Joseph Conrad’s Typhoon as a Zen parable

I love Joseph Conrad’s work, but came to his novella Typhoon only about a dozen years ago. I instantly recognized it as an extended Zen parable, which just as instantly struck me as an odd thing for Conrad. I turned to the library and the web to learn more.

It turns out that I may be the only person on the planet to believe Typhoon has anything to do with Zen. Conrad’s faith, of which he was skeptical, appears to have been rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition. And, of course, the novella Typhoon is based on a real event.

On the other hand, as a sailor Conrad spent time in and around Southeast Asia. As a writer, he occasionally refers to Eastern philosophy. In Amy Foster, for instance, Mr. Swaffer asks Dr. Kennedy if the ragged, incomprehensible man who washed up on their shores might be “a bit of a Hindoo,” and in Heart of Darkness, Conrad describes Marlow as having “. . . the pose of a Buddha preaching in European clothes and without a lotus flower . . . ” It’s perhaps worth noting that Heart of Darkness was published in 1899, the same year Conrad started writing Typhoon.

Multiple readings haven’t altered my opinion: Typhoon is a great Zen story, all the greater if it was achieved unknowingly.note*

Here’s a five-sentence summary of Typhoon. Captain MacWhirr of the steamer s/s Nan-Shan is a stolid, unimaginative man and a source of amusement for his young chief mate, Jukes, and his chief engineer, Solomon Rout. While on a routine trip carrying cargo that includes 200 homeward-bound Chinese laborers, signs of an impending storm prompt Jukes to suggest altering course to dodge it. MacWhirr, though, sees no benefit in dodging weather – the storm’s location can’t be pinpointed and once course is changed it’s impossible to confirm the storm’s presence on the original track. He maintains the ship’s heading and runs smack into the typhoon. He persists, however, meeting an extraordinary situation with ordinary competence, and the ship, with all hands, including the Chinese passengers, survives to limp into port.

On the face of it, Typhoon is the story of one man’s will (and by extension, man’s will) overcoming the vastly superior forces of nature.

But, as I said, I see more to it than that.

The very title, Typhoon, is Eastern in origin. It comes from the Chinese dai-fung, meaning “big wind.” So, not only is the title a spoiler – the reader knows from the beginning that the ship and crew will encounter a specific maritime disaster – it also establishes place. As an aside, my Japanese grandfather believed it was a good sign when a baby slept with its legs and arms spread wide. It was dai, or “big,” because the Chinese character, and the Japanese character based on it, resembles a small person with arms and legs outstretched. In context, that particular word “big” encompassed robust health and great good fortune. So, although an English speaker might find ominous the obvious homonym for dai, an Eastern speaker might find more-positive associations.

Typhoon‘s first sentence tells us about the captain.
Captain MacWhirr, of the steamer Nan-Shan, had a physiognomy that, in the order of material appearances, was the exact counterpart of his mind: it presented no marked characteristics of firmness or stupidity; it had no pronounced characteristics whatever; it was simply ordinary, irresponsive, and unruffled.

I was immediately struck by the idea that MacWhirr is the human equivalent of the Taoist “uncarved block,” or a thing in its simplest, most-natural state.

This impression was powerfully reinforced in the next paragraph, in which MacWhirr is described as sitting “sunburnt and smiling faintly, with downcast eyes.” The image of a Buddha is underlined by his partial resemblance to a polished bronze idol: “. . . no matter how close he shaved, fiery metallic gleams passed, when he moved his head, over the surface of his cheeks.”

MacWhirr’s professional abilities reveal something akin to a nearness to nature, or, perhaps more accurately, to things as they really are. For instance, he reveals a faulty door lock with no fuss or even evidence that the omniscient narrator can share; it’s an incident of transcendental, yet pragmatic, awareness. His ship is “the floating abode of harmony and peace.” And, he blandly understands the language of the sea, forgoing his cabin to live on the bridge and sleep in the chart room on this particular voyage.

Furthermore, MacWhirr’s decision to not alter course could be seen as being in keeping with the Zen concept of not changing with the changes. There’s a concise explanation of this idea in Zen Speaks: Shouts of Nothingness (1994) by Tsai Chih Chung and translated by Brian Bruya, pp. 73-74.
In changing with the changes, the more we chase the farther away we get. Meet the changes by not changing, for the number of ways to change is limited, while the number of ways to stay the same is infinite.

