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Conrad's Avant-Garde Sublime: Spectacular Language, Nature, and the Other in Typhoon.

Just as the boatman sits in his small boat, trusting his frail craft in a stormy sea that is boundless in every direction, rising and falling with the howling mountainous waves, so in the midst of a world full of suffering and misery the individual man calmly sits, supported by and trusting the principium individuationis, or the way in which the individual knows things as phenomenon. The boundless world, everywhere full of suffering in the infinite past, in the infinite future, is strange to him, indeed a fiction. His vanishing person, his extensionless present, his momentary gratification, these alone have reality for him; and he does everything to maintain them, so long as his eyes are not opened to a better knowledge.

--Arthur Schopenhauer

The World as Will and Representation (1:352-53)


Joseph Conrad wanted to be a spectacular writer. He wanted to be a spectacular stylist, a spectacular teller of tales, so as to incite his readers to bear witness "to the supreme law and abiding mystery of the sublime spectacle." The poet is best suited for testifying to a "spectacular universe," which exists for its own sake and not ours, in which there is no need to justify one's existence (Conrad, Record 92-94). Yet while the aim of creation may not be ethical, Conrad believes the final purpose of the artist is to discover the "feeling of fellowship with all creation" and "the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity [that] binds all humanity" (Prefaces 50). Conrad's spectacular aesthetics are an ethical act, intended to affirm humanity's capacity for ethical community despite a lack of absolute values.

Typhoon mirrors nearly exactly the epigraph from The World as Will and Representation, unsurprisingly since, according to John Galsworthy's well-known 1927 statement, "Of philosophy he had read a good deal, but on the whole spoke little. Schopenhauer used to give him satisfaction twenty years and more ago" (121). In this paper I read Typhoon as an exemplar of sublime writing that evokes the Romantic sublime of nature only to withhold any transcendent meaning, prefiguring Jean-Francois Lyotard's postmodern version that offers the potential for renewal across both aesthetic and political realms, generating a Schopenhauerian posthumanist ethics.

The plot is practically nonexistent: a British steamer named the Nan-Shan flying the Siamese flag picks up some Chinese coolies on the shores of the South China Seas headed for home in Fu-Chau. Captain MacWhirr, considered the "dullest ass" (16), chooses to steam through a typhoon rather than circumventing it, nearly leading the men to their deaths. During the storm, he sends his racist first mate, Jukes, to the 'tween-deck to assist the terrified coolies. Contra Jukes's expectations, they do not revolt, and MacWhirr equitably redistributes their scattered earnings once in safe harbor. While long extolled as a virtuoso piece of descriptive writing, the minimal plot has resulted in critical views of Typhoon ranging from the dismissive to the honorific, in contrast to Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim, (1) published just before its appearance in 1902-03, with whom it shares preoccupations with men working under the aegis of imperial capitalism pushed to their limits in extreme conditions, and the stylistic distortions their author felt were necessary to make his readers "see" (Conrad, Prefaces 52).

I argue that, mirroring the aesthetic education of MacWhirr, Typhoon propels its ethico-political argument not through argumentation but novelistic craft. As a work which begins in the voice of an omniscient authorial narrator, shifts frequently and unannounced in and out of close third person, and ends withdrawing from both into an epistolary device that introduces competing versions of the missing events and ends with a quotation, Typhoon's polyphonic narration (2) sets traps for the readers' preconceptions. Conrad's repetition of the voyage in MacWhirr's metonymic letter home, which mimetically fails to satisfy the readers' curiosity about the storm, exercises their sympathetic imagination or reveals their misreadings. (3) If we judge the novella by its title's literal meaning, we will have missed that typhoons are unrepresentable and that the ethical significance of the work lies in the human relations on board, and Conrad, says as much in his Prefaces to Typhoon (Conrad, Prefaces 77). MacWhirr develops a greater respect for the immanent sea, and he performs reflective judgment in negotiating a humane solution to the political disorder on board as an exemplar of Schopenhauer's "sublime character" and Lyotard's "moral politician." While he does not advocate what today we would consider environmental concerns, nor fully dispel racial stereotypes, Conrad posits that human and natural history are mutually implicated, and seeks an ethical solidarity with the racial other that interrogates imperial ideology. Rejecting readers' implied demand that he carry the ethical burden of interpretation and justice, Conrad returns the demand to them, testing their ability to see beyond hegemonic stereotypes. In writing Typhoon, a discourse of the sublime that is also a discourse on the sublime, (4) Conrad proves himself a post-Kantian novelist-philosopher of the Kantian idea of a universal history, creating the process of enlightenment that is also its product by phrasing the historico-political as a Bildungsroman that fictionally calls into being the ideal readers who are always in a state of becoming.

Typhoon rejects the Kantian reclamation of humanity as an end in itself, sublime language and nature's power instead bringing characters and readers closer to the "object-world" or "thing-world" of vital materialism, (5) enabling transformations which can lead to new ethical understandings of the other based on Schopenhauerian compassion rather than Kantian reason. Conrad emphasizes perception over concepts, affect over reason, embodied knowledge over abstract norms, reflective over determinate judgment, immanence over transcendence, to demonstrate that the capacity for moral thinking is the result of experience rather than strictly philosophical deduction. If empiricism and idealism compete in his oeuvre, (6) here Conrad favors the former, rewriting the theory of the sublime for a new age. With the removal of aesthetic distance to reveal, as Conrad says of his visit to the Congo, the "vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience and geographical exploration. What an end to the idealized realities of a boy's daydreams!" (Last Essays 18-19, 25), Typhoon heralds the end of the imperial sublime and its post/modern, post/colonial, and post/humanist phases. Typhoon should be recognized as not merely a scenic masterpiece but a ground-breaking contribution to the literary avant-garde.


Conrad was vexed at being labeled a writer of the sea, observing in the 1924 Preface to Typhoon that he had in fact written very little about the sea, which had been only the setting for his study of "the unappeasable ocean of human life" (Last Essays 212; CL 6:39-40). Most critics agree that his emphasis is not on nature for its own sake but humanity, (7) yet rather than share the Romantic view of nature as enabling human transcendence, he regards it as thwarting mankind's aspirations. (8) Early reviewers of Typhoon pointed out "the irony of the contrast between [the deep's] impressive vastness and the psychology of the human insects that crawl over its wrinkled surface" ("Joseph Conrad's Typhoon"). Conrad's people are "small and eccentric creatures compared to those elements which spring upon them and lie in wait for them like the messengers of gods and devils" (Lynd 8).

In order to emphasize the subjective experience of nature, Conrad frequently deploys the pathetic fallacy, considered intrusive by some, (9) while others disagree, finding that, in Conrad's godless universe, "The sea is in itself neutral but in relation to the sailors it has the attributes of a godlike, detached observer, both penetrating and impartial" (Batchelor 65). In the early fictions appears "a relationship between man and the sea that goes back to the romantic movement, to man's sense of his own identity paradoxically both diminished and enlarged by an oceanic setting" (66).

Batchelor's phrasing implies that major Romantic phenomenon, the aesthetic of the sublime, which dominated art and literature well into the nineteenth century. Conrad's deployment of the sublime may seem platitudinous, but the term appears frequently across his oeuvre, (10) and occasionally in the critical literature. For instance, Jean-Aubrey writes regarding Conrad's maritime world that "The atmosphere, the dangers, the fatigue of that life, become real to us, also its arduous beauty, which appealed intimately to Conrad, brought up from childhood, as he was, to be familiar with the sentiment of the sublime and with struggle against odds" (1:78). That few critics have written about Conrad and the sublime (11) is surprising, for a closer look suggests it should be considered an essential part of his aesthetic repertoire. Having languished since Longinus's first century C.E. treatise, the sublime was popularized contemporaneously with European global expansion, playing an important role in political ideology, particularly in Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France. The vogue of the sublime continued well into the Victorian period, notably in J.M.W. Turner's seascapes, which share with Conrad's own astonishing thematic and formal affinities in their avant-garde shift in orientation from product to process. (12) Indeed, Turner's painting The Slave Ship (1840) reflects remarkable parallels with both Typhoon and Lord Jim. That Conrad was familiar with art history is evident from his frequent mention of major painters in his correspondence, as in his famous letter to William Blackwood in 1902, the year Typhoon was published, where he aligns himself with those who must suffer for being "new" and "modern," like Whistler "who made Ruskin the critic foam at the mouth with scorn and indignation" (CL 2:418). (13) Although many commentators believe that he did not work from a systematic philosophy but rather "begins with the process of epistemology and works outward from there" (Peters 28), his reference to Ruskin, who wrote extensively on the sublime, suggests that Conrad knew rather more aesthetic theory than he cared to admit. We should regard his forbidding exotic landscapes and vast seascapes surveyed by dubious antiheroes and recounted by compromised narrators as marking both a culmination and a reconsideration of the tradition of the sublime.

In Conrad's hands, the personification of nature rejects Western ideology's claim to ascertain the ding-an-sich, extending his impressionist aim to make the reader "see" by representing the facts of physical experience as irreducibly marked by individual consciousness, or what he calls "temperament" (Conrad, Prefaces 52, 51). Conrad's use of the pathetic fallacy has much in common with Jane Bennett's call to a return to anthropomorphism in service of a vital materialism, which "tends to horizontalize the relations between humans, biota, and abiota" and capture the alien quality of the thing-world (111-12). A certain amount of anthropomorphism can enable our capacity to think and act ecologically by revealing "similarities across categorical divides" (99), and raising the status of materiality can "set up a kind of safety net for those humans who are now, in a world where Kantian morality is the standard, routinely made to suffer because they do not conform to particular (Euro-American, bourgeois, theocentric, or other) models of personhood. The ethical aim becomes to distribute value more generously, to bodies as such" (12). Conrad's use of the sublime and personification foregrounds subjectivity and confounds categories, implicitly critiquing European hegemony and anthropocentric claims. (14) The sublime, as it happens, figures the subject/object dilemma in the history of Western ideas and has been subject to much theoretical repositioning, making it a particularly unstable concept. Kant envisioned reflective aesthetic judgment as mediating between nature, or determinism, and the will, or freedom. (15) In his sublime, we paradoxically experience pain resulting from the failure of the imagination, and pleasure arising from reason's ability--or, illusion of the ability--to supersede the sensory world, which he believes demonstrates humanity's vocation for the moral law. (16) The feeling of the Kantian sublime in nature is therefore not respect for nature qua nature but for humanity as an end in itself. Regarding the dynamical sublime of power, he problematically argues that things that we resist are "evil" (17) Crucially, however, the Kantian sublime requires "proper" education for the appreciation of moral ideas, one which, Gayatri Spivak argues, is disallowed to the "other" of hegemonic Western culture. (18) Since European colonizers frequently labeled the sublime "other" of empire as "evil," such confused aesthetic responses were easily co-opted for chauvinistic purposes.

Schopenhauer, who was both influenced by and highly critical of Kant's speculative idealism, (19) became well-known in Europe in the 1880s, and has been the subject of much Conrad criticism. (20) Knowles, while pointing out that Conrad likely read his more popular essays and that Ford Madox Ford, whose father promoted Schopenhauer in The New Quarterly, could have been an influence, cannot imagine that Conrad read the entirety of The World as Will and Representation. (21) I confess that I can easily imagine the intricate mind of Conrad enjoying the tortuous journey through the text as he whiled away his time on ship. Conrad hints at his influence in an 1897 letter which also disavows allegiance to such literary schools as realism and naturalism, stating, "There is joy and sorrow; there is sunshine and darkness--and all are within the same eternal smile of the inscrutable Maya" (CL 1:422). The Hindu concept of Maya, which Schopenhauer borrowed, refers to the cosmic force that represents brahman, the infinite supreme being, as illusory phenomena. Conrad's simultaneous covert absorption and overt rejection of philosophical influences may be understood as furthering his artistic goal of directing readers to existence rather than essence: "Formulas and theories are dead things," he says, "and I wrote straight from the heart--which is alive" (CL 1:420).

