How can we speak of European identity in Joseph Conrad's signature novels? Culture.pl presents an academic paper by Jakob Lothe which argues how the narrative structure of Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim construct the identity of its characters.
Narrative, Identity, Solidarity: Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim
Jakob Lothe, University of Oslo
In the summer of 1939, a young Czech Jewish boy was helped onto a so-called Kindertransport which, enabling him to escape the Nazis, bringing him to safety in Wales. In the mid-1960s, a German citizen decided to leave his country, he too moved westward and settled in Britain. The first of these persons is a fictional character whose name is Austerlitz. The last one is the German-British author Max Sebald, who was born in Bavaria in 1944 and who tragically died in a traffic accident in Britain in 2001. Sebald's final book, published in 2001 and entitled Austerlitz, is an engrossing narrative which combining the genres of the novel, the memoir, the fragment, and travel narrative – tells, or rather attempts to tell, the story of Austerlitz.
On the title page of Austerlitz there is a photograph of a young boy. When we start reading the book we cannot, of course, know that this is a picture of the novel's protagonist as a child. Yet on page 258 the same photo is reproduced, in smaller format, accompanied by the sentence, 'Yes, and the small boy in the other photograph, said Věra after a while, this is you, Jacquot, in February 1939, about six months before you left Prague' (Sebald 258-259).1
Thus the photo on the book's cover is both an introduction to, and a visualised representation of, the novel's protagonist; moreover, it is also a reflection of, and on, its title. As indicated already, we cannot know this when we start reading. There is a covert yet important link between this kind of ignorance on the part of the reader and that experienced by Austerlitz himself. He recognises the unusual hairline running over the forehead, 'but otherwise all memory was extinguished in me by an overwhelming sense of the long years that had passed' (259).
Like the titles of the two novels I will be discussing in this essay, Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim, Austerlitz is, as Theodor W. Adorno puts it in his Notes to Literature, 'the microcosm of the work' (4). Not just identifying the protagonist's name, Austerlitz also refers to the Gare d'Austerlitz, which is the location of the final meeting between Austerlitz and the frame narrator. This train station in Paris is named after Austerlitz, or Czech Slakov, the place in the Czech Republic where Napoleon defeated the Austrian and Russian armies in the battle of 2 December 1805.
As a pupil in the village school in Wales, where he lives with his step-parents, Austerlitz has a history teacher who is fascinated by Napoleon, and who takes a particular interest in the battle of Austerlitz. To these three aspects of the novel's title I add a fourth. In the textual fabric of Sebald's Austerlitz it is hardly coincidental that the title's first three and last three letters are identical with those of another name: Auschwitz – the place where Austerlitz's father, a father figure the whole narrative appears to be searching for, probably ends his life.
I refer to Austerlitz not just because of the important thematic links between this text by Sebald and two by Conrad written almost exactly a hundred years earlier. The main reason why Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim are two of the strongest intertexts in Austerlitz is that these thematic links, which include variants on a search for European origin and identity formation, are supported by structural and narrative ones. I have already mentioned that Sebald uses a frame narrator, as does Joseph Conrad in both Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim. Like Conrad, Sebald makes his frame narrator meet a character who also becomes a narrator – and whose story, imparted to the frame narrator as narratee, is then passed on by him to the reader.
One should of course be wary of comparing writers as different as Conrad and Sebald too directly. Yet Sebald is a particularly interesting example of an author who, searching for his own identity as a German and a European at the turn of the 21st-century, looks to Conrad for inspiration – partly perhaps because of a sense of similar destiny, revolving (in both cases) round an uneasy combination of voluntary and involuntary exile. In his wonderful essay on Conrad in the essay collection The Rings of Saturn, Sebald stresses the importance of Conrad's Polish background. Thus Sebald is an illustrative example not only of Conrad's continuing significance for contemporary writers but also of how, as Ian Watt puts it in his Epilogue to Conrad in the Nineteenth Century, 'Conrad may be said to have inherited much of his modernity – perhaps his postmodernity – from his Polish past' (359).
