“The Secret Sharer”; or How I Got Started in My Life As An Intellectual

Want to hear a funny story?

My Life at 17

I got interested in my education at 17 years old. Before that, I had managed to drift through school without really studying very much. It wasn’t that I wasn’t interested in my education. I wasn’t interested in my formal education. It was that there are so many other, better books to read outside of school. In school, we were reading Homer’s Odyssey, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities. While I learned to appreciate such books later in life, before I was 17 I was reading the fantasy literature of The Lord of the Rings, the mysteries of Agatha Christie, and the action-filled thrillers of Frederick Forsythe.

I got out my “cheap paperback” phase in my senior year of high school, when my English teacher had us read “The Secret Sharer,” which she overlaid with a healthy dose of Jungian psychology. Jung, so she said, had taught that we are not what the existentialists would call “authentic” beings when we are born. We become authentic by undergoing a “sea journey,” which has four distinct parts.  At the beginning of our lives, we are dependent on others for our self esteem, our sense of ourselves, and our power. At the end of the journey, we emerge as “authentic” beings.

The journey starts when we meet our id. In “The Secret Sharer,” the book which we were reading as we work through Jung’s system, the confrontation with the id was the confrontation with a “secret sharer” of the narrator’s experience. The captain of a sea vessel thought he was whole, until he found out that there was a deeper, darker force operating within his soul. Conrad divides the captain’s soul into his conscious, law-abiding behavior, and his “secret sharer,” a man who has broken the law and has been condemned to death.

I draw on the Grade Saver notes on “The Secret Sharer,” which I found on the Internet.

As a sailing ship awaits a favorable wind, darkness falls, and the captain surprises the crew by taking the anchor watch himself. As he strolls the silent deck in his sleeping-suit, his serene reverie is broken by his discovery that the rope side-ladder has not been hauled in. The captain is astonished to find that a naked swimmer is floating at the end of the ladder. In the quiet of the sleeping ship, the two talk and the man, named Leggatt, elects to come on board. The captain, sensing “a mysterious communication” has been established between them, provides his intuitively perceived “double” with an identical sleeping-suit.

I took this to mean, at the time, that people were generally asleep, but the captain had roused himself from slumber, awakening himself to the full experience of life. I decided to do the same. Rather than being a passive participant in my life, I decided that I was going to follow my own “sea journey.” So I attempted to destroy my personality through the use of drugs. And I succeeded, not only in destroying my initial personality, but also of meeting my own id.

Now this psychomachia can last forever in some people. Jung tells us that only the strong survive to fend off the id. Others surrender to it completely. Those who do must wait for the animus or anima to appear to them. In my case, it was the anima, since I was a male. Had I been a female, I would have been greeted by a character of the opposite John. The purpose of the animus/anima was complete your individuality. Later, reading Joseph Campbell, I found out just how universal a theme this is.

My Belief at 17

This sort of thing is very common in idealistic philosophy. We, as gendered individuals, are not whole. It is only by reattaching ourselves to the “higher” power of our “whole” humanity that we become ourselves. [See Plato’s Symposium for Aristophanes’ archetypal description of this process.] In The Secret Sharer, this moment became apparent when two hills appeared on the horizon, apparently indicating 2 breasts and a vagina.

My Later Belief

Okay, so what did I know? I learned much later that, despite Joseph Campbell’s view that this was a human characteristic, one that emerged from our collective unconscious minds—a view that he picked up from Jung—that there were other ways of configuring the world and the mind’s place in it.

So I was waiting several years for my anima to show up in my life, but I never got 2 breasts and vagina. I mean, eventually I found a wife, but before that could happen I had given up my “sea journey.” The process of smoking pot and experimenting with harder drugs was not making me “a man in full,” as I had hoped it might. I saw it in my friends who are using drugs with me the effects of drugs, which were to dim your perceptions. That wasn’t what I wanted from drug use, and on June 2, 1984 I quit doing drugs, as well as quitting smoking forever.

I tend to make fun of myself in this period of my life. How could I have thought that using drugs was a path to enlightenment? Well, I did. The joke was on me.

