Poetry Porch: Forgiveness


The Right to Forgive
in Conrad’s The Secret Sharer

by Nadya Aisenberg 

“After such knowledge, what forgiveness?
                                            —T. S. Eliot, “Gerontion
“The appointed task of both our existences [the captain’s and the ship’s] to be carried out, far from all human eyes, with only sky and sea for spectators and judges.
                                            —Joseph Conrad, The Secret Sharer
          Before the novella’s beginning, in the very title, we are promised a “secret” and, hard on its heels the adjectives “mysterious” and “incomprehensible” follow in the opening sentence. At the conclusion, we are at “the very edge of a darkness thrown by a towering Erebus” into which one of the two main characters disappears. Mystery is the element in which we immerse, mysteries of identity, geography, and justice, and its greatest mystery is that of the human heart and human understandingfrom which, in The Secret Sharer, forgiveness springs.
          Conrad’s tale, narrated in the single voice of a ship’s captain, is a sailor’s tale spun on the deep. In a hallucinatory and self-interrogative mode by which it seeks to dispel disbelief, it recounts a long journey through the Gulf of Siam, both an actual voyage and a symbolic journey toward identity. Both passages are arduous but successful, though the resolution at the end is still shrouded in mystery. We, the readers, are pulled in the wake of ship and story by the natural forces of wind and sea, as well as by its suspenseful plotconcealment, disguise, pursuit, moral and physical trials, and escape. Characteristically Conrad’s work sounds mythic overtones, what E. M. Forster dubbed his “further vision,” and “vision” becomes an emblematic work in The Secret Sharer. It allows the captain, peering into opaque and unreadable surroundings at the novella’s end, to steer his ship to safety through dangerous straits. His voyage toward identity ends when he successfully navigates both this physical and the moral tests the plot sets him, so that he who has heretofore claimed to be “a stranger to myself,” sees (understands) the person he has become. Vision, crucial to the fortunate outcome of external and internal journeys, is effected through the captain’s remarkable exercise of forgiveness.
          What happens, the action that determines both the course of the voyage and the development of identity, is briefly this: Leggatt, a sailor on another ship, the Sephora, in self-defense, and to save the lives of fellow sailors threatened with shipwreck in “a sea gone mad,” accidentally kills a man whose failure to act in this crisis risked the whole company. After this misdeed, Leggatt escapes the Sephora, dives into the sea, swims, fortuitously sees the lights of our captain’s ship, and grasps the ship’s ladder. By chance, the captain spots him in the water. The physical contest begun for Leggatt, the moral contest now ensues for the captain. Should the captain turn Leggatt over to the authorities on shore or further his escape? Should legal justice begin to grind its wheels or poetic justice engineer Leggatt’s escape?
          Conrad locates the captain’s quest for an undiscovered moral identity against a backdrop of literal mystery—the alien and almost impenetrable geography of the voyage. It is upon this clueless, unimprinted scene, established by the repetition of key words: “silence”; “immense”; “distance”; “blankness”; “emptiness”; “incomprehensibiity”; “far from human eyes”; “alone”; “solitude”; “shadow,” that the captain must inscribe his identity as he discovers it. On his first command, inexperienced, untried, his naval authority and prowess are at stake here, and something more. His moral vision, which finds its expression in forgiveness, is to be tested also. Their development is coterminous.
          The tension of the book, its dramatic pacing, lies in the tug between natural order (the sea, the heart) and constructed, systematized order (the land and the rigid logic of the courts), between legal justice and poetic justice, between justice and forgiveness; in short, between two kinds of fate. Enormous moral questions arise from the struggle between these absolutes. One could place in each brass pan the Conradian balance of weights:
Natural order Constructed order 
Solitaries: Captain and Leggatt Community of the court: “an old fellow in a wig and twelve respectable tradesmen” 
Invisible (at sea) Visible (no mystery)
Feeling: impulsiveness, compassion, empathy, identification Seeing the face of things (versus understanding)
Silence, communion Communication
Elemental: Leggatt (compared to fish when he enters the story) Civilized, artificial
Sea: justice mediated through circumstance Land: duty, obligation, abstraction
Irrational Rational

          Conrad turns to the double or doppelganger, a legacy of E.T.A. Hoffman and Romanticism, to image a conflict between justice and sympathy, and to paint them as antithetical responses to wrongdoing. To put it differently, the author sets in opposition rejection of the outlaw and identification with him. We can guess the captain’s choice, knowing Conrad is committed to portraying the fatal easiness of accident and its often unjust and irrevocable consequences, as he does in Lord Jim. What we may call the “There-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I” factor. The captain’s identification with Leggatt—immediate, profound, uninformed, and unreasoned—tells us he will forgive Leggatt, shield him from the authorities, perform the subsequent actions forgiveness demands of the plot. After the outlaw has boarded the ship and they sit alone together in the captain’s cabin, Leggatt discloses his story of involuntary manslaughter. The captain, far from regretting his impulse to rescue the sailor, finds his sympathy still warm. Why? “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?” The answer lies in the captain’s words: it was as if he were “conversing with his own grey ghost.”
