The Shadow Line

July 11, 2011

"The Single Hound" Bruce Floyd

In the Author’s Note to his short novel “The Shadow Line,” Joseph Conrad responds to critics who find traces of the supernatural in the work. I find what Conrad says of high interest to anyone interested in Ernest Becker. Conrad says,

But I could have never attempted such a thing [putting the supernatural in his work], because 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 and, however exceptional, cannot differ in essence from all the other effects of the visible and tangible of which we are a self-conscious part. 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 fully justify the conception of life as an enchanted state.

If these words don’t agree with Becker’s idea of reality then none do. Becker and Conrad thought we have only the world about us, the one interpreted by the senses, the one out there beyond my study window, all of it, from the blue sky beyond, to the late afternoon light dappling the leaves on the river birch outside my study, to the fat cat asleep behind me, her snoring rhythmical, steady and strong.  Becker and Conrad, it seems to me, agree that looked at clearly the entire scheme of things is so inexplicable, all parts of it, that the world can be seen as enchanted, so profoundly mysterious that the only true response is to look at the universe and this self-conscious and woefully finite self-conscious creature in it with only awe and wonder. Awe and wonder include terror. It is under blue skies and gentle winds that the lioness stalks the wildebeest, creeps ever closer; then she leaps, runs down the doomed animal and quickly dispatches it with ruthless efficiency. We watch with both awe and terror. Some people won’t watch such scenes  Most of us go about the world in a kind of coma, taking in just a little at the time.

I think, just a guess (Sheldon would know better than I), that perhaps we could endure terror if we, either by Rank’s Will or Becker’s illusion, subordinate it to Awe and Wonder, see terror as a necessary precipitate, the ineluctable ancillary to Awe and Wonder. We can’t have one without the other. No? In short, the world is not only just terrifying (and it is terrifying aplenty) but it is also inspiring, filled with a great and prodigious beauty, and as Conrad says, a kind of enchantment. We forget the beauty part too much, I think we Beckerians do.


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