Conrad’s third novel, published in 1897, is named The Nigger of the “Narcissus”, and this fact alone may account for its relative obscurity. Conrad himself, later in his career, looked back on Narcissus as his greatest artistic achievement:
It is the book by which, not as a novelist perhaps, but as an artist striving for the utmost sinceity of expression, I am willing to stand or fall. (Jeffrey Meyer, Joseph Conrad: A Biography)
To the modern reader it is most familiar, perhaps, not for any detail of the text itself, but for a peritextual element: the preface, a manifesto, as it has come to be seen, for the impressionist method:
All art, therefore, appeals primarily to the senses, and the artistic aim when expressing itself in written words must also make its appeal through the senses, if its highest desire is to reach the secret spring of responsive emotions. It must strenuously aspire to the plasticity of sculpture, to the colour of painting, and to the magic suggestiveness of music—which is the art of arts. And it is only through complete, unswerving devotion to the perfect blending of form and substance; it is only through an unremitting never-discouraged care for the shape and ring of sentences that an approach can be made to plasticity, to colour, and that the light of magic suggestiveness may be brought to play for an evanescent instant over the commonplace surface of words: of the old, old words, worn thin, defaced by ages of careless usage.
My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see. That—and no more, and it is everything.
Thus though there is an element of realism on Conrad’s work – and Narcissus has a considerable biographical element – everything is heightened so that physical details are experienced symbolically. There is not a shadow cast Conrad doesn’t elevate into something cosmic, some never-to-be-defined symbol of the human condition. Recall the insistent gloom at the beginning of Heart of Darkness (1899):
The air was dark above Gravesend, and farther back still seemed condensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth.
It was difficult to realize his work was not out there in the luminous estuary, but behind him, within the brooding gloom.
The water shone pacifically; the sky, without a speck, was a benign immensity of unstained light; the very mist on the Essex marsh was like a gauzy and radiant fabric, hung from the wooded rises inland, and draping the low shores in diaphanous folds. Only the gloom to the west, brooding over the upper reaches, became more sombre every minute, as if angered by the approach of the sun.
That gloom may function well enough as a realistic element, but Conrad’s reiteration makes clear that it pertains also to something within the characters’ experience during the story, and creates the impression in the reader of an unvanquishable sense of impotence and sadness attaching to human endeavour.
For some tastes, Conrad is all too insistent in his use of natural and other phenomena as vague metaphors for human experience. F.R. Leavis in The Great Tradition provides the classic statement of this position, referring specifically to Heart of Darkness:
[W]e have an adjectival and worse than supererogatory insistence on ‘unspeakable rites’, ‘unspeakable secrets’, ‘monstrous passions’, ‘inconceivable mystery’, and so on. If it were only, as it largely is in Heart of Darkness, a matter of an occasional phrase it would still be regrettable as tending to cheapen the tone.
Conrad must […] stand convicted of borrowing the arts of the magazine-writer (who has borrowed his, shall we say, from Kipling and Poe) in order to impose on his readers and on himself, for thrilled response, a ‘significance* that is merely an emotional insistence on the presence of what he can’t produce. The insistence betrays the absence, the willed ‘intensity’ the nullity. He is intent on making a virtue out of not knowing what he means.
I am quite sympathetic to this reading of Conrad, who certainly likes to hint at a deeper and darker knowledge that he cannot share with his readers. It is certainly a feature that seems to me to mar Heart of Darkness.
With The Nigger of the “Narcissus” I have come to somewhat share in the sense of Conrad’s power as a writer that so many distinguished critics, from Leavis himself up to Edward Said and others, have felt so strongly. I didn’t feel it with any of the major works, Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, The Secret Agent or Nostromo (I still haven’t completed the last). But Narcissus, problematic as it is, is also memorable and compelling.
The problems with Narcissus for a 21st-century reader are significant. With regard to the title, this is obvious. Some people point out that the n-word did not mean the same in the late 19th century as it means today. This is a point that I think can be overstated. Earlier in the 19th century, the n-word was already the preserve of those with racist views. This is clear to me from reading the Carlyle-Mill debate on slavery: the abolitionist Mill consistently used the term “negro” while the pro-slavery and explicitly racist Carlyle used, particularly in later works, the n-word quite profusely. So Conrad was positioning himself very clearly by his use of the word.
