the end of the story, that this magical/romantic secret island is actually already charted in “the atlas.” (Is it global schizophrenia, that they first do not know where the isle is – that it seems magic-like and inaccessible – and then they do know, and can find it on a map?) Unlike the conventional romance, the young lovers are not assured of a redeemed society and a happy-ever-after, because the problem of Kalamake (and of his magical powers and those of other magicians, which can “swell” or else cross the seas by other magical means) is not resolved at all.
At the level of spatial symbolism/story, IoV might be described as an ironical romance, which dismantles the ostensibly idyllic setting of the Pacific Islands and its inhabitants, showing it to be not only already filled, but already Europeanised/modernized (missionaries, greed, racial abuse [the mate constantly beats Keola], etc).
b. IoV as financial/commercial allegory: as with so many of the geopolitical narratives we have read, the imperial/racial impetus is not often/usually the dominant strand; rather, it is capitalism which seems to have the greatest chronotopic significance.
Kalamake, distanced and dehumanized by his magical powers (even before he, like the other magicians, literally becomes bodiless and invisible on the Isle), might be seen as a figure for money/capital itself: beginning with his early characterization:
Kalamake was a man that spared nothing, whether to eat or to drink or to wear…. ‘Bright as Kalamake’s dollars’ was another saying in the Eight Isles. Yet he neither sold, nor planted, nor took hire…and there was no source conceivable for so much silver coin.
He begins as a kind of capitalist figure, one who does not work in the common sense of the word, and yet has plenty of money (and freely spend it) because he has a literally magical source of his wealth – this is a not-too-fanciful figuring of the capitalist or entrepreneur. This ties in quite neatly with Marxist (or quasi-Marxist) notions of the ghostly, invisible (because abstract) nature of capital. Of course, the horror of Kalamake is intensified by the fact that he is capable of evil against his own family – which, again, seems to emphasise money’s divisive nature.
In the course of the story, he seems to assume the nature of money itself (again, there is a kind of Marxist logic to this, in the idea of the master-slave dialectic in which the ostensible master/capitalist becomes transformed into the slave of money, because of money’s abstracting nature. So Kalamake, the procurer/master of money, becomes like money: his “swelling” is a kind of figure of the instability of money value and prices (put simply, inflation/deflation), while his invisibility could signify the ghostly, dematerialised operation of money.
Beyond the individual figure of Kalamake, the story seems to be a parable or cautionary tale about global commerce, in the rather sinister account of an international cartel of money-making magicians:
…there was no sign of man, only the beach was trodden, and all about him as he went, the voices talked and whispered, and the little fires sprang up and burned down. All tongues of the earth were spoken there: the French, the Dutch, the Russian, the Tamil, the Chinese.
And his head was dizzy with the thought of these millions and millions of dollars, and all these hundreds and hundreds of persons culling them upon the beach and flying in the air higher and swifter than eagles.
‘And to think how they have fooled me with their talk of mints’, says he, ‘and that money was made there, when it is clear that all the new coin in all the world is gathered on these sands!’
Also, it is about the de-moralising effect of money on the native other – not just in Kalamake, but also in Keola (although note that Stevenson’s pre-capitalist depiction of the native other is not free from exoticism either – the antithesis to the commercialist magicians, the native inhabitants of the isle who fight against them, are cannibals).
IV. Bottle Imp: very similar to IoV (commerce and its debilitating effects, the abstract and pseudo-magical nature of capital and the market, the totalizing effect of commerce in the filled earth), but the main trope is buying and selling.
The Circulatory nature of the bottle: the bottle’s reach, extent and distant provenance are emphasised (it was “tempered in the flames of hell,” and has been around at least as long as its previous possessors Napoleon and Captain Cook – both, incidentally, figures of European expansionism – but has now reached the Pacific Islands and their inhabitants). Its property is to be constantly circulated and exchanged, and it must be exchanged for “coined money” – it emphatically replaces the older barter system, signifying a new (global) order.
The bottle is thus closely tied not only to possessions (which it freely grants – a variation on the old magic bottle/lamp/genie fairytale – but note the depersonalization of the bottle compared to Aladdin’s), but also to modern money. In the end, Keawe and Kokua are saved by a monetary and geopolitical device: the knowledge of distant lands (which now, being known and accessible, are no longer so distant) and their currency systems. As Kokua explains:
What is this you say about a cent? But all the world is not American. In England they have a piece they call a farthing, which is about half a cent…Come, Keawe, let us go to the French islands; let us go to Tahiti, as far as ships can bear us. There we have four centimes, three centimes, two centimes, one centime; four possible sales to come and go on…
Again, the point about (French) colonialism is passed without much ado; the main point is the global system of exchange (if anything, it is colonialism that has saved them, with Kokua’s modern education, transportation, and the money system). The bottle, representing exchange, may have a global reach and a damning influence; but salvation also comes through money and global knowledge/communications – i.e. the story affirms that there is no being “outside” the system.
V. Island Narratives: the Failure of Insulation (against commerce and geopolitics), but corresponding the insularity of narrative and consciousness. Islands (from at least Crusoe onwards, or even earlier, in The Tempest) are paradoxical symbols: on the one hand isolated and alienating, on the other hand the objects of commercial/colonial/romantic desire (as ostensibly new territory, as necessary ports of call for shipping, as trading hubs, even as touristic places to see). In an age of geopolitics, islands become key symbols and sites, to show the impossible of insularity at a practical/ideological level; yet at the same time, they also show the strangely isolating nature of modern/commercial existence, due in large part to the alienating effects of commercial/market life.
This insularity in terms of narrative/consciousness (Conrad being a key instance) is emphasised by what we might (in shorthand) call an “island chronotope” in these narratives: brief, transitory and isolated (either through the short story format and its abruptly-introduced characters, or else through the transitory shifts in consciousness in Conrad’s narrative style), they nevertheless seem to connect up with each other (in ideological and symbolic terms) to reinforce the inescapable, global and universal condition of commercial insularity. Island chronotope a fundamental paradox: paraphrasing Donne, every man is an island; yet (also) no man is.