Schopenhauer calls the world, or the thing-in-itself, the will, which he regards as an unconscious, non-rational force of nature which drives our instincts and lies at the foundation of the universe, (22) a notion much like natura naturans, the "uncaused causality that ceaselessly generates new forms" (Bennett 117). There is no God or good and evil in Schopenhauer's meaningless world, but since human beings perceive the world as individuated rather than as a unity, we exist in a state of constant struggle. Although he agrees with Kant that we know the world only as representation, he considers the idea of pure freedom of the will delusional and theology in disguise. (23) Consequently, Kant's ethical system not only suffers from "entire want of reality, and hence of possible efficacy," but fosters cruelty because, for example, its anthropocentrism excludes animals (Basis 63-64, 94-95). Moreover, unlike Kant, Schopenhauer acknowledges that other religions, including atheism, and cultures have access to reason and morality. (24) There is little relief from strife except through a few actions that enable a more tranquil state of mind by emphasizing our universal rather than individuated condition. One is aesthetic contemplation, particularly of sublime objects and art, which allows us to forget ourselves and become a clear mirror of the object as a "pure, will-less subject of knowing," filling us with exalted feeling (World 1:201-02). The artistic genius is better able to sustain and express this state of mind for those who lack the same ability. (25)

A second source is moral awareness that each individual is merely an instance of the whole: compassion allows us to imagine others as "myself once more" (Basis 203). Rather than linking the sublime to ethics through pure reason, Schopenhauer finds the connection in the disinterested "sublime character" who considers others "in a purely objective way, and not according to his will. For example, he will observe their faults, and even their hatred and injustice to himself, without being thereby stirred to hatred on his own part" (World 1:206).

Lyotard, for his part, redefines the sublime as the feeling of incommensurability, the "differend," between the imagination and reason (Lessons 233-34). Eschewing the Judeo-Christian tradition's negation of the material, he dismisses Kant's sublime as a "denatured aesthetic" in which "By sacrificing itself, the imagination sacrifices nature, which is aesthetically sacred, in order to exalt holy law" (53, 189). Aesthetic theory has been, in this sense, the doomed attempt to get rid of "the Thing" (Inhuman 143).

If there is a "Thing" that cannot be gotten rid of in Conrad's writing, it is the sea.


In the nineteenth century, nature came to be regarded as an indifferent or hostile force, rather than an agent of Providence or the conduit to man's self-realization. Darwin's attention to the kinship of all creatures replaced the Judeo-Christian hierarchy with a democratic network that emphasized humanity's biological origins and undermined the British class system. (26) Schopenhauer also asserts that nature cares not for the individual but for the species, resulting in the will that drives us unconsciously as well as our illusion of free will. (27) In a passage which suggests a remarkable affinity with the title of Conrad's The Mirror of the Sea, Kant explains that in aesthetic judgment we regard nature in a nonteleological manner: "Instead we must be able to view the ocean as poets do, merely in terms of what manifests itself to the eye--e.g. if we observe it while it is calm, as a clear mirror of water bounded only by the sky; or, if it is turbulent, as being like an abyss threatening to engulf everything--and yet find it sublime" (Judgment 5:270). (28) However, if Kant is ultimately preoccupied with humanity's superiority, Mirror dispels anthropocentric fantasies: "the sea has never been friendly to man. At most it has been the accomplice of human restlessness, and play[ed] the part of dangerous abettor of world-wide ambitions"; it cannot be subjugated by "the victorious nations of mankind" (Conrad 135-36). Conrad's sea constitutes the last wilderness on earth, where humanity confronts its meaninglessness before the inhuman universe and must decide whether living with dignity and compassion is the only humane option.

In his 1918 essay "Well Done," Conrad writes that in his early days beginning a voyage was "like being launched into Eternity," an "enormous silence" beneath the wheel of celestial bodies (Notes 182). The sea is "uncertain, arbitrary, featureless, and violent"; it is "the greatest scene of potential terror, a devouring enigma of space" (184). If the sea's power exerts charm, it is "a sort of unholy fascination as of an elusive nymph whose embrace is death and whose stare is terror. That sort of charm is calculated to keep men morally in order," but the source of moral order is not a metaphysical "Spirit of the Sea," but the ship (185, 191, 188). (29) The trope of the otherworldly gothic femme fatale figures the simultaneous fear and desire that draws sailors to the sea. Yet once at sail, they are ethically bound together not by a metaphysical force but by their community on board.

The relationship of humanity and sea, although ultimately one of contestation ("He--man or people--who [puts] his trust in the friendship of the sea [...] is a fool!" [Mirror 125]), is not simply antagonistic. The majestic monotony of the sea can be therapeutic for disturbed hearts, (30) such as Conrad must have experienced when he fled his tragic Polish past. On sailing ships, passengers found solace in the vast solitude and silence at sea, (31) a kind of enforced, prolonged meditation. The sailor's relationship with the ocean develops into a perverse familiarity--"Gales have their personalities" (71)--leading to the personification of nature, such as culminates in Conrad's famously longwinded extravagance on the winds (79-100). Although this anthropomorphism represents nature not for its own sake, he regards it as an original human trait, (32) in keeping with Schopenhauer's transcendental idealism. Yet ultimately the sea is more exacting than land:
   As if it were too great, too mighty for common virtues, the ocean
   has no compassion, no faith, no law, no memory. [...]

      For all its fascination that has lured many to a violent death,
   its immensity has never been loved as the mountains, the plains,
   the desert itself, have been loved. (135-36) (33)

As Nidesh Lawtoo observes, more than any other modernist writer Conrad "consistently represents the environment's power to act on human actions--with a vengeance." (34) Conrad's sea functions as an actant, a source of action that can be human or nonhuman, (35) discouraging anthropocentric arrogance, as when Conrad reveals how present danger abolishes aesthetic distance in his account of the rescue of a Danish crew from a sinking ship. The exquisitely calm weather belies the sea's "cynical indifference" to human suffering: "I had looked coolly at the life of my choice. Its illusions were gone, but its fascination remained. I had become a seaman at last" (141-42).

Conrad's "seaman" gains self-knowledge through a posteriori experience, what Schopenhauer calls "acquired character" (World 1:303). (36) A "seaman" has matured from being merely a sailor to one whose aesthetic education allows him to navigate the new representational space revealed to readers by Conrad's "aestheticizing strategy" that turns ideology "inside out" (Jameson, Political 230-31). If late Victorian tales of the sea served mythologizing functions, (37) providing "spectacle entertaining enough, [but without biting] home" (Reynolds 496), then Conrad invokes those functions only to undo them.


Although a seasoned sailor at the outset of Typhoon, MacWhirr is not yet a seaman, never having experienced the disenchantment of the "immeasurable strength and immoderate wrath" of a hurricane at sea. He knows they exist, as a peaceable citizen in a town hears of battles, famines, and floods, and yet knows nothing of what these things mean [...]. Captain MacWhirr had sailed over the surface of the oceans as some men go skimming over the years of existence to sink gently into a placid grave, ignorant of life to the last, without ever having been made to see all it may contain of perfidy, of violence, and of terror. There are on sea and land such men thus fortunate--or thus disdained by destiny or by the sea. (Conrad, Typhoon 19) (38)

Even at sea, MacWhirr embodies the self-satisfaction of the British back home in the metropolis, or even the young Conrad, who told Edward Garnett that before the Congo he had "not a thought in his head ... I was a perfect animal" (Letters from Joseph Conrad 8). Although he has enough imagination to run away to sea as a young man, Conrad's phrasing suggests MacWhirr is motivated not by free will but by Schopenhauer's will or the capitalist "invisible hand" that, sublimely, set "the unconscious faces of the multitude towards inconceivable goals and in undreamt-of directions" (4-5). (39) However, MacWhirr's "homo duplex" (40) physical description suggests a balance of feminine and masculine, imagination and reason, waiting to be united by the right circumstances: in onshore business offices his eyes are downcast, but when he looks up his glance is direct; his hair is fluffy silk on top but flaming wire on his face; although muscular, he dandyishly sports a bowler hat and suit even on ship, complemented by a silver watch chain and "an elegant umbrella of the very best quality" clutched in his "hairy" fist (3-4); when he puts on his sou'wester, "He went through all the movements of a woman putting on her bonnet before a glass" (36). (41) Just as the sublime collapses without the differ-end between imagination and reason, so MacWhirr will need to marry these oppositions in order to bring about a positive solution to the crisis on board.

Normally, his stolid literalism is an asset (15), but on this journey it nearly leads to tragedy. Rather than detour around the storm as his first mate Jukes suggests and his handbook recommends, a distance of three hundred miles, MacWhirr elects to steam through it to save the company in coal (30-35), (42) implying that his unexamined loyalty to the "invisible hand" clouds his judgment. Frustrated by the situation's uncertainty, he behaves as if he were making a deductive rather than inductive judgment, and his dismissal of the handbook as the work of "an old woman" (24) alerts readers to MacWhirr's repression of the feminine. By comparing nature's violence to human violence, Conrad implies that his "peaceable citizen" outlook impedes the captain's ability to understand his human others as much as it blinds him to the devastating potential of the sea.

The contest between imagination and reason is further figured in Conrad's oceanic descriptions. As the storm approaches, the voices of the authorial narrator and the characters variously merge. (43) In keeping with MacWhirr's perspective, the narrator observes that the physical environment is easily legible: "The China seas north and south [are] full of every-day, eloquent facts, such as islands, sand-banks, reefs, swift and changeable currents--tangled facts that nevertheless speak to the seaman in a clear and definite language" (15). But as the storm advances, the narrator invokes a romantic sublime closer to Jukes's frame of mind: "The far-off blackness ahead of the ship was like another night seen through the starry night of the earth--the starless night of the immensities beyond the created universe, revealed in its appalling stillness through a low fissure in the glittering sphere of which the earth is the kernel" (29). Far from offering a definite set of empirical facts, this description vanishes into abstractions, connoting a breach that reveals a boundless abyss which will plunge the ship into suffering.

In aesthetic contemplation, Schopenhauer asserts, individual consciousness finds relief from strife by losing itself in the object, so that the subject is "no longer able to separate the perceiver from the perception" (World 1:178). The storm's approach incites perceptual confusion, foreshadowing the confounding of human categories during the typhoon itself and blocking discursive analysis. However, the sublime requires distance from danger even as it clarifies our dependence on and struggle with indifferent nature, magnified, Schopenhauer states, "when we are abroad in the storm of tempestuous seas." In this situation, the spectator feels herself simultaneously as a feeble individual before these annihilating forces and as "the eternal, serene subject of knowing, who as the condition of every object is the supporter of this whole world, the fearful struggle of nature being only his mental picture or representation." This supersensible feeling that we create the world and are therefore not ultimately oppressed by its immensity, however, may or may not be subsequently corroborated (1:204-05). In other words, in the sublime we feel as if humanity is superior to nature, but whether this is true in any given circumstance depends on the events that follow the sublime. Therefore, neither MacWhirr nor Jukes can adequately describe the sublime effect of the approaching storm in that moment. Jukes falls back on colloquialisms to describe the weather: "It would make a saint swear. Even here I feel exactly as if I had my head tied up in a woolen blanket." In response, MacWhirr genteelly objects to the violent swearing of the second mate, or, in the words of the narrator, "expostulated against the use of images in speech" (Conrad, Typhoon 25). That is, the sublime may do its ethical work without the subject's conscious intellectual awareness.