In other words, we don’t know where the typhoon is or where it will be in the future. So, any spot in the area is about as safe – and as dangerous – as any other. Here’s MacWhirr trying to enlighten his chief mate:
A gale is a gale, Mr. Jukes,” resumed the Captain, “and a full-powered steamship has got to face it. There’s just so much dirty weather knocking about the world, and the proper thing is to go through it . . .”

MacWhirr’s chief mate, Jukes, could be seen as a novitiate. He is an educated, competent officer and, to a large extent, Conrad’s alter ego. The chief engineer, Solomon (loaded name, that) Rout, represents a worldly wisdom, rooted in reality but with the intellectual distance to be amused in turns by both MacWhirr and Jukes. The ugly, ape-like boatswain might be an easy-going idiot, but he does his job well – he, like MacWhirr, may be closer to Zen than the others. The grubby freelance second mate may be the most imaginative, prescient person aboard; no wonder he loses his way in the crisis.

Yet, if MacWhirr is close to the sea and may be well on a path toward some sort of enlightenment, he’s also untested.
The sea itself, as if sharing Mr. Jukes’ good-natured forbearance, had never put itself out to startle the silent man . . . Dirty weather he had known, of course. He had been made wet, uncomfortable, tired in the usual way, felt at the time and presently forgotten. . . . But he had never been given a glimpse of immeasurable strength and of immoderate wrath . . . the wrath and fury of the passionate sea. He knew it existed, as we know that crime and abominations exist; he had heard of it as a peaceable citizen in a town hears of battles, famines, and floods, and yet knows nothing of what those things mean . . . Captain MacWhirr had sailed over the surface of the oceans as some men go skimming over the years of existence to sink gently into a placid grave, ignorant of life to the last, without ever having been made to see all it may contain of perfidy, of violence, and of terror.

Here we have the pre-crisis Captain MacWhirr. To the Western mind, including that of the author, he’s ignorant. To the Eastern mind, he lets the past go, and he has something of the know-nothing mind. Either way, the universe has a test for him: the typhoon. It would overwhelm the merely ignorant. But, like a student of Zen, MacWhirr’s letting go of the past holds fast the lessons of the past; his know-nothingness is rooted in vast experience and practical know-how.

In addition, MacWhirr embodies the paradox of wei wu wei: the ability to do without doing. Look, for example, at how MacWhirr’s characteristic inertness is repeatedly described: almost always coupled to positive outcomes such as his crew’s harmonious existence, or the profound relief felt by his chief mate upon his mere presence on the bridge.

And indeed in the moments following the storm hitting, MacWhirr is a man of invisibly decisive action. While his second mate is paralyzed by fear and his deck crew mills around under cover, MacWhirr, with the assistance of a stoic helmsman in the wheelhouse and frenzied engineers below decks, manages his ship’s heading to minimize the storm’s threat and maximize the effects of his own meager resources. He then, methodically, turns his attention to his deck crew, sending officers to roust them and put them to work securing the pandemonious Chinese laborers and their belongings. It’s a mission that strikes Jukes, a man of imagination, as a futile exercise, but MacWhirr is undeterred.

MacWhirr’s calm spreads through the crew. Jukes, harboring a fatalistic belief that he won’t live through the typhoon, remains steadfast in a state of what Conrad calls “do-nothing heroics.” The rest of the crew’s beliefs are unexplored; instead, their actions demonstrate the re-emergence of order. The ape-like boatswain manhandles objects and people into compliance. The ship’s carpenter silently retrieves ropes with which to rig lifelines. Only the second mate is left gibbering on the wheelhouse floor, relieved of his duties by MacWhirr.

Jukes’ journey, in contrast, is one of facing the inability of imagination and knowledge to adequately grasp the situation as it is. At the first whiff of danger, he springs into action with alacrity and professionalism. However, with the typhoon descending on him and his ship, Jukes finds himself saddled with “an inclination to disbelieve the reality of this experience. . . . (he) had never doubted his ability to imagine the worst; but this was so much beyond his powers of fancy that it appeared incompatible with the existence of any ship whatever.”

Desperate, Jukes turns to an unknowable force beyond nature: “My God! My God! My God! My God!”

The maelstrom tumbles him into MacWhirr, an island of solidity on the bridge, and in that moment more solid, and more useful, than the fixed cast iron fittings.

