Energy From The Dark Side

Talleyrand, at Seasons Of Tumult And Discord (see blogroll) has a post about sociopathy versus empathy in the male character-

I commented with reference to a Joseph Conrad novella, “The Secret Sharer.”

This is not one of the best known Joseph Conrad stories, although I have seen it published in several editions with “Heart of Darkness”- both these stories are about a hundred pages long, so together they make a nice small paperback. I first encountered this story as a film shown in a high school literature class. I strongly recommend it; I think I can discuss it without any real spoilers, although as a psychological study spoilers aren’t really an issue.

A young merchant sea officer is assigned as captain of a merchant sailing vessel. It’s his first command. The story seems to have been inspired by Conrad’s own personal experience of his one brief command before leaving the maritime business altogether, about which he wrote a non-fiction account although I don’t remember the title of.

The young captain is an educated, refined fellow, as you would expect an officer of a British ship in they heyday of the empire to be. A ship then was a rather rough environment- it had a large crew of rough, lower class men, not necessarily inclined to defer to authority, isolated for long periods in a hostile environment without the comforts and entertainments of home. It was also quite dangerous and their safety was dependent on not only their own skill and the fates of ocean and weather but on the judgement of the officers.

This conflict is worth thinking about for anyone who aspires to be in any position of authority, even one so small and intimate as a man with a woman. The led both need and resent the authority of the leader. The seamen can’t run the ship themselves, they don’t have the knowledge or ability, and authority must be concentrated on one man. Their knowledge of their lack of adequacy hurts. The best case scenario is the captain is both highly competent and likeable and charismatic. They will feel safe and his authority will not chafe on him. They will even love him; and that love will be partly as a reaction to the buried resentment.

The next best thing is if the captain is just competent. The crew will know they are safe even if he is harsh or unpleasant with them, or just isn’t a personable fellow. They will be aware of their resentment but will control it, and they will feel quite comfortable doing so. They will not cause trouble or leave the ship, because their needs are met. They will complain but it will be the kind of complaining that is one of life’s proletarian pleasures, like smoking or being the fan of a lousy team.

Below that will be if the captain is both incompetent and unlikable. The crew may not mutiny, such incidents were pretty rare, but they will make their unhappiness known. They may go to a lower ranking officer with  complaints, they will shirk, and they will leave the ship as soon as they can.

The worst situation is if the captain is incompetent at wielding his authority but is a likeable person. The crew will feel unsafe but their like of the captain will prevent them from trying to change things by undermining his authority. They will be conflicted about leaving the ship. The smarter ones will realize the situation is unsustainable and quietly find other work. The less intelligent or assertive will cross their fingers and hope for the best.

Well that’s quite a bit of ground covered without much mention of the story isn’t it? OK, we have the setup, a new captain uncertain of his authority sets out on a routine voyage. Could be thousands of men throughout history, but this is a sea story, and this particular sea story uses the classic sea story element of the stowaway.

He finds on his ship a mysterious fugitive from justice. This man is also a captain, who as he tells it while trying to keep control of his crew and save his ship in a storm, struck and accidentally killed a defiant seaman. He justifies his action by explaining that the lives of everyone on the ship were in danger, and had he not killed this one man they all would have died. The court trying him was unimpressed by this explanation so he had to escape. He tells the new captain he only wants to get off the ship on one the many islands in the Indonesian archipelago and start a life in the forest.

The new captain has to consider what this all means. Could a captain killing a seaman ever be justified? Isn’t the authority of the commander to be wielded firmly but lightly, and always with a sense of justice? Isn’t self-control a cardinal virtue? The fugitive claims that a captain may, in extremis, be forced to throw away all the civilized notions of law, justice, and legitimate authority, and kill– not out of anger, pique, or offended ego, but to actually save lives.

The new captain might easily be described as a “nice guy”- he is the product of a genteel middle-class British upbringing, and has always behaved with modesty and decorum. He has certainly supervised seamen in the past but always under the authority of another man. And yet he’s discerning enough to realize there is a certain dark, unmentioned aspect to the very high, if not absolute and unchallenged, authority he holds as commander of a sea-going vessel. He understands the position the fugitive was in, and he’s not completely sure he would have not done the same thing- if he could do it. Does he have what it takes to really command the ship? Does he have it in him to go so far as to kill a disobedient crew member, in order to save the ship and the rest of the crew? What does the crew expect- a decent, by the book fellow or tough captain who will allow no breach of discipline? And if so, how do they see him?

The world was a much more authoritarian place then but even so such ideas weren’t mentioned in polite society. I suspect the court trying the fugitive- I don’t remember its exact nature- sympathized with his situation but felt he had to be punished anyway for appearances’ sake. I never heard of this story in military officer training although it is spot-on for that, or any kind of management or leadership training for that matter.

What would you do? The new captain has one obvious obligation, as person of responsibility and authority- have the stowaway placed in irons, turn his ship around and deliver him to the police in port. But no one else seems to have noticed the man, and he has a schedule to keep. And having an experienced captain along for at least the first part of the voyage may be helpful. The man may be unhinged, he may even be a murderer, but he may have a few lessons worth learning for a new sea captain.

That last bit makes it sound like an after-school special almost. The point is being an authority figure is not always pleasant, and it may involve doing things that are officially condemned by society. You may have to be a dick sometimes. I suspect this lesson is supposed to be impressed on boys through sports, but that would mean many miss out on it.

As a man in a relationship with a woman you are her authority figure. She must trust and respect you before she likes and loves you. So you must sometimes discipline her for bad behavior, and you must sometimes deny her things she wants if they aren’t good for the relationship. This behavior will feel very unnatural and maybe even cruel, but if you are unable to be firm and in control you’ll wind up with the worst situation for the captain- liked but not respected. And this will cause her much more pain.


2 Responses to Energy From The Dark Side

  1. jmkaye says:

    You’re not going to believe this, but I read that story in high school and loved it, and ever since then I’ve been going crazy trying to remember the title and author’s name. Thank you for restoring my sanity. Now I can finally read it again.

  2. George Morgeau says:

    In your military officer career, you lived my dream life.

    An omega male is a failed alpha male. He has great self-confidence, but shouldn’t.

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