          Doppelganger or grey ghost Leggatt may be, but he is no apparition. He is a real man, an actualized character who has made a “necessary error,” to borrow Conrad’s phrase. “Necessary” provides justification, “error” reduces the enormity of the deed to misadventure. Leggatt is not intended to be a personification of evil like the doppelgangers in Dostoyevsky’s “The Double” or Stevens’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. This important distinction between the traditional double and Conrad’s version of it in The Secret Sharer is what allows the captain’s identification, and prospectively, ours. Who is exempt from “necessary error”? The basis for forgiveness is laid down. The hidden final question will turn out to be, “Toward whom?”
          Faced with interrogation about Leggatt’s disappearance by the captain of the Sephora, his rescuer experiences intense conflict between the two worlds of empathy and legality, abstract justice and forgiveness. Leggatt, the “secret sharer” of our captain’s identity, has enmeshed him in a crisis which ultimately reveals, no actually develops, unrealized moral dimensions in his character, dimensions hidden even from himself. Admitting silently, “If he had only known how afraid I was of his putting my feelings of identity with the other to the test!” he nevertheless sails through the test, disclosing nothing to his opposite number from the Sephora. More silence, concealment, mystery. Judgment bows to understanding.
          The captain’s identification with Leggatt is so powerful it goes beyond the There-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I. Sprinkled throughout the narrative are clues to the power of this shared identity: “He must have looked exactly as I used to look in that bed”; “I was constantly watching myself, my secret self”; “Anyone would have taken him for me”; “He appealed to me as if our experiences had been as identical as our clothes.” Something more compelling than fraternal feeling is going on, both on the psychological and the mythic levels of interpretation. The captain’s acknowledgment of “the other” is almost recognition of something known before, not just vision but déjà vu. Space between “self” and “other” collapses. “There-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I” becomes “There-go-I.” This is why, in the final analysis, the captain feels compelled to save the fugitive. Cain and Abel are not only brothers, but one. Rescuing Leggatt, he rescues himself.
          Who is he, “our” captain, who burdens us with this circumlocutory pronoun, at once nameless one and main character of The Secret Sharer? Most curiously, Conrad leaves both captain and his ship unnamed, though we learn Leggat’s ship is the Sephora, and her commander is Captain Archbold. Indeed, reflecting he is “somewhat of a stranger to myself,” it is as if the captain himself does not know his own name. He could be Everyman, he could be any one of us, he could be allegorical. If The Secret Sharer is allegory—the Captain as Rescuer, the Captain of the Sephora as Pursuer, Leggatt as Outlaw—it is more complex, more psychological, less two-dimensional than allegory usually is. No clumps of good and evil people polarize this story, as they do in so many of its Victorian predecessors. Rather, the author, meaning us to identify with Leggatt and with the captain, creates of each a person with limitations.
          The captain/narrator’s moral test is simply what to do with Leggatt: a man marked as Cain by his former shipmates and the captain of the Sephora. As captain, our man holds full authority and responsibility, empowered to decide men’s destiny unilaterally. His decision must be taken alone also because he dare not inform the crew he is sheltering a wanted man. As a consequence, he lacks any structural support for his impulse. Breaking with all convention to perform his stealthy act of rescue, where can he look for sanction? This is a vital issue for Conrad, who in Lord Jim declares, “The real significance of crime is in its being a break of faith with the community of mankind.” If, as Conrad desires, we agree to define the crime as social, to represent “the community of mankind,” the important consequence is that we can practice forgiveness. Justice as part of a plan or purpose of divine providence is not Conrad’s issue here. If vengeance belongs to the Lord, forgiveness can still be ours, we can elect it within a secular credo. We are operating within the ethical context whose lines have been drawn by Conrad from the tale’s beginning. We are creatures of Chance.
          In the beginning, Leggatt, taken dripping on board by the captain, and questioned as to whether something is “wrong,” replies: “Very wrong indeed. I’ve killed a man.” The use of the word “wrong” to describe manslaughter automatically places the deed in a temporal, secular world. Parson Leggatt’s father may have been, but the words the sailor selects to describe the calamity on the Sephora are not the theological terms “good” and “evil” but the secular “right” and “wrong.” Consequently we, like the captain, are positioned by the author to judge. What’s at stake, as Conrad presents it, is the relation between the individual and society. The figure of the outcast is paramount in Conrad’s oeuvre because it focuses that relation acutely.
