Lord Jim, Celebrity Big Brother, and the existential horror of failing to live up to the imagined self

Halfway through the 17th series of Celebrity Big Brother comes a moment we all live in fear of. Stephanie Davis, charged with cheating on her boyfriend with fellow housemate Jeremy Mc Donnell, launches a vicious tirade against her accuser, The Only Was is Essex star Gemma Collins. Her attack is especially nasty because it gets at the foundations upon which Gemma has built everything.

“I can’t wait for you to see yourself when you’re out of here like what a horrible monster you are. Your attitude stinks, you’re a diva and that’s why no one’s ever liked you’.

Big Brother bans contestants from bringing in books, but this hasn’t stopped Stephanie from picking up on a  theme that Joseph Conrad obsessed over – that the foundations of our own lives, the ideas that carry us day to day, revealed nothing certain but a tendency to self-delude ourselves For Conrad these delusions were necessary to function. What troubled him most was what lay beyond those delusions, when the barriers are broken down what exactly comes flooding in? For the writer who spent much of his life as a seaman, being on a boat at sea was an appropriate reminder of the horror of such a possibility.

‘there is something peculiar in a small boat upon the wide sea. Over the lives borne from the shadow of death there seems to fall the shadow of madness. When your ship fails you, your whole world seems to fail you; the world that made you, restrained, taken care of you.’

There is also something peculiar about being a contestant on Celebrity Big Brother. The threat of being judged by that invisible but ever present force, the watching British public, is enough to drive anyone mad, and when its in a house in which every action and conversation is observed the very fabric of the world you have constructed can easily unravel. My mum always complains that all the contestants ever talk about are being voted off and sex. But like true Reality TV existentialists, the vote off and who Stephanie slept with, death and sex, those great Freudian impulses, are all that matters when forced to spend every waking hour in that shadow of madness. If Conrad were still alive, he would be watching every night.

In Lord Jim Conrad explores this obsession with self-delusion, and more importantly what happens when we fail to live up to it. Jim is first-mate on the Patna, a steamboat carrying Pilgrims to the Hajj when it starts to take on water. Convinced that the ship is sinking Jim abandons the Patna with the rest of the crew, only to be picked up later and confronted with the testimony of the abandoned passengers. For Jim, who has spent his life dreaming of greatness at sea, it is a personal disaster. As he discusses the events with Marlow, the novels narrator, he is forced to come to terms with his failed ideal. For the young seamen who once revelled in being command of his own fate, the novels most famous line reveals the painful mediocrity that such a freedom has given him.

“I had jumped . . .’ He checked himself, averted his gaze. . . . ‘ It seems,’ he added.

Fate and ships had been done before.  William Ernest Henley had offered his own maritime metaphor in his 1888 poem ‘Invictus’ with the nice idea that we are captains of our own soul. Henley’s more optimistic verdict on the power of human agency has outlived Conrad’s by surviving in poetic tattoos and taglines for feel good sports movies. Conrad is turning Henley’s idea on its head. Against the grain of that Victorian Imperial arrogance, Conrad is looking at the darker side of that freedom for greatness. The idea that it can also drive us to our own ruin.

Like Gemma Collins, Jim is forced to confront the awful truth that his entire life has been built on a self imposed lie. Nonetheless, for Conrad, Jim jumping ship is not the problem. The tragedy lies in the way Jim punishes himself for investing so much in his tarnished reputation. Jim’s trial for deserting the Patna is routinely humiliating, but it comes and goes. Jim is given the chance to move on, but instead spends his entire life striving for the greatness he left behind on the Patna. Like so many Big Brother contestants faced with their own sense of humiliation, Jim is forced to reinvent himself. Driven to the fictional country of Patusan he becomes accepted by the locals as ‘Tuam Jim’. Lord Jim.

Towards the end of his narrative, as he looks out at the rag tag bunch of sailors who have chosen to listen, Marlowe considers his own presentation of Jim. Like all great unreliable narrators, he admits to his own shortcomings, but in a way that forces him to reconsider the nature of Jim’s life. For Marlowe it is too simple to dismiss Jim as a mere tragic hero, and to do so might be a sign of another kind of failure.

 ‘I affirm he had achieved greatness; but the thing would be dwarfed in the telling, or rather in the hearing. Frankly it is not my words I mistrust but your minds. I could be eloquent were I not afraid you fellows had starved your imaginations to feed your bodies. I do not mean to be offensive; it is respectable to have no illusions – and safe – and profitable and dull. Yet you in your time must have known the intensity of life, that right of glamour.’

My own Marlow moment came on the 747 bus. ‘Look at all these awful people,’ said the man sitting next to me, holding out his Metro in disgust to reveal a double paged spread on this year’s Celebrity Big Brother. Stephanie Davis had finally got together with Jeremy McDonnell, while Gemma Collins was about to embark on another Reality TV venture by taking part in televised therapy sessions. As I considered the new lives of the former contestants, driven there by the existential madness of The Big Brother house, I whispered into the ear of this cynical old man the words of Marlow as he leaves Jim behind on the shores of Patusan:

‘The twilight was ebbing fast from the sky above his head … then only a speck, a tiny white speck, that seemed to catch all the light left in a darkened world … And, suddenly, I lost him…’

 

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