As always, MacWhirr deals pragmatically with things as they are, not things as they might be, a characteristic that seems to extend even to the concept of a deity; it’s worth noting that Conrad never has MacWhirr calling on supernatural assistance. Instead, his faith lies in his ship’s builders, the engines, chief engineer Rout, and chief mate Jukes. Upon being told that the lifeboats have been swept overboard, MacWhirr’s response is a calm “All right. . . . Can’t be helped.”

By the way, “can’t be helped” is embedded deep in Japanese culture as “Shikata ga nai.” It looks to Western eyes like a form of stoicism, but what it is, is an acceptance of things beyond one’s control. That nuance is often overlooked: shikata ga nai is not a surrender, it’s a letting go that enables one to get on with it, whatever “it” might be at that moment. It’s a tool that helps one practice mindfulness. There’s a closely related Zen teaching to the effect that the main cause of suffering, is not accepting things as they are.

The difference between MacWhirr and Jukes, between pragmatism and intellectualism, can be summed up in a single exchange between them, shouted over the shrieking hurricane while locked in a tight embrace for dear life. Jukes shouts “Will she get through this?” MacWhirr answers, “She may.”

Jukes has the mental vividness to conjure up a vast range of hypothetical outcomes, to which MacWhirr responds with simple reality.

Later, in the stillness of the eye of the hurricane with the second half of the storm fast approaching, MacWhirr attempts to impart to Jukes some final bits of wisdom. They are as good a Zen story-lesson as anything else.
It will be bad, and there’s an end. … We must trust her to go through it and come out on the other side. That’s plain and straight. . . . She will be smothered and swept again for hours,” mumbled the Captain. “There’s not much left by this time above deck for the sea to take away – unless you or me.”

Both, sir,” whispered Jukes, breathlessly.

You are always meeting trouble halfway, Jukes,” Captain MacWhirr remonstrated quaintly. “Though, it’s a fact that the second mate is no good. D’ye hear, Mr. Jukes? You would be left alone if . . . “

Captain MacWhirr interrupted himself and Jukes, glancing on all sides, remained silent.

Don’t you be put out by anything,” the Captain continued, mumbling rather fast. “Keep her facing it. They may say what they like, but the heaviest seas run with the wind. Facing it – always facing it – that’s the way to get through. You are a young sailor. Face it. That’s enough for any man. Keep a cool head.”

Everyone makes it, of course.

So, should MacWhirr have changed course? The absence of evidence reinforces the Zen teaching: one simply can’t say.

In the end, though, Jukes – and, by extension, perhaps Conrad himself – doesn’t get it. Jukes writes to a friend about Captain MacWhirr and the typhoon, saying, “I think he got out of it very well for such a stupid man.”

In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu (1963, translated by D.C. Lau, p. 73) writes about leadership in Book One, XVII: “The best of all rulers is but a shadowy presence to his subjects. . . Hesitant, he does not utter his words lightly. When his task is accomplished and his work done, the people all say, ‘It happened to us naturally.’”

MacWhirr is, by that standard, the best of all captains. And, perhaps because the expected hero in the Western tradition, Jukes, so thoroughly misses the point as seen from an Eastern perspective, Typhoon may be among the best of all modern Zen literature.

What is the point of Zen enlightenment? Nothing (Chung and Bruya, p. 19.) What was the point of the typhoon? Nothing.

I’ll let Joseph Conrad have the final word here, from a letter to Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham, quoted in Joseph Conrad: A Biography (1991) by Jeffrey Meyers, p. 166.
Faith is a myth and beliefs shift like mists on the shore; thoughts vanish; words, once pronounced, die; and the memory of yesterday is as shadowy as the hope of tomorrow. . . . In this world – as I have known it – we are made to suffer without the shadow of a reason, of a cause, or of guilt. . . . A moment, a twinkling of an eye and nothing remains – but a clod of mud, of cold mud, of dead mud cast into black space, rolling around an extinguished sun. Nothing. Neither thought, nor sound, nor soul. Nothing.




* An alternative explanation is that, being a man with rudimentary knowledge of a hammer, everything I see is a nail. A more theological argument might be that certain concepts of Zen philosophy, being universal, quite naturally exist within the Western tradition by other names, and vice versa. Go back up