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The Shadow Line


This story, which I admit to be in its brevity a fairly complex piece of
work, was not intended to touch on the supernatural. Yet more than one
critic has been inclined to take it in that way, seeing in it an attempt
on my part to give the fullest scope to my imagination by taking it
beyond the confines of the world of the living, suffering humanity. But
as a matter of fact my imagination is not made of stuff so elastic as
all that. I believe that if I attempted to put the strain of the
Supernatural on it it would fail deplorably and exhibit an unlovely gap.
But I could never have attempted such a thing, 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 its essence from all the other
effects of the visible and tangible world 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 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
multitudes; a desecration of our tenderest memories; an outrage on our
dignity.

Whatever my native modesty may be it will never condescend so low as to
seek help for my imagination within those vain imaginings common to all
ages and that in themselves are enough to fill all lovers of mankind
with unutterable sadness. As to the effect of a mental or moral shock on
a common mind that is quite a legitimate subject for study and
description. Mr. Burns' moral being receives a severe shock in his
relations with his late captain, and this in his diseased state turns
into a mere superstitious fancy compounded of fear and animosity. This
fact is one of the elements of the story, but there is nothing
supernatural in it, nothing so to speak from beyond the confines of this
world, which in all conscience holds enough mystery and terror in
itself.

Perhaps if I had published this tale, which I have had for a long time
in my mind, under the title of First Command, no suggestion of the
Supernatural would have been found in it by any impartial reader,
critical or otherwise. I will not consider here the origins of the
feeling in which its actual title, The Shadow-Line, occurred to my mind.
Primarily the aim of this piece of writing was the presentation of
certain facts which certainly were associated with the change from
youth, carefree and fervent, to the more self-conscious and more
poignant period of maturer life. Nobody can doubt that before the
supreme trial of a whole generation I had an acute consciousness of the
minute and insignificant character of my own obscure experience. There
could be no question here of any parallelism. That notion never entered
my head. But there was a feeling of identity, though with an enormous
difference of scale--as of one single drop measured against the bitter
and stormy immensity of an ocean. And this was very natural too. For
when we begin to meditate on the meaning of our own past it seems to
fill all the world in its profundity and its magnitude. This book was
written in the last three months of the year 1916. Of all the subjects
of which a writer of tales is more or less conscious within himself this
is the only one I found it possible to attempt at the time. The depth
and the nature of the mood with which I approached it is best expressed
perhaps in the dedication which strikes me now as a most
disproportionate thing--as another instance of the overwhelming
greatness of our own emotion to ourselves.

This much having been said I may pass on now to a few remarks about the
mere material of the story. As to locality it belongs to that part of
the Eastern Seas from which I have carried away into my writing life the
greatest number of suggestions. From my statement that I thought of this
story for a long time under the title of First Command the reader may
guess that it is concerned with my personal experience. And as a matter
of fact it _is_ personal experience seen in perspective with the eye of
the mind and coloured by that affection one can't help feeling for such
events of one's life as one has no reason to be ashamed of. And that
affection is as intense (I appeal here to universal experience) as the
shame, and almost the anguish with which one remembers some unfortunate
occurrences, down to mere mistakes in speech, that have been perpetrated
by one in the past. The effect of perspective in memory is to make
things loom large because the essentials stand out isolated from their
surroundings of insignificant daily facts which have naturally faded out
of one's mind. I remember that period of my sea-life with pleasure
because begun inauspiciously it turned out in the end a success from a
personal point of view, leaving a tangible proof in the terms of the
letter the owners of the ship wrote to me two years afterwards when I
resigned my command in order to come home. This resignation marked the
beginning of another phase of my seaman's life, its terminal phase, if I
may say so, which in its own way has coloured another portion of my
writings. I didn't know then how near its end my sea-life was, and
therefore I felt no sorrow except at parting with the ship. I was sorry
also to break my connection with the firm which owned her and who were
pleased to receive with friendly kindness and give their confidence to a
man who had entered their service in an accidental manner and in very
adverse circumstances. Without disparaging the earnestness of my purpose
I suspect now that luck had no small part in the success of the trust
reposed in me. And one cannot help remembering with pleasure the time
when one's best efforts were seconded by a run of luck.

The words "_Worthy of my undying regard_" selected by me for the motto
on the title page are quoted from the text of the book itself; and,
though one of my critics surmised that they applied to the ship, it is
evident from the place where they stand that they refer to the men of
that ship's company: complete strangers to their new captain and yet who
stood by him so well during those twenty days that seemed to have been
passed on the brink of a slow and agonizing destruction. And _that_ is
the greatest memory of all! For surely it is a great thing to have
commanded a handful of men worthy of one's undying regard.

J. C.

1920.

Joseph Conrad

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