My Emergence From Jung’s Process

I emerged from this process without the gifts that Jung had promised me. Nevertheless, the journey was not without its rewards. First of all, when I went to college for the first time, I was intent upon completing this journey. But college was not then—as I have found it not to be now—about completing the journey of the self through intellectual means. It is dedicated to setting boundaries and deciding who is to be admitted to the inner circle and who is to be excluded. These boundaries, which is looks so clear and natural to those individuals who find themselves on the inside, look completely artificial to those who have been excluded and find themselves on the outside.

Long After My Emergence, I Had a Completely Different Take On Jung

It was years later, after I had completed graduate school, they went back to the library and picked up the long forgotten works of Carl Jung. And what I found astonished me. He was talking about the process of culling an aristocratic few from the democratic many. But by this time, having been rejected from the academic life, I had found comfort in economic life that I could never find in the “us-vs-them” atmosphere of academia. And I was a little bit shocked.

But in hindsight, I had grasped Jung as the reward held out for the pursuit of an academic life. I had been a young kid who had not been unpopular, but who had not been sort of social butterfly that rose to the top of the social hierarchy. I was looking for some advantage in high school; and I found it in the work of Carl Jung and the existentialists. They had “authentic” lives. Or at least they were approaching “authenticity.” The rest of these people, the people who would rise to the top of the social hierarchy, were simply sheep. It was a very satisfying answer to me at 17, and it remained a satisfying answer to me for many years.

I actually believe that, had I had a good experience in my intellectual life that I would never have questioned my initial belief in the goodness of the intellectual quest and of the badness of people who do not rise to the intellectual challenges posed to our minds.

But over time, Joseph Campbell could not supply answers: at least he could not supply enough answers to satisfy me that he had found the answer to the questions that nature poses to us. I entered graduate school, thinking that because I had been an excellent student as an undergraduate that this would mean that I would breeze through graduate school into the job market. Graduate school disappointed me as well. By the time I had gotten to graduate school, the Carl Jung-Joseph Campbell approach to learning to given way to “cultural studies” programs.

And while I like engaging in “cultural studies”—indeed a large part of my blog is dedicated to the exploration of various musical cultures—I never believed that the cultural critics had any better answers than had Jung and Campbell to the metaphysical questions that nature poses to us. They simply had switched from Jung’s search for elusive human nature in the “collective unconscious” to the search for elusive human nature in the give-and-take of politics. Both schools of thought, it had come to seem to me, discounted the individual at the center of his own universe for the embrace of something  greater, but always somewhere else.

This is the origin of my belief that people are better off being dedicated to some belief, rather than standing off in the distance dismissing others who have dared to believe, while we, who (in our own words) are superior to them because we have managed not to believe in anything.

My Peace with Jung

So maybe Joseph Campbell was right when he was talking about the fact that the journey seldom finishes up where you thought you were going at the beginning. Instead, it shifts course in the middle. And perhaps my metaphysical journey was never supposed to end up with me meeting my anima in some astonishing way. Perhaps it was supposed to end up with me abandoning my journey halfway through.

Because what I got out of my journey turned out to be the goal of Jung’s “sea journey.” As Jung said, in his book Man and His Symbols, a man who has completed his journey should not have to travel anywhere to look for the truth, for where ever he is the truth is always there with him. And this is what has allowed me to live happily on the Southside of Chicago far away from the coasts and far away from the city of Chicago itself. City life is built upon people’s urge is to find some human nature in the company of others which they cannot find inside themselves.

I have found that center in myself because I could not find it in the social sphere of politics, culture, or even the great works of Carl Young and Joseph Campbell. And so occasionally I return to Joseph Campbell, as well as Carl Jung. But I’ve never gone back to read again the story of “The Secret Sharer.”

With the secret stranger gone, the captain is left alone with his ship at last, enjoying “the perfect communion of a seaman with his first command.” He walks to the trail and catches a final evanescent glimpse’ of the white floppy hat, left behind to mark the spot where the captain’s “secret sharer,” his “second self,” had “lowered himself into the water to take his punishment; a free man, a proud swimmer striking out for a new destiny.”

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