“. . . a person’s past inescapably clings to him and . . . becomes his fate as soon as he tries to get rid of it.”
–from The Double by Otto Rank
A few months ago I read Joseph’s Conrad’s novel Lord Jim again. I must say that in my opinion Conrad only gets better the older I get. I never tire of his work, seem to take more away from it the more I read it. Jim, the Jim of Lord Jim, a handsome lad, superficially imposing and easy to like, is, like many of Conrad’s characters, a sailor, a merchant seaman. Jim has grandiose dreams, imagines himself a hero, has an egregiously inflated notion of his own worth. He shapes his life by illusions, the primary one being that he is special, more courageous than other men.
Yet on his very first sailing job, working as an officer on a ship transporting a large number of pilgrims on their way to Mecca, he, along with all the others members of the crew, jumps ship when it hits sometimes in the water and seems certain to sink. Jim, who has been disdainful and contemptuous of the rest of the crew, assuring himself that he is superior to this vulgar bunch, cannot accept that he is as guilty as they are. He, aloft and arrogant, stands apart from them as they make their way in the lifeboat, all of them thinking they have left the passengers to drown. The cowardly ship’s crew make their way to port to report the sinking of the vessel, only to see, about the time they are making the report, the abandoned ship, towed into port by a French ship. The other officers flee, but Jim stays and stands trial. It is at this trial that Conrad’s narrator, Marlow, sees Jim for the first time. Fascinated by the young man, Marlow gets to know Jim.
Feeling compassion for Jim, Marlow, after some time, manages gets Jim a job, and Jim, up to then intractable and self-pitying, sullen and bellicose, suddenly does a volte-face, and says Marlow has given him, Jim, confidence. Jim thinks he will “show them” yet, saying, “I always thought that if a fellow could begin with a clean slate,” he could, in effect, redeem himself, make the past disappear, vanish, as if it had never been. And Jim, still embracing the most fanciful illusions, leaves for his new job.
When Jim, brimming with confidence, blind to his arrogance and vanity and appalling ignorance of how the world works, leaves, Marlow, alone with a solitary candle throwing feeble light in the heavy shadows, doesn’t feel “enlightened” at all. He is, he says, too old “to behold at every turn the magnificence that besets our insignificant footsteps in good and evil.” Marlow, contrary to Jim’s ebullience and Jim’s illusory sense of his own self-importance, as if each beam of light that shines on him is either portentous or auspicious, feels sad, his seeing a cold truth that Jim is blind to: “A clean slate did he say? As if the initial word of each our destiny were not graven in imperishable characters upon the face of rock.”
I won’t quibble with Conrad about how much of our character we are born with. Is at least a portion of our destiny etched into us, something ineradicable, before we see the light of day? I simply don’t know. It does seem, however, that Jim is born with a fundamental flaw.
But I am old enough to know this though: there is no such thing as a clean slate. There is no way we can erase who and what we once were. I’m not saying we can’t change. Maybe we can. People have changed. Life is not a fact, but an act, some thinker says. No matter. From the time we are born the world stains us, indelibly, and as the years pass the stains become darker. It it not rather foolish for a man to aver he will begin with a clean slate? How?
We are always meeting people like Jim, those who are always shouting they are going to start over with a clean slate. A wiser person, I suggest, would hope to spruce up the dirty slate, touch it up a little, would see in an instant the folly of ever thinking the corrupted and polluted and defiled slate could be wiped completely clean, scoured of all scratches and imperfections.
Some might say, “Yes, and it is from these scars, our past idiotic acts, our thoughtless cruelties, our errant assumptions that we learn to modify our behavior. These kinds of people, the idle dreamers, those who think because they want to change themselves that they can change, not by action but by simply wishing, fall victim to the same mistakes all over again, contumaciously clinging to the idea that the world can be made to conform to their dreams of it, never thinking, musing and brooding, “O God, what have I done?” but rather, “What have I missed? Oh, how the world has failed me, failed to recognize how special I am.” They are sure they were born to be heroes, the cynosure of all eyes, plaudits falling all about them, cries of acclamation, if this or that had happened. It’s always “this or that” with these kinds of people. It’s the Jims who jump ship and then want us to judge them as if they didn’t jump. Strange creature, a human being. Another person might define himself or herself by his or her ideal vision, but we can judge others only by their actions.
All of us, no doubt, sometimes wish we could wipe clean the slate when we look back at our lives. Most of us have done some bad things we are ashamed of. We could say, most of us in the EBF, with some accuracy what Hamlet tells Ophelia: that we are indifferently honest; that is, not much better or worse than most other men. But most of us have lived long enough to stain the slate, to dirty it up royally with the mire of foolishness and folly, with carelessness and cruelty, with impatience and stupidity. God knows, there is not enough soap in the world to scrub clean our slates, not enough steel wool to strip away our flaws and failures.
I don’t even know what a clean slate is. I don’t think it’s a topic we should think about too much; it seems utterly futile and fatuous to do so. Can you imagine any honest and undeluded person deciding to begin with a clean slate? We can reform, change in radical ways, but we can never begin with a clean slate.
Jim would find this out to his great sorrow–and, worst of all, to the great sorrow of others. His fecklessness, his desire that the world be as he wants it to be rather than it is, would cost lives, one of them his own. Hamlet–admittedly he is depressed but it’s a price for his finding out, to his regret, what we all must find out: that things are not what they appear to be–tells Ophelia that all men are arrant knaves, that she should leave them all alone, that she should flee to a nunnery. It’s worth nothing that by the end of the play he has mollified his searing view of humanity, come to terms somewhat with the unavoidable confusion of life, the vexing complexity of motives and actions. Jim never learned.
We, not as distraught and wild with grief as Hamlet, would probably tell her that most of us are doing the best we can. Hamlet, had he lived, would have learned to live with imperfection. You and I have lived longer. I suspect tonight you and I will tuck away our imperfections within us and then sleep well.