Excerpts #29 — Joseph Conrad and George Santayana on Fragments of Vision, Bearing on Questions about Motion & Stability

Most of us do not spend large parts of our lives on boats, but in cars. We cannot, thus, easily generate the kinds of metaphors that must have come naturally to writers from the late 19th and especially early 20th centuries, who would have traveled by boat primarily, and for whom boat and water metaphors would have been the most natural for communicating concepts of motion-against-stability. Today, I suppose, we do not attempt to say anything about motion as it is experienced in cars, or attempt to capture, in a text, the sense of the rushing past of the world on a highway — if anything, we simply show it on film. 

There is something about accelerating motion that makes the stability of things, and the status of essences, somewhat questionable to us at a gut level. Everything is hurtling past, and our vision of things is so partial, that, at some level, we question whether intelligibility can be had beyond the traces of impressions that are left to us, which traces often cannot be put together into any whole.

In his work Lord Jim, Joseph Conrad proposes to us, in the mouth of his character Christopher Marlowe, the following judgment about whether he could grasp the personality of the main character, Jim, seen from the outside:

“I don’t pretend I understood him. The views he let me have of himself were like those glimpses through the shifting rents in a thick fog — bits of vivid and vanishing detail, giving no connected idea of the general aspect of a country. They fed one’s curiosity without satisfying it; they were no good for purposes of orientation. Upon the whole he was misleading. That’s how I summed him up to myself after he left me late in the evening. […]” [Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim, ed. Thomas Moser (New York: W. W. Norton, 1996), 49]

It was not until the later in the 19th century that I know of anyone –Baudelaire mentioning the paintings of Constantin Guys— making the increasing acceleration of modern life, and the attempt to extract some traces of stability from within this blur, a theme for reflection, and this sense of rapid motion is, I suppose, nowhere clearer to most people than on trains and boats in the early 20th century.


Similar metaphors could be extended into more general reflections on the nature of knowledge and existence. George Santayana wrote his Scepticism and Animal Faith about twenty years after Conrad’s Lord Jim was published, if my timeline is correct.

Santayana mentions that the existence of something is not another feature to add to the character of what is perceived, but is “something more” is a “complement added to the datum”, and it is added by us. He writes that it is “the finding, the occurrence, the assault, the impact of that being here and now; it is the experience of it.” [Scepticism and Animal Faith (New York: Dover, 1923/1955), 37] He goes on.

The sense of existence evidently belongs to the intoxication, to the Rausch, of existence itself; it is the strain of life within me, prior to all intuition, that in its precipitation and terror, passing as it continually [38] must from one untenable condition to another, stretches my attention absurdly over what is not given, over the lost and the unattained, the before and after which are wrapped in darkness, and confuses my breathless apprehension of the clear presence of all I can ever truly behold.

Indeed, so much am I a creature of movement, and of the ceaseless metabolism of matter, that I should never catch even these glimpses of the light if there were not rhythms, pauses, repetitions, and nodes in my physical progress, to absorb and reflect it here and there:

as the traveler, hurried in a cloud of smoke and dust through tunnel after tunnel in the Italian Riviera, catches and loses momentary visions of blue sea and sky, which he would like to arrest, but cannot; yet if he had not been rushed and whistled along these particular tunnels, even those snatches, in the form in which they come to him, would have been denied him. So it is the rush of life that, at its open moments, floods me with intuitions, partial and confused, but still revelations; the landscape is wrapped in the smoke of my little engine, and turned into a tantalizing incident of my hot journey. What appears (which is an ideal object and not an event) is thus confused with the event of its appearance; the picture is identified with the kindling or distraction of my attention falling by chance upon it; and the strain of my material existence, battling with material accidents, turns the ideal object too into a temporal fact, and makes it seem substantial. But this fugitive existence which I egotistically attach to it, as if its fate [were] that of my glimpses of it, is no part of its true being, as even my intuition discerns it; it is a practical dignity or potency attributed to it by the irrelevant momentum of my animal life.

Animals, being by nature hounded and hungry creatures, spy out and take alarm at any datum of sense or fancy, [39] supposing that there is something substantial there, something that will count and work in the world. The notion of a moving world is brought implicitly with them; they fetch it out of the depths of their vegetating psyche, which is a small dark cosmos, silently revolving within. By being noticed, and treated as a signal for I know not what material opportunity or danger, the given image is taken up into the business world, and puts on the garment of existence. Remove this frame, strip off all suggestion of a time when this image was not yet present, or a time when it shall be past, and the very notion of existence is removed. The datum ceases to be an appearance, in the proper and pregnant sense of this word, since it ceases to imply any substance that appears or any mind to which it appears. It is an appearance only in the sense that its nature is wholly manifest, that it is a specific being, which may be mentioned, thought of, seen, or defined, if any one has the wit to do so.

One could probably compile an entire litany of examples of such metaphors across various contexts from this period, if one wished to.


Header image found here.

4 thoughts on “Excerpts #29 — Joseph Conrad and George Santayana on Fragments of Vision, Bearing on Questions about Motion & Stability

  1. See also Alphonse de Lamartine’s Le Lac (with translation to follow). Nota Bene: Many lines can be translated in more than one way including the occasional pun.

    Alphonse de Lamartine
    (1790 – 1869)
    Le Lac
    Ainsi, toujours poussés vers de nouveaux rivages,
    Dans la nuit éternelle emportés sans retour,
    Ne pourrons-nous jamais sur l’océan des âges
    Jeter l’ancre un seul jour ?

    Ô lac ! l’année à peine a fini sa carrière,
    Et près des flots chéris qu’elle devait revoir,
    Regarde ! je viens seul m’asseoir sur cette pierre
    Où tu la vis s’asseoir !