Before turning to my first textual example from Heart of Darkness, I want to make a few comments on the significance of narrative for identity and identity formation. Here as always, it is helpful to historicise. In its early, overtly structuralist phase, narrative theory tended to separate the literary text from its author, focusing instead on the interplay of linguistic and structural elements in the text itself in an attempt to discover an underlying 'narrative grammar'.
My study of Conrad's narrative method from 1989 was indebted to this kind of narrative theory.2 And yet, looking back I can now see more clearly that, for instance by making use of the concept of the author, it is also inspired by new ideas of narrative that started to be developed in the 1980s. A significant contribution to what is now commonly referred to as the second phase of narrative theory is the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur's three-volume study Time and Narrative. Drawing on the whole European philosophical tradition, Ricoeur's valuable study provides a comprehensive account of the connection between narrative and identity.3
As narrative and narrativity became the focus of various studies in the humanities and the social sciences in the 1980s and 90s, narrative was no longer seen as an exclusively literary phenomenon but as a conceptual tool, a mode of knowing, a structuring framework for all human experience. Donald E. Polkinghorne's Narrative Knowing and the Human Sciences (1988) is an illustrative example of these developments. Polkinghorne argues that narrative meaning – which can be produced both orally, visually, and through verbal prose – is a cognitive process, organising human experience into temporally meaningful episodes: 'In summary, narrative is a meaning structure that organises events and human actions into a whole, thereby attributing significance to individual actions and events according to their effect on the whole' (18).
Narrative, in short, is a powerful mode of explanation – and this can be said of both historical and fictional narratives. Narrative serves to generate both meaning and a sense of identity. It is connected with the production of knowledge, and thus for both tellers and listeners with the effects of power, desire, and memory (which are of course related to our understanding of 'knowledge').
Turning now to Conrad, I posit that the four textual passages to be briefly considered here illustrate how aspects of identity – and, more specifically, European identity – are being constituted, problematised, and reconstituted – thus forming, to borrow a phrase from Terence Cave's discussion of identity, 'a locus of tension and unease' (118). I am, of course, aware that the problems to which the concept of identity refer are intrinsically very complex. Moreover, there is a significant difference between fictional identities and those grounded in, and referring to, a human being's experience of physical reality. For example, when Primo Levi ends his preface to If This Is a Man (1958) by stating that 'It seems to me unnecessary to add that none of the facts are invented' (16), he highlights his role as a witness. (Even though, as Paul Celan remarked, no one can bear witness for the witness, there is a sense in which Austerlitz aims to do just that.)
Levi's autobiographical account of the Holocaust is of course markedly different from Conrad's fictional discourse in Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim. And yet I believe that, as Aristotle puts it, literature relates 'the kinds of things that might occur' (59). And fiction can, as Adorno has observed, serve as a form of subconscious writing of history – it can show us how human beings have experienced, and been formed by, what has happened down through the ages.4
Light and darkness
Arguably, the textual fragments under consideration here illustrate both these points. The first textual passage is deservedly famous:
The sun set; the dusk fell on the stream, and lights began to appear along the shore. The Chapman lighthouse, a three-legged thing erect on a mud-flat, shone strongly. Lights of ships moved in the fairway – a great stir of lights going up and going down. And farther west on the upper reaches the place of the monstrous town was still marked ominously on the sky, a brooding gloom in sunshine, a lurid glare under the stars. 'And this also', said Marlow suddenly, 'has been one of the dark places of the earth'. (HD105)
Marlow's opening remark is one of the best known and most widely discussed sentences in Conrad's fiction. And rightly so, for Marlow's comment exposes the frame narrator's relative naïvety and limited insight as it prefigures the sombre implications of the tale he is about to tell. Anticipating his reflections on the arrival of the Romans in Britain, 'nineteen hundred years ago – the other day' (105), Marlow's words are a prolepsis of 'darkness', the text's central metaphor which (like ivory) becomes a powerful symbol in the novella.
