EN 4223 Seminar 9 Handout – Outcast of the Islands
Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski born in Polish Ukraine (controlled by Russia), and became a British subject in 1886. Father imprisoned by Russians for his Polish nationalist politics. Conrad had a long career as sailor in British merchant navy, in the course of which he traveled all over the world, including SEA. Although he only learned English in adult life, he came to write in English, with his first novel Almayer’s Folly which appeared in 1895. Outcast published 1896. Many of his novels reflected his experiences and awareness of geopolitical conflict, and his long fascination with the sea and its role in colonialism and commerce. He translated his own experiences with European nationalist geopolitics into the terms of the European colonial encounters with native races that he saw in the Malay archipelago (in works like Almayer, Outcast, The Rescue, Lord Jim, “Karain” and others). The sea and sailing feature as recurring sites as well as symbols for the divided and torn condition of modern man, caught (like the Matthew Arnold quote from “Grand Chartreuse” we saw a few seminar back) between the past and future, between romantic idealism and hard practical reality. He thus came to be one of the best-known spokespersons for a high modernist pessimism closely tied to Europe’s socio-political condition at the turn of the century – reflected in essentially isolated (“outcast”) and alienated characters, narrative forms/styles that struggle to convey meaning and significance, and the “horror” of modern greed and oppression.
Yet Edward Said also argues that this modernist pessimism of Conrad’s was also a kind of inverted/disguised “utopianism,” a critique of his society that contained in it the hope for its redemption (and indeed many of his central characters struggle for personal redemption in the face of their own “sins” and society’s evils).
I. Romance of Geopolitics: In Moonstone, geopolitics enter to threaten, divide and disperse (at least temporarily) the MC romance (between Rachel and Franklin). Romance in Outcast is on the one hand more radical and bold (interracial, obsessive, sexually/physically explicit), but on the other hand it is once again interrupted by geopolitics.
Romance is either the hope (slim, tragic, evanescent) of personal happiness, which thus critiques the ugly commercial pragmatism of the modern age; or else geopolitics is a comment on the futility of romance in the modern age. Conrad’s artistic vision, his characteristic narrative style (typically, through multiple perspectives, unreliably subject narrators, self-reflexive ambivalence/inconclusiveness – more on narrative below), leaves it an open question which the reader has to grapple with.
a. Outcast as (modern, problematic) romance: true in very broad strokes, particularly in the “star-crossed” (Romeo and Juliet) relationship between Willems and Aissa, white man and native woman, who both defy their respective communities and their taboos to pursue the relationship. The romance paradigm, according to theorists like Northrop Frye, involves a spatial movement, a journey out of the inhospitable society into a new territory which involves trials and tests, but which also permits the proving/refining of that love; this is followed by a return to the original society/space, now redeemed by the lovers’ refinement and the repentance of the original “blocking” (patriarchal) figures. The romance is thus a kind of spatial fantasy, the assumption of an unfilled space (a “brave new world,” Tempest-like) in which socio-political problems can be resolved, as (simplistically) symbolized by the lovers’ career.
Conrad complicates/frustrates this romance paradigm in a number of ways: the lovers are no young ingénues, but a woman hardened by her race’s and father’s sufferings, and a man whose arrogance leads to a break with his first wife (about whom he blatantly lies to Aissa – “and there is no woman waiting for you there?” “No,” p. 112) and his entire race; their relationship is seen, not as an idealistic purifying love, but in terms of an at times damaging obsession (she speaks of the “humiliation” of his expectation that she should run away with him to “a far country,” p. 118, and he refers to her as his “devil” that has managed to enthrall him away from his own plans and ambitions, p. 210); the relationship involves their respective betrayal and disavowal of all their ties to community and past (she is cursed by her father, he likewise betrays not only his own race but also his symbolic father Lingard). Most strikingly in terms of the spatial romance, Conrad’s ironic vision sees the lovers as already being in a “brave new world” – both are exile figures, Aissa on the run with her father, Willems in disgrace from colonial East Indies, and Sambir is already their best hope of escaping their respective racial-political pressures.
