Conrad and the Sea

The narrative of the sea knows no bounds...

Many of literature’s great classics are set on the ocean where Nature’s beauty and force place humans in a context of survival, of skills put to the test, of confrontation with great questions and moral quandaries that have proved to pertain over time to universal human experience. Students of western literature are aware of course of “The Odyssey” and “Moby Dick” as powerful, familiar examples.  An amazing 1,000 page anthology of great sea stories, edited by H.M. Tomlinson, published in 1937, is described as “an incredible collection of sea stories arranged by setting such as: Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, Arabia, Persia, Celtic Literature, Great Britain, Canada, Australia, United States, France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Poland, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Japan.” Thus, the narrative of the sea knows no bounds.

Perhaps the greatest such author was Joseph Conrad whose works include “Lord Jim”, “Heart of Darkness”, “Typhoon”, “Nostromo”, “The Shadow Line”, “The Secret Sharer”, and many other novels and stories set at sea and along the shore. His most direct, but not so well known book on the ocean is entitled, “The Mirror of the Sea,” originally published in 1906, and re-issued in 1988 by the small Vermont publisher, The Marboro Press. I urge you to read it.

Describing his purpose in “The Mirror of the Sea”, Conrad writes, “ I have attempted here to lay bare with the unreserved of a last hour’s confession the terms of my relation with the sea, beginning mysteriously, like any great passion the inscrutable Gods send to mortals…” 

The prose as always is precise, evocative, and dimensional. Here is Conrad writing about the anchor: “For a ship with her sails furled on her squared yards, and reflected from truck to waterline in the smooth gleaming sheet of a landlocked harbor, seems, indeed, to a seaman’s eye the most perfect picture of slumbering repose. The getting of your anchor was a noisy operation on board a merchant ship of yesterday – an inspiring, joyous noise, as if, with the emblem of hope, the ship’s company expected to drag up out of the depths, each man all his personal hopes into the reach of a securing hand – the hope of home, the hope of rest, of liberty, of dissipation, of hard pleasure, following the hard endurance of many days between sky and water. “

Here is Conrad on weather: “The olive hue of hurricane clouds presents an aspect peculiarly appalling. The inky wragged wrack, flying before a nor’west wind, makes you dizzy with its headlong speed that depicts the rush of invisible air. A hard sou’wester startles you with its close horizon and its low grey sky, as if the world were a dungeon wherein there is no rest for body or soul. “
And here is one of my favorites passages, on work and skill: “Now, the moral side of an industry, productive or unproductive, the redeeming and ideal aspect of this bread-winning, is the attainment and preservation of the highest possible skill on the part of the craftsmen. Such skill, the skill of technique, is more than honesty, it is something wider embracing honesty and grace and rule in an elevated and clear sentiment, not altogether utilitarian, which may be called the honor of labor. It is made up of accumulated tradition, kept alive by individual pride, rendered exact by professional opinion, and, like the higher arts, it is spurred on and sustained by discriminating praise. This is why the attainment of proficiency, the pushing of your skill with attention to the most delicate shades of excellence, is a matter of vital concern. Efficiency of a practically flawless kind may be reached naturally in the struggle for bread. But there is something beyond – a higher point, a subtle and unmistakable touch of love and pride beyond mere skill, almost an inspiration which gives to all work that finish…which is art.”

And one last concluding Conrad observation that relates to our matter to hand: “Water is friendly to man. The ocean, a part of Nature farthest removed in the unchangeableness and majesty of its might from the spirit of mankind, has ever been a friend to the enterprising nations of the earth. And of all the elements this the one to which men have always been prone to trust themselves, as if its immensity held a reward as vast as itself.”