LORD JIM, SCHETTINO and LEE JOON-SEOK
In ‘Lord Jim’ by Joseph Conrad, Jim, a romantic who had always dreamed of fame and recognition, is an officer on board the PATNA, a ship taking Muslims to Mecca. Out of the blue, his chance to be a hero came…and went:
In the night the ship shuddered – as if it had hit some submerged object – panic and chaos ensued.
Jim found himself at the rails looking down to see the captain and some of the other officers clambering into a lifeboat. They made signs for him to join them and before he knew what was happening he found himself in the water beside the boat.
He had jumped.
The rest of his life was an attempt to erase, atone for, put behind him this instinctive act of panic/cowardice, this jump from duty, this loss of honour.
In Conrad when a character ‘jumps’ – acts impulsively – it invariably leads to disaster.
It’s a book I’ve read and re-read and found it becoming all too real in the recent news account of what happened to the cruise liner Costa Concordia off the tiny island of Giglio with characters who might have stepped straight out of Conrad’s pages: – Francesco Schettino, the showboating captain who sailed too close to the island, ran onto rocks then in the confusion that followed abandoned the stricken ship, breaking the moral code that naval officers live by; Gregorio De Falco, the Livorno coastguard, becomes the voice of outraged decency. When Schettino made a belated distress call from the safety of the lifeboat, De Falco showed his contempt for the captain’s betrayal of the moral code that naval officers live by: “Get back on board for fuck sake! There are already bodies, Schettino. Go!”
And when Schettino said he couldn’t do anything because it was dark and “all the officers are on the rescue boat with me” De Falco asked
“Why did you allow them to get off?”
” We abandoned ship, ” Schettino said.
“With 100 people still on board you abandoned ship?” De Falco yelled. “ Vada a bordo, cozzo!”
A year later, 15 April, 2014, close to Jeju island, the SEWOL, a ferry boat carrying 476 passengers, mostly school children on a 4 day field-trip, capsized and sank with the 69 year old captain in his cabin leaving an inexperienced 25 year old 3rd mate at the helm. The ferryboat inexplicably made a sudden sharp turn, the cargo shifted and the ship began to tilt. It took 2 hours to sink and for that period the passengers were urged to stay in their cabins. Only 2 0f the 40 lifeboats were deployed. The captain and his crew escaped safely from the sinking ship as did the teachers in charge of the children. Most of the children were not so fortunate.
Later, the captain, under arrest and hidden inside a hooded anorak, mumbled that he accepted responsibility, that he told passengers to stay put in their cabins because there were no signs of rescue boats and the water was too cold and too full of strong currents for them to survive.
” The conduct of the captain was wholly unfathomable…. it was like an act of murder that cannot and should not be tolerated,” said Ms Park, South Korea’s first woman president
The teacher who organised the trip and who escaped from the sinking ship commited suicide, hanging himself near the school and leaving a note that said ‘Surviving alone is too painful….I will once again become a teacher in the afterlife for my students whose bodies have not been found.’
The old-fashioned notion was that those in command, in control of our lives and well-being, must be brave in an emergency, cool in a crisis and, like Captain Smith of the Titanic, willing to sacrifice their own lives in the service of others.
Stein, one of Conrad’s characters in ‘Lord Jim‘ puts forward his (and probably Conrad’s) philosophy on ‘how to be‘:
“A man that is born falls into a dream like a man who falls into the sea. If he tries to climb out into the air as inexperienced people endeavour to do, he drowns- nicht wahr?… No! I tell you! The way is to the destructive element submit yourself, and with the exertions of your hands and feet in the water make the deep, deep sea keep you up...”