Oil on canvas
22" x 28"
Text source: Joseph Conrad: The Nigger of the Narcissus (1897)
For the 2010 Art/Word production “Generosity.” I wanted to see whether generosity would still look so generous, if sweetness and wholesomeness were not part of the picture.
In Conrad’s story, the merchant vessel Narcissus, westbound from Bombay to London, encounters a violent storm off the Cape of Good Hope. The wind blows cold, filling the air with stinging spray. Without warning, the ship is knocked over, with her masts “inclined nearly to the horizon,” by what we would call a rogue wave. The crew, caught out on deck in their shirtsleeves, clutch at railings, ringbolts, lengths of rope and each other to keep from falling into the sea. With her main deck partly submerged, the ship appears ready to sink at any moment. Still, a day and a half later, she remains afloat.
The first mate, Baker, is crawling along among half-frozen men huddled in corners. He finds the ship’s cook, known as Podmore, muttering to himself. Sanctimonious, and no sailor, the cook has had difficult relations with the officers and crew all along, marred by a mutual lack of respect.
“‘Look here, cook,’ interrupted Mr Baker, ‘the men are perishing with cold.’ ‘Cold!’ said the cook, mournfully; ‘they will be warm enough before long.’”
Baker tries to squeeze past him, to see for himself if there might be any drinking water remaining in the upended galley. Podmore is offended, and it’s enough to rouse him:
“The cook struggled. ‘Not you, sir – not you!’ He began to scramble to windward. ‘Galley! – my business!’ he shouted. ‘Cook’s going crazy now,’ said several voices. He yelled: ‘Crazy, am I? I am more ready to die than any of you, officers incloosive – there! As long as she swims I will cook! I will get you coffee.’...The men who had heard sent after him a cheer that sounded like a wail of sick children.”
Time drags by. Of the crew, Conrad writes:
“The desire of life kept them alive, apathetic and enduring, under the cruel persistence of the wind and cold; while the bestarred black dome of the sky revolved slowly above the ship, that drifted, bearing their patience and their suffering, through the stormy solitude of the sea.”
The men begin to hallucinate, imagining that they hear voices. Presently, one of the voices becomes surprisingly persistent:
“The boatswain said: ‘Why, it’s the cook, hailing from forward, I think.’ He hardly believed his own words or recognized his own voice. It was a long time before the man next to him gave a sign of life. He punched hard his other neighbour and said: ‘The cook’s shouting!...‘They’ve got some hot coffee...Bos’n got it...’ ‘No!...Where?’ – ‘It’s coming! Cook made it.’...It came in a pot, and they drank in turns. It was hot, and while it blistered the greedy palates, it seemed incredible. The men sighed out parting with the mug: ‘How ’as he done it?’ Some cried weakly: ‘Bully for you, doctor!’
“He had done it somehow...For many days we wondered, and it was the one ever-interesting subject of conversation to the end of the voyage. We asked the cook, in fine weather, how he felt when he saw his stove ‘reared up on end’...and we did our best to conceal our admiration under the wit of fine irony. He affirmed not to know anything about it, rebuked our levity, declared himself, with solemn animation, to have been the object of a special mercy for the saving of our unholy lives.”
The men manage to right the Narcissus, and they all go off to further adventures. In the painting, I have imagined Podmore relishing his moment of victory, giving thanks to the God of his imagination. His looks like a supremely selfless act of generosity. But when the cook holds himself up to be all “meritorious and pure,” it rubs the crew the wrong way, and their gratitude towards him, for saving their lives, is only half-hearted and grudging.