There is no doubt that this transition is very significant, and I still regard the symbol of darkness as the most important one in Heart of Darkness. And yet the narrative impact of Marlow's opening comment is so great that we may tend to inadvertently reduce the significance of the preceding paragraph. Given the extraordinary structural, metaphorical and thematic density of Conrad's novella, this may come as no surprise, but I would like to focus on one word, 'light', which occurs in all four sentences uttered by the frame narrator in the quoted passage. Now in one sense, these repetitions of 'light' are necessary in order to enhance the contrast between 'light' and its opposite, 'dark' – the adjective mentioned by Marlow (and reported by the frame narrator) at the beginning of the following paragraph. Yet the semantic variation and suggestiveness of the repetitions of the word 'light' indicate a thematic import extending far beyond the function of providing the basis for a contrastive narrative utterance.
Let us briefly identify these instances of light. In the first sentence, the frame narrator notices lights along the shore; in the second he mentions the Chapman lighthouse; and in the third he notes the lights of ships going up and down the river. Significantly, all these instances of light can be noticed because it is starting to get dark. Dusk is a magic time of narration both in Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim. In a manner which not only furthers narration but also prompts interpretation of what is narrated, dusk is composed of both light and darkness.
This characteristically double quality of dusk is evoked in the fourth sentence, where the references are to a different kind of light. While in the preceding sentences light is produced by man in order to cope with the problems and danger of darkness, in the last sentence the frame narrator refers to the strong light of the sun and the much weaker light of the stars. But both are related to London, his basic point of orientation.
A word or statement that is repeated in a work of fiction may not necessarily be true, but it is likely to prove important. The way in which Conrad makes his frame narrator repeat the word 'light', thus charging it with meaning and yet not reducing the effective contrast between this paragraph and the following one, is just one example of the narrative brilliance of Heart of Darkness. Proceeding to relate this passage to the issue of European identity, I want to make two points.
First, one essential reason why 'light' becomes more important when repeated is that the repetitions invite the reader to activate the word's metaphorical potential. Light is no ordinary metaphor, however. For a European reader it is also a rich symbol – a symbol of European, and more broadly Western, religion, culture, and civilisation. This symbolic use of the word is illustrated by, for instance, the motto of the University of California, where I was a student in the late 1970s. The words of the motto 'Let there be light' refer not just to Genesis, and thus to the Christian tradition of the West; they are also closely related to ideas of enlightenment, research, and knowledge.
For people of Conrad's generation – for the narratees addressed by Marlow aboard the Nellie – light symbolised positive values with which they wanted to be identified, and which they regarded as constituent aspects of their own identity. If we link this conventional understanding of the light symbol to the passage from Heart of Darkness, it is striking how strongly the frame narrator, and Conrad behind him, retards or temporarily suspends the symbolic qualities of light by focusing on its physical presence, its materiality as observable in the fictional world of which the narrator is an integral part.
Moreover, in the last sentence before Marlow intervenes, the quality of the light – and thus what it symbolically represents – is no longer unproblematically positive. This narrative modulation is linked to a subtle perspectival shift from the source of light (the sun and the stars) to what is reflected by it. This reflection, caused by the town and the millions who inhabit it, is peculiarly ominous and disturbing. As a consequence of this play on light, the frame narrator's identity is not just (unsurprisingly) affirmed in this passage; surprisingly, it also seems to be threatened or challenged.
Second, the narrative situation is crucially important here. The frame narrator and Marlow are key narrators, two indispensable narrative instruments Conrad uses in order to construct Heart of Darkness as a piece of prose fiction. As Wayne Booth reminds us in The Rhetoric of Fiction, one of the strongest conventions of fiction is that as readers we trust the narrator, until or unless the narrative discourse signals that he or she is unreliable (4). Since, at least according to some critics, Marlow's reliability is questionable, it becomes crucially important to trust the frame narrator. His conventionality, which is linked to his sense of identity as a British citizen, makes it easier for us to do so. As the frame narrator becomes fascinated by Marlow's story, this facet of his identity contributes to the tale's peculiarly tentacular effect – his narratees are also British.5
As a corollary, this passage brings out the affinity between Marlow's motivation to narrate and the narratees' (including the frame narrator's) motivation to listen, indeed to remain listening for a long while. 'It is plausible to assume', notes Ross Chambers in Story and Situation,
that at bottom the narrator's motivation is like that of the narratee and rests on the assumption of exchanging a gain for a loss. Where the narratee offers attention in exchange for information, the narrator sacrifices the information for some form of attention. Consequently, there is a sense in which the maintenance of narrative authority implies an act of seduction, and a certain transfer of interest (on the narratee's part) from the information content to the narrating instance itself. (51)
Both the frame narrator's story and Marlow's can be described as identity-stories, and the telling of identity-stories is necessarily a reciprocal activity. As Alistair MacIntyre puts it in After Virtue, 'we are never more (and sometimes less) than the co-authors of our own narratives' (213). Reporting Marlow's narrative to the reader, the frame narrator becomes a co-author of Marlow's story (and Marlow of the frame narrator's); and some of the narrative's complexity, and its impact on the frame narrator as co-author, is hinted at in this sentence – the sentence preceding Marlow's first comment.
