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“The odors of blossoms and aromatic wood” December 17, 2009

Posted by Jenny in literature, travel.
Tags: , ,

Joseph Conrad’s tale “Youth” is about the intersection of two forces: the mesmerizing power of the East and the careless strength that comes from being young.  A power multiplied by a strength.  That creates the kind of intensity that you never forget, that might possibly haunt you for the rest of your life.

After an ill-fated journey on a decrepit collier that finally sinks west of Australia, the character Marlow and his shipmates row on small boats all the way to Java.  For months, Marlow has been thinking of the ship’s mysterious destination of Bangkok, a place that needs only to be a name, that needs no description.  It is a name that has a peculiar magnetic pull.  Java is not Bangkok, but that doesn’t matter.

We drag at the oars with aching arms, and suddenly a puff of wind, a puff faint and tepid and laden with strange odors of blossoms, of aromatic wood, comes out of the still night—the first sigh of the East on my face.  That I can never forget.  It was impalpable and enslaving, like a charm, like a whispered promise of mysterious delight.

After a run-in at night with the irascible captain of a vessel anchored on the shore, Marlow and his companions row their small open boat to a jetty and tie it there, then sink into an exhausted sleep, slumped over their oars.   But Marlow awakes at sunrise:

I was lying in a flood of light, and the sky had never looked so far, so high, before.

He is young, and he feels invincible.  He has

the feeling that will never come back any more—the feeling that I could last forever, outlast the sea, the earth, and all men…

He looks, sees a crowd looking back at him.

And then I saw the men of the East—they were looking at me…. I saw brown, bronze, yellow faces, the black eyes, the glitter, the color of an Eastern crowd….  The fronds of palms stood still against the sky.  Not a branch stirred along the shore, and the brown roofs of hidden houses peeped through the green foliage, through the big leaves that hung shining and still like leaves forged of heavy metal.

He sees

the wide sweep of the bay, the glittering sands, the wealth of green infinite and varied, the sea blue like the sea of a dream…

His shipmates in the three boats are still sleeping,

unconscious of the land and the people and of the violence of sunshine.

That experience of the East will stay with him the rest of his life.

I came upon it from a tussle with the sea—and I was young—and I saw it looking at me.

Marlow tells the story twenty years later to colleagues in London, all sitting and reminiscing at a mahogany table, drinking innumerable bottles of claret.  They have succeeded in their ambitions: they are a director of companies, a lawyer, an accountant—all with experience of the sea, years in the merchant service, years with the Peninsular & Orient.

Their youth is long gone.  Their lives will never again have such moments.

Does it have to be so?  Do we really have to give up that dreamlike sea, that trading in mystery, that conviction that we will last forever?  Does it really have to be so?



1. Tom from C. G. - December 17, 2009

Thanks for another beautiful and haunting entry in this wonderful blog.

Jenny - December 18, 2009

Thanks–it’s always good to be appreciated!

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