To approach hope in Conrad is to understand why French philosopher Gabriel Marcel claims “the conditions that make it possible to hope are strictly the same as those that make it possible to despair” (qtd in Anderson). This is not to say that Conrad’s hope is Marcel’s. For Marcel, hope describes a particular experience of theological transcendence, one that reveals a world of mysteries that demand an exterior space of possibility, something that takes the place of our humdrum instrumentalized world in which everything is merely a problem to be solved and thus a source of existential despair. Conrad’s hope might be glimpsed here not in Marcel’s suggestion of Catholic certainty but in the structural argument that Marcel makes about hope: hope is an experience of multiplicity and potentiality. Subsequent theorists of hope, from Ernest Bloch to Ben Anderson, emphasize precisely this implicit plurality of conditions, a plurality that can be inflected as either hope or despair.As Terry Eagleton puts it, “Potentiality … lays down the material infrastructure of hope” (52). Hope is sometimes treated as an affect, but it is perhaps more proper to understand it as a being-towardthat may raise a variety of affects, whether excitement, expectation, dread, anger, and so on. In other words, hope is less an affect than a relation with potential-laden conditions.
We are closer, here, I think, to Conrad’s hope, but the word “relation” poses another problem. Relation does not mean disposition, something grounded in character. One of the problems that confronts any examination of hope is our readiness to collapse one’s relation to conditions with one’s general disposition toward the world. We might recognize this better, as Conrad did, in questions of character—though as we will see that has its own discourse as well. For now, I want to note that hope is not the equivalent of an optimistic character. In particular, Eagleton offers a useful distinction, one that separates his perspective from that of Marcel, between groundless optimism and a hope premised on reason. After all, if I ask, “Is there any hope?” it is because I need a reason to hope, however remote. By contrast, Marcel’s religion allows him to hope by focusing on reason beyond reason. In what follows, then, I take hope as a particular relation informed by reason about the potentiality of a situation, and that this potentiality includes hope’s contrary, despair. In essence, hope sifts its despair-laden conditions for another route, another possibility. The hope that one may find in Conrad’s work, then, does not operate in spite of his pessimism but as a result thereof. It is a persistent examination of the reasons within despair, and the possibilities therein. In what follows, I have chosen to focus my discussion around the uses of the word “hope” as such in Lord Jim and to connect its usage there to the later text Nostromo.
Hope pervades the first half of Lord Jim as a continually thwarted if not fundamentally misguided relation to possibility. This seems in part a result of the continued link Marlow draws between the words hopeand faith: Jim’s hopes for the future, the hope of the pilgrims, Jim’s desire to remake himself. These hopes express a faith in potential, and it is as faith that the narrative approaches the question of hope, underscoring in the process its emptiness. Marlow frames his hope that Jim’s actions could be understood as not merely dispelled but a desire for “a miracle” (37). He writes:
Perhaps, unconsciously, I hoped I would find that something, some profound and redeeming cause, some merciful explanation, some convincing shadow of an excuse. I see well enough now that I hoped for the impossible–for the laying of what is the most obstinate ghost of man’s creation, of the uneasy doubt uprising like a mist, secret and gnawing like a worm, and more chilling than the certitude of death–the doubt of the sovereign power enthroned in a fixed standard of conduct. It is the hardest thing to stumble against; it is the thing that breeds yelling panics and good little quiet villainies; it’s the true shadow of calamity. Did I believe in a miracle? and why did I desire it so ardently? Was it for my own sake that I wished to find some shadow of an excuse for that young fellow whom I had never seen before, but whose appearance alone added a touch of personal concern to the thoughts suggested by the knowledge of his weakness–made it a thing of mystery and terror–like a hint of a destructive fate ready for us all whose youth–in its day–had resembled his youth? I fear that such was the secret motive of my prying. I was, and no mistake, looking for a miracle. (LJ 5:37)
If hope is bound to reason, its deployment in Lord Jim maps something hazier, torn between reason and optimism. The hoped for miracle would dispel the mist that envelops and obscures what Marlow calls a “fixed standard of conduct.” It is here that hope’s centrality for the text comes into focus as a collapse of character-based disposition and a reasoned relation to a situation’s potentiality. What Marlow extolls as a standard of conduct is “that inborn power to look temptations straight in the face… a power of resistance” (32). Such a view is of a piece with Conrad’s insistences throughout his work that imperialism reveals fundamental dispositions held in check by European culture. His hope for Jim is one for a standard of conduct based in reason that could obviate this problem of disposition. What Jim threatens to reveal is that his standard is a mere accident of disposition.