If Outcast is a romance of sorts, it is an ironic romance, in bitter “winter” modality (Northrop Frye), not the optimistic springtime youthful variety.
b. Colonial Racial Politics vs. the anti-romance of the Filled Earth
What compromises and ironicises that romance is not, as it would first appear, the racial taboos of colonialism: in a sense colonial politics (English vs Dutch, White vs Native) are almost secondary to the tragedy of this novel. The English-Dutch rivalry, in particular, is depicted as a kind of superficial game: Almayer, an “orang Blanda” (Dutch) man working for the Englishman Lingard, only declares an overt political affiliation when he is forced to do so by the conflict in Sambir, and when he does so, he hoists the “Union Jack”; Willems, disgraced Dutchman, correspondingly hoists the Dutch flag, but does so in the service of the “British” Abdulla (pp. 136-138). Racial divisions, likewise, are seen as not entirely irrelevant, but difficult to define or police: the persistence of hybrids like the De Souzas (including Willems’ own wife Joanna), and cross-racial family ties (like Lingard who adopts a Malay girl, and Almayer who marries her), show the force of physical or symbolic miscegenation. Personal sympathies and affiliations also cut across simple racial lines: Lingard, the “Rajah Laut” with the warrior’s and sailor’s heart, professes more in common (and vice versa) with the Orang Laut and individuals like Babalatchi, than with the treacherous and dishonest Willems.
In the final analysis, colonialism might not be entirely a wrong label to use to describe the socio-political condition depicted in this novel, but it’s probably an incomplete or inadequate one. The problem, especially when viewed from the perspective of romance and its impossibility, is of a rapidly commercialized, filled, competitive and soul-less world. Conrad depicts this in deliberately anti-romanticised terms – the sea no longer a “beautiful” and “glorious” woman as it was in the past (the opening of the Suez canal in 1869, the “dismal but profitable ditch,” is seen as the beginning of the end as it were, p. 14), but now a “used-up drudge, wrinkled and defaced by the churned-up wakes of brutal propellers” (p. 14). Colonial excuses and racial hatred are invoked to fuel the volatile situation in the novel; but the root cause is the pervasiveness of a soul-less, dishonourable and deceptive commercial ethos. This is embodied by Willems, the “confidential clerk” who abuses his confidences and thus destroys his own commercial ambitions; but also seen in the intolerant individualism and competitiveness of people like Lakamba, Babalatchi (the restlessly Machiavellian/revenger/plotter figure), Abdulla, Almayer (whose ambitions on his behalf and for his daughter lead to his hostility to Willems), and Lingard himself (whose refusal to let any other trading ship into the Pantai causes so much resentment).
c. Geopolitical sympathies/negotiations:
Accordingly, there are a number of “connecting” moments (a Conrad trademark) which cut across the simplicity of black-white, colonial-colonised oppositions. Part of Conrad’s depiction some kind of a symbolic/emotional basis for transnational/transcultural connection, even as he seems to repudiate the possibility of a political/commercial union. Even the relationship between Aissa and Willems, as flawed as it is, might be seen as a kind of mystical union which (at least for a while) transcends cultural/racial difference: while it is true that Willems later recoils from the relationship (which is depicted as a temporary “madness,” an enthrallment), while it lasts it offers both desperate individuals a chance to escape political problems (in an idealistic union with the other – see images like Aissa’s “you who carry my life in your heart,” p. 271); and its passion is arguably depicted more sympathetically than the loveless and cynical union for commercial purposes that marks Almayer’s marriage and Willems’ union with Joanna.
Another such scene occurs between Babalatchi and Lingard: “You, Tuan, are of the sea, and more like what we are. Therefore I speak to you all the words that are in my heart” (p. 175). “A man of the sea – even as we are. A true Orang Laut…not like the rest of the white men” (p. 171). Lingard’s association with the Malays forms a bond closer than that which whites like Willems, with his conscious superiority, can forge: “He had been living with Malays so long and so close that the extreme deliberation and deviousness of their mental proceedings had ceased to irritate him much” (p. 172).
There are Lingard’s whimsical patronages of all kinds of people (Malay girls, Dutch shipboys, the “Chinamen from a water-logged junk in Formosa Straits” p. 125, the Chinese settler in Sambir Jim-Eng etc) – on the one hand “mad” whims that more often than not end in disaster or trouble, they also speak to a certain kind of attractive generosity that softens the aspect of the white conqueror/patriarch. Again, there is a contrast, this time with the dishonest Hudig, who fathers Joanna but refuses to properly acknowledge the blood-tie, and provides for her in only a haphazard way.
Then there are the relationships which might have been, due to various similarities and affinities (rather like the Holmes-villain relationships): Lingard and Abdulla (both ambitious and determined men with some claims to scruples, both separated by their rivalry), or even Lingard and Omar (both old warriors past their times and out of sorts in the modern age, but again separated by old rivalries).