    Tu mugissais ainsi sous ces roches profondes,
    Ainsi tu te brisais sur leurs flancs déchirés,
    Ainsi le vent jetait l’écume de tes ondes
    Sur ses pieds adorés.

    Un soir, t’en souvient-il ? nous voguions en silence ;
    On n’entendait au loin, sur l’onde et sous les cieux,
    Que le bruit des rameurs qui frappaient en cadence
    Tes flots harmonieux.

    Tout à coup des accents inconnus à la terre
    Du rivage charmé frappèrent les échos ;
    Le flot fut attentif, et la voix qui m’est chère
    Laissa tomber ces mots :

    ” Ô temps ! suspends ton vol, et vous, heures propices !
    Suspendez votre cours :
    Laissez-nous savourer les rapides délices
    Des plus beaux de nos jours !

    ” Assez de malheureux ici-bas vous implorent,
    Coulez, coulez pour eux ;
    Prenez avec leurs jours les soins qui les dévorent ;
    Oubliez les heureux.

    ” Mais je demande en vain quelques moments encore,
    Le temps m’échappe et fuit ;
    Je dis à cette nuit : Sois plus lente ; et l’aurore
    Va dissiper la nuit.

    ” Aimons donc, aimons donc ! de l’heure fugitive,
    Hâtons-nous, jouissons !
    L’homme n’a point de port, le temps n’a point de rive ;
    Il coule, et nous passons ! ”

    Temps jaloux, se peut-il que ces moments d’ivresse,
    Où l’amour à longs flots nous verse le bonheur,
    S’envolent loin de nous de la même vitesse
    Que les jours de malheur ?

    Eh quoi ! n’en pourrons-nous fixer au moins la trace ?
    Quoi ! passés pour jamais ! quoi ! tout entiers perdus !
    Ce temps qui les donna, ce temps qui les efface,
    Ne nous les rendra plus !

    Éternité, néant, passé, sombres abîmes,
    Que faites-vous des jours que vous engloutissez ?
    Parlez : nous rendrez-vous ces extases sublimes
    Que vous nous ravissez ?

    Ô lac ! rochers muets ! grottes ! forêt obscure !
    Vous, que le temps épargne ou qu’il peut rajeunir,
    Gardez de cette nuit, gardez, belle nature,
    Au moins le souvenir !

    Qu’il soit dans ton repos, qu’il soit dans tes orages,
    Beau lac, et dans l’aspect de tes riants coteaux,
    Et dans ces noirs sapins, et dans ces rocs sauvages
    Qui pendent sur tes eaux.

    Qu’il soit dans le zéphyr qui frémit et qui passe,
    Dans les bruits de tes bords par tes bords répétés,
    Dans l’astre au front d’argent qui blanchit ta surface
    De ses molles clartés.

    Que le vent qui gémit, le roseau qui soupire,
    Que les parfums légers de ton air embaumé,
    Que tout ce qu’on entend, l’on voit ou l’on respire,
    Tout dise : Ils ont aimé !

    Alphonse de Lamartine
    (1790 – 1869)
    The Lake
    Thus always pushed toward new shores,
    In the eternal night carried away without return,
    Can we not on the ocean of the ages
    Drop anchor one single day?

    O lake! The year scarcely has scarcely run its course,
    And near dear waves she should see again,
    Look! I come alone to sit on this stone
    Where you saw her sit down!

    You rorared thus under these plunging cliffs,
    And so you broke on their torn flanks,
    Thus the wind threw the spray of your waves
    On her beloved feet.

    One evening, do you remember it? we were sailing in silence;
    One could not hear afar, on the wave and under the skies,
    Anything but the sound of the rowers beating in rhythm
    Your harmonious waves.

    Suddenly in accents unknown to the earth
    From the charmed shore struck the echoes;
    The wave paid attention, and the voice that is dear to me
    Let go these words:

    “O time, suspend your flight, and you, propitious hours!
    Suspend your course:
    Let us savor the evanescent delights
    Of the most beautiful of our days!

    “The unhappy here below implore you,
    Flow, flow for them;
    Take with their days the cares that devour them;
    Forget the happy ones.

    “But I ask in vain for a few more moments,
    Time escapes me and flees;
    I say to this night: Be slower; and the dawn
    Will dissipate the night.

    “Let us love, then, let us love the fleeting hour,
    Let us hurry, let us rejoice!
    Man has no port, time has no shore;
    It flows, and we move on! ”

    Jealous Time, can it be that moments of drunkenness,
    Where love in long waves turns us toward happiness,
    That fly away from us at the same speed
    As the days of unhappiness?

    What! can we not keep at least the trace?
    What! gone forever! what! all lost!
    This time that gave them, this time that erases them,
    Will not return them to us!

    Eternity, nothing, past, dark abysses,
    What are you doing on the days you are engulfing?
    Speak: will you give us those sublime ecstasies
    With which you delight us?

    O lake! dumb rocks! caves! Dark forest!
    You, whether time saves or can rejuvenate,
    Keep this night, keep, beautiful nature,
    At least the memory!

    Let it be in your rest, Let it be in your storms,
    Beautiful lake, and in the aspect of your laughing slopes,
    And in these black firs, and in these wild rocks
    Which hang above your waters.

    Let it be in the zephyr that shudders and passes,
    In the noise of your shores by your shores repeated,
    In the silver-front star which whitened your surface
    With its soft light.

    That the wind that groans, the reed that sighs,
    Let the light scents of your balmy air,
    That all we hear, we see or breathe,
    All say: They have loved!

    Liked by 1 person

    • The translation that I appended above should give you a good sense of what Lamartine said. If not, just let me know. Sometime, if you wish, I can point out some of the particularities in person. It’s a bit more than I like to type.


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