Figuring the blurring of perceiver and perceived, the narration employs a limited point of view, moving from one consciousness to another, including an authorial omniscient narrator who has the characteristics of a non-omniscient narrator, (44) resulting in the notorious challenges that have plagued Conrad scholars seeking to peer through his thicket of ironies. By distinguishing between the narrator's and the characters' representations, Conrad emphasizes the gap between what Jukes and MacWhirr experience and their limited ability to organize their perceptions into concepts, distancing himself from his protagonists to establish himself as veiled philosopher. (45) For example, after the captain's objection to figures of speech, the narration suddenly shifts from Jukes's point of view to a single-sentence paragraph in which the narrator remarks: "All the Chinamen on deck appeared at their last gasp" (25). Besides "last gasp" being, of course, a figure of speech, the unexpected intrusion of the coolies' palpable suffering subtly elicits the readers' compassion and establishes dramatic irony, since neither MacWhirr nor Jukes express awareness of their condition at this point, transitioning into one of the remarkable sublime passages:
   At its setting the sun had a diminished diameter and an expiring
   brown, rayless glow, as if millions of centuries elapsing since the
   morning had brought it near its end. A dense bank of cloud became
   visible to the northward; it had a sinister olive tint, and lay low
   and motionless upon the sea, resembling a solid obstacle in the
   path of the ship. She went floundering towards it like an exhausted
   creature driven to its death. (26)

Although not attached to any particular character, by following directly on the first revelation of the coolies' condition this passage suggests their perception as well as the British. If the coolies are at their "last gasp," the sun is "expiring"; if the ship confronts a distant obstacle in the sea, the men will later confront the natural obstacle of the storm and the coolies the political obstacle of racism; if the crew are "exhausted creatures," then the coolies are at least as much. This sublime description is not conceptual but stirs vague apocalyptic terrors, surreptitiously drawing readers into the emotional state of the coolies, blurring the boundaries between self and other. Evoking vast spans of time that dwarf human scale and confound the imagination, Conrad's sublime promises to deflate self-aggrandizing Eurocentrism, or any other principium individuationis.


This and similar passages exemplify the five sources of sublime writing outlined by Longinus: nobility of thought, strong emotion, figures of speech, noble diction, and the arrangement of words. (46) Without identifying the rhetorical sublime in Conrad's text, many critics have observed its reliance on hyperbole and simile. (47) What makes these devices achieve truly sublime writing is that they do not merely persuade but "take the reader out of himself." Like a typhoon, "Greatness appears suddenly; like a thunderbolt it carries all before it and reveals the writer's full power in a flash," raising the writer of genius "close to the nobility of the divine mind" (4, 5, 48). Sublime discourse defamiliarizes not only our surroundings, but makes us "other" to ourselves, in Typhoon characterizing incipient modernist writing. (48) Early reviewers affirmed that the novella achieved these effects: "In reading Typhoon one has constantly, as it were, to catch hold of something solid in order to keep oneself from being swept off one's feet by the fury of the author's sensitive and truthful genius" (Lynd 8). And, the struggle of the ship and men with
   a storm of all but overwhelming power is painted with a vividness
   that leaves us breathless, as though, in fact, we had passed
   through that struggle ourselves. [....] It is rather as though Mr.
   Conrad were a kind of conductor, through which the terror and the
   beauty of a great storm at sea passed to the printed page as if by
   some magical process of translation. Only a man of genius could
   have written "Typhoon" and those other books for which we are
   indebted to Mr. Conrad. ("Superb")

Later theorists of the sublime agree with Longinus on the power of language to enliven. Burke emphasizes the ability of ideas--noble diction like Pity and Glory--to produce sounds and feelings but, crucially, not a particular mental image; because indeterminate, these abstract concepts can move us more than nature itself. (49) Kant considers poetry the highest art form because it can imagine unnatural acts of nature, thereby demonstrating our freedom from nature. (50) And Schopenhauer writes, anticipating reader response theory, that since "the reader's imagination is the material in which poetry presents its pictures," each reader will elaborate a version of the text according to her individuality (World 2:424). Poetry is best able to ignite readers' imaginations because it speaks through perception rather than abstraction, paralleling his claim that we learn compassion experientially rather than conceptually (2:406, 1:368). Lyotard also finds that art, as sensory aesthetic, is best able to testify to social injustice by inciting feelings that are difficult or impossible to articulate conceptually. Post/modern, avant-garde art--the kind I argue that Conrad is writing--bears witness to being without determining what that being ought to be. It rejects the search for metaphysics, instead attempting, and inevitably failing, to express the "inexpressible," which resides "in that (something) happens" (Inhuman 88).

Conrad is one of the last masters of a sublime "grand style," argues Faris (323), that "soars above the trivalities of everyday life to speak with sonorous Olympian detachment about the unavailable truths of human existence" (Greaney, "Style" 104). Being "haunted by the necessity of style" (CL 2:50), he would have agreed on the power of sublime language:

He who wants to persuade should put his trust not in the right argument, but in the right word. The power of sound has always been greater than the power of sense. [...] [Y]ou cannot fail to see the power of mere words; such words as Glory, for instance, or Pity. [....] Shouted with perseverance, with ardour, with conviction, these two by their sound alone have set whole nations in motion, and upheaved the dry, hard ground on which rests our whole social fabric [...]. Mathematics command all my respect, but I have no use for engines. Give me the right word and the right accent, and I will move the world. (Conrad, Record ix-xii)

The examples of Glory and Pity tantalizingly suggest that Conrad had, in fact, read Burke. Regardless, his oeuvre illustrates the power of language and pathos to provide the thrust behind centuries of imperial exploration. If in Heart of Darkness Kurtz's rhetoric hides a moral void, Conrad knows that, like reason, sublime rhetoric is ideologically neutral: a leader's voice can alternatively bring order and justice, as does MacWhirr's. (51) The dispossession of the sublime, therefore, may evoke terror and awe or instead enable positive ethical growth. Since the sublime was traditionally associated with transcendence, however, modernist writers skeptical of absolutes and cultural pieties could not adopt wholesale previous incarnations but used their art to modify its grounding.

Schopenhauer thought that art must take effect through the imagination: "not everything can be given directly to the senses through the work of art, but only as much as is required to lead the imagination on to the right path. Something, and indeed the final things, must always be left over for it to do. Even the author must always leave something over for the reader to think" (World 2:407-08). It is therefore not surprising to find Conrad arguing to Hugh Clifford in 1899 that

You do not leave enough to the imagination. I do not mean as to facts--the facts cannot be too explicitly stated; I am alluding simply to the phrasing. [...] [W]ords, groups of words, words standing alone, are symbols of life, have the power in their sound or their aspect to present the very thing you wish to hold up before the mental vision of your readers. The things "as they are" exist in words; therefore words should be handled with care lest the picture, the image of truth abiding in facts, should become distorted--or blurred. (CL 2:200)

Conrad explains that every novelist makes a world that offers some familiarity to her readers, yet is "individual and a little mysterious" (Notes 6), adding in the 1919 Preface to Typhoon that each of his stories has "more than one intention" and "to mean something, must justify itself in its own way to the conscience of each successive reader" (Prefaces 79). These manifestos culminate in his claim that art successfully appeals to us only through the aesthetic because temperament is not susceptible to conceptual argumentation (51).

Conrad's desire to invite reader participation incites the adjectival excess in Heart of Darkness for which he was rebuked by F.R. Leavis, who praises MacWhirr's "heroic sublimity" (179, 185-86) yet misses the point that superabundant figuration both signifies and recognizes the limits of signification, (52) and Dodson who posits that Conrad's sublime obscurity precludes the reader from seeing. (53) Instead, his textual excess coupled with his settings and themes demonstrate how formal and experiential sublimity are mutually generative. The contrasting passages from Typhoon I have cited demonstrate what Conrad means by leaving things to the imagination. While islands, sand-banks, and swift currents manage to be concrete and general all at once, the sublime passages are a "model of evasion" that speaks the unspeakable (Thurber 44-47). Conrad's sublime language and adjectival indeterminacy incite value judgments without identifying the source or purpose of those judgments such that the characters' emotional impressions are conveyed, yet enable a broad range of readers to construct their own "truth," drawing attention to the dynamic interplay between artist and audience, self and other, form and content.


Conrad's Nietzschean view of language as that which creates reality is supported by his rejection of religious ideologies, unlike Longinus, Burke, and Kant who share a bias towards transcendent Abrahamic monotheism as well as against non-Western others. (54) His extra-literary writings reveal an atheist who regards nature as indifferent to humanity and the purpose of art as testimonial rather than moralizing. (55) If at one point he was a Christian (CL 1:99), (56) he declared to Edward Garnett that he lost his faith two years after his father's death. (57) In 1898 he laments that "What makes mankind tragic is not that they are the victims of nature, it is that they are conscious of it. [....] There is no morality, no knowledge and no hope; there is only the consciousness of ourselves which drives us about a world that whether seen in a convex or concave mirror is always but a vain and fleeting appearance" (CL 2:30). (58) The phrase "drives us about" foreshadows the ship as a creature driven to its death; human consciousness, in the driver's seat, produces cruelty and distortions, one of those being Christianity (CL 5:358). And in the preface to The Shadow-Line, written twenty years later, he asserts that he did not write about the supernatural because, like Schopenhauer, (59)

all my moral and intellectual being is penetrated by an invincible conviction that whatever falls under the dominion of our senses must be in nature [...]. The world of the living contains enough marvels and mysteries as it is; marvels and mysteries acting upon our emotions and intelligence in ways so inexplicable that it would almost justify the conception of life as an enchanted state. No, I am too firm in my consciousness of the marvellous to be ever fascinated by the mere supernatural which (take it any way you like) is but a manufactured article, the fabrication of minds insensitive to the intimate delicacies of our relation to the dead and to the living, in their countless multitude; a desecration of our tenderest memories; an outrage on our dignity. (Conrad, Prefaces 173)

Not only is Christianity under erasure, but all idees fixes which so often give rise to destruction. (60) For the novelist, "Inspiration comes from the earth, which has a past, a history, a future, not from the cold and immutable heaven" (Mirror 95). Rejecting the idealist search for a metaphysics which promised man's deification, Conrad regards human and planetary histories as mutually imbricated.

As I have noted, Lyotard also rejects the Western tradition's "denatured aesthetic" and its doomed attempt to rid the mind "of words, of the matter that they are, and finally of matter itself. Happily this has no chance of success. One cannot get rid of the Thing" (Inhuman 143). (61) Instead, he considers the materiality of language as constitutive of human experience, and his own philosophical work as serving an ethical purpose. (62) Thus, while Kant requires proper moral education before the sublime can do its work, Conrad, Schopenhauer, and Lyotard assert that the aesthetic incites the desire for moral improvement. Conrad's "one invariable intention" in his work "is to capture the reader's attention, by securing his interest and enlisting his sympathies for the matter in hand, whatever it may be, within the limits of the visible world and within the boundaries of human emotions," in order to reveal our common fellowship (Conrad, Prefaces 80, 52). An ethical education must consequently be one based on compassion, engaging the emotions and the sensory imagination. (63)

Conrad draws on the tradition of the sublime in order to rewrite it. His aesthetics are not transcendent, but immanent; his sublime language seeks not to dominate his readership but to generate ethical relations. Conrad's dark ironies exist in tension with the grand, metaphysical tone of his prose, aiming not for pure aestheticism, but an art which achieves its ethics via its aesthetics.


In chapters two through five, Conrad's sublime language aims to rout the reader out of her complacence regarding the challenges faced by sailors, racial prejudice towards the coolies, and assumptions of human supersensibility favored by a beneficent God. The word "rout," which appears when Jukes confronts the storm and as the surname of the chief engineer (which occurs forty-three times), signals the transformative experience of sublime rhetoric as much as the existential confrontation with omnipotent nature.

As the storm approaches, Mac Whirr, exemplifying the heroic Romantic individual lost in a vast seascape, (64) sees it as sublime from his, for now, safe distance: "Ahead of the ship he perceived a great darkness lying upon a multitude of white flashes; on the starboard beam a few amazing stars dropped, dim and fitful, above an immense waste of broken seas, as if seen through a mad drift of smoke" (Typhoon 37). Once "the real thing" (40) arrives, the terror of the sublime is replaced by the literal horror of riding out the storm.

