I’ve been going over my morning pages from 2012. The morning pages were introduced by Julie Cameron in The Artist’s Way. Basically, you write 3 pages first thing every morning whether you feel like it or not and, after a period of time, read and annotate them with an eye toward finding inspired or meaningful passages. My own pages can be, by turns, inspiring, embarrassing or downright boring with my ponderous, self-centered trip.
I see I had been reading–in 2012–Joseph Conrad’s enigmatic meditation on identity and the shifting vicissitudes of fate: The Secret Sharer. This story tells of the narrator’s first command, and a pivotal event that marked his passage from dissolute wastrel to respectable sea captain. He had hidden a stowaway–his mirror image, a troublesome aspect of his impulsive youth–which he must leave ashore in order to “get on” with the responsibilities his new station demands. In the magnificent climax, the captain risks his career by sailing close to a Java cape to jettison his double. His ship is nearly “caught in stays” and wrecked beneath the sheer headland that looms over his limp head-sails “like the dark gates of Erebus.” As a final gesture of compassion, the captain gives his hat to protect his “other self” from the fierce, tropic sun. It is this hat–lost during the fugitive’s swim to shore–that provides the only visible waypoint on the dark sea; by it he accomplishes the delicate maneuver of bringing his vessel’s bow across the flukey breezes and pointed toward the the safety of deep water.
The captain’s twin is “now gone from the ship, to be hidden forever from all friendly faces, to be a fugitive and vagabond on the earth.”
The morning pages are like the Secret Sharer’s hat. They provide a clear–albeit shifting–waypoint whereby we can weather hazardous shoals and see the secret workings that shape our lives into a meaningful pattern. In these page’s sleepy scrawl we see our life’s dominant theme, descry our personal myth, and have the opportunity to show compassion for the errant soul who blathers on and on about the cruel hand of fate.
The crows have the runs. They drop an astonishing amount of blackberry-colored crap onto Old Hand’s deck from their perch in the spreaders. Ah, late Summer.
In Admiral Smythe’s Sailor’s Word Book, I see a familiar term: Plot: 1. To plan a chart of a ships course. 2. To plan the action of a story. 3. A conspiracy. All these definitions are relevant to our theme.
I go over logs from past voyages and listen to music in the wheelhouse. I hear, in Beethoven’s dramatic strains, diagonal sheets of sound driven by the cymbal-crash of lightening before they subside into the ominous roiling calm of deep, umber bass tones.
Course plotting is an arcane, hierophanic science mariner’s employ to secure a favorable a passage through the bewildering eddies of chance. Hardheaded pragmatists as well as the most mercurial romantics have long practiced this art in their attempt to weather shoaling capes, negotiate vertiginous maelstroms of myth and meaning or navigate the harrowing straits between literal and figurative truth.
Shorebirds flute over Beethoven’s sibilant stream on bright updraughts of yellow horns. Shades of tympanic gloom rumble on the blood-red horizon. These are the same tortured, lyric phrasings of Conradian darkness; of swelling narratives built up in the long fetch from imaginal, Austral seas. They are stories of death, resurrection and inspired vision.
I turn back to the Canadian current atlas. Let’s see, if I set out from Port Townsend midway through the ebb I should make Cattle Pass by…
“Have ye reckoned for the easterly set of flood beyond Smith Island?”
The voice carries over the anchorage as if down from the dark, oaken halls of time; as if it’s rich baritone had been seasoned by long watches over Arctic wastes. I squint through the wheelhouse windows to see, outlined against the dusky red glare, the shadowy form of a man in a long, black watch-coat and tattered top hat clutching a lee shroud in one hand and a smoldering pipe in the other. He seems a vestige of the age of working sail, as if all the hard-won wisdom gained in man’s endless toil on the sea were pithily encoded in his melancholy aspect and stern admonitions.
“Have ye checked through-hull fittings? Ye don’t want to invite the whole Salish Sea aboard do ye?”
“Well I’ve been busy trying to…”
“Avast ye greenhorn! Jettison all the hackneyed claptrap of useless words and get to the point!”
I resent these rude intrusions upon my peaceful moorings and, in less charitable hours, wonder how McWhirr’s “gaunt form” would look hanging from Old Hand’s yard arm. He would probably make a good scarecrow.
Joseph Conrad started writing relatively late in life. He drew heavily from a long career as master mariner in the era of European, eastern expansion.
In A Personal Record he tells of the first impulse to write. Sitting idle in his room at Bessborough Gardens he remembers his initial encounter with the man who inspired his first novel, Almayer’s Folly.
Conrad was 1st mate on a cargo steamer going up a Malaysian river to deliver supplies to a remote outpost. On board was a pony which the Dutch trader, Almayer, has ordered from Bali:
The importation of that Bali pony might have been part of some deep scheme, of some diplomatic plan, of some hopeful intrigue. With Almayer, one could never tell. He governed his conduct by considerations removed from the obvious, by incredible assumptions, which rendered his logic impenetrable to any reasonable person.
The same might be said for the whole colonialist adventure. But this misguided effort is constantly undermined by inscrutable forces antithetical to the rigid mindset of the European.
Conrad describes the limp pony as he hoists it onto the dock in a sling:
…his aggressive ears had collapsed, but as he went slowly swaying across the front of the bridge, I noticed an astute gleam in his dreamy, half-closed eye.
Upon releasing the sling, the pony immediately flattens Almayer and bolts for the dense forest- an outcome which Almayer meets with perplexing indifference.
But Almayer, plunged in abstracted thought, did not seem to want the pony anymore.
He embodies the ambiguous, often childish, desire for dominion over the remotest corners of the earth; a tragi-comic symbol of imperialist hyper-extension who, despite his convoluted plans, succumbs to uncontrollable forces and, ultimately, to dissipation.
Listen to Almayer’s halting, distracted monologue as he reveals to the narrator something of his frustrations:
“…the worst of this country is that one is not able to realize…” His voice sank into a languid mutter. “And when one has very large interests…” He finished faintly. “…up the river.”
Conrad was to later use such chthonic imagery and musical, fractured dialogue in his masterful indictment of imperialism: Heart of Darkness.
A Personal Record tells how the encounter with this “factual” character was instrumental in the birth of a long literary career; a career in which he brought to fictional art an unequaled degree of expressiveness. With the concision of the sea language in which he was so fluent-a language as pithy as poetic verse-Conrad condensed into the microcosmic image of Almayer all the absurdity and hubris of the expansionist age.
Conrad goes on to imagine meeting his alter ego in the Elysian fields and confessing:
It is true, Almayer, that in the world below I have converted your name to my own uses. But that is very small larceny…Your name was common property of the winds…You were always complaining of being lost in the world, you should remember that if I had not believed enough in your existence to let you haunt my rooms in Bessborough Gardens you would have been much more lost.
Though a failure in his wind-born life, Almayer triumphs in the end through Conrad’s belief in the ability of his protagonist to express something deep and dark in the psyche of modern man. This ability is all the more poignant because of Almayer’s fictive power. It is a power that confers reality.
…if I had not got to know Almayer pretty well it is almost certain there would never have been a line of mine in print.
Though I suspect Conrad’s Personal Record may not conform entirely to fact, his character attains a loftier status. He becomes a symbol of human folly that mere veracity cannot express.