Narrative and identity
If the narrative situation in Heart of Darkness provides a necessary basis for the continuous narrative construction of identity, it also makes identity problematic. This kind of complication, which is not just narrative but also thematic and character-oriented, is indicated by the narrative situations incorporated into Marlow's narration. For although several of these seem to have considerable narrative potential, they suggest possibilities of narrative that are not, or cannot, be realised in the form of a completed narrative act.
If they were, the reader is led to believe that such a narrative would have been very different from that actually presented. One aborted narrative situation is that of Marlow and Kurtz aboard the steamer; another, which I will briefly comment on here, is Marlow's impression of the older of the two women knitting black wool:
She seemed to know all about them and about me too. An eerie feeling came over me. She seemed uncanny and fateful. Often far away there I thought of these two, guarding the door of Darkness, knitting black wool as for a warm pall, one introducing, introducing continuously to the unknown, the other scrutinising the cheery and foolish faces with unconcerned old eyes. Ave! Old knitter of black wool. Morituri te salutant. Not many of those she looked at ever saw her again – not half, by a long way. (HD 111)
The meaning of the Latin words Conrad makes Marlow employ here is highly significant. 'Hail! [Emperor] Those about to die salute you'. Such was the gladiators' greeting on entering the arena of combat in imperial Rome, the Rome of emperors such as Caesar or Augustus, to whom Virgil read passages from The Aeneid in year 23 BC. The Latin phrase which Marlow incorporates into his first-person narrative, then, originates from a time approximately nineteen hundred years before his own act of narration. Thus a link is established to Marlow's opening reference to the Romans: 'I was thinking of very old times, when the Romans first came here, nineteen hundred years ago – the other day'... (105). As vastly different temporal planes are intertextually welded together, Conrad makes the reader appreciate the affinities of his own novella and Virgil's epic.6
Inviting us to extend our temporal perspective, he also asks us to compare the historical formations and the identity-formations within which these two texts appeared. The older woman plays a key role here. Like the guard in Franz Kafka's story 'Before the Law', she sits at the door of entrance to something that is alluring because it is unknown. Although she is employed by the company and thus by no means innocent as regards the use and possible misuse of power, she is peculiarly distanced from the mechanics of the Belgian empire. The old woman is a kind of emblem (from Greek emblema, which means an 'inserted or incorporated piece of work'), which contributes to the gradual development of the symbols of light and darkness in Heart of Darkness. She is associated with darkness and with death, but she also seems to represent an insight which, sadly, she is not in a position to make effective in the form of action or counter-action.
Although, as already indicated, this insight is not or cannot be realised in the form of a narrative act, the intertextual references to Virgil and Dante suggest there is a significant link between the old woman's understanding of what Europe now does and her European identity which, drawing on and formed by the continent's rich literary tradition, makes such an understanding possible.