Although there is little enduring hope for these relationships, the fact that they can occur at all is perhaps the little basis for “hope” that the novel offers – they are at least interludes between, if not alternatives to, the dominant narrative of crass modernist commercialism and selfishness.
d. Commerce: Conrad offers less of a hope in the cultural machinations of commerce. Unlike the rationalist professionalism of Holmes, or the boyish/playful professionalism and commercial barter/exchange of Kim (or even the unwitting collusion between Franklin and the 3 Indians – all of whom want to see the Moonstone “recovered”), in Outcast there is little alternative cultural role for commerce, little sublimation into a disguised and less unpleasant form. In the main, commerce is seen as divisive and dehumanizing: its typical representatives are Almayer and Willems, who both sell themselves in various ways to become rich, and both become dehumanized (Almayer on the verge of madness, Willems a walking “corpse” who then becomes a literal one).
The closest that Outcast comes to a positive/redeeming alternative to commerce is in the profession of the sea (a suggestion that is continued in other Conrad works, e.g. Heart of Darkness, Nigger of the Narcissus, Lord Jim and others). Again Lingard is the key figure, in whom the commercialism and the romance of the sea meet, with the latter at times being foregrounded: “A good many years ago – prompted by his love of adventure – he, with infinite trouble, had found and surveyed – for his own benefit only – the entrances to that river, where, as he had heard through native report, a new settlement of Malays was forming” (p. 154).
“He loved the narrow and somber creeks, strangers to sunshine: black, smooth tortuous – like byways of despair….He loved everything there, animated or inanimated; the very mud of the riverside; the very alligators, enormous and stolid, basking on it with impertinent unconcern” (p. 155)
It is the thought of a common maritime professionalism that is at the basis of Lingard’s strange affection for Willems: he attributes Willems’ early downfall to leaving “the sea…only one place for an honest man” (p. 35), and when Willems succeeds in piloting Abdulla’s boat into the river, Lingard’s response is “smart fellow that” (p. 127).
But on the whole the novel, in keeping with its generally gloomy vision, is less hopeful about (or sees more clearly through) commerce’s claims to cultural negotiation.
II. Desiring Landscapes: Like KSM, Outcast writes desire onto the landscape, but in a less hopeful fashion. Whereas in KSM the landscape was a fairly blatant displacement of white colonial sexual desire (to penetrate and seize), in Outcast landscape marks the limits to or barriers around the colonial-commercial project; the landscape gets sexualized/gendered only to suggest temporary distractions from that project. I.e. (at the risk of oversimplification) in KSM desire IS the (native land) IS to seize it; in Outcast desire is at odds with the native land and the wealth it represents – it is what happens (as it were) at the fringes of the colonial control of the land.
Thus the landscape feature most closely associated with desire in the novel is the sea: the sea is feminised (“incomparably beautiful mistress” or “used-up drudge” p. 14). It is the fickle barrier that stands in the way of colonial control and profit (all the risks of seaborne trade – pirates, shipwreck, storms, etc). Lingard’s possession of Sambir is due to his ability to overcome the obstacle posed by the sea/rivermouth. The 2 warring/competing factions in Sambir (Patalolo and Lakamba; and later Almayer and Willems) are literally separated by the width of the river Pantai.
At the same time, the native woman is associated with the sea: Babalatchi advises Aissa that “you must be to him like the great sea to thirsty men – a never-ceasing torment, and a madness” (p. 83). For Willems in his courtship of Aissa, the expression and consummation of his desire literally involves a crossing of the sea/river (to go to the opposite bank, on which Lakamba’s settlement is found) – but in so doing, he turns his back on his own ambitions, race, patron. Fittingly, at the end he is marooned (with the object of his initial desire, Aissa) at Lakamba’s old settlement, separated from the “civilized world” by water and his inability to traverse it.
Although the two (women and sea) seem only contingently yoked, by the exigencies of the plot and narrative, there does seem to be a thematic logic to it: women, like the sea (for the Rajah Laut and the Orang Laut) are the scene of gratification of male desire – the “many pursuits of throat-cutting, kidnapping, slave-dealing and fire raising” of people like Babalatchi, or the literal gratification of lusts on the body of the native woman on the part of people like Willems. Both are yoked by virtue of being individualistic, hedonistic, irresponsible and impractical activities – as compared to the crass but eminently practical business of trade and profits.