To convey the unrepresentable experience of the gale and the disordering of consciousness caused by the "disintegrating power of a great wind [which] isolates one from one's kind" (40), Conrad resorts to similes that suggest a dismantling of the boundaries between human, nature, and ship. (65) The inanimate Nan-Shan becomes a living creature, humans are animalistic, and natural elements take on human characteristics in Typhoon--everything, then, is an actant, and humanity is demoted from its pinnacle on the Great Chain of Being, reflecting Conrad's vision of the universe as an indestructible, self-generating knitting machine (CL 1:425), akin to Spinoza's or Deleuze and Guattari's concepts of nature. (66)

The narrative intensity is increased by a shift to Jukes's callow perspective as the storm attacks the Nan-Shan with "senseless, destructive fury" (44). The ship careens with "appalling helplessness," like "a clubbed man reels before he collapses" (43), a "child's cradle" (46), and, foreshadowing the political situation with the coolies, "a living creature thrown to the rage of a mob" (47). Lacking the dispassion, Conrad sardonically says, of earthquakes, landslides, and avalanches, a hurricane seems like a "personal enemy" that "seeks to rout [Jukes's] very spirit out of him," and threatens to destroy even physical sight (40; my emphasis). Succumbing to hopelessness when overwhelmed by an "impenetrable obscurity" (45) as the crashing waves hurl him about the deck, Jukes can only repeat the words "'My God!'" (42)

What answers his invocation is not a sublime deity, but interdependent entanglement with other humans as the embodied presence of his captain: the "hug" with MacWhirr, his lips touching his "big, fleshy, very wet" ear, and their final, long embrace, later replicated when the boatswain gropes Jukes and then MacWhirr (42-50). While the homoerotics of maritime life surface here, these intimate moments also figure the marriage of "feminine" imagination and "masculine" reason needed to rescue humanity. Burke in his Enquiry, and later Kant in his Observations, aligned the beautiful with the feminine and social bonding, and the sublime with masculinity and the divine; Conrad implies that such polarization is the illusion to be challenged.

Jukes is further calmed by MacWhirr's voice, suggestive of "the still small voice" of God that Elijah hears after the wind and earthquake (1 Kings 19): "again he heard a man's voice--the frail and indomitable sound that can be made to carry an infinity of thought, resolution and purpose, that shall be pronouncing confident words on the last day, when heavens fall, and justice is done--again he heard it, and it was crying to him, as if from very, very far--'All right'" (44). Fragmented but indomitable, the sound of MacWhirr's voice is "greater than the sense it makes" (Record ix-xii). "It is, after all," Conrad states, "the human voice that stamps the mark of human consciousness upon the character of a gale" (Mirror 79), whose presence announces the mind's "infinity of thought."

With his usual rich humor, however, Conrad makes the content of MacWhirr's statements very bathetic indeed. (67) Rather than sublimely invoking queen and country, his response to Jukes's report that the storm has, in fact, torn away two of their lifeboats is "All right. [...] Can't be helped'" (44), his pedestrian statements proclaiming a feeling of solidarity with the "good men" that built and sail the ship (48, 60). In Conrad's universe, there is no transcendental signifier, only the "highly complex material system" that is language (Lyotard, Fables 98). (68) Subtly mocking both the Kantian claim to disembodied reason and the religious pieties of his implied audience, (69) Conrad's God withdraws into the inglorious figure of the captain.

The aesthetic figure of the sea as a raging mob is actualized and politicized when the crew projects their hysteria onto the Chinese coolies, trapped in the 'tween-deck. MacWhirr's reassurances having failed to make a lasting impression, Jukes falls back into despair: if humanity is meaningless before omnipotent nature, then he can absolve himself of responsibility for others; the storm thus threatens to dissolve any ethics upon which human solidarity must rely. (70) Conrad shifts to the boatswain's perspective for the first glimpse of the coolies below in order to convey the perceptions of a typical crew member, and to distance the narrator from those. Although the coolies are at first feminized with their pigtails and "girlish attitude" (Typhoon 6-7, 21), now their shrieks are confused with the gale's howls that "seemed to take on [...] something of the human character" (56). The animalistic qualities of both crew and coolies, reminding readers of their affinity with "primitive man" (Mirror 71), further demolish any categories of "things." To the boatswain, the coolies appear as a "mound of writhing bodies" evocative of an insect swarm, but when he leaves in horror he finds the second mate no better, hiding "like a malignant little animal under a hedge" (Typhoon 59), while in the stokehold "the plump donkeyman toiled with his shovel mutely" (76), and Rout's arm is "long like a tentacle" (71). Jukes, sent by MacWhirr to investigate, perceives the coolies as "a mass of rolling stones down a bank" and bees swarming the hatchway ladder (62). Together, these images connote a mob of uncontrollable evil objects threatening to overwhelm the spectator.

Sublime mobs are, of course, negatively associated with popular political movements in Burke's polemic, Reflections on the Revolution in France. (71) Kant, however, found them a sign of optimism in The Conflict of the Faculties. The "enthusiasm" of the spectators, as opposed to the participants, manifests a universal yet relatively disinterested--since it might bring political risk--sympathy. Their response incites hope and constitutes an "event" that is not a cause of history but an undetermined historical sign that allows us to look to both past and future and conclude that progress is occurring (Kant, Religion, 4:84, 7:85-86). (72) In other words, the sublime--under the right circumstances--shocks spectators into conceiving a new world order that promises a more humane ethics.

Lyotard addresses the possibility of a liberatory sublime in his exegesis of Kant's political writings, Enthusiasm. The spectators' enthusiasm for the Revolution is sublime because in responding to supersensible ideas, yet retaining its aesthetic validity as an emotional outburst, it comprises a "passage" between nature and the will. The universal feeling evoked cannot be guaranteed in everyone, yet must presuppose the ethical idea of freedom within the spectators, therefore constituting a sign of humanity's progress, which can be identified when it occurs, but not predicted. (73) Emphasizing that inductive reflective judgment is required in the historico-political, he argues that while the "political moralist" has a criterion for judging, the "moral politician" lacks predetermined criteria and can only indeterminately judge case-by-case, guided by the idea of freedom (Lyotard, Enthusiasm 44). Only in this way can we move from theory to practice, otherwise we are unable to break out of a merely logical system into the world. Reflective judgment therefore is "analogous" to the political (4-5, 7).

My argument here is that MacWhirr becomes such a "moral politician" when addressing the conflict with the coolies. Because the opening chapter of the novella sets up MacWhirr as a dullard, however, his leadership easily goes unnoticed. While the conflict with the coolies is mostly focalized through Jukes, in fact it is the boatswain who first reports that they are in trouble. Since the boatswain resembles "an elderly ape," with a good nature that "almost amounted to imbecility" and no initiative, Jukes can't understand why MacWhirr considers him a first-rate petty officer (Conrad, Typhoon 49). The boatswain discovers the coolies in chaos because, in fact taking initiative and without any assistance, he has gone to fetch one of their lamps for the crew huddled in their own panic in the dark (54-55). So horrified by the distress in the 'tween-deck that he forgets the lamp, he is then verbally abused by his fellow crew members: "What the devil did the coolies matter to anybody?" (58) It is his report which incites MacWhirr to send Jukes to investigate, in which he again assists by lowering Jukes down (61). Little more is needed to prove that he thinks "quickly, clearly, competently, like a seaman" (57).

Readers then witness the captain keep up morale with his other officers. He asks Hackett, the helmsman who "suffered from mental stress" and has been "forgotten by all his shipmates" (64), to continue at the wheel. He strikes, offstage, the second mate, who has "lost his nerve" (67), and calls down to chief engineer Rout through the engine-room speaking-tube, where the third engineer, Beale, is at work: "His smooth cheek was begrimed and flushed, and the coal dust on his eyelids, like the black pencilling of a make-up, enhanced the liquid brilliance of the whites, giving to his youthful face something of a feminine, exotic and fascinating aspect" (68). The feminine Beale, the ape-like boatswain, the hugs, the "scholarly" hands of Rout (11), MacWhirr's gender-ambivalent physiology--all these not only displace "the dangers of working-class resentment with the threat of female insubordination" (Nayder 471), but more subtly deconstruct the gender polarities of Victorian adventure fiction. These images suggest that the men who are most compassionate and steady will navigate the ship to safety, while those who exhibit typically macho or will-to-power attitudes--Jukes, the second mate--will lead us to destruction.

When Jukes is sent back by MacWhirr to collect the coolies' scattered silver dollars, "it seemed that an eddy of the hurricane, stealing through the iron sides of the ship, had set all these bodies whirling like dust" (77). (74) Jukes disappears momentarily under a roil of bodies, but is in no real danger, for "There was really no resistance," since the coolies "were by that time fighting only for their footing" (78). Although the boatswain forcibly breaks up some of the crush, the carpenter, suggestive of the story's Christmas time frame, shows the "greater intelligence," tantamount to greater compassion, by setting up rope lines for the men to hold onto (78).

While the crew perceives the Chinese as a naturalized extension of the typhoon, the narrator again slips in a comment that distances Conrad from their chauvinism: "The coming of the white devils was a terror. Had they come to kill?" In the coolies' terrified state, the crew's "gruff words of encouragement [...] sounded like promises of evil" (78-79; my emphasis). For a brief moment, Jukes feels that "in his mad struggle down there he had overcome the wind somehow," and the battered coolies seem more pitiful than if they had been dead (79-80). However, he attributes a false power to himself: the wind has died down because they are entering the eye of the typhoon. And just as discursive language proves a barrier to the coolies' perception of the Europeans, so does it interrupt Jukes's burgeoning compassion:
   Suddenly one of the coolies began to speak. The light came and went
   on his lean, straining face; he threw up his head like a baying
   hound. From the bunker came the sounds of knocking and the tinkle
   of some dollars rolling loose; he stretched out his arm, his mouth
   yawned black, and the incomprehensible guttural hooting sounds,
   that did not seem to belong to a human language, penetrated Jukes
   with a strange emotion as if a brute had tried to be eloquent. (80)

The adjectives used to describe the Chinaman continue the slippage between human and animal, self and storm, dehumanizing the coolies as the "evil" of Kant's dynamical sublime, while at the same time inciting a grisly empathy: "There is something horribly repugnant in the idea of being drowned under a deck" (80).

The coolies' speech is opaque to Jukes, but the question remains: what should readers make of their incomprehensible, wounded outcry? The coolies here function as Lyotard's political, rather than aesthetic, differend: they lack the ability to be heard by those in power for lack of a common discourse. (75) While the political differend could be misinterpreted as a permanent incommensurability, Lyotard indicates it is a potentiality that may be alleviated by ethical action:

The differend is the unstable state and instant of language wherein something which must be put into phrases cannot be. [....] This state is signaled by what one ordinarily calls a feeling. [....] What is at stake in a literature, in a philosophy, in a politics perhaps, is to bear witness to differends by finding idioms for them. [....] In the differend, something "asks" to be put into phrases and suffers from the wrong of not being able to be put into phrases right away. This is when human beings who thought they could use language as an instrument of communication learn through the feeling of pain which accompanies silence (and of pleasure which accompanies the invention of a new idiom), that they are summoned by language, [...] that what remains to be phrased exceeds what they can presently phrase, and that they must be allowed to institute idioms which do not yet exist. (Differend 13)

The "phrase," Lyotard asserts, is not necessarily rendered through discourse but can be communicated through interjections such as Ate, body language--"A wink, a shrugging of the shoulder [...]. And the wagging of a dog's tail, the perked ears of a cat?"--and even affective silence: "The expectant wait of the Is it happening? as silence. Feelings as a phrase for what cannot now be phrased" (70).

Although the animalistic description of the Chinese man appears calculated to fulfill the most racist audience expectations, instead its purpose is to illustrate how Jukes's reported representation of the coolies reflects only his subjective consciousness. As Martin Ray argues, both Conrad and Schopenhauer doubt the efficacy of language to express the essence of things. (76) However, while Ray asserts that Conrad adheres to "a Romantic faith in communal language" (40), the coolies cast an ambiguous light on such optimism. For if they fail to communicate linguistically, the novella itself attempts to convince the readers to "listen" to that which they do not understand for the sake of humanity. Language, rather than canalize reason, must share the stage with other forms of communication that render greater epistemological fullness. The Chinese man expresses himself, presumably in his own language and in the emotional state appropriate to the circumstances; how can any rational person expect him to break into calm, coherent English? If anyone is being indicted here, it must be those who confuse their failure to comprehend with the Chinese inability to speak English. The "Chinaman" phrases: are we listening?

