THE SEA OF DISCOURSES IN CONRAD’S TEXTS
MAREK PACUKIEWICZ, DYSKURS ANTROPOLOGICZNY
W PISARSTWIE JOSEPHA CONRADA.
KRAKÓW: UNIVERSITAS, 2008
Numerous dissertations, monographs and articles have been written on Conrad and
it would be difficult to find a blank space in the field of Conradian studies that could be
filled with impressive meanders of interpretation. Yet Marek Pacukiewicz has achieved
what seems almost unachievable: he has discovered a new relation between Conrad
and the sea – or, to be precise, between Conrad and the sea of discourses.
With great erudition Pacukiewicz outlines the semantic area that the sea has occupied in European culture. As early as in ancient Greece, people tried to capture and
describe the essence of ‘sea-ness’. This was done by means of three concepts:pelagos
(the open sea, space), pontos (a bridge) and hals (saltiness). However, from the very
beginning the nature of the sea eluded the formal and curbing bridle of language and
one more notion – of older Cretan etymology – appeared, namely thalassa (the sea).
From the onset, then, within the fabric of language, which was engaged in naming
reality (and thus ordering it, making it submissive to Man), there occurred a covert
fissure – a difference of contexts. It clearly demarcated the boundaries or the hiatus
of two cultures and two diverse cultural contexts: that of the Greek mainland and that
of thalassic Crete (Pacukiewicz 11).
Pacukiewicz painstakingly traces the connotations of these terms in Greek civilization and reveals how the initial opposition between pontos and pelagos(in other words,
between the familiar and the foreign) gradually ebbed. In the end the colonized sea
changes into a bridge “joining the polis with the colonies” (17). The open space ceases
to be, owing to its indeterminacy, a boundary and becomes transformed into a space
that is propitious for sailing with the mind (19). The metaphor of sailing as gaining
knowledge has been unearthed by Pacukiewicz in the writings of Plato and Aristotle.
It is they who first collated epistemeand the sea. “This mode of reasoning leads us to
the fact that knowledge can be present by means of one ripple both in the polisand
168 Agnieszka Adamowicz-Po?piech
in the colony” (20). Pacukiewicz traces the protean metaphor of the sea, which in
the cradle of European civilization takes the form of “a fertile area of knowledge”.
In the 19
century the sea – engulfed by the ‘rationalized’ earth – became transformed
into an epistemological trope (18). The simile of the sea and sailing emerges in the
evolutionary anthropology of Edward Burnett Tylor. The distinctive feature of this
stage is the belief in the continuity and homogeneity of knowledge.
It is at this time that the sea evolves into a machine for transforming the unknown
into the map of knowledge, the representation of familiarized terrain. Furthermore, in
-century discourse of culture the sea becomes a metaphor for the subject. Pacukiewicz
illustrates his thesis with the works of Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, Dante,
Gabriel Rossetti and Alfred Tennyson. The sea, being the mirror of subjectivity, is
filled with interpretations concerning the inner side of Man, while “the deep becomes
a pretext to disarm and contextualize mystery” (20). Pacukiewicz juxtaposes the
aforementioned discourse of culture with Conrad’s text, where one cannot find any
speculations about marine depths – on the contrary, the deep is always located on the
surface. Conrad chooses remote territories that bewilder, emphasizing the specific
discourses and trying to find a breach between them. “He does not look at the land
from the sea in order to chart the shape of the land, nor does he look from the land
to the sea in order to gain an opportunity to fill the marine space with discourse. The
world and the sea are quite different, though, when perceived from the perspective of
a narrow sandy shoal: enormous and unfathomable and at the same time immovable
– this is precisely ‘sea-ness’” (21).
Towards the end of the 19
century the sea turned into a space that was saturated
with boundless interpretations. Poets, novelists and scientists shaped the scope of the
oceans in their own ways and for their own particular needs. It is this type of sea – which
ceases to be a synonym for the homogeneous truth and changes into an accumulation
of discourses – that interests Pacukiewicz most. He compares visions of the sea in
Nietzsche and Conrad. In the writings of the German philosopher we discern the sea
of eternity, whereas in Conrad we pursue a dependable craft of the subject “through
which we perceive the sea” (26). In Pacukiewicz’s opinion, Conrad focuses on the
finality and repetitiveness (of traditions) and within their realm he searches for that
breach, fissure, difference or thalassa.
Coming back to the domesticated context of pontos,pelagosand hals, Pacukiewicz
states that Conrad, remaining within the domain of European episteme, at the same
time adopts an innovative writing strategy. Namely, he exposes the interplay of relations between the specific parts of the discourse of pontos,pelagosand hals, pointing
to their separateness or even the disparity between them. “The components of knowledge are not on a par, quite the opposite: they fight for dominance in Man, while the
systemic obviousness and rhetorical functionality of knowledge – which man creates
and on which he would like to rely – are illusory” (28). Conrad shows this by thickening the web of oppostitions. Upholding the sea-land antinomy, he superimposes on it
the axis of travels, which is both the mark of division and a framework. Starting with
169 Review of The Sea of Discourses in Conrad’s Texts
the above-mentioned prime opposition of sea and land, Conrad differentiates space
by creating among Man, sea and land a complex web of boundaries (28). The Polish
scholar knowledgeably identifies the keystones of Conrad’s texts. Although apparently
rootless, a mariner is not able to sever himself completely from the land and from
his culture. One of Conrad’s central motifs is the probing of that knowledge which is
transmitted by Man. At these moments the difference of cultures is revealed owing to
the hiatus between context and knowledge. Conrad is interested in transgressive situations, in which it is impossible to separate or shield one’s own system of knowledge
from the surge of the foreign. For Pacukiewicz ‘Typhoon’ serves as an epitome of the
case when the well-ordered space of knowledge is disrupted by the destructive “element
of the Far East.” At such moments Conrad observes how Man behaves in a situation
which is not culturally and epistemologically standardized (30).
A reading ofThe Mirror of the Seamakes Pacukiewicz think that for Conrad the
sea becomes “a shadow line” – a kind of illness which the subject must go through
– rites de passage, which break the stereotypes of the sea and restore its ‘sea-ness’ (31).
The scholar claims that Conrad reveals how “the active dimension of context may be
appropriated by discourse” (32). Pacukiewicz summarises thus: “what can be heard in
Conrad’s voice is the swoosh of the ocean of discourses; Man continuously attempts
to mediate dialectically between the reality of the world and the world of knowledge.
Conrad shows that this process never ends in complete synthesis” (31). According to
Pacukiewicz the vision of the sea in Conrad’s writing in a way reflects the writer’s way
of thinking about culture as Man’s reality, consisting of pontos,pelagos andhals (39).
Conrad’s texts encourage us, the readers, to sail, but not on the smooth territory of
the pelagos, where in case of danger we discern a safe passage via the pontos; on the
contrary, we are lured to the stormy sea of the thalassa, where shallows and crevices
make peaceful sailing impossible. What course should be taken so that our ship is not
eventually blown off course? We will not discover any definitive interpretation of the
signs in this journey. However, Conrad seems to hint that we should observe the relations between interpretations and how they complete or falsify one another. We must
be aware of any sandy shoal or fissure and traverse it anew.