The affective—or emotional relation?—here takes seriously what Fredric Jameson dismisses as a mere symbolic ruse, honor. Yet honor, as a word, misses the mark. It is a loss of hope, the revelation of a standard that is no standard. It is this that afflicts Captain Brierly. His final words to Marlow indicate that the degree to which dispositionis in tension with a reasoned hope, and direct us to another relation often mistaken for affect, trust. First and foremost, trust guarantees that the self one presents coincides with the kinds of actions one is likely to undertake. Yet trust is as much about the ability to act in the present moment as it is the predictability of future actions. In his analysis, Niklas Luhmann explains that trust matters precisely because it authorizes action in the present. For Brierly, what is so distressing about Jim’s betrayal is that it cuts at this possibility of present action:
We’ve got all kinds amongst us–some anointed scoundrels in the lot; but, hang it, we must preserve professional decency or we become no better than so many tinkers going about loose. We are trusted. Do you understand?–trusted! Frankly, I don’t care a snap for all the pilgrims that ever came out of Asia, but a decent man would not have behaved like this to a full cargo of old rags in bales. We aren’t an organised body of men, and the only thing that holds us together is just the name for that kind of decency. (LJ 49)
What we see here in Brierly’s concerns are that they are not so much about honor as the broader late Victorian discourse of character. As Stefan Collini shows, character served as the disciplinary code for a disorganized liberal imperialism—in short, as the code for the trustworthiness of imperial action. Imperial administrators’ need to take decisions when necessary led to a reliance on a particular understanding of good character. Such character regulates personal conduct through social pressure and intermittent checks on action—the certification that Jim needs to act as an officer marks him as part of this order that demands a series of initial checks but then releases him unchecked into the world. This may suggest Foucauldian discipline; however, as we see in Lord Jim, character operates through intermittent checks quite distinct from what one would find in a disciplinary structure. In effect, the sea of Lord Jim is one of the earliest forms of what Marc Augé terms a non-place, a space of passage in which identity is suspended and checked only sporadically. Indeed, Augé discusses the role of sea travel in the 19C when explicating the term. For subsequent theorists, the non-place helpfully tracks the displacement of disciplinary societies by societies of control, where the individual is replaced by the persistent subdivision of the person into the multiplicity of the dividiual. For late Victorians, character seems to have suggested the certainty of a disciplinary code. What Jim reveals, though, is that it is a more supple—and at this stage of technology, fallible—system of discontinuous checks. The guarantee of character, which unifies disposition via a specific relation to reality, only guarantees a fragment, a splinter that may not be recomposed as a whole.
In a fully developed control society, this fragmentation can become a source of profit and multiplied control through the proliferation of checks. This is not yet the case for the world of Lord Jim.Instead, trust and hope confront each other as antagonistic relations to temporality. Action in the present against a Benjaminian sifting of possibilities in the present—activity against a passive messianism. This conflict is not an abstract one. As Adam Seligman argues, trust is predicated on the rise of modernity and market society. It is a specific, historic relation. In this sense, the conflicting temporalities of hope and trust reveal an ambivalence in the text toward the imperial project, one situated in the subjective constitution of those who undertook it: a passive hope for the future that inhibits trust’s ability to act in the present. For Conrad, a positive imperial project is based in doing. In Heart of Darkness, Marlow describes the British territories marked in red on King Leopold’s map as “good to see at any time, because one knows that some real work is done in there” (32), and he emphasizes earlier that “what saves [the British imperial project] is efficiency” (21). An acceptable imperialism is a project of continual present-tense mediation, of doing to be done. Yet what Jim wishes to avoid more than anything is the reality of his present. Jim’s passive hopefulness threatens to reveal the trust of imperialism as mere disposition. His leap from the foundered boat is a leap over the present, an elision of trust’s temporal focus. Hence Marlow emphasizes that Jim
was not afraid of death perhaps, but I’ll tell you what, he was afraid of the emergency. His confounded imagination had evoked for him all the horrors of panic, the trampling rush, the pitiful screams, boats swamped–all the appalling incidents of a disaster at sea he had ever heard of. He might have been resigned to die but I suspect he wanted to die without added terrors, quietly, in a sort of peaceful trance. (63)
Jim’s hope and despair are bound to his projections of what may come, to potentiality as such, and not to what is. His redemptive second leap, then, is not so much an embrace of his existential condition as an insistent staying in the present that the text makes central to imperial trust.