If it is true that Conrad does not recognize the coolies as individuals but only their collective experience of the typhoon, (77) this strategy demonstrates the failure of language to secure social justice for the subaltern, prefiguring our postcolonial awareness that there are no exotic locations or people, only perceptions as such. (78) Rendering their speech as animalistic to the ears of the British while simultaneously representing the crew as devilish in the eyes of the Chinese stresses the common tendency to demonize the other and the unequal power relations subtending global trade: the coolies are abject creatures of exchange, while the sailors are metaphysically evil agents of capitalism's "invisible hand." By including the coolies' perception--unspoken to the crew--of the sailors as "devils," which could have remained unexpressed, Conrad's dramatic irony allows the extradiegetic narrator to distance himself from the crew's racism and testify to the coolies' differend, petitioning readers to overlook the coolies' demonization of the white man and become "sublime characters" themselves. And in choosing to render their speech through the ears of the racist Jukes, rather than the narrator, or reporting a translated version that would not only strain credibility but undermine his overall purpose, Conrad underscores that their claim to justice goes unheard intradiegetically. (79)

Upon his return to report to MacWhirr, Jukes reveals his unconscious ambivalence regarding the coolies' humanity. Having begun the journey referring to the coolies as "passengers" (31), he now states that the crew escaped only because the coolies were half-dead with seasickness, provoking the captain's first admonition that they must be treated fairly. But, contradicting his actual experience, which should have observed the coolies' terrified condition as readers know from the narrator, Jukes brags that it was only his order to retreat that saved the crew (81).

Conrad interrupts the conversation with another sublime moment: the fallen silence echoes their voices back as if in a vault, drawing attention to the aesthetic and ethical importance of their exchange. The sublime terror of the actant storm insinuates itself into Jukes's consciousness, having corrupted his heart (53), re-exciting perception of the Chinese as evil. His mind is very "sensible" indeed as he contradicts the captain's second plea for fairness with the prediction that once the Chinese recover they will attack them because the ship is sailing under a Siamese rather than British flag. MacWhirr's rejoinder, "We are on board, all the same" (83), fails to put his fears to rest, however. In the discourse of adventure fiction, the hero-adventurer changes those around him but remains unaffected himself; (80) signaling that Jukes, who learns nothing, belongs to the past rather than the future, Conrad abandons him and the sublime itself (another seascape paragraph appears), turning his attention to MacWhirr's aesthetic education.

Entering the darkened chartroom alone to consult the barometer, the captain's accustomed dependence on language and sight abandons him, and he must rely on the body to find his way: "There was no light there; but he could feel the disorder of that place where he used to live tidily" (83). Striking a match, "His eyes looked at [the barometer] narrowed with attention, as if expecting an imperceptible sign. With his grave face he resembled a booted and misshapen pagan burning incense before the oracle of a Joss. There was no mistake. It was the lowest reading he had ever seen in his life" (84). A god worshipped in the form of an idol, a joss can refer to an ancestral spirit or another deity of Chinese indigenous religion. (81) The image of a pagan MacWhirr worshipping an empirical instrument dating from the Age of Reason as if it were the religion of his Chinese passengers suggests that he can only appeal to immanence, rather than a metaphysical "imperceptible sign," to guide him through the rest of the storm. (82)

Here he discovers that the handbooks agree with the facts and the worst was yet to come: "The experience of the last six hours had enlarged his conception of what heavy weather could be like. [....] The hurricane had broken in upon the orderly arrangements of his privacy. This had never happened before" (84-85). Shattering his complacence, the aesthetic experience of weathering a typhoon in the South China Seas while responsible for the welfare of a racially tense group of vulnerable men spurs his imagination and makes him "see" at last. The hurricane only manages "to wring out a few words" from MacWhirr, "'I wouldn't like to lose her'" (90), because his education is experiential rather than conceptual. (83)

MacWhirr exemplifies Schopenhauer's boatman: a tiny speck amid the boundless stormy sea, he begins the journey complacently regarding the world as phenomena through the narrow glass of individuation. Only when experience opens his eyes to "a better knowledge" is he able to see beyond solipsism. Although Conrad's phrasing suggests that the captain's supersensible will vanquishes even a typhoon, the text as a whole asserts that the storm is beyond the reach of human powers. MacWhirr's mild speech registers his fresh recognition of man's limitations before omnipotent nature as much as his determination to avoid catastrope, what Lawtoo, following Jean-Pierre Dupuy, calls "enlightened doomsaying." (84) It is important to note, however, that this scene is the summation of what has come before: had he not first assumed the sea was legible, and then experienced the disordering of all human categories during the storm itself, he would not have arrived at the moment of reckoning.

One could alternatively read MacWhirr's epiphany as an answer to the question Conrad posed in an 1897 letter to R.B. Cunninghame Graham: regarding the character of Singleton from The Nigger of the "Narcissus," who is uneducated but "in perfect accord with his life," Conrad asks, what sort of education might be desirable for him, and how much?

Is it to stop at plane geometry or conic sections? Or is he to study Platonism or Pyhrronism or the philosophy of the gentle Emerson? Or do you mean the kind of knowledge which would enable him to scheme, and lie, and intrigue his way to the forefront of a crowd no better than himself? Would you seriously, of malice (85) prepense cultivate in that unconscious man the power to think. Then he would become conscious--and much smaller--and very unhappy. [....] Would you seriously wish to tell such a man: "know thyself." Understand that thou art nothing, less than a shadow, more insignificant than a drop of water in the ocean, more fleeting than the illusion of a dream. Would you? (CL 1:422-23)

Like Schopenhauer, Conrad implies that neither applied mathematics nor philosophy--idealist, skeptical, or Romantic--nor even Kurtzean rhetoric can alleviate an existential glimpse of the thing-world: vital materialism forces us to confront our smallness in the sublime universe. Besides the temporary respite which aesthetic contemplation offers in its release from ego, however, Conrad and Schopenhauer agree that relief from angst can also be gained through the abnegation of the will that arises with compassion, as in the political conflict with the coolies.


Conrad asks his readers to reconsider aesthetic ideology by placing a rhetorically sublime obstacle before them in order to call them into being as ideal readers who, through the exercise of their imagination by phenomenal fiction, are able to "almost" conceptualize the previously unimaginable idea of the humanity of Europe's others. He cannot simply tell his audience that they should see the Chinese as "myself once more" because this would deprive them of the very freedom that constitutes enlightenment. As a novelist who writes MacWhirr's, and humanity's, Bildungsroman, Conrad is also a post-Kantian novelist-philosopher of the Kantian idea of a universal history, literally remaking his readers as they turn the page, producing the process of imagining the enlightenment that is also its product, just as avant-garde art shifts focus from product to process. If Conrad's politics are indeed "unrepresentable" (Dodson, 22), they are a narrative politics which is both godless and just, (86) whose very refusal to speak for the other constitutes a demand that spectators listen in order to broaden their ethical capacity. In his assertion of the coolies' humanity and his testifying to their differend, MacWhirr--and the Routs, boatswain, and carpenter--sustain hope for a culture of heterogeneous humanity, even if they are neither fully conscious of such hope nor can fully realize it into being. That exercise of sympathetic imagination and justice is left to the readers, taken "out of themselves"--routed--by Conrad's sublime style and content.

Just how this happens becomes clear in the last chapter, where the remainder of the storm constitutes a gap in the text, (87) other gaps presenting themselves in the denouement after their safe arrival in Fu-chau, told through the device of three letters home, from MacWhirr and Solomon Rout to their wives, and from Jukes to a friend. Conrad deploys layers of mediation to incite readers to participate in interpreting the story's final meaning, (88) Typhoon illustrating those self-reflexive stories that reveal "The functioning of that basic cultural machinery which, through the manipulation of our beliefs [...] produces ideologies, contradictory world visions, self-delusion" (Eco, Role 256). The question of "good readers" comes to the fore because Conrad's audience is not only presented with competing interpretations of the preceding events, but four different intradiegetic readers of those texts. The events on board the Nan-Shan must be pieced together from varied accounts, nor does Conrad offer the letters in their entirety. Jukes writes in the jovial, boasting tone of the British hero/adventurer to a male friend who may represent a typical pro-imperial reader. MacWhirr's letter is read by the steward surreptitiously before it is sent and later by Mrs. MacWhirr, who exemplifies the complacent self-absorption of the metropolitan audience and their poor reading habits Conrad may have feared: "I don't know what the respectable (hats off) part of the population will think [...]. Probably nothing. They never think. It isn't respectable" (CL 1:422). Finally, Mrs. Rout emerges as a model reader--thorough, sympathetic, and astute, contesting objections that Conrad's women are "out of touch with truth" (Heart 53)--along with her husband who reads and recounts the "text" of the ship dynamics most accurately.

Characteristically bloviating, Jukes represents himself in his letter as far more "indomitable" than he was, "for he felt thus when he wrote" (Typhoon 97). (89) In fact, the narrator reveals, the men barely escape with their lives, and the Nan-Shan looks like a bomb target or flotsam for salvage (66). (90) What MacWhirr saved in coal he probably lost in the subsequent repairs: ironically, he steamed through the storm because he couldn't make an appeal to ignorance case retroactively to his superiors, yet as a result the ship--"the handiest boat of her size on the coast of China" (8)--is nearly destroyed: an onlooker offers to buy it for five pounds "'as she stands'" (91). And yet, Jukes's is the only account that reveals the resolution of the mayhem on deck: MacWhirr lets the coolies out, over his objections, and works with one of their representatives to redistribute the scattered money equally among the men. Jukes has a sudden insight: "'It struck me in a flash that these confounded Chinamen couldn't tell we weren't a desperate kind of robbers. [....] We need have been desperate indeed to go thieving in such weather, but what could these beggars know of us?'" As usual, however, he quickly reverts to paranoia, seeking arms in case of a political hurricane, to be dismissed by MacWhirr as "monkey tricks" (100). (91)

Yet when the coolies emerge on deck he is taken aback by their suffering: "'They had had a doing that would have shaken the soul out of a white man. But then they say a Chinaman has no soul. He has, though, something about him that is deuced tough'" Jukes repeatedly allows his experiential insights to be overridden by ideology, never achieving real compassion for the Other. If Jukes learns anything from his experience, it is expressed in this begrudging respect for the battered Chinese who seem hardly troubled by one man's eye bulging from its socket (101). And if their stoicism reflects what may be Conrad's admiring stereotype of Buddhist renunciation, Jukes baits readers with the reassertion of racial supremacy in denying the coolies souls. Typhoon deploys antistrophen irony, presenting Jukes's arguments for Conrad's ulterior purposes.

While MacWhirr's fears that the ship would go down are relayed to the readers by the steward (94), his wife's reception of his text registers how uninterested she is in his welfare. The pretentious daughter of "a superior couple who had seen better days," she surrounds herself with bourgeois domestic appointments and exotic souvenirs from the captain's travels. Her interest in his improved salary--his likely motive for keeping down costs--is to fund her shopping habit, noted by the price of a black marble clock, which constitutes 13% of the forty-five-pound annual rent of their home (93-94; 14). Ignoring the letter's overleaf, which details MacWhirr's fears that he might die on Christmas Day, she misses that this intimate revelation is for her eyes alone. As for the coolies, she glances over textual snippets: "'Do what's fair.... Miserable objects.... Only three, with a broken leg each, and one ... [with a bulging eye?] thought had better keep the matter quiet ... hope to have done the fair thing....'" (94). Indifferent to the men's brush with mortality, her response is relief that MacWhirr isn't coming home.