It doesn’t end there, though. Conrad was, as is clear from the discussion above, a very symbolic writer. He always hints at the great significance of details. And nothing in the book is more symbolically loaded than the title character, the black sailor James Wait. A full explication of what Wait symbolizes is impossible – perhaps because Conrad himself is not wholly coherent on this front – but that he is a deathly blight on life on board the good ship Narcissus is obvious. Early in the book the narrator (a member of the ship’s crew, though no detail on him is given) describes Wait as a “hateful burden”, evoking considerations of Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden” which appeared 2 years later. Later, Wait is associated with lying. Again, Heart of Darkness is recalled here. The narrator Marlow’s supposed hatred of lies is one of the motifs of that work, culminating in the lie to the beloved in the novella’s final scene. Here, again, lying and falsehood become central motifs in the latter part of the story:
Falsehood triumphed. It triumphed through doubt, through stupidity, through pity, through sentimentalism. We set ourselves to bolster it up from compassion, from recklessness, from a sense of fun. Jimmy’s steadfastness to his untruthful attitude in the face of the inevitable truth had the proportions of a colossal enigma—of a manifestation grand and incomprehensible that at times inspired a wondering awe; and there was also, to many, something exquisitely droll in fooling him thus to the top of his bent.
In a way that is slightly obscure, Jimmy/James Wait becomes responsible for an epidemic of falsehood among the crew. What exactly Wait’s falsehood lies in is not that clear. He is sick, and has been throughout the voyage. But is he pretending? Or is he in fact dying? Is it his actual ill health that provokes such a malaise among the crew, or his shamming (he is later described as having a “sham existence”). None of this is wholly clear.
The disturbing thing is that Wait is not just an inferior being, but one whose inferiority is somehow dangerous and even contagious, such that his death at the novel’s end is like the release from a spell. Read through a racial prism, this seems very dark indeed. Was Conrad just tapping into the symbolic resonances of blackness as established by poetry and literature over centuries, or is there a real political content to the book? This is the difficult question a 21st-century reader of the book must face, and, as always with Conrad, there is no clear answer. Similar questions arise with Heart of Darkness, of course, and maybe if that work had such a title as the present one, it would not have such a large readership.
There’s a curious anomaly regarding Conrad’s narrator. Conrad’s narrator’s do tend to be shadowy characters, observers rather than protagonists. But the narrator of Narcissus takes this to extremes. He has no name, his position in the ship is unknown, he never speaks to the other crew members, he is never acknowledged by them (this is from memory; maybe he does somewhere in the early part, but if so it’s very limited). In fact, were it not for the narratorial use of “we” to describe the crew, one would imagine a heterodiegetic narrator, not a homodiegetic one. And, indeed, some scenes are logically inconsistent with a homodiegetic narrator, notably the climactic scene between Wait and Donkin, culminating in the former’s death. Clearly, the players in the scene felt themselves unobserved, so how can any but an omniscient heterodiegetic narrator have recorded their encounter? Was he hiding in the cupboard?
Such anomalies are common enough in Conrad. As was long ago pointed out, much of Lord Jim was apparently told by Marlow at one sitting, yet the length of the work renders this a practical impossibility. It is an interesting question why Conrad insisted on using first-person narration when it was so unsuitable for the stories he had to tell, which is certainly the case in Narcissus. My hunch is that it relates to the implied Englishness of his narrators. A heterodiegetic narrator would be identified with Conrad himself, and have rendered his books more identifiably foreign, but by establishing the character of Marlow or the other narrators, Conrad is impersonating the English gentleman as he liked to do in real life as well. So the reason is less narrative than personal-psychological, I suggest.
Trade unionism and Filthy Eloquence
If one can’t help thinking of the politics of race in Conrad’s portrayal of Wait, his portrayal of Donkin is even more starkly ideological. Donkin’s dialogue is rendered phonetically, his cockney accent and dropped h’s contrasting with the rest of the crew. He also spins the rhetoric of workers’ rights and trade unionism. You don’t have to work hard to show that Conrad disapproves of such rhetoric. Very late in the book (the penultimate paragraph), the narrator says, with out-of-character brutality, “Donkin, who never did a decent day’s work in his life, no doubt earns his living by discoursing with filthy eloquence upon the right of labour to live.” As quoted, it loses something, but that filthy is striking in context. Conrad was an admirer of strong leadership, such as that demonstrated in time of crisis by Captain Allistoun in Narcissus; he was not at all a believe in democratic or socialist movements.
In short, one can’t count Conrad among the political progressives. But recent readings of Conrad do tend to count him in that group. As far as Heart of Darkness goes, this works by seeing as all of Marlow’s racist and pro-imperialist comments as Conradian irony, while taking the anti-imperialist ones at face value. This is more difficult with Narcissus, as there is no clear irony in the narrator’s stance, so this book brings us even more starkly up against the challenging politics of Conrad, even while it beguiles with its often beautiful, though sometimes, one feels, slightly overheated, prose.