The association of women-sea-desire creates a strange collocation of meanings/implications: not only the fickleness of women (both Joanna and Aissa vacillate between love and hate for Willems), but also their opposition to male ambitions (Joanna and Almayer’s wife both inconvenient burdens; Aissa channeling Willems’ desires away from his own commercial desires to make good and redeem himself in colonial society, and into her own desire for “battle, violence, and treachery to his own people – for her” (p. 256). Thus this landscape is also a chauvinistic or conservative one, in which a contested and filled landspace (Sambir, with its competing factions) – potentially profitable, the domain of male ambition and wealth – is hedged, impeded, curtailed by desire (either sexual or other hedonistic forms). Of course, the inherent paradox which the thematic logic doesn’t address (and which thus confirms the chauvinism of the novel) is that you can’t take the sea out of commerce, and land and sea define each other, just as women are not merely distractions to male enterprise, but also the necessary participants in it (even if only in the crudely practical way of safeguarding children and posterity).
This is where, despite its many differences, Outcast converges with KSM: both novels write a kind of anxiety about women and sexuality, as being impediments or distractions to the white male enterprise. The difference is that Haggard seems to view that enterprise much more innocuously if not positively, and so the female principle is seen as outright negative (Foulata) or even demonized (Gagool). To follow the landscape’s logic, it is a good thing for white men to enter the native land and seize its treasure – it is only a pity that they are only partially successful. Conrad has a much more negative (or at least ambivalent) view of commercial modernity and colonialism, and thus there is a sense in which the female principle’s impeding of that enterprise is not necessarily/wholly a bad thing (although it does end badly for the women). In this sense, it is hard to ascertain wherein the chauvinism resides – in the novel as a whole (and coming from Conrad), or in the pervasive consciousness of the white men?
II. Natives, Women, Miscegenation, Hybridity: There is thus (whether in the novel, or in the minds of certain characters) a conspicuous hierarchy in the novel: at the top is the ascendant white man, part of a conquering and victorious race; next comes native warrior-seamen like Omar, Lakamba and Babalatchi. The novel (primarily through Lingard’s values and perspective) is prepared to see certain affinities between white and native men. But women occupy a much lower position (white women usually occupy a very minor and often ironic role in Conrad’s novels, and in Outcast are almost non-existent, apart perhaps from Mrs Vinck): this is in part an attempt at anthropological verisimilitude (polygamy and domesticity reducing native women to nonentities, even in the eyes of native men), but also follows a racialised logic.
Hence the lowest of the low is the “Sirani woman….a woman of a people despised by all” (p. 273). Joanna is seen as “ugly,” “stupid,” weak and easily manipulated (by her family members, by Almayer), fickle and extreme (in her vacillations towards Willems) – really without any redeeming features. The rest of her family seems no better – Leonard is a pretentious coward, her mother lies to her about Willems having an affair, and the whole extended clan seems to spend their time lazing around the house, and holding their hands out for money (especially after the house is sold). Then there is Almayer’s wife (symbolic, not genetic, hybrid – a Malay girl adopted by a white man and married to another) who has no voice, is not seen in the novel, but interferes in various ways, including betraying Almayer by giving the key to the gunpowder room to Aissa. Nina, a true hybrid and “Sirani,” is too young to be entirely revealing (although her admittedly childish cruelty to Willems, and her petty tyranny over Lingard, are already suggestive, and perhaps prefigure her headstrong ways in the sequel/prequel Almayer’s Folly).
The suggestion is that the white-native contrast (particularly where men are concerned) is less significant in Conrad’s world than hybridity itself – the mixing of white and native, resulting in the worst of all possible worlds. While male hybridity is bad, what is worst is of course the hybrid female (note that this does not apply to Aissa, who in the eyes of Willems is “a damned mongrel, half-Arab, half-Malay” (p. 209), yet lacks the degradation of Joanna or Leonard – it is the mixing of white and native qualities that is bad). Willems, in his betrayal of his own race and desire for the native woman, has also committed symbolic miscegenation and becomes a symbolic hybrid: “You are neither white nor brown. You have no colour as you have no heart” (p. 213).
The condition of hybridity, for Conrad, is akin to being entirely rootless, tradition-less, value-less – the ultimate nightmare of modernity, moved willy-nilly by the shifting commercialized forces around you, with no secure position to rely on.
IV. Homosocial World, Paternalism, Colonialism
Similarly, the novel’s depiction of a homosocial world, and of the passing of a paternalistic order: emphasizes the transition to a disordered modern world, occupied and filled and yet lacking order and significance.