By contrast, the jolly Mrs. Rout, whose loving marriage is celebrated by the narrator in the opening chapter, receives her husband's letter with affirmation: "'Solomon says wonders will never cease,'" she reports to his mother, adding that the simple MacWhirr has "'done something rather clever,'" although Rout doesn't reveal what (96). He downplays their close call by only briefly mentioning the typhoon, but hints at how shaken he is by expressing his longing for his wife's presence. Yet he, too, is caught in the capitalist machine: he needs the money, and his wife must stay in England to care for his aged mother (97). Other women easily overlooked include Jukes's mother, who despite being left badly off when his depressive father dies in "a [hereditary?] state of resignation" after a business crisis was "resolute" and "very firm in his bringing up" (52). The boatswain's wife, along with their two daughters, does well running her shop in East London; at the height of the storm, her husband imagines her telling him, "'Serve you right, you old fool, for going to sea'" (61). By performing important domestic labor, in both senses of the word, these women counter the claim that all sailors' wives are parasitic, (92) suggesting a critique of Victorian gender constructs is part of Conrad's ethical aim.

The Routs, as those most likely to take the lessons of Typhoon self-consciously to heart and advance the emancipation of humanity, emerge as the true hero and heroine hiding in plain sight. As chief engineer, he is primarily responsible for guiding the ship through the crashing sea: "'It mostly rests with you,'" Mac Whirr tells him (66). Cool-headed, skilled, and compassionate, his pragmatism counteracts the drift to chaos, embodying the collaborative work ethic extolled by Conrad as the source of true solidarity in a harsh world. (93) If Rout is a surrogate author, 94 as his pale, scholarly hands suggest (11), he and his wife also model "reading" for Conrad's audience. Just as Mrs. Rout reads her husband's letters appreciatively, so does Solomon wisely read the signs on board the Nan-Shan, treating Jukes like an "excited schoolboy" (11-12), and changing his view of MacWhirr from "the dullest ass" to "rather clever" (16, 96). In fact, the narrator invites readers to look beyond cliche from the opening pages: "Captain MacWhirr wrote home from the coast of China twelve times every year, desiring queerly to be 'remembered to the children,' and subscribing himself 'your loving husband,' as calmly as if the words so long used by many men were, apart from their shape, worn-out things, and of a faded meaning" (15). Mrs. MacWhirr may be a poor reader, but the captain's letters fail to incite her imagination. Packed with details that "interested him much more than they possibly could the woman for whose eye they were intended" (15) on the far side of the gender divide, and elaborated with dutifully saccharine phrases, they suggest not sublime oratory but a schoolboy's dull essays. MacWhirr's letters are really a diary, revealing his lack of emotional connection with his wife, and his words, like Hugh Clifford's, are not handled with care. If MacWhirr fails to "rout" London out of its slumber, his author is determined to succeed, Conrad thus simultaneously paying homage to his adopted country and critiquing its imperial ambition from within. (95) By reframing the ordeal as competing models of writing and reading, he subtly chastises his audience (96) for poor reading habits and willed indifference to the human fodder enabling their bourgeois consumption.

Although critics often remark on the difficulty of coming to stable interpretations of Conrad's texts, Typhoon offers an explicit clue early on: "The Nan-Shan was on her way southward to the treaty port of Fu-chau with some cargo in her lower holds, and two hundred Chinese coolies returning to their village homes in the province of Fo-kien, after a few years of work in various tropical colonies" (6; my emphasis). Following a series of descriptions that conform to racial stereotype, the paragraph closes by observing their worldly possessions: "a small hoard of silver dollars, toiled for in coal lighters, won in gambling-houses or in petty trading, grubbed out of the earth, sweated out in mines, on railway lines, in deadly jungle, under heavy burden--amassed patiently, guarded with care, cherished fiercely" (7). Not only does the narrator insist the men are not cargo, but he implicitly contrasts Western racial stereotypes with their belabored sacrifices that parallel the wages earned by the crew also dangerously journeying abroad to return wealth to London. Typhoon incites compassion for both coolies and sailors, similarly if unequally trapped in the vortices of imperial maritime capital that regards itself as providential and "whose principal metaphor is the storm" (Forman 401, 410). It begins with romantic sublime figures that disintegrate once "the real thing" comes, and ends with MacWhirr's modest--but radical if considered a metaphor for the solution to capitalism's economic inequalities--answer to the scramble for loot in the liminal space of the 'tween-deck, a symbol of his mediation between crew and coolies, self and other, ideal and real.

If MacWhirr at least has the power of speech, however impoverished, as the political differend the coolies are denied this right. Working under dehumanizing conditions approaching slavery, they are treated as instrumental means rather than moral ends both by the Chinese agent of the Bun Hin Company who agrees to their traveling in the 'tween-deck (Conrad, Typhoon 13), and MacWhirr himself (31). If the latter serves as their witness and speaks and acts on their behalf, this results from his admittedly vague sense of moral rectitude arising from compassion. Although he has asserted that the coolies are "only Chinamen" (88), his determination to protect them from injustice demonstrates that his thoughts and speech acts do not align. In his final letter, Jukes liberally interprets the captain's statement "We are on board" by adding the inflection we, meaning that as representatives of the British Empire they were in charge of the ship regardless of its ensign (98). Given the text's preoccupation with interpretation, however, MacWhirr's "we" could include everyone on board, indicating, rather sensibly, that no one would gain from a fight breaking out in the middle of a hurricane. Indeed, what preoccupies him during the eye of the storm is whether the trouble in the 'tween-deck has been addressed. For if the ship went down, "then, at least, she wouldn't be going to the bottom with a lot of people in her fighting teeth and claw. That would have been odious. And in that feeling there was a humane intention and a vague sense of the fitness of things" (85). If he is not racially enlightened, he does regard the Chinese as fellow humans: "'Give them the same chance with ourselves--hang it all. She isn't lost yet. Bad enough to be shut up below in a gale--[...] without being battered to pieces' [...]. 'Couldn't let that go on in my ship, if I knew she had five minutes to live'" (88). In his letter he mentions the desire to be "fair" twice, and reports that three of the men have broken legs (94), concretizing their injuries beyond the psychological in contrast to the crew, none of whom has suffered bodily harm. If the men on board are to die, MacWhirr would prefer the storm to be the cause, not their loss of humanity.

Furthermore, it cannot be argued that MacWhirr treats the coolies fairly because to do so is simple human kindness. First, originally it is Jukes who refers to them as "passengers," and MacWhirr who counters that they are merely "coolies" (31). The irony of their reversals should not be overlooked: when Jukes feels safe he advances justice, but when threatened his hypocrisy is revealed; MacWhirr, apparently oblivious, proves a man of integrity. Second, the simple human kindness argument falls short because if someone as "stupid" as MacWhirr could figure that out, it should follow that all the European agents of imperialism should act out of simple human kindness to advance justice, when clearly they do not. This is, in fact, the point of Kant, Schopenhauer, and Lyotard's various preoccupations with the origin of ethical action. For Kant, the only guarantee of ethics is the presumption of humanity's innate supersensible respect for the moral law, which nevertheless requires proper education. For Schopenhauer, such a universal law may not exist, but compassion is a universal human trait, though difficult to incite because selfishness predominates. Lyotard, splits the difference by arguing that the differend characterizes both aesthetic and political sublimity; the incommensurability between the imagination or senses and reason creates discomfort, potentially then guiding witnesses reflectively to consider the best way to harmonize this gap. Therefore, it is plausible in Typhoon that some of the men might be moved to assist the coolies, while others retreat into self-interest.

MacWhirr's only possible motives for treating the coolies with consideration are to prevent disorder on deck, and empathy. Regarding the first, which treats them as instrumental means to the end of professional success, there would have been no need for him to send Jukes to check on the Chinese, and simply preventing the crew from taking up arms would have sufficed to put down any insurrection. The second treats the coolies as ends in themselves: investigating their well-being and redistributing the money are small scale acts that may seem to have little effect on the systemic depredations of global capitalism, yet they are more than is required in the circumstances and accrue no direct benefit to him other than Rout's quiet epistolary praise, which further proves that MacWhirr's actions do influence some of his peers. As I have pointed out, MacWhirr is not the only man on board to act voluntarily on behalf of the coolies: the first is the "industrious gorilla," the boatswain (79), who risks his life for them twice, but whose epithet hints simultaneously at Darwin's leveling of the animal/human binary and racist dismissals of the Other.

Given that the text has offered the highest ethical praise to the "hairy ape," the forgotten Hackett, the carpenter, and the "stupid" MacWhirr; subtly championed the feminine in Mrs. Rout, Jukes's mother, the boatswain's wife, and the gender-ambivalent Beale, Rout, and MacWhirr; and elided the boundaries between "things" by representing coolies, crew, and ship as suffering animals before the storm, it is clear that Typhoon interrogates Kant's assertion that only (allegedly) rational beings can serve as ends in themselves. (97) Conrad instead offers a Schopenhauerian posthumanist ethics, contending that those without religious faith can act justly even when a misdeed would not have been detected, or they would have benefitted from a misdeed. (98)

What routs MacWhirr out of the complacency with which he begins the novella is not only an actant hurricane, though that is necessary to disturb his assumptions. It is also the emotional suffering of compassion, in which the barrier between ego and non-ego is momentarily broken down, a mysterious process that cannot be explained by Kantian reason. (99) MacWhirr, emblematically, feels rather than thinks his way towards an ethical decision, which may explain why he vacillates unselfconsciously between inherited racist ideology and more intuitive impulses towards human decency. His aesthetic education over twenty years' time, (100) "that sort of experience which teaches a man slowly to see and feel" (Mirror vi), has hardly been conscious. MacWhirr's laconic character serves as a cover for Conrad to deny access to his thoughts, forcing the reader into interpretation, and Jukes's final assessment, "'I think that he got out of it very well for such a stupid man'" (Typhoon 102), mistakenly ranks verbal agility over emotional intelligence. What really matters, Conrad implies, is not how smart we are but how ethical.

Jukes's racially incoherent views and MacWhirr's unconsidered dedication to the imperial project may reflect Conrad's view of human weakness, as he wrote in 1898:

Life knows us not and we do not know life--we don't know even our own thoughts. Half the words we use have no meaning and the other half each man understands each word after the fashion of his own folly and conceit. Faith is a myth and beliefs shift like mists on the shore [...] only the string of my platitudes seems to have no end. [....] And we don't know what forgiveness is, nor what is love, nor where is God. (CL 2:17)

If MacWhirr's conceptual articulation has not improved, he has "acquired character," redeeming his questionable judgment in putting the men's lives at risk with aesthetic judgment that leads to compassionate action.

MacWhirr sees the coolies as "myself once more," performing one of those "single acts, on a small scale," in which a person comes to the aid of others, "sometimes even exposing himself to the most imminent peril for the sake of one he has never seen before, and this, without once thinking of anything but the fact that he witnesses another's great distress and danger" (Schopenhauer, Basis 203). Transferring these individual actions into policy is hard to track, but when enough political will is mobilized it can result in large scale actions, such as "when after long consideration, and many a stormy debate, the noble-hearted British nation gave twenty millions of pounds to ransom the negroes in its colonies, with the approbation and joy of a whole world" (203-04). "We are on board" sounds the sublime voice that reminds Jukes of his ethical obligation to the other, Conrad doubling his point by revealing sublime rhetoric's power to change human history. (101)

Edward Said applauds Conrad for the Marxist recognition of capitalism's subsumptive power, observing that late-nineteenth-century imperialism appeared to be a totalizing system, yet chastises him for failing to envision an alternative to Western hegemony. (102) It's difficult to see how Conrad can meet both of these expectations at once: either capitalism is totalizing or it isn't. Moreover, criticizing Lyotard's skepticism towards metanarratives as denying the politics of liberation, Said argues this led modernist writers into a formal irony characterized by aestheticized paralysis. (103) Paradoxically, however, when confronting the difficulty of how to liberate the voices of the subaltern, Said chooses Conradian withdrawal into silence or, preferably, the work of the intellectual expressed "through irony and skepticism," and recognizes that there can only be approximations, not representations, of injustice, "which have the effect of punctuating discourse with disenchantment and demystification. To have that opportunity is at least something" (Reflections 526; original emphasis). (104)

If injecting doubt into the sublime monolith of Western hegemony really can be counted as something, (105) then, I argue, Conrad fulfills Said's minimum expectations rather well. He can't justifiably speak for the Other or credibly articulate an alternative non-Western world as these would lead to condemnations from both sides. And if the coolies were considered paying passengers, then Typhoon would have no central conflict, offer no critique, and no demand for ethical reeducation. While his European protagonists are unable to present alternatives to an imperialist worldview, Conrad's exilic status made his relationship to the imperial system frictional; if he fails to imagine a postcolonial native autonomy, what he can do is show readers, through irony and skepticism, where the fissures lie that allow them--colonials and future postcolonials alike--to imagine a way forward and out. The Lyotardian call for avant-garde art to disturb conventional attitudes by testifying to political differends is, (106) in fact, much like Said's call for demystifying discourse. And just as Lyotard can only hope but not guarantee that testimonials may incite ethical action, so also Said acknowledges that a discourse of disenchantment may be a compromised rather than ideal solution to injustice. Conrad therefore more subtly solicits his conservative readers' compassion for the Chinese against their expected inclinations. Ironic distance disallows Jukes the aesthetic and ethical, if not literal, last word.