          Does the captain’s forgiveness condone Leggatt’s crime? No. From the rest of Conrad’s fiction, we know he deplored the anarchy, disorder, and forthcoming destruction of the western world as he forecast it in such works as Under Western Eyes and The Secret Agent. We know it also from the life; Conrad himself was a sailor and approved the tight social order of the ship’s community, often using it to stage his moral contests. He recognized the need for a standard of conduct, and one that was social, not hermetic, and frequently sought in fiction a schematizing presentation of experience. Yet, strangely enough, Conrad confounds his readers’ expectations. In The Secret Sharer the captain subverts institutional and retributive justice, upholds the smallest possible relation of the two. If poetic justice triumphs, it is because the captain has taken Leggatt, and justice, into his own hands. 
         One might argue that the captain, because of his profession, is predisposed to treat Leggatt with understanding. He understands—a ship saved, a crew saved. However, if we, as readers, are to forgive the outlaw, to desire Leggatt’s eventual escape, and approve the captain’s rescue, (clearly Conrad’s intention), he has to make Leggatt not only credible, “And I knew well enough also that my double there was no homicidal ruffian,” but creditable.
          By an overwhelming multiplicity of authorial strategies, Conrad disposes us to side with the captain, i.e., with poetic rather than legal justice. First, we have the character of Leggatt himself. As soon as he steps aboard, he straightforwardly announces, “My name’s Leggatt.” No subterfuge there. The captain notices, “The voice was calm and resolute. A good voice.” We are reassured at the outset. We soon discover that Leggatt attended the same naval training school as the captain, which means he acquired reflexive responses to threatening conditions at sea. Leggatt’s action, which resulted in a man’s death, was not premeditated or personal then, but the outcome of an acquired discipline. Second, the time frame of the narrative puts Leggatt’s one act of violence in the past; we hear about it, but do not witness it. It takes place offstage. It is easier to forgive retrospectively.
          The author’s most important justificatory tactic, though, as Leggatt relates the story to the captain, (and we overhear it), is to retell the dramatic, overwhelming circumstances surrounding the fatal accident. Foremost is the power of the sea itself. The sea, not another man, is Leggatt’s first and true adversary. As T. S. Eliot has written of The Secret Sharer, “We are continually reminded of the power and terror of Nature, and the isolation and feebleness of man.” Here’s Leggatt’s description of what was happening at the time of the disaster: “And the ship running for her life, touch and go all the time, any minute her last in a sea fit to turn your hair grey only a-looking at it . . . The first thing I heard when I came to myself was the maddening howl of that endless gale.” The storm may be an incitement to madness, to violence, but Leggatt’s action was neither gratuitous nor malign. Intentionality counts here. By acting in place of the sailor paralyzed by emergency, “I believe the fellow himself was half crazed by funk,” Leggatt saves the ship and its crew, though the other man perishes. Whether the gale-driven sea washing over the deck or Leggatt’s physical restraint of the sailor in order to reef the sail himself, or both, are responsible for the man’s death, remains unclear to Leggatt himself—and therefore to us, if we validate him. Finally, lest we still underestimate the struggle for survival which is his best defense, the captain of the Sephora describes the burial at sea of the sailor who was killed: “They launched it [the body] amongst those mountainous seas that seemed ready every moment to swallow up the ship herself and the terrified lives on board of her.”
          Manslaughter brings the two moral worlds of legal and poetic justice into collision. Leggatt demands of his savior as he continues to unfold his tale in the cabin: “You don’t suppose I am afraid of what can be done to me? Prison or gallows or whatever they may please. But you don’t see me coming back to explain such things to an old fellow in a wig and twelve respectable tradesmen, do you? What can they know whether I am guilty or not—or of what I am guilty, either?” he protests. There are spheres of life and conduct which are incomprehensible and unpredictable to those subscribing to codes. The reader may recall here to good purpose the captain’s meditation when first he sailed: “the appointed task of both our existences [his own and the vessel’s] to be carried out, far from all human eyes, with only sky and the sea for spectators and judges” (emphasis mine). A gulf wider than the Gulf of Siam separates the ship’s operative justice, which admits chance and requires understanding, from rigid shore-bound protocol and proceeding. Leggatt’s conviction of the impossibility of presenting his case—“Oh, what’s the good of talking!” he exclaims, reminds us of that other mariner doomed by chance and struck dumb, Billy Budd.
          The moral isolation which Leggatt undergoes, separated by his deed both from his former community on the Sephora and from the company where he now lies hidden, is at once actual and symbolic. It is a judgment of exile pronounced upon the Cain-like Leggatt, but it is also an example of the mythic resonance which suffuses Conrad’s stories. Leggatt lives as if in a dream world of night, silence, darkness, secrecy, exemplifying Conrad’s dictum in Heart of Darkness: “We live, as we dream—alone.” But the captain acts, interrupts, breaks into this dream. Leggatt, who was “destined” to be handed over to the law, his present and future subsumed by the past, slips back into the sea and swims away; forgiveness has interceded to halt the time of destiny. Or has it?