In novels like KSM, Kim and perhaps Sign of 4, homosocial worlds seem to reflect an anxiety about heterosexual desire as a threat to the (white, colonial, professional, male and MC) social order. The threat seems to emanate especially from the other – the native woman who must be excluded at all costs (even at the cost of homosociality, suggestions of homosexuality, violence, death). In Outcast, although sexuality is again seen as opposed to the male commercial project, the explicit sexuality of the native woman is acknowledged and accommodated (suggesting that sexuality is primarily the opponent or obstacle of the colonial project, not the commercial one?). Outcast seems less interested in the absolute threat of sexuality of the native woman. Its homosociality seems more concerned with depicting the narrow limitations of the male commercial order – economic individualism is depicted as a Freudian/Darwinian world of men in constant competition in the absence of the “law of the father.”
Geopolitical patriarchy seems to go hand-in-hand with the homosocial male colonial enterprise – thus the paternalism of the Lama and father figures like Lurgan and Mahbub, run at least parallel, if not on the same groove, as the colonial training of Kim and the Great Game. What Outcast depicts is something else: the passing away of the patriarchal order (symbolized in the death of Omar, which literally frees Babalatchi’s hand in Machiavellian plots, and the loss of potency of the aging “Father” Lingard). This patriarchal order represents a certain romantic vigour (including violence and adventure) combined with a predictable, communal-oriented order: Omar keeps his band of pirates together and in the groove of their looting lifestyle until that lifestyle is destroyed by Europeans; and Lingard represents a kind of old-fashioned rough paternalism that is moral and constructive in its romanticism: “It being manifest that he was wise and lucky – otherwise how could he have been as successful in life as he had been? – he had an inclination to set right the lives of other people…”; “He was meddlesome with perfect modesty…”; (p. 153). “His deep-seated and immovable conviction that only he – he, Lingard – knew what was good for them [i.e. the people of Sambir] was characteristic of him, and, after all, not so very far wrong. He would make them happy whether or no…” (p. 154).
With the passing of this order, what remains is the commercial “sons” scrabbling for the pieces of the pie left by the “father,” and without anything of the father’s romance, morality and good-heartedness. Homosociality in Outcast, rather different from the colonial/MC patriarchal variety depicted in some of the other novels, is a geopolitics very much coloured with the pessimism of a commerce without control, a homosocial spirit without the redeeming graces of the father (or, for that matter, the mother – who is absent even before the novel begins).
IV. Narrative, Language, and the Aesthetics of Geopolitics
a. Problem of consciousness/perspective versus plot/theme: Outcast in many ways poses more problems than some of the other (more straightforward geopolitical) narratives because of its modernist sensibility: the shaping of a narrative not only without omniscient and a central organizing principle (Moonstone, in a way, also had that), but without any clue about security of meaning. One of the chief ways this is created is via that characteristically modernist device of multiple consciousnesses: thus, to take just one striking eg. of many, near the end of the novel, Willems’ selfish desire to escape (Sambir and Aissa both) and to go to “the superior land of refined delights” (p. 253) is sharply contrasted when the perspective switches to Aissa’s consciousness: “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). Another abrupt and striking switch takes place at the start of Part III (“Yes! Cat, dog, anything…” p. 125), when Almayer’s whining, greedy and self-serving perspective gives us a very different take on events than that of the forlorn Willems or the dignified and hopeful Lingard.
b. We might call this the modernist/impressionist chronotope: Conrad’s narrative takes us immediately into the present time/space of a particular character, switching from character to character in the course of the novel. This not only dismantles any possibility of a stable set of values (and certainly fractures the unity of narrative voice/form), but also undermines the whole predictable geopolitical/colonial plotline, the whole ideological burden of European colonial geopolitics: at the level of plot, we might speak of a racism and chauvinism which depicts the hybridized native, the native woman and the scene of colonial encounter with a patronizing and hierarchical perspective. However, the density of Conrad’s language, the (in)famous plurality of his symbolism, and this modernist/impressionistic chronotope, undermines the reliability of this ideological plot, since we can never be sure which character’s perspective or consciousness to abide with or take as primary.
Conrad’s narrative marks where geopolitics meets modernism: what we are consuming is not so much a clearly expansive chronotopic consciousness (underlying the plot, symbols, characters etc) that we see in some of the other novels we have encountered; but rather an aesthetic of the geopolitics. In lieu of a geopolitical ideology, we consume the aesthetics of this clash of individual consciousnesses, this transitional (sand-bar) moment between romanticism and crass commercialism. It is, if you like, geopolitics without certainty/conviction – but no less ideological in its modernist, individualistic, “hope”ful (the last “echo” of the novel) view of that commercialized, conflictual modernity.