Marlow is not Conrad, nor is the Marlow of Heart of Darkness identical with that of Lord Jim. And yet Marlow can represent Conrad more adequately, and in more nuanced fashion, than any other narrator in the author's service. One reason why is that although Marlow's identity and point of orientation are clearly British, these facets of his fictional identity are blended with those of other European nations and traditions. As Zdzisław Najder notes in his masterly biography of Conrad, Marlow was the embodiment of everything Conrad would wish to be if he were to become completely anglicised. And then Najder adds that
since that was not the case, and since he did not quite share his hero's point of view, there was no need to identify himself with Marlow, either emotionally or intellectually. Thanks to Marlow's duality, Conrad could feel solidarity with, and a sense of belonging to, England by proxy, at the same time maintaining a distance such as one has toward a creation of one's imagination. Thus, Conrad, although he did not permanently resolve his search for a consistent consciousness of self-identity, found an integrating point of view that enabled him, at last, to break out of the worst crisis of his writing career. (JCC 231)
In the critical context of the present essay, what Najder calls 'Marlow's duality' can be related to the ways in which his narrative acts are both aided and problematised by a series of fragmented narratives incorporated into his own.
Overall, in Conrad's fiction identity-formation and identity-positioning are closely related to variants of narrative perspective. In Heart of Darkness Marlow's British perspective becomes more nuanced, and I would say more European, as a result of being linked not just to the old woman whose role I have briefly considered but also to that of Kurtz, whose story, albeit for different reasons, proves equally unnarratable. In Lord Jim Marlow's identity formation is interestingly linked to his ardent attempt to understand another Englishman, Jim, and yet precisely that attempt brings him into contact with characters like the French lieutenant and Stein – two fascinating narrator-characters whose identities are anchored in France and Germany rather than Britain.
I want to proceed by seeing two textual passages from Lord Jim in this light. The first one is from the novel's opening chapter:
Afterwards, when his keen perception of the Intolerable drove him away for good from seaports and white men, even into the virgin forest, the Malays of the jungle village, where he had elected to conceal his deplorable faculty, added a word to the monosyllable of his incognito. They called him Tuan Jim: as one might say – Lord Jim. Originally he came from a parsonage. Many commanders of fine merchant-ships come from these abodes of piety and peace....The little church on a hill had the mossy greyness of a rock seen through a ragged screen of leaves. It had stood there for centuries... (8)
On a first reading of the novel we cannot know, of course, that Jim's 'deplorable faculty' alludes to his jump from the Patna and the sense of professional and personal failure that follows. As employed by the third-person narrator here, 'deplorable faculty' constitutes an aspect of Jim's identity – a dubious aspect related to the irony observable in the name 'Lord Jim'.
It is this kind of authoritative characterisation and character identification Marlow's narrative is designed to extend, and also to problematise. Interestingly, however, in the following paragraph the contrast between the third-person's criticism of Jim and Marlow's more understanding attitude seems to be momentarily suspended. While in the first part of the passage one aspect of Jim's professional identity is defined negatively, in the second his origin is described as an abode 'of piety and peace'. Jim's home as a child is associated with the stability and safety of the land rather than the changeability and perils of the sea. Although this is not necessarily a professional drawback, the location of Jim's childhood may have contributed to forming his dreams of the sea, and possible acts of heroism to be performed at sea. There is an interesting affinity between Conrad's use of the temporal adverb 'originally' and the word 'history' in the next passage, which I would like to juxtapose with the following.
'So you see me – so', he said. His hand hovered over the case where a butterfly in solitary grandeur spread out dark bronze wings '...Only one specimen like this they have in yourLondon, and then – no more. To my small native town this my collection I shall bequeath. Something of me. The best'.
He bent forward in the chair and gazed intently, his chin over the front of the case. I stood at his back. 'Marvellous', he whispered, and seemed to forget my presence. His history was curious. He had been born in Bavaria, and when a youth of twenty-two had taken an active part in the revolutionary movement of 1848. Heavily compromised, he managed to make his escape, and at first found refuge with a poor republican watchmaker in Trieste. From there he made his way to Tripoli with a stock of cheap watches to hawk about – not a very great opening truly, but it turned out lucky enough, because it was there he came upon a Dutch traveller – a rather famous man, I believe, but I don't remember his name. It was that naturalist who, engaging him as a sort of assistant, took him to the East. (123-24)
Marlow's involvement in Jim's case takes the form of a search for extenuating circumstances. It leads him eventually to Stein, whose intuitive understanding of Jim curiously parallels Marlow's own. This passage is preceded by Marlow's wonderfully evocative introduction to Stein's house, and it is succeeded by Stein's famous diagnosis of Jim as 'romantic' (128).
