The “filling in” of ekphrasis
June 26, 2013 § 1 Comment
The Rajah wanted to know whether the white man[, Jim,] could repair a watch? They did actually bring out to him a nickel clock of New England make, and out of sheer unbearable boredom he busied himself in trying to get the alarum to work. It was apparently when thus occupied in his shed that the true perception of his extreme peril dawned upon him. (193)
A stopped watch: ever the symbol of time suspended. This short extract from Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim is the only one in which the “nickel clock of New England make” features. Its origins could not better express the net weaved by colonialism for it was created in an ex-colony of England’s, the United States, a country that was already verging on partaking in a culturo-capitalist form of colonization, as illustrated here. Stopped though it may be, the clock makes a timely appearance springing up when Jim finds Patusan, a place where the sojourner is to stay for an extended period. The immobility he is to experience there, linked closely to his inertia on his ship the Patna, is furthered in the expression “sheer unbearable boredom” as the idea of monotopy would seem to a sea-exiled sailor: the burden of which is the cause of his “extreme peril”. The breaking of time is requisite in Jim’s epiphany.
When the act of story-telling is magniloquently placed at the fore, as we find here under the brilliant narration of the character Marlow, the performative aspects of a tale become more important & make the narrative components to whither in their own weight. As a means of considering this clock further, in this post I will describe Lord Jim as a novel depicting storytelling as trapped in spacetime, through the concept of ekphrasis.
Ekphrasis: a beautiful, nearly forgotten word — swallowed into the mist of imperceptibility nearly as much as Jim himself. It is the compound of the Greek ek, or as one might say “out”, and phrasis, or “speak”; at its quintessence it is a description, the verbal transcription of a thing. In the process of describing, time is unavoidably suspended — for instance, an interjection must be made, either elaborative/functional or curios/aesthetic. Murray Krieger, who has produced the quintessential introduction to the concept in 1992 (a concept which has noticeably been blossoming in the past two decades), names the process “still movement” (3): timelines are divided, forked branches. Krieger continues, defining ekphrasis as “intrud[ing] upon the flow of discourse and[…] suspend[ing] the argument of the rhetor or the action[…] a device intended to interrupt the temporality of discourse, to freeze it during its indulgence in spacial exploration” (7).
Krieger’s study on ekphrasis strays in supposing that it is not only the story that becomes suspended, but that the argument and ideas are also put aside. He forgoes the possibility of the elaborative/functional ekphrastic act as Conrad uses of it in Lord Jim, which itself reads as an exploration of “spatio-temporal possibilities” (11). This is in spite of the fact, & delighting in that spite, that story-telling is inevitably tied to temporality: being a long chain of letters, spaces, and punctuation to be perceived linearly with the senses of sight or sound. A major segment of Lord Jim is presented as a transcription of an oral tale as it unfolds over the course of one evening; years are going by, through episodes of Jim’s biography — fragmented though it may be — in story-time, yet the lines being drawn are not timelines, rather those of a sketch-artist in discourse-time. The effect of this makes Jim an example of what Mikhail Bakhtin in The Dialogic Imagination writes on early biographies, albeit an imperfect one:
Biographical time is not reversible vis-á-vis the events of life itself, which are inseparable from historical events. But with regards to character, such time is reversible[…] Character itself does not grow, does not change, it is merely filled in: at the beginning it is incomplete, imperfectly disclosed, fragmentary; it becomes[…] a filling in of that form sketched at the very outset. (141-2)
Jim is unlike this in one major way. Jim remains “incomplete, imperfectly disclosed, fragmentary,” and inabsolutely “sketched.” A biography is precisely like portraiture, only the subject poses in time across their decisions & habits, their anecdotes & thought-systems.
Jim remains just as he was upon being introduced as “apparelled in immaculate white from shoes to hat” (1) — he will die in the same outfit, a physiognomic representation of “the white man” (193). This is not to say that the character is not at all “filled in.” The novel is mostly Marlow’s account of trying to construct the character from multiple sources, polyvocal & as muddled as an individual’s perception of another necessarily is. All tenses are huddled together, these various spaces of time, brought into a unit, not to the effect of a clearer story, but to the effect of one more toned. Likewise, Jim is not a more logical character on this account, but one made more deceptively true-to-life in form of his elusivity. Dozens of statements confirming his intangibility occur throughout the book: “poor Jim remains under a cloud” (316); “I am fated never to see him clearly” (185); “It’s amazing how he could cast upon you the spirit of his illusion” (85); et. al. In the word “apparently” of the opening passage, the same inaccessibility of Jim’s is present in that the facts of his history are uncertain — “as if facts could explain anything!” (24).
This touches on the obscurity of quiddities. Ultimately, as Bakhtin says “The hammer of events shatters nothing and forges nothing — it merely tries the durability of an already finished product” (107). The picaresque technique effectively works in the same way: it is a writerly evocation of the philosophical notion that essence is uncovered by identifying a constant within variety. The ekphrastic elaborative/functional possibility does not achieve anything new here, only in a very different & unexpected way.