Conrad tests his readers' credulity by laying a trap. If fin de siecle racial attitudes incoherently coexist with more enlightened moral values, embodied knowledge trumps abstract social norms: only passengers have the right to be treated as more than ballast. We cannot control a cyclone, but we can control how we treat other people and the natural environment. Conrad could have retained the more explicit working title, "Equitable Division" (CL 2:169), but no: he wants his readers to work for it, stating that "it would be vain to discourse about what I made of [the opportunity to write about MacWhirr and the typhoon] since the pages themselves are here, between the covers of this volume, to speak for themselves" (Conrad, Prefaces 79). This is in keeping with Schopenhauer's observation that the arts speak through perception, not concepts, offering a mere fragment of truth and temporary satisfaction, not the whole, which can only be presented as an abstraction. (107) Consequently, the audience is "entirely satisfied by the impression of a work of art only when it leaves behind something that in spite of all our reflection on it, we cannot bring down to the distinctness of a concept" (Schopenhauer, World 2:409).

Lyotard argues that theories are in any case concealed narratives whose claims to universality should be regarded with suspicion. (108) In Enthusiasm, he deconstructs Kant's rejection of the novel for producing sentimentality rather than sublime ideas of reason, and therefore failing to activate the will for ethical ends. (109) Lyotard discerns that the Idea of Idea for a Universal History can in fact be an idea of the imagination, rather than reason, because the aesthetic idea is the realm of genius. (110) This same genius is invoked at the beginning of Idea "in order to write the history of humanity," which could only be a novel, (111) because geniuses "do not 'exposit' that Idea; they show it without bringing it back to a concept" (Lyotard, Enthusiasm 51-53). The (sublime) superabundance of historical data processed by the non-genius imagination without a rule means the understanding is overwhelmed, can never cease processing this material, and cannot totalize it under a concept. Only the reflective judgment of genius--nature's gift--can express a "passage" between artistic presentation and cognitive phrase, producing an Idea--an "almost concept"--from the welter of data. Furthermore, Kant admits that conjectural history is no better than fiction, and uses Genesis as a map for his "novel," so that the reader may recognize that in being doomed to suffering humanity is also doomed to freedom; (112) such a "novel" does not provoke sentimentality but endows the reader with sublime affect (53-54). The imagined reader of Kant's Conjectural Beginning of Human History is consequently not that of the Aufklarung, who is already learned in Ideas, but is "a partner to whom the power to struggle must be rendered because that partner thinks [...]. The addressee must be torn from the perverse fascination of indifferentism, of the 'It's all the same,' and even from the melancholia of the 'We don't matter.' What must be rendered to the addressee is the sublime humor [needed] if it is true that [it] is up to humans alone [...] to realize that freedom" (58). Thus, Lyotard concludes, the historico-polical can be phrased by the novel, and as such it must be "a novel of culture, a Bildungsroman, in the critical sense of the cultivation of the will, for its protagonist and for its reader" (59). The philosopher of the Idea of a universal history, with each act of writing, can only fictionally call into being the ideal readers who have not yet arrived and who are always in a state of becoming (48-50). Typhoon, I have argued, constitutes one such ethical Bildungsroman, and Conrad one such novelist-philosopher of the history of humanity whose genius explodes into view when we finally see. (113)

Kant regards man as the final purpose of creation, without which it would be "a mere wasteland, gratuitous" (Judgment 5:442). But Typhoon blows apart Kant's myth of human exceptionalism as an environmentally-centered text which regards human history and natural history as mutually imbricated, and promotes a politics that seeks to be perceptually open to the agentic web of material vitality. (114) Indeed, Conrad writes,
   I have come to suspect that the aim of creation cannot be ethical
   at all. I would fondly believe that its object is purely
   spectacular: a spectacle for awe, love, adoration, or hate, if you
   like, but in this view--and in this view alone--never for despair!
   Those visions, delicious or poignant, are a moral end in
   themselves. The rest is our affair--the laughter, the tears, the
   tenderness, the indignation, the high tranquility of a steeled
   heart, the detached curiosity of a subtle mind--that's our affair!
   And the unwearied self-forgetful attention to every phase of the
   living universe reflected in our consciousness may be our appointed
   task on this earth. A task in which fate has perhaps engaged
   nothing of us except our conscience, gifted with a voice in order
   to bear true testimony to the infinite passion and the illimitable
   serenity; to the supreme law and abiding mystery of the sublime
   spectacle. In this view there is room for every religion except for
   the inverted creed of impiety, the mask and cloak of arid despair;
   for every joy and every sorrow, for every fair dream, for every
   charitable hope. (Record 92)

To Bruce Johnson's query that "above all we do not know in what sense it is [Conrad's] art rather than his values that lends us moral courage" (Johnson 182, qtd. in Senn 7), Conrad replies that his art, his style, his aesthetics, is a form of moral courage. Typhoon, as sublime art, is the third typhoon. The artist as moral politician, rather than political moralist, is best suited for expressing a spectacular universe and the fellowship of all humanity, past and future. Existence is nature's temporary gift, (116) and writing, Conrad agrees, unites "the consciousness of the human race, which is incessantly interrupted by death" (Schopenhauer, World 2:446). In his appeal to a common humanity, he also articulates Schopenhauer's view of the true philosophy of history that recognizes "the same humanity, in spite of all difference in the special circumstances, in costume and customs" (2:444). Yet Typhoon asserts this universality through a Lyotardian petit recit that insists justice can only be narrated phenomenally, not theorized noumenally: "[N]o one can prescribe to the poet that he should be noble and sublime, moral, pious, Christian, or anything else, still less reproach him for being this and not that. He is the mirror of mankind, and brings to consciousness what it feels and does" (Schopenhauer, World 1:249). Conrad, too, disdains the schools of Realism, Romanticism, and Naturalism as ultimately abandoning the artist to his conscience (Prefaces 53). Readers seeking a clear vision of truth may never be satisfied, but justice does peer out from behind the veils of consciousness in Typhoon. If that is not enough for us, we have Conrad partly to thank for refreshing the aesthetic tradition by washing away the residue of Western ideology. His post/modern sublime is "still sublime in the sense that Burke and Kant described and yet it isn't their sublime anymore" (Lyotard, Inhuman 92-93). Conrad's avant-garde art returns the soul to "the agitated zone between life and death, and this agitation is its health and its life" (100). The indulgence of indifferentism or nihilism, Jukes's failing, cannot be countenanced by the poet, who must cherish intellectual, rather than emotional, humility and "an undying hope" (Conrad, Notes 8). And although the captain says "'you don't learn everything in books'" (Typhoon 81, 101), Typhoon is, of course, a book that may guide us to our better selves.

MacWhirr, in his flawed and incomplete manner, both voices and materially realizes the solidarity of humankind and recognizes his debt to nature in becoming a "seaman." By rescuing the men on board the Nan-Shan from death, he keeps alive the possibility that humanity may yet save itself from itself. Conrad's sublime novella, with its uncharacteristically comic ending, is meant to incite an enthusiasm in its readers that is itself a sign of progress.


(1.) For negative evaluations, see Guerard 294; Baines 257; and Daleski, "Christmas" 34; for positive, see Kirschner, "Introduction," Typhoon 13; Lothe 102; Senn 61; and Carabine, "Introduction" x. I wish to thank the anonymous reviewers of an earlier draft of this paper for their invaluable comments.

(2.) Acheraiou 37.

(3.) See Armstrong, Play 74-75.

(4.) See DeBolla.

(5.) Buell 102; Bennett, passim.

(6.) Wollaeger 11.

(7.) Such observations were made as early as 1903 in The Athenaeum (qtd. in Thorburn 6). Stephen Reynolds, writing in 1912, observes that Conrad wrote "novels of the sea, as opposed to novels about the sea" (qtd. in Carabine, Assessments 497; original emphasis).

(8.) Watt 96; Armstrong, Bewilderment 166, n. 20.

(9.) Watt 44, 96, 99.

(10.) By my rough count, the word "sublime" appears more than 80 times in his fiction and extra-literary works.

(11.) Those include Thurber, Dodson, and Faris. Thorburn does not address the sublime in Conrad's Romanticism. Dodson and Thurber restrict their analyses to Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, and Nostromo. Dodson finds no conclusive evidence that Conrad was familiar with Kant, though he could have been exposed to him during his schooling in German historiography (7; See CL 7:615; Knapp Hay 20; Najder, Chronicle 11). The influence of Polish Romanticism on Conrad continues to receive much attention since Gillon; Najder; Milosz; and Busza. Armstrong's The Challenge of Bewilderment posits that in Conrad's work bewilderment can awaken us out of complacence, but downplays his Romantic affinities (166, n. 20). Jameson identifies sublime passages in Typhoon as key to Conrad's "aestheticizing strategy" (Political 230-31), but avoids direct mention of the sublime, historically the transformative aesthetic par excellence.

(12.) Faris 325, 305. Although Turner's direct influence has not been determined, given that his work was well-known and frequently displayed in London it seems nearly impossible that Conrad would not be familiar with him; Conrad proposed to his wife, Jessie, on the steps of the National Picture Gallery (Jessie Conrad, Circle 12). On Turner as a preface to Impressionism, see Warrell; on the influence of Impressionism on Conrad, see Peters; and Watt.

(13.) I thank John Batchelor for directing me to this letter.

(14.) See Lothe; Peters; Senn; and Said, Culture 29.

(15.) Kant, Judgment 5:176-79. Citations reflect the Deutsche Akademie pagination unless otherwise indicated.

(16.) Kant, Judgment 5:176, 250, 256-57.

(17.) Kant, Judgment 5:260. Conflating the sublime and evil violates his demand for aesthetic disinterestedness because to judge evil requires a concept, as does his claim that the sublime involves emotion and therefore cannot be a disinterested judgment of taste. Furthermore, Kant's notion of radical evil suggests that the will is divided against itself (Religion 6:18, passim). Kant allows that aesthetics can be either interested (impure) or disinterested (pure) (Judgment 5:223-24) and only disinterested aesthetics can serve as a bridge between nature and freedom (5:266-78). Arguably, the mathematical sublime alone may fulfill the criteria for disinterestedness but Kant does not make this explicit.

(18.) Kant, Judgment 5:265; Spivak 2-30.

(19.) See the Preface to the first edition (xv) and Appendix to The World as Will and Representation, as well as The Basis of Morality.