We note the manner in which Conrad makes Stein emphasise Marlow's point of orientation by putting your in italics. This is an effective way of drawing attention to the contrast between Marlow's origin and Stein's, who 'had been born in Bavaria', that is almost as far from the sea as you can get in Europe. This resemblance between Stein's and Jim's origins is reinforced by their outward movements – first to the sea and then to the east. (Incidentally, at the turn of the century Trieste was one of the busiest ports in Europe, the main port of the Austrian-Hungarian empire.)
Moreover, although Jim's tendency to dream cannot be unproblematically identified with the idea expressed by Stein later on in the same chapter – 'to follow the dream – and so - ewig- usque ad finem' (130) – there does seem to be a connection between Stein's view of Jim as a dreamer and his diagnosis of Jim as 'romantic'. It is also important that, like Jim, at an early stage of his life Stein was also 'heavily compromised' and, although it is not stated what he actually did or failed to do, like Jim he too started his eastward movement as a result.
The accounts of both Jim and Stein emphasise their origins and past experiences. Thus Conrad suggests that there is a significant link between our past and present identities, but this connection is typically indirect and frequently confusing. It is Marlow's narrative task to trace and, if possible, explain the connection between what we have done and experienced in the past and the question, as Stein puts it, of 'how to be' (128). The narrative complexity of Lord Jim supports MacIntyre's notion of identity-stories as a characteristically reciprocal activity. Not only does Marlow appear to be thinking that Stein might have been Jim, and Jim might have been Stein; what he tells about them also colours his understanding of his own self.
In Lord Jim Conrad uses what Edward Said has aptly called narrative 'presentation'7 to establish a repetitive chain of impressions, of ways of seeing, that link Jim, Stein, Marlow, the frame narrator (who not only reports Jim's own thoughts but also Marlow story of Jim), and by implication also Conrad and the reader. This does not mean that the characters' identities collapse into one. But it does mean that in Lord Jim as in Heart of Darkness, the customary opposition between individual identity, group identity, and even national identity may be misleading.
In Conrad it is narrative identity which is 'primitive' and fundamental. Appropriating one of MacIntyre's key points, Cave finds that 'identity is that which is contained in the narrative of the self, however incompatible its different elements and however uncomfortable their juxtaposition' (117). This generalised point bears a striking relevance to Conrad's fictional narratives.
Marlow's identity is formed, questioned, and reformed as his narrative about Jim develops. Marlow's identity is of course marked by his background, including his professional seamanship and British citizenship. But his identity also receives formative impulses from a French lieutenant and a German collector of butterflies. Thus, identity-formation in Lord Jim is closely associated with, and approximates to, a 'European identity'.
Najder on Conrad
Since this locution is, and needs to be, rather imprecise in order to be sufficiently inclusive, we may ask – in the case of Conrad, and with a view to Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim in particular – what are the most significant constituent aspects of his European identity. One of the best accounts of this issue is given by Najder in Conrad in Perspective. As Najder notes, 'Conrad felt at home in several European national civilisations and raised in his work issues both characteristic of and relevant to them' (167). Moreover, as the narrative discourse of Lord Jim illustrates, Conrad uses his knowledge of various European traditions 'to look at the described events from different angles. His European multiculturalism was ineluctably linked to his condition as an exile and with what Anne Luyat-Moore aptly calls 'la nécessaire étrangeté'; it made him particularly sensitive to cultural differences' (CIP 168, Luyat-Moore 118). Najder concludes that we may call Conrad
a 'European writer' in a least six senses: 1. a writer of three different European cultural spheres, spanning East-Central and Western Europe; 2. the author of books with action taking place in many European countries; 3. a writer versed in several major European literatures; 4. a writer grappling with the most important issues of European history of the past 150 years; 5. a thinker using the concept of a European political solidarity; 6. the author of novels on 'European' themes. (CIP 171)
Although these six facets of Conrad as a European writer do not unproblematically constitute a European identity, they provide the basis for the processes of identity formation observable in his fiction. For instance, Conrad's concerns with cognition, with narrative communication, with artistic issues, and with reaching and relating to his audience were for him not just aesthetic but also moral and philosophical concerns.