To a degree, this alignment of hope with an idealism and temporality that undermines trust in the imperial project also marks Nostromo. Conrad’s account in his 1917 preface of the biographical model for Antonia certainly carries more than a whiff of the Intended’s idealism: “how we used to look up to that girl,” he writes, “… as the standard-bearer of a faith to which we all were born but which she alone knew how to hold aloft with an unflinching hope!” (453). In the text proper, hope is a leitmotif for a more impersonal sense of the imperial social revolution led by the American mining interests in Sulaco. The San Tome mine enchants Charles Gould with a “magic formula … [of] hope, vigour, and self-confidence, instead of weary indignation and despair” (6:48). Gould subsequently demands capital-first reform in Sulaco as the only possible “ray of hope” (7:68) because it brings “security” to an “oppressed people” (7:68), and the color of the mine, “green,” is called “the colour of hope, being also the colour of the mine” (8:79). Hope again seems a drive to passivity, and the text’s search for reasons to inform hope become increasingly strained. The Excellentisimo who is to defend the interests of the mine is “the hope of honest men”; and the people of Sulaco hide their fears of Sotillo’s army behind “imbecile hope.” Hope’s potential malevolence, however, most clearly appears with its association with Gould’s last load of silver: “the remnants of our hopes.” Nostromo says in the novel’s final pages that “there is something accursed in [this] wealth” (442), and this seems a fitting description for what is a material store of congealed labor, a hoard of potentiality in itself. Indeed, if one considers the silver as a surplus of potential, the suicidal turn of Martin Decoud, Nostromo’s accomplice in protecting this last remnant of hope, becomes a result of his altered relation to this potential. Indeed, the novel’s persistent narration of revolution in the pseudo-iterative, the narrative strategy of presenting the punctual as the habitual, similarly suggests a problem moving between temporal registers, as though the potentiality of hope and despair have infected the present.
For this reason, I want to close by raising two final models of hope. In his account of hope, Brian Massumi similarly emphasizes its engagement with potentiality. However, where most theorists describe hope as future-oriented, Massumi insists that it is best conceived as a relation to the present. A present-tense hope, he argues, is one bound up with the uncertainty and potentiality of a given situation. Hope is thus not a passive waiting for someone else’s intervention in the future but rather what Massumi calls “a margin of maneuverability” (2), a margin that is effectively our sense of freedom. This view of hope insists that one is not inscribed in a situation but rather embodied within that situation in such a way that its manifold potentials for connection are present and available. Hope is the insistence that the world, such as it is, is internally different from itself. It is this agential version of hope that Conrad approaches in Nostromo,a cross-pollination of the action-oriented trust of Lord Jim and its idealist hope, but one that increasingly becomes indifferent to its status as either hope or despair. With the ascendency of Gould and the mining interests, the conclusion of Nostromo seems to suggest hope for a particular form of seemingly beneficent liberal imperialism against Nostromo’s more hopeless and romantic imperial adventuring. This hopelessness extends lexically beyond Nostromo, the “hopeless slave of the San Tomé mine,” to include “the hopeless blackness of the clouds” above the island where he has secreted his treasure and his two competing love interests. The conclusion of the novel thus suggests a feminizing of hope, a framing of the congealed potentiality of wealth as a female fecundity that threats a masculine demand to act, whether Nostromo’s decisive military actions or Decoud’s decisive political intervention. It is this final gendered shift of hope that indicates the one model of hope that remains inaccessible to Conrad, a hope grounded in the past, one that Sara Ahmed argues is central to living a feminist life (see introduction and 46-47. This concluding gendered turn of hope thus suggests an implacable drift in the novel’s understanding of hope and despair toward a masculinized sense of potential’s sheer contingency, encapsulated by Nostromo’s accidental shooting by his aged friend. In this way, the hope of Nostromo suggests a particularly masculine subjective struggle to orient oneself in an imperial surfeit of possibility.
Ahmed, Sara. Living a Feminist Life. Duke UP, 2017.
Anderson, Ben. “Becoming and Being Hopeful: Towards a Theory of Affect.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, vol. 24, 2006, pp. 733-752, DOI: 10.1068/d393t.
Augé, Marc. Non-places: An Introduction to Supermodernity. 2ndedition. London: Verso, 2008.
Collini, Stefan. Public Moralists. Oxford UP, 1991.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. Bedford/St Martins, 2010.
—. Lord Jim, edited by Jacques Berthoud.Oxford World’s Classics, 2002.
—. Nostromo. Penguin Classics, 2007.
Eagleton, Terry. Hope without Optimism. U of Virginia P, 2015.
Luhmann, Niklas. Trust and Power. Polity, 2017.
Marcel, Gabriel. The Gabriel Marcel Reader, edited by Brendan Sweetman. St. Augustine Press, 2011.
Massumi, Brian. The Politics of Affect. London: Polity, 2012.
Seligman, Adam B. The Problem of Trust. Princeton University Press, 1997.