Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Secret Sharer: An Episode from the Coast

In his essay, "The Condition of Art", Joseph Conrad says of the artist:

He speaks to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives; to our sense of pity, and beauty, and pain; to the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation--to the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts, to the solidarity in dreams, in joy, in sorrow, in aspirations, in illusions, in hope, in fear, which binds men to each other, which binds together all humanity"

His own art of storytelling though his novels and short stories demonstrates this artistic vision repeatedly; nowhere better than in his tale of The Secret Sharer. This is a short episode early in the career of an anonymous Captain of an anonymous ship in Southeast Asia near Siam. Only in his twenties on his first command, the Captain thought he was "somewhat of a stranger to myself", and he "wondered how far I should turn out faithful to that ideal conception of one's own personality every man sets up for himself secretly". It is with these thoughts in mind that in the midst of a mysterious black night he is surprised by a naked man climbing aboard the ship. It turns out to me a Mr. Leggatt, mate from the ship Sephora, who has escaped from that ship and his past actions which had culminated in his being responsible for the death of a ship-mate. The remainder of the story builds suspensefully to a climax in which the anonymous Captain finds out if he is capable of command and perhaps living up to some of the "ideal conception" that he has in mind. Leggat functions as a "double" for the Captain, being explicitly referred to as such even as he lives the life of a shadowy, even ghostly, double hidden in the Captains quarters. The tale suggests the internal struggle that comes with the first assumption of leadership and the need to create your own being through the experience of crisis. All this is draped in a story both mysterious and thought-provoking. The captain, in his anonymity, becomes every captain and everyman who has experienced the struggle toward an "ideal conception" of being.

The Secret Sharer: An Episode from the Coast by Joseph Conrad in The Complete Short Fiction of Joseph Conrad: The Stories Volume II edited by Samuel Hynes. The Ecco Press, Hopewell, NJ. 1992 (1910) (pp. 105-143)

The Condition of Art by Joseph Conrad in The Portable Conrad edited by Morton Dauwen Zabel. Penguin Books, New York. 1985 (1969) (pp. 705-716)

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