(20.) His masterwork The World as Will and Representation was published in 1818-19, with the first English translation by R.B. Haldane and J. Kemp appearing in 1883-86, and the first French by Auguste Burdeau in 1885. The Basis of Morality was first published in German in 1840 and first translated into French by Burdeau in 1879, and into English by Arthur Brodrick Bullock in 1903; if the latter text influenced Conrad's major works published at the turn of the century, it must have been the French translation, although he was exposed to German during his schooling. Conrad's relationship to World has been much explored, but not the ethics in Basis. See Bonney; Caulfield; Hervouet 159, 263-64, n. 17; Karl, Three Lives 194; Kirschner, Conrad 267-69; Madden; Panagopoulos; Ray; Watt 350; Wollaeger.

(21.) Knowles 75-78.

(22.) Schopenhauer, Basis 238, 268-70.

(23.) Schopenhauer, World 1:99, 417, 503; Basis 35, 92-93.

(24.) Kant, Judgment 5:274, 265; Schopenhauer, Basis 63-64, 76, 143.

(25.) Schopenhauer, World 2:185, and passim.

(26.) Lord 16. Evidence that Conrad kept abreast of Victorian scientific discoveries can be found in his correspondence (Lester 13).

(27.) Schopenhauer, World 1:275.

(28.) See Dodson 16; DeMan 80.

(29.) Conrad negatively compares the spell of the sea to Islam (Record 110) but did not regard Christianity as a salutary alternative.

(30.) Conrad, Mirror 7.

(31.) Conrad, Last Essays 58.

(32.) Conrad, Mirror 71.

(33.) In the distinction between the lovable earth and the awesome sea, Conrad replicates Burke's identification of the beautiful and domesticable with love, and the sublime and wild with respect (Burke, Enquiry 61).

(34.) Lawtoo, Shadow, Kindle Loc. 681.

(35.) Latour 237; Bennett viii.

(36.) Schopenhauer, Basis 241ff; World 2:197.

(37.) Behrman 22.

(38.) Citations from Typhoon are from The Nigger of the "Narcissus" Typhoon, Falk, and Other Stories, ed. Norman Sherry, drawn from the 1945 Dent edition.

(39.) Maisonnat argues that that Conrad's echoing Adam Smith's famous phrase characterizing the free market indicates MacWhirr is derivative of the economic systems and storms he navigates (34, 179). See also Pearson.

(40.) Conrad wrote, "Homo duplex has, in my case, more than one meaning" (CL 3:89).

(41.) MacWhirr resembles his author's foppish dress as well as his dour reputation (See Najder, Life 129-30).

(42.) Savle argues that according to maritime records and newspaper accounts a full-powered steam-ship was expected to face a typhoon directly and therefore that MacWhirr may have made the correct decision.

(43.) Lothe observes that the authorial narrator is prominent in Ch. 1, cedes to other characters in the intervening chapters, and falls silent in the last (Ch. 7); see also Peters 28.

(44.) Peters 28.

(45.) Lothe persuasively asserts that there is no reason to doubt the veracity of the authorial narrator (Ch. 7).

(46.) Longinus 10.

(47.) See Acheraiou; Kolupke; Maisonnat; and Senn. Conrad also deploys forms of amplification, hyperbaton, the melding of narrative and character voice, and periphrasis (Longinus 19, 33, 38-39).

(48.) See Shklovsky, "Art as Technique."

(49.) Burke, Enquiry 152, 157.

(50.) Kant, Judgment 5:326-27.

(51.) Carabine describes MacWhirr as Kurtz's "antithesis" (xv). Many have noted Conrad's ambivalence regarding the power of language (e.g., Greaney, Language 1), however the connection to sublime rhetoric has not been much explored.

(52.) Kolupke 72-74. Many critics have observed that Conrad anticipates the poststructuralist claim that experience is always mediated by discourse, including: Acheraiou 31-32; Pearson 29; Davies 24; Cedric Watts 4; Jameson, Political 207; Greaney, Language; Lawtoo, ed., Conrad's Heart of Darkness. See also Wollaeger xvii; and Armstrong, Bewilderment 16.

(53.) Dodson 20-21.

(54.) Regarding Longinus, see 14, 47-48; and Crossett and Arieti 8, 41. Regarding Kant, see Observations, and Judgment 5:274, 265; Louden; Mendieta and Elden (eds.); and Mikkelsen. For Burke, see Enquiry 64; and Meg Armstrong.

(55.) Critics have differed on the extent of Conrad's religious belief. See Lester.

(56.) Conrad, CL 1:99.

(57.) Conrad, CL 2:468.

(58.) See also Conrad's letters of 1892 in Collected Letters. While many critics point out that his correspondence should not be read ingenuously (e.g., Wexler), nevertheless his repeated criticism of Christianity across his extra-literary writings offers compelling evidence that his position was not merely rhetorical.

(59.) Schopenhauer, World 1:281.

(60.) Lester 168-69.

(61.) Despite his antipathy to postmodernism, Jameson shares (unstated) common ground with Lyotard's aim to find in art a release of the libidinal energies that might disrupt hegemonic capitalism, suggested in his analysis of Conrad in The Political Unconscious (231-32, 236). See also his introduction to Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition.

(62.) Gaming 16-17.

(63.) Conrad, Prefaces 51; Schopenhauer, Basis 241-42, 248.

(64.) Faris 324.

(65.) See Juhasz and Maisonnat on the "real thing" as the Lacanian Real which disrupts speech and differentiation.

(66.) Spinoza, Ethics; Deleuze and Guattari, 254; see Bennett 118.

(67.) Carabine, "Introduction" xiii; Wegelin 45-50; Greaney 104.

(68.) While Kolupke argues that for Conrad language is a necessary illusion, he simultaneously wants to see the ethical values subtending Typhoon as Christian and humanist.

(69.) Jackson Rice 120.

(70.) Daleski 109.

(71.) Many early critics argued that Conrad's politics are conservative and Burkean though they illustrate growth (e.g., Fleishman 23, 40, 53), while later critics tend to regard them as shifting and exploratory (e.g., Ruppel, "Introduction").

(72.) Dodson misinterprets this issue, concluding that for both Kant and Conrad the politics of the sublime "amount to a wholesale rejection of political praxis" (25). In fact, Kant argues that the spectators' enthusiasm for the French Revolution "can have no other cause than a moral predisposition in the human race" (Conflict 153), and that the revolution is too important to the future of humanity to be dismissed (159). If in some of his works Conrad was more skeptical, my argument here is that in Typhoon he demonstrates a cautious optimism.

(73.) Lyotard, Enthusiasm 32-40.

(74.) As Ross Forman points out, in the context of Yellow Peril literature and the Chinese Boxer Rebellion, Conrad's choice to displace the revolutionary mob onto the storm frees the coolies from becoming the target of British anxieties and instead incites sympathy (415-21). See also Jackson Rice 122.

(75.) Lyotard, Differend 8-11.

(76.) Conrad, CL 2:198; Schopenhauer, World 1:51, 2:238-39, and Parerga 2:10, 508, 567, 637.

(77.) Collits and Raja 259. While acknowledging that in the context of late nineteenth-century discourses of racism Conrad appears to be anything but a racist, Collits and Raja find his treatment of the coolies not so much Orientalist as Eurocentric (246). Without disagreeing with this general assessment, it is worth noting that theirs is not so much a reading of the text as a dismissal, given the dearth of textual evidence provided.

(78.) Greaney, "Style" 105.

(79.) Many critics ignore the coolies' projection of terror onto the crew; one exception is Lothe (113).

(80.) White 23.

(81.) Currently, the consensus is that while difficult to establish the level of Conrad's knowledge of Asian cultures, it is highly probable that, in addition to his experience in Asia, he would have been exposed to the growing body of Orientalist texts in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, including through Schopenhauer. See Bonney, Freeman, Forman, Herbert Giles, Lester (12), and Sherry, Eastern.

(82.) Carabine describes this scene as "one of the most daring and moving in the whole of Conrad's fiction" ("Introduction" xvii).

(83.) See Greaney on Conrad's sympathy for the inarticulate (112-13).

(84.) Lawtoo, Shadow, Kindle Loc. 1949; see also Senn 84.

(85.) For Schopenhauer, malice and egotism are the two antimoral motives, as described in Chapter 3 of On the Basis of Ethics.

(86.) Lyotard, Lyotard Reader 135.

(87.) See Susan Jones.

(88.) Carabine, "Introduction" xvi.

(89.) Critics have varied in their assessment of Jukes's character. While Foulke finds him changed for the better (144-46), others regard him as having learned little: Kolupke 42, 48-49; Acheraiou 37; Maisonnat 180-81.

(90.) Whether the ship has survived through luck, able seamanship, or some fortuitous combination, is impossible to know, though the Nan-Shan was "an exceptionally steady ship in a sea-way" (Typhoon 7), drawing attention to the humble work of the builders.

(91.) The "monkey tricks" of so-called civilized races are equally disdained by Marlow in Heart of Darkness, for which he is rebuked by his listeners (77).

(92.) Nayder 478-79.

(93.) Kolupke 81.

(94.) Acheraiou 35-36.

(95.) Conrad detested imperialist jingoism like Kipling's but wanted to see Britain as the land of liberty (CL 2:207), and later claimed to be "immensely proud" of how "thoroughly English" Typhoon was (qtd. in Sherry, ed., Critical 171).

(96.) Typhoon appeared in Pall Mall Magazine, founded in 1893 by multimillionaire William Waldorf Astor and aimed at a middle- and upper-class readership. However, the editorial policy was open to a wide political and aesthetic spectrum. Conrad's agent, J.B. Pinker, negotiated the move to publish in Pall Mall to a wider audience, shunning Conrad's previous publisher, Blackwood's Magazine, which catered to British colonials (Dryden, "The times ..."; and Batchelor 94). Conrad had evidently sought to publish in Blackwood's with full awareness of its conservatism, though not necessarily in agreement with it. Courting imperial romance fans in a popular magazine was a means to supplement his meagre income (Dryden, Imperial 111). See also Rice 114.

(97.) Kant, Groundwork 4:393, 414, 428; see also Bennett.

(98.) Schopenhauer, Basis, 143. Kolupke argues that although the story reaffirms the Christian value of charitable regard for fellow human beings, such an ethic is so basically humanistic that it can hardly be exclusively Christian. I read the Christmas setting not as a religious endorsement, but a subtle critique of Christian and Western claims to ethical self-righteousness.

(99.) Schopenhauer, Basis 50-51, 139.

(100.) Conrad says that MacWhirr was the product of twenty years of "My own life. Conscious invention had little to do with him" (Prefaces 78).

(101.) Although this is outside the scope of my present discussion, arguably sublimity is imbricated with natural history, not least in the Age of the Anthropocene and its acceleration as a result of the Industrial Revolution which sets the stage for Conrad's literary production.

(102.) Said, Culture 24; Reflections 280-81.

(103.) Said, Culture 58; Reflections 312-13.

(104.) Elsewhere Said argues that Conrad shared Nietzsche's disdain for Schopenhauer's ascetic retreat from the amoral picture of the world he had created. If this may emerge in Conrad's other works where egoism takes center stage, Typhoon presents a quietly optimistic exception that reveals his conviction that humans are social creatures who cannot live in glorious Ubermensch isolation; Kurtz and his other tragic antiheroes are failures of Nietzschean overreach, not their celebration. See Said, "Conrad and Nietzsche" in Reflections; and Panagopoulous; Butte; and Whitehead.

(105.) See also Jameson, "Introduction," The Postmodern Condition, xviii.

(106.) Lyotard, Inhuman 88.

(107.) Schopenhauer, World 2:406.

(108.) Lyotard, Lyotard Reader 130, 133.

(109.) Lyotard, Enthusiasm 50-51.

(110.) Kant, Judgment 5:344.

(111.) Kant, Anthropology 8:18, 29.

(112.) Kant, Anthropology 8:109-110, 115.

(113.) Conrad was recognized early on for his focus on the working mariner, which democratized the range of subject-matter for the novel (Reynolds 495-96, 506).

(114.) Buell 7; Bennett 14, 28; see also Lawtoo, Shadow, Kindle Loc. 1983.

(115.) Schopenhauer, World 1:275.


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