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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Tuesday, October 4, 2011


Weighing in as the "Isoghidrah" of my title, we have the esteemed modernist author Joseph Conrad (1857-1924).

In 1915, Conrad wrote a story entitled "The Shadow-Line," which like many of his tales involved a psychological study of men at sea.  To Conrad's immense displeasure, a few critics interpreted the tale as some sort of ghost story.  This prompted Conrad to write a long "author's note" which not only disparages the verdict of those critics but seemingly of the entire concept of what he calls "the supernatural," whether in real life or fiction.  In so doing Conrad put forth a doctrine of what I term "the isophenomenal," a doctrine asserting that there are no phenomenon outside those that we commonly call "natural:"

This story, which I admit to be in its brevity a fairly complex piece of

work, was not intended to touch on the supernatural. Yet more than one

critic has been inclined to take it in that way, seeing in it an attempt

on my part to give the fullest scope to my imagination by taking it

beyond the confines of the world of the living, suffering humanity. But

as a matter of fact my imagination is not made of stuff so elastic as

all that. I believe that if I attempted to put the strain of the

Supernatural on it it would fail deplorably and exhibit an unlovely gap.

But I could never have attempted such a thing, because all my moral and

intellectual being is penetrated by an invincible conviction that

whatever falls under the dominion of our senses must be in nature and,

however exceptional, cannot differ in its essence from all the other

effects of the visible and tangible world of which we are a

self-conscious part. The world of the living contains enough marvels and

mysteries as it is; marvels and mysteries acting upon our emotions and

intelligence in ways so inexplicable that it would almost justify the

conception of life as an enchanted state. No, I am too firm in my

consciousness of the marvellous to be ever fascinated by the mere

supernatural, which (take it any way you like) is but a manufactured

article, the fabrication of minds insensitive to the intimate delicacies

of our relation to the dead and to the living, in their countless

multitudes; a desecration of our tenderest memories; an outrage on our


Whatever my native modesty may be it will never condescend so low as to

seek help for my imagination within those vain imaginings common to all

ages and that in themselves are enough to fill all lovers of mankind

with unutterable sadness. As to the effect of a mental or moral shock on

a common mind that is quite a legitimate subject for study and

description. Mr. Burns' moral being receives a severe shock in his

relations with his late captain, and this in his diseased state turns

into a mere superstitious fancy compounded of fear and animosity. This

fact is one of the elements of the story, but there is nothing

supernatural in it, nothing so to speak from beyond the confines of this

world, which in all conscience holds enough mystery and terror in

The rest of the essay deals solely with Conrad's conception of the story and does not concern me.

I don't recall whether or not academics consider Conrad to belong to the literary movement called "Naturalism."  However, in the sense that I am using the term "naturalism," which is denote a particular type of literary phenomenality, Conrad speaks not just for his own particular tastes here, but for the whole literary tradition of isophenomenal naturalism, which explicitly rejects anything suggesting "fantasy" or "supernaturalism" as being very like what Conrad calls "vain imaginings."

Conrad, having taken umbrage at the slight that anyone should deem his "complex" work to be a mere ghost story, spends no time considering what the appeal of ghost stories or any other "supernatural" works might be for those readers that like that sort of thing.  Instead, the author vaults over the distinctions between a ficitonal consideration of the supernatural and a real-life belief in it.  Conrad places himself above any whose minds are "elastic" enough to credence the supernatural, which is "but a manufactured article, the fabrication of minds insensitive to the intimate delicacies of our relation to the dead and to the living."  Conrad may have had similar thoughts about other aspects of the alleged "real supernatural," but here he centers his polemic on the idea of its existence as a "fabrication" originating purely from human beings' "relation to the dead and to the living."  This part of Conrad's polemic seems much like an overcompensating reaction to the "ghost story" accusation and doesn't merit much discussion.

What is most interesting about Conrad's essay, however, is his assertion that even without the fabrication of the supernatural, the world is still a place of "marvels and mysteries," whose interaction upon human minds would "almost justify the conception of life as an enchanted state."

