In any discussion of Lord Jim, Frederic Jameson1 is an unavoidable presence. I was strongly tempted to write most of my account of the novel as a metacommentary – to use Jameson’s own word – on his metacommentary on Lord Jim, so perceptively has he analyzed and presented the difficulties and tensions of Conrad’s text, and so obtusely has he interpreted them.
Jameson’s perceptions and analyses are limited only by his own formidable intelligence, and hence tend to be acute, while his interpretive acts are limited by the rigidities of his presuppositions. He understands interpretation “as an essentially allegorical act, which consists in rewriting a given text in terms of a particular interpretive master code” (10) – i.e., what he calls interpretation is what I call allegoresis, and that, in the completely reductive way he thinks of it, amounts to simple cipher substitution, the most mechanical sort of code-breaking.
For him, Marxism is the transcendent viewpoint that totalizes all other approaches, so the proper interpretation of Lord Jim has to yield the predictable socio-political lessons he finds in it. I have already had enough to say about cipher-substitution as an interpretive method not to beat that horse again. Let it suffice at this point to say that I do not quarrel with Jameson’s ability to deduce his conclusions from Conrad’s text, but I utterly reject them as any kind of interpretation of Lord Jim, and certainly not a definitive one. They are one set of competing possibilities among many, and not the most central or most persuasive by far.
Jameson nicely lists a variety of approaches to the novel (208-209), beginning with:
the ‘romance’ or mass-cultural reading of Conrad as a writer of adventure tales, sea narratives, and ‘popular’ yarns; and
the stylistic analysis of Conrad as a practitioner of what we will shortly term a properly ‘impressionistic’ will to style
and moving on to “other influential kinds of readings”:
the myth-critical, for instance, in which Nostromo is seen as the articulation of the archetype of buried treasure;
the Freudian, in which the failure of Oedipal resolution is ratified by the grisly ritual execution of Conrad’s two son-heroes (Jim and Nostromo) by their spiritual fathers;
the ethical, in which Conrad’s texts are taken literally as books which raise the ‘issues’ of heroism and courage, of honor and cowardice;
the ego-psychological, in which the story of Jim is interpreted as the search for identity or psychic unity;
the existential, in which the omnipresent themes of the meaninglessness and absurdity of human existence are foregrounded as ‘message’
and finally, more formidable than any of these, the Nietzschean reading of Conrad’s political vision as a struggle against ressentiment,
and the structuralist-textual reading of Conrad’s form as an immanent dramatization of the impossibility of narrative beginnings and as the increasing reflexivity and problematization of linear narrative itself.”
To this list we should also add Jameson’s own interpretation of the novel, which – he claims – supercedes and indeed either includes or precludes all the others: that the “aestheticizing strategy” (230) of Conrad’s prose effectually disguises the real content of the work, an “examination of what an act and what a temporal instant really are” (262), and that:
Conrad’s work finally becomes contiguous to the elaborate presentation and self-questioning of the British aristocratic bureaucracy in Ford’s Parade’s End, and uses much the same anecdotal form of social scandal to deconceal social institutions otherwise imperceptible to the naked eye. In both works, therefore, the existential ‘extreme situation’ (the Patna’s bulkhead, World War I) is less a laboratory experiment designed to expose the inner articulation of the act and of the instant than the precondition for the revelation of the texture of ideology.” (265)
The texture of ideology, of course, is what Jameson is really interested in. For all his perceptiveness about Conrad’s language, Jameson’s analyses display the same classic signs of flight from the text that personification readings of The Faerie Queene exhibit. For example: Conrad’s single paragraph describing the pilgrims boarding the Patna “urged by faith and the hope of paradise,” leaving their homes “at the call of an idea” (Lord Jim, 13)2, elicits from Jameson a 12-paragraph, 9-page excursus, ostensibly on “Conrad’s discourse” (245).
This begins with the mind-bending observation that Conrad’s choice of narrative detail here – i.e., Islamic pilgrims rather than any other passengers – “has a substantive meaning in its own right, which is constitutive for the text” (Jameson, 246). Can this really be news to anybody? It is a point so obvious as not to even need remark. This does not deter Jameson, who then moves through “the nineteenth-century ideologeme of aesthetic religion,” with mentions of Chateaubriand, Flaubert, Renan, and Malraux, before settling on Max Weber’s Sociology of Religion (247-248). From there (that is only the third paragraph), Jameson takes us to Marx, Max Scheler, and Karl Manheim, and a discussion of the separation of value from work and the commodification of labor, the experience of meaninglessness and nostalgia for the sacred, and from there finally back to Lord Jim, where, with one final excursus into Lukacs’ Theory of the Novel, “we may now reinvest the language of Lord Jim with something like its original ideological and semantic content” and learn that the phrase “the call of an idea” serves as one counter in a four-cornered opposition of activity and value, not-value and not-activity.
This whole section, including its diagram, seems remarkably close to the kind of rigidly exclusionist thinking Oedipa Maas gets trapped in when she falls into the language of the Aristotelean and scholastic square of logical opposition. Insofar as any of what Jameson says is true, it is also self-evident in Conrad’s textual contrast of degraded Western crew and devoted Eastern pilgrims. What Jameson completely misses in the passage is the significant figurative joining of the pilgrims in their faith to the sea itself, an object and image that he elsewhere in his essay makes much of, to very little point.
In a similar manner, Jameson connects Jim’s leap from the Patna into the lifeboat with his earlier – in school – failure to leap into the boat and consequent non-participation in the rescue. He does not, oddly enough, connect either of those jumps with Jim’s leaps out of a boat and onto the riverbank at his entrance into Patusan (176) or out of Rajah Allang’s stockade. In fact, he seems to conflate that last-named act with Jim’s storming Sharif Ali’s stronghold, and so describes Jim as escaping from the stockade by climbing it (257). Nor does he connect the other half of the act, entering the boat, with Jim’s initial passage by boat into Patusan (175) or his final passage by boat from his own home to accept Doramin’s justice (298).
After his leap out of the stockade and his subsequent leap over the creek, Jim seeks refuge with Doramin (183). One could argue that the gestalt of the narrative topos makes his final arrival at Doramin’s by boat (near the end of the Patusan portion of the novel, to accept Doramin’s judgment upon him for the death of Dain Waris) the completion of that leap that extricated him from the stockade. All this parallels, in the earlier half of the novel, the way Jim’s jump from the Patna culminated in the subsequent trial and judgment that complete the action of that leap. All of these refracted actions affect each other’s significance in the same way that the various narrative topoi of The Faerie Queene modify, laminate, and illuminate each other’s meaning.
I could give more examples, but my point should be clear: simply too much is left out of Jameson’s verbose lucubrations for any of them to serve as a reading of Lord Jim. If they are offered simply as one reader’s (Marxist) meditations on the novel, that is one thing, and readers may make of that what they will – but if they are offered as an interpretation of the novel, that is another very different thing, and a very erroneous, misleading thing at that.