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Memories of Ian Watt: An unknown side of Stanford's legendary literary critic. By Bliss Carnochan.

October 4, 2013

Ian Watt came to the Stanford English Department in 1964, after teaching for a decade at the University of California, Berkeley, and serving briefly as a Dean at the new University of East Anglia.  For younger members of the English faculty like myself, his arrival seemed to announce the coming of a new age.  In 1957, he had published what was, on many accounts, the single most influential book of post-War literary criticism, The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding. It gave the novel a prominence it had never known before in academic contexts, and despite the usual ups and downs of critical views, it remains important.  But its author, though a larger-than-life figure on the Stanford stage and a good friend to many, did not much reveal himself to others. No one who knew him doubted the intensity of his inner life. There were moments in public settings when he seemed, for reasons of his own, close to tears. In his biography of the early Conrad, he compares the inner lives of Joseph Conrad and Samuel Johnson -- and might almost be describing himself: “Neither Johnson nor Conrad wrote directly about their inner lives, and it is in each case our subliminal sense of great energies at play to keep turbulent and destructive feelings under conscious control which makes us feel we are in touch with one of the great heroes of the wars of the mind.”  And, near the start of the biography, Watt drops something of his deep personal reserve when he confronts Conrad’s experience of loss: “The burden of this and other losses weighed so deeply on Conrad all through his life that anyone beginning to write about it must wonder how far the triviality of his own deprivations may have disabled him from the task.”  Watt’s wartime deprivations -- three years as a prisoner in the notorious Japanese camp on the river Kwai -- were far from trivial.  He replayed them, I think, to use his resonant phrase, in his own “wars of the mind.”

The Watt Archive

Marina MacKay (of the University of Durham), currently working on a study of Watt’s life and work, has discovered in his archive at Stanford material that, when more fully known,  will be indispensable to an understanding of who he was.  We readily think of Watt, who took a first class degree in both parts of the English Tripos at St. John’s College, Cambridge, and studied at the Sorbonne with Louis Cazamian, author of A History of English Literature (1927), as born for an academic career.  But, early on, he had other aspirations. In his archive, amongst many, many boxes of material -- he seldom threw anything away -- are four short stories, three with a prison setting, the fourth set in a cafe in “South-East Asia.” Two are dated: one, December 9, 1946; another, February 9, 1948.  All appear to have been written when Watt was finishing graduate work (at  the University of California, Los Angeles) and beginning his teaching career. He submitted one story to the Yale Review and to The Nation, eliciting rejections in the usual, polite vein--good but not “right” for us.  On the folder containing another of the stories is written “Atlantic first,” suggesting it may have been submitted, or at least that Watt thought of submitting it, to The Atlantic for its series of work by new writers. These stories provide an intimate glimpse of his inner life and demonstrate, as well, the depth of his intellectual engagement with Joseph Conrad. Watt’s Conrad in the Nineteenth Century (1979), some twenty-five years in the making, was only one of two volumes on Conrad that he planned but never was able to complete. The Rise of the Novel made Watt’s reputation; Joseph Conrad was his life’s work.

The most powerful of the stories -- dated February, 1948 -- is deeply Conradian.  It is also unfinished and frequently hard to decipher, for the typescript is marked up with many, sometimes illegible changes in pencil. Marina MacKay plans to tackle these formidable problems in a full edited version. Watt was a stylist whose work was typically a product of revision and re-revision. A note by hand, on a separate sheet in the file folder, suggests he was unsatisfied with the story as it stood. Even the title made difficulty. The typescript is headed “The Ways of Guilt”; the file folder containing the typescript is labeled “The Revenge of Mercy.” In fact, neither title quite works, though “The Revenge of Mercy” is the stronger of the two. For all its obscurities and puzzles, the story vividly reflects wars of the mind, turbulent and potentially destructive feelings, beneath the usually cool exterior of Watt’s public self.

"The Revenge of Mercy"

“The Revenge of Mercy” -- as it will be called here -- opens after the war has ended.  The narrator, formerly an officer, has been a prisoner: “The war is over now, and many of us have left our hospitals and prisons. In mine, many died and all feared to die, but it is certain that those who saw, or suffered, the deaths, did not plan them, and did not even understand the plan.” A heavy-handed opening, but things pick up when the narrator launches his story a few pages later. A party of the sick “from up-country” has arrived by train and by river barge.  The narrator, volunteering his help, encounters “a long trail of half-naked men” with “bony legs, sunken cheeks, and deep-set eyes.”  “Suddenly” he hears a voