Conrad and the Craft: Sea Stories for Real Sailors (part 2)

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June 12, 2016

of Heart Of Darkness.

By Colin Dewey,

In the first part of this essay, I talked about craft: Joseph Conrad’s somewhat mysterious term describing the ability good mariners have to dip into a common pool of knowledge, experience, and technique, and through a combination of superior ethical and almost spiritual sensibility, perform their duties to the utmost. Margaret Cohen’s analysis of sailors’ treatises and voyage tales and her revision of the term “compleat mariner” led me to try to adapt her analysis to the complicated issues facing seafarers today.  In The Novel and the Sea (University of Princeton Press, 2010), Cohen examines Conrad’s novel Lord Jim and novella Typhoon, and I follow her example here, even reading some of the same passages, although I arrive at somewhat different conclusions.    

Typhoon and Other Stories book cover
Related Book: Typhoon and Other Stories by Joseph Conrad

Throughout her study, Cohen notices the problem of developing the ethical judgement and creative intelligence as well as comprehensive skills required of the mariner’s craft. She demonstrates how this difficulty also preoccupies Joseph Conrad’s fiction.  In his 1900 novel Lord Jim, young Jim attends a “training-ship for officers of the mercantile marine,” likely meant to be the famous Conway, anchored in the river Mersey near Liverpool from 1859.  The Conway trained generations of English officers, but it was not the training that the immigrant Józef Korzeniowski received “through the hawsepipe.”  The Conway may have represented for Conrad precisely the book and exam, skill based – competency – training that by itself fails to instill the mariner’s craft.  

 Like many maritime academy cadets, Jim learned “a little trigonometry and how to cross top-gallant yards […] He had the third place in navigation and pulled stroke in the first cutter.”  Showing adequate, but not stellar, performance as a cadet, Jim nevertheless loved to daydream about the brilliant and heroic career stretching out ahead of him, as he read about it in “the sea-life of light literature” – adventure stories for boys.  However, when he is actually put to the test, Jim falters.  As a cadet, he arrives on deck too late to man the ship’s longboat rushing to rescue a sailor from the stormy river, and misses his chance at early glory.  Later, Jim is injured in an accident aboard ship, and sits out months in an outport hospital bed, cursing his luck and imagining how things might have been.

Most notoriously, as a mate on the overloaded and ill-fated SS Patna, Jim freezes at the crucial moment. Convinced that the ship is sinking but unable to decisively choose between rousing the passengers or slipping away with the dastardly and dishonorable officers to save himself, Jim – literally and figuratively – falls.  Suddenly finding himself almost accidentally in the lifeboat he abandons his passengers, and profession, without even meaning to do so.  

For Jim, at least, schoolboy desire and academy training made him technically competent, but did not produce the elusive mariner’s craft.  Conrad’s narrator, Marlow, spends years sounding the mystery of Jim’s failure and finds the answer in Jim’s lack of understanding the real nature of his calling: 

After two years of training he went to sea, and entering the regions so well known to his imagination, found them strangely barren of adventure. He made many voyages. He knew the magic monotony of existence between sky and water: he had to bear the criticism of men, the exactions of the sea, and the prosaic severity of the daily task that gives bread – but whose only reward is in the perfect love of the work. This reward eluded him.

“The perfect love of the work” speaks to something other than occupational competence: more than knowing how to perform tasks, even more than performing them well.  Margaret Cohen dives far more deeply into the historical basis for craft than I have room to cover here, but her analysis is something like this: at its best, craft is the independent ability to plan thoroughly, to accurately assess difficult, seemingly impossible, situations, and to draw on generations of lore and tradition; but also to recalculate and creatively improvise with fluidity and confidence without being bound to past practice.  When Marlow tries to describe it in Lord Jim, he can’t seem to put this finger on it: “the solidarity of the craft,” he says, is all that distinguishes and legitimizes “an obscure body of men held together by a community of inglorious toil and by fidelity to a certain standard of conduct.”  Craft, it seems, is less an objective measure of competence and more a way of thinking and being: as Cohen puts it, an ethos, a Greek word meaning character, used to describe the guiding beliefs or ideals that characterize a community, nation, or ideology; here it is both a “practical necessity for oceangoing survival” and a “cultural myth.” 

Can sailors or marine educators meet the task of becoming (or producing) the “compleat mariner” who perfectly performs this craft? As “cultural myth” it sounds like something rare and accidental, like a religious calling or sainthood, and even Marlow can’t quite point to a living example of the ideal: even the “super-sailor” Captain Brierly seems to fall short, disappearing over the side of his ship after hearing testimony in Jim’s trial following the Patna incident.  Yet Conrad was clear in his criticism of Jim and his approval of Marlow: although none of his characters are without flaws, the competent mate – but utter failure – Jim imagines himself a hero of maritime adventure but never achieves the comprehensive understanding of his duty and profession – and its significance – that Marlow calls the “perfect love of the work.”

However, the “excellence in action” of craft does not mean perfection, as Brierly’s example shows. We’ve all known good and bad captains, happy ships and good gangs of shipmates as well as the other kind.  Captain MacWhirr, of the SS Nan-Shan, in Conrad’s novella Typhoon (1902), is almost comically imperfect: unimaginative and block-headed, at least according to his young, ambitious mate, Jukes, who dreams of liners and who narrates the story.  To MacWhirr, new technology: instruments and books containing scientific instructions for avoiding the most dangerous quadrant of a storm, is an imposition on his methodical and habitual method of command.  MacWhirr seems like the antithesis of improvisational creativity and innovation, and that’s how he is usually read; but to me, his humble, dogged, attention to duty presents an example of achievable excellence and humanity.

Jukes, through whose eyes and prejudices the story is told, is a proponent of the latest and newest of everything, and he feels slighted by having to sail on a dull, out-of-the-way run in such an antiquated ship. To him, MacWhirr’s unflappable calm as the Nan-Shan battles the typhoon seems like madness. But by the end of the storm, the old captain is vindicated: MacWhirr, who despite appearances could read the barometer as well as any man, says simply that he “always knew” the Nan-Shan would make it out all right.  Where the new mate is appalled by the captain’s apparent lack of concern, sneering, “I think that he got out of it very well for a such a stupid man,” the old captain gives Jukes this advice: “Don’t you be put out by anything. Keep her facing it. They may say what they like, but the heaviest seas run with the wind. Facing it – always facing it – that’s the way to get through. You are a young sailor. Face it. That’s enough for any man.”

Silly, humble MacWhirr exhibits a levelheaded competence during the storm akin to what aviators call deliberate calm, and is said to “always have a happy and contented ship.”  Jukes can’t see it until the very end when MacWhirr comes up with a pragmatic solution to a seemingly irresolvable and potentially explosive issue requiring sensitive management of passengers and cargo.  MacWhirr isn’t stupid, and he isn’t heroic; he knows his ship and he knows his duty.  Perhaps paradoxically, in his apparent ignorance he shows “perfect love of the work.” 

We can’t legislate, regulate, or even list the competencies comprising the “perfect mariner” but we should work to understand the historical and global significance of our calling and jealously defend our “standard of conduct.”  Perhaps the most difficult thing for a mariner to grasp is the necessity for a certain level of resilience, if not comfort, in the face of less than perfect information.  We’re always only guessing: where we are, where we’re going, who our shipmates are – sometimes even what the cargo is.  Our bridge technology, automation, and regulatory regimes try to reduce the radical uncertainty of the sea, but it is practically impossible, and certainly dangerous, for us to be lulled thus into a false sense of security. 

Where Marlow went wrong – but where we as careful readers can get it right – was in obsessively seeking a specific answer to Jim’s fall, and thereby presuming the failure of the mariner’s craft.  We are not perfect individuals, but we should strive to be knowledgeable, careful, alert and aware people “held together by a community of inglorious toil and by fidelity to a certain standard of conduct.”  Let us have a craft of intelligent men and women, to paraphrase Xaver H. Leder’s challenge in the 1887 Coast Seaman’s Journal: “Let us read, let us discuss, let us educate ourselves; let the results of our education be sent broadcast across the ocean.” We can educate our people to be technically proficient, but we must recognize proficiency as one element in a far more elusive competence that embraces the full intellectual, psychological, and ethical capacities required of the complete mariner’s craft. 

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