          Well, Leggatt does go free. Indeed, there are commentators who interpret Leggatt’s final plunge into the ocean as a kind of baptism or rebirth, but I fear this is a more unambiguous note than Conrad intended. His empathy does not blind him to the reality imposed by irrevocable circumstances. No, the ending is equivocal for Leggatt. The captain’s forgiveness can create only the chance of a new life for his double, and Conrad ascribes unlimited power to Chance (the title of another novel). Neither the captain nor we see how Leggatt’s chance works out—we don’t see him make it to shore; nor can we speculate about what sort of life he might salvage if he did reach land. Although when Leggatt casts off, the captain perceives him as “a free man, a proud swimmer striking out for a new destiny,” the author seems to part company from his narrator here. We know, because Conrad tells us, that the islands toward which Leggatt swims are “Unknown to trade, to travel, almost to geography, [and] the manner of life they harbor is an unsolved secret.” The “secret sharer” swims toward a secret life. No sign of man or canoe, intense heat. The secrecy may lessen Leggatt’s chances of discovery, but at the best, the miscreant is condemned to wander the face of the earth. Whether this means the ending is equivocal for the tale in its entirety, we have yet to discover.
          The doubling of the captain and Leggatt reaches its climax with the device of the white hat in the final scene. “A sudden thought struck me,” the captain relates as he anticipates Leggatt’s departure from the ship. “I saw myself wandering barefooted, bareheaded, the sun beating on my dark poll. I snatched off my floppy had and tried hurriedly in the dark to ram it on my other self.” When Leggatt ducks, this light-colored object bobs on the dark waters; following its passage the captain is able to gauge current and direction and navigate without landmarks. From being lost, he is found.
          After Leggatt’s escape, he unites finally with his ship’s company, the men whose suspicions he had aroused and whose security he had seemed to threaten in his effort to save Leggatt. At this point, the literal voyage and his journey toward identity coalesce. The tone of his own narrative becomes triumphant. “Already the ship was drawing ahead. And I was alone with her. Nothing! No one in the world should stand now between us, throwing a shadow on the way of silent knowledge and mute affection, the perfect communion of a seaman with his first command.” Indeed, no one stands between the captain and his command now. He is in command of himself, and of his vessel. The outlaw has been saved by forgiveness and expert seamanship, and the rescuer has found himself in the testing of both powers. It is as if the successful outcome of the moral choice which preceded it empowers him to surmount the physical test. His own destiny has been affected by forgiveness as much as Leggatt’s.
          So what does all this say about forgiveness? Presumably, for the captain the ending is not equivocal. So is it unequivocal for the tale? For us, the readers? Can Conrad persuade us, his representatives of the human community, to the captain’s view of destiny—Leggatt freed, himself realized? Are we to read a resolution here? Or do we part company with the author at the conclusion, as the author parted company with his narrator’s optimistic view of Leggatt’s destiny? Question rushes upon question at the close, particularly around two murky areas. First, do we concur with the tale’s unqualified endorsement of poetic justice; second, does any person beside the one who has suffered have the right to forgive?
          Certainly, we can ask whether by fashioning an intensely closed, intimate, non-replicable situation, by concentrating on a particular phenomenon of psychopathology, spinning this as a sailor’s tale upon the deep, Conrad has prevented us from extracting relevance for our own lives and conduct. Can we endorse taking justice into our hands as a principle? Conrad has excluded, no precluded, any consideration of providence, politics, or official pardon. What does this say about the Nuremberg trials, about the South African Truth Commission? What if my poetic justice doesn’t accord with yours? Where is accountability? We have been so skillfully inclined by the author to view Leggatt’s plight as requiring a sympathetic response, that this moral confusion may occur only with hindsight. Another question lurks inside this decision for poetic justice. Conrad ignores a crucial ethical question: may we, are we entitled, and if so, by whose authority, in whose name, to forgive injuries committed not against our own person but another? Conrad declines this argument altogether. By introducing the device of the doppelganger, Conrad effaces distinction between “self” and “other.” Concealing Leggatt, then aiding his escape, the captain becomes an accessory to the crime. There-go-I. Neither victim nor pardoner, the captain identifies completely with the perpetrator of the crime, his “second self.” So forgiving Leggatt, the captain perforce forgives himself. Perhaps for flouting the law, although Chance came to his rescue with his “vision” of the hat. But perhaps for “necessary errors” he is yet to commit? This would add a new dimension to forgiveness. As Leggatt swims away and the captain sails on, we on shore are left with the hiddenmost question: Forgiveness toward whom? Is the final mystery in The Secret Sharer that we may forgive ourselves? 

Copyright © 1999 by Nadya Aisenberg.

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