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At Sea with the N-Word

A couple of years ago, when I was teaching at a graduate institute in California, I had a dream that I was teaching Joseph Conrad’s novel, Lord Jim—only I wasn’t allowed to call it Lord Jim. Bigwigs at the institute, where impositions upon my teaching were causing me some distress in real life, had, in my dream, decided that Lord Jim sounded too elitist, so the novel was replaced with a more upbeat, Californian, democratic version called, simply: Jim!

This dream kept returning to my mind all summer, as I prepared for a new course I’m teaching this fall on the works of Joseph Conrad. One of the texts I’ll be asking the students to read is Conrad’s 1897 novella, The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’, the story of a merchant ship sailing from Bombay to London. One of the sailors on board, a man named James Wait, is a black sailor from the British West Indies who contracts tuberculosis during the voyage; his lingering illness exerts an uncanny influence on the rest of the crew, five of whom rescue him from his deck cabin during a storm, placing their own lives at risk, along with the safety of the ship.

There was something else I kept remembering as I prepared to teach this course—something more daunting than my dream about Lord Jim—and this was the fact that, last year, Al Zaruba, an adjunct professor at neighboring Towson University, was fired for  referring to himself, in the context of a class discussion, as a “nigger on a corporate plantation”. University Provost Marcia Welsh issued a statement that said, in part, “… such patently offensive language on the part of university employees will not be tolerated and does not reflect our value system”. Zaruba, who is white, was told the word he used was “never, never, never to be used anywhere on campus”.

Where does this leave The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’? It’s unfortunate that our modern phobia of this word means this fascinating book is rarely read or taught any more. Conrad’s novel is not a racist book, though it has a lot to say about the nature of human relationships, including those formed in a climate of prejudice. In some ways, Conrad appears to be suggesting that humanitarian sympathies are, at their core, feelings of self-interest, and that a heightened sensitivity to suffering can be detrimental to society, symbolized, in this case, by the isolated microcosm of the ship.

With the possible exception of Heart of Darkness, Conrad’s works are out of fashion in the classroom these days, partly because of their antiquated language. In The Nigger of the “Narcissus”, however, the use of what is commonly known these days as “the n-word” is simply a reflection of the casual, salty banter among British sailors at the end of the nineteenth century. Although he is black, James Wait is a fellow Englishman, and Conrad implies that the sailors’ struggle is against the elements, rather than against one another. Indeed, many of Wait’s fellow sailors risk their lives to save him, even though, at the height of a violent storm, such misplaced heroism seems a remarkably bad idea.

In defending his “revised” version of Huckleberry Finn (in which the “n-word” is replaced by the word “slave”), Alan Gribbin of NewSouth Books wrote in Publisher’s Weekly that “it will not, of course, end the 40-year controversy over the n-word in Huckleberry Finn, but it might enable discussions of that book to set aside this issue for the time being and focus instead on Twain’s powerful narrative, entertaining satires, and haunting messages about social conformity”.  I don’t imagine a similar debate will arise over The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’, simply because the book just isn’t widely read these days.

Interestingly enough, in 2009, WordBridge Publishing, a Netherlands-based press, reissued the novel under a new title: The N-word of the Narcissus. According to the publishers, the text has been republished so as “to remove this offence to modern sensibilities”. I don’t know how The N-Word of the Narcissus is selling, but the radical change of title does seem to be a pointless move. If the book’s original name is considered too offensive to use, then why not simply publish it under the alternative title Conrad chose for it, The Children of the Sea? As a matter of fact, this is how the novel was first issued in the U.S. because the publisher, Dodd, Mead and Company, felt no one would be interested in a book with the word “nigger” in its title. Did the US publishers display a racial sensitivity that was ahead of their time? Hardly. They simply thought that a book about a black man couldn’t possibly sell.

MIKITA BROTTMAN is a psychoanalyst and chair of the program in humanities & depth psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute. She can be reached at  mbrottman@pacifica.edu

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