That "almost" neatly sums up not just Conrad's skepticism on things enchanted, but that of all or most works in the naturalistic-phenomenalist tradition.  In such works enchantment is not impossible, but author and reader must always remain aware that it does not arise from any link to supernatural realms or beings.  Rather, such human moods  are generated only by the "inexplicable" ways that wholly natural "marvel and mysteries" act upon "our emotions and intelligence."

Within the corpus of this essay Conrad does not give any examples of these enchantment-inducing "marvels and mysteries," and frankly, if he meant to put any in "The Shadow-Line," they failed to have any enchanting effect upon this reader.  However, other Conrad works, such as his story "Typhoon" (1902), proved far more successful.  Here's a section from the viewpoint of two sailing-men caught within the toils of a gigantic storm at sea:

The motion of the ship was extravagant. Her lurches had an appalling helplessness: she pitched as if taking a header into a void, and seemed to find a wall to hit every time. When she rolled she fell on her side headlong, and she would be righted back by such a demolishing blow that Jukes felt her reeling as a clubbed man reels before he collapses. The gale howled and scuffled about gigantically in the darkness, as though the entire world were one black gully. At certain moments the air streamed against the ship as if sucked through a tunnel with a concentrated solid force of impact that seemed to lift her clean out of the water and keep her up for an instant with only a quiver running through her from end to end. And then she would begin her tumbling again as if dropped back into a boiling cauldron. Jukes tried hard to compose his mind and judge things coolly.

The sea, flattened down in the heavier gusts, would uprise and overwhelm both ends of the Nan-Shan in snowy rushes of foam, expanding wide, beyond both rails, into the night. And on this dazzling sheet, spread under the blackness of the clouds and emitting a bluish glow, Captain MacWhirr could catch a desolate glimpse of a few tiny specks black as ebony, the tops of the hatches, the battened companions, the heads of the covered winches, the foot of a mast. This was all he could see of his ship. Her middle structure, covered by the bridge which bore him, his mate, the closed wheelhouse where a man was steering shut up with the fear of being swept overboard together with the whole thing in one great crash -- her middle structure was like a half-tide rock awash upon a coast. It was like an outlying rock with the water boiling up, streaming over, pouring off, beating round -- like a rock in the surf to which shipwrecked people cling before they let go--only it rose, it sank, it rolled continuously, without respite and rest, like a rock that should have miraculously struck adrift from a coast and gone wallowing upon the sea.

"As if taking a header into a void"... "as though the entire world were one black gully"... "this dazzling sheet"..."tiny specks black as ebony."  I can't be sure that these are the sort of sensory experiences that Conrad would have deemed properly "enchanting," but I think it likely.  Indeed, I can see how such descriptions capture, even in isophenomenal vesture, much of the same emotion science fiction has come to call "the sense of wonder," even if the "wonder" is confined in Conradian hermeneutics to the here-and-now.

Conrad's existential position reminds me of the empiricist philosopher Burke's postiion on the emotion of "the sublime," which similarly arose from naturally-inspired associations. Yet the aforequoted section from "Typhoon" most resembles this citation from Burke's opponent Immanuel Kant:
  “…consider bold, overhanging, and, as it were, threatening rocks, thunderclouds piling up in the sky [and other examples of furious nature]... Compared to the might of any of these, our ability to resist becomes an insignificant trifle. Yet the sight of them becomes all the more attractive the more fearful it is, provided we are in a safe place. And we like to call these objects sublime because they raise the soul’s fortitude above its usual middle range..."-- Section 261.

Kant's theory of the sublime was designed to demonstrate that sublimity-- which also bears some resemblance to sci-fi's "sense of wonder"-- did not arise purely from naturalistic associations.  However, Kant wrote too little on the subject of literature as such to be useful in combatting the naturalistic ethic of Conrad.

Next essay: Conrad Meets His Metagodzilla.

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