Saturday, 6 October 2012

Read the Image, See the Words.

My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see. That—and no more, and it is everything.

This is the aim set by the writer Joseph Conrad in the Preface to his novel The Nigger of the 'Narcissus' (1897), which became the manifesto of what is defined as literary impressionism. The concept in itself joins together the visual and literary aspects of narration; the highly vivid impact of the writer's visual imagery, in fact, makes it easy to correlate his written word with equally vivid paintings.
It might be predictable to try and find connections between Conrad's works and and the works of the painters belonging to the Impressionist movement, which developed in France during the 1870s. Nevertheless, reading some passages of The Nigger of the 'Narcissus', made me think about the work of a painter (whom I already had the chance to praise in this blog), who chronologically belonged to a previous artistic era: Joseph M. W. Turner.
Let's consider his famous Slaves Throwing Overboard the Dead and the Dying – Typhoon coming on (aka The Slave Ship, 1840). 


The canvas represents a sunset and, in the background, a ship at the mercy of a rough sea. Intense oranges and reds are used to depict the sky at the horizon, while different shades of white and grey are used for the rest of it; the sea is mainly yellow, and the waves are rendered by means of agitated black brush strokes. In the foreground the viewer can see what remains of the bodies of "the dead and the dying", eaten by fishes and sea fowls.
Similarly, in Conrad's The Nigger of the 'Narcissus', the raging of a sea stormcentral episode to the whole narrationis described in a way which seems to reflect the painting in all its dramatic vividness.

[The sky] arched high above the ship vibrating and pale, like an immense dome of steel, resonant with the deep voice of freshening gales. The sunshine gleamed cold on the white curls of black waves. […] [The ship] drove to and fro in the unceasing endeavour to fight her way through the invisible violence of the winds. (p. 40)

The terrible storm, that torments the seamen for several days, also causes most of their belongings to fall into the water:

They could see their chests, pillows, blankets, clothing, come out floating upon the sea. […] The straw beds swam high, the blankets, spread out, undulated; while the chests, waterlogged and with a heavy list, pitched heavily like dismasted hulks, before they sank; Archie's big coat passed with outspread arms, resembling a drowned seaman floating with his head under water. (p. 47)

Less harsh than the sight of the dead bodies at sea as in Turner's painting, but still an equally effective and expressive image.
There could undoubtedly be many other similar comparison to be carried out, but I think that this one is already enough to demonstrate both Conrad's and Turner's ability to make one hear, feel, and before all see


Conrad, Joseph, The Nigger of the 'Narcissus' and Other Stories, London, Penguin Classics, 2007.

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