Saturday, March 31, 2007

Lord Jim and Robert Jordan resist the lure of blood diamonds, each in his own way

In my apparently unread probably because uninspired review of Blood Diamond last week, I described a key scene in the movie as Hemingway-esque. But thinking it over I think I may have been wrong to bring Hemingway into it. I was fooled by the scene's being a conscious visual quote from the movie version of For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Blood Diamond's protagonist, Leonardo DiCaprio's character, the soldier of fortune Danny Archer, is more of a Conradian tragic hero than a Hemingwayesque anti-one.

The two aren't mutually exclusive. Hemingway knew his Conrad as well as he knew his Crane and his Turgenev. The difference between them, though, is in their approaches to the question of guilt.

Hemingway's characters are innoncents. Conrad's characters are guilty. They are complicit in the events that sweep them up and desorty them.

World War I happened to Jake Barnes, Nick Adams, and Frederick Henry. The fact that all three of them volunteered to fight carries no guilt because they were in a way society's dupes. They were tricked into it by a phony idealism and when their stories get underway they are in the process of figuring out how to live decently now that those ideals have been shown up as lies.

But Lord Jim invites the pirates in. Martin Decoud allows himself to be enlisted in a fight he doesn't believe in on the side he more than suspects is wrong. And, of course, Kurtz himself brought about the horror that kills him.

Conrad's heroes are and want to be pillars of the society events force them to live or die for. A lot more than their own survival depends on their success or failure.

Hemingway's heroes are anti-heroes in that they don't want any part of the society that has brought trouble and disaster down upon itself. Their main job is to escape the aftermath of the catcaclysm. A Farewell to Arms is literally an account of running away. The Sun Also Rises and In Our Time, in which the two parts of Big Two-Hearted River provide the denoument and climax, are about young men finding a separate peace outside the society that sent them off to war.

Robert Jordan in For Whom the Bell Tolls is a transitional figure for Hemingway. He's the first of Hemingway's heroes to die and he dies sacrificing himself for others. But although he's on the right side in the Spanish Civil War, he isn't ever committed to it. He dies understanding that that there is no separate peace. Every man's death diminishes him for he is a part of mankind, and so on. But his death is more a personal matter to him than a political one. He doesn't see himself as giving up much of anything and he's reclaiming himself more than he is saving anyone else.

Hemingway's stories, when they aren't about escape, are about recovery or succumbing to wounds, physical and psychic, while Conrad's are tales of redemption or, more often, damnation. This is why Conrad's vision is essentially tragic, while Hemingway's isn't quite.

There was an element of absurdity in Conrad's tragedy, but that only makes his tragic vision different from Shakespeare's and the Greeks'.

I'm not disparaging Hemingway here. I think Conrad was the greater writer, but in Hemingway's defense it has to be said that he was pretty much done as a writer at about the same age as Conrad was when he began.

I don't understand why Hemingway wrote so much that was second-rate, self-parody, and out and out crap after For Whom the Bell Tolls. But the fact is that he did. Except for a few short stories, he might as well have stopped writing in 1940. Yeah. I wouldn't miss The Old Man and the Sea if it disappeared from the canon and our collective memory. Everything fine and true we have from him, all the good words, are the work of a young man.

Hemingway turned 41 the year he published For Whom the Bell Tolls. Conrad was 38 when he published Almayer's Folly, 39 when An Outcast of the Islands came out. There's nothing in this except that it emphasizes what I said, that Hemingway's best work is the work of a young man while Conrad's best is that of a man well into middle age, and maybe that partly accounts for the difference in their visions, helps explain why Hemingway's stories, despite their characters' expressions of existential despair, are the more hopeful and the more naive.

It also makes me think that an interesting college lit course might be made out of pairing the two. It's a nice reading list, don't you think? In Our Time, The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, Men Without Women, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, Nostromo, The Secret Agent, Victory.

Back to Blood Diamond.

In the movie, it's Solomon Vandey, the father searching for his lost son, who has the tragic grandeur, but that's mainly because he's played by Djimon Housou, who was born to play every one of Shakespeare's great tragic heroes, except maybe Hamlet---he's too robust---and Lear---no audience would believe he could be that big a fool.

I take that back. Maybe there's a way to play Lear as an arrogant fool instead of a senescent one, a great man carried away by his pride rather than a silly one self-deceived by his own vanity.

At any rate, Vandy is tragic in that he represents the tragedy of Africa. In himself, he is a pretty straight-forward hero, a seemingly ordinary man who rises to to occasion. He isn't the protagonist, though, because he doesn't change. He is the catalyst for change in Danny Archer.

Archer is like a Hemingway-esque hero in that he is psychically wounded. But he isn't alienated. He is a happy player in the corrupt economic order that runs things and that he thinks of as a much a part of the real Africa as the jungles and savannas. He learns, from Vandy, from Maddy Bowen, the journalist, played by Jennifer Connelly, who would be his love interest if he was a better, more deserving man, and from helping Vandy and Bowen, that Africa is a separate place from the "place" where he lives and works, his work being theft and murder, and it's a place he would like to live in. Unfortunately, that place can't exist unless he is willing to die for it.

It's the willingness to die for it that makes him, while a cousin to Robert Jordan, a brother to Lord Jim.

Cross-posted at newcritics.


Depressing fact about my book-buying addiction: I've been re-reading my Oxford World's Classics edition of Conrad's The Secret Agent. Winnie Verloc is Conrad's only female protagonist. He created many heroines, plenty of ingenues, but Winnie's the only woman he let carry a whole book. Like Conrad's men she is complicit in her own tragedy, but in her case her guilt is the result of her having done the right thing by her family. At any rate, I wrote most of this post at Barnes and Noble where I started reading Steven Marcus' introduction to the B and N edition of The Secret Agent.

I didn't finish either the post or the intro before it was time to go home.

So I bought the book.

What kind of person buys a second copy of a book he already owns for the introduction?


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