As they emerge in dramatised form in his fiction, these concerns are at once rooted in and prompted by the long tradition of European philosophy and culture. Even though Conrad was not a religious writer, he was acutely aware of Christianity's impact on the development of European culture and civilisation; and he evidently believed that, as Najder puts it, 'our consciousness transcends our bodily existence' (CIP 184) Seen in this light, the most significant constituent facet of Conrad's European identity is perhaps his notion of human solidarity as 'not just a postulated and distant ideal, but something we can consciously affirm and which gives meaning to our existence' (CIP 183).
When it comes to Conrad's fiction, his European identity is not just variously affirmed and reaffirmed but also subjected to discussion and called into question. Conrad's fictional representation of identity is, to use Said's phrase once more, inseparable from his 'presentation of narrative', and if we separate Conrad's sense of European identity from the dynamics of his fictional narratives we unavoidably simplify and distort it.
In order to briefly illustrate this aspect of Conrad's fictional identity formation I return to the symbol of light in Heart of Darkness. As we have noted already, in this novella the symbols of light and darkness are repeatedly contrasted with each other; thus the suggestiveness and complexity of both are enhanced. But as we also have seen, in the narrative discourse of Heart of Darkness the light symbol is problematised even before Marlow's opening remark. A similarly complicating process of destabilisation is associated with the symbol of darkness. If both the Christian and more secular versions ideas of light are problematised, darkness is presented as a quality closely related to Kurtz's development: although his knowledge of science and the arts are linked to light, his search for forbidden knowledge is associated with darkness.
Conrad's sustained attempt at identity-formation in Lord Jim assumes the form of two narrative lines that, in strangely alogical fashion, both cross each other and run parallel to each other. It is difficult to ascertain where these narrative lines begin and end – problems of beginning, middle, ending, and repetition loom large throughout Lord Jim. While one narrative line is moving towards, or perhaps rather groping for, a centre, origin or ground, the other one complicates that movement by repeatedly turning up evidence of the world's irreducible pluralism.
Marlow's reflection, in chapter five of Lord Jim, on 'the doubt of the sovereign power enthroned in a fixed standard of conduct' (35) indicates how closely these two narrative lines are related to each other. The presence of the second, complicating narrative line does not eliminate the first, or make the first redundant. Since, in the narrative discourse of Lord Jim, they are linked to the extent of becoming mutually dependent on each other, they both contribute to the novel's, and Conrad's, identity-formation.8
As briefly indicated already, one significant aspect of this narrative presentation of European identity is solidarity, especially as it is manifested in action designed to help someone whom the narrator and/or character meets. At the centre of Conrad's narrative vision stands the human individual who, although he or she may repeatedly fail, aims to be a bearer of European culture, and who is linked to his or her fellow human beings in an act, to borrow a phrase from the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman's discussion of identity, of 'irreversible mutual dependency' (89).
This kind of responsible human Geist was Goethe's ideal, and, although it may have become distorted beyond recognition, facets, or perhaps rather remnants, of it are hinted at in Marlow's comment, in Heart of Darkness, that what 'redeems″ the practice of colonial expansion is 'the idea only' (107). Inadequately represented and imperfectly expressed by characters as dissimilar as the frame narrators in Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim, the two versions of Marlow in these two narratives, the old knitting woman, Kurtz, the French lieutenant, and Stein, Goethe's ideal is also Conrad's.
Sebald's Austerlitz incorporates a series of black-and-white photographs into its narrative discourse. The third of the four small photographs on page three reminds me strongly of Conrad. Significantly, however, this photo shows just a fragment of the person's face – his eyes. To me these eyes, looking at me from the pages of a book published in 2001, signal the continuing presence of an author who, for all his limitations of vision, produced fiction whose fractured narrative lines make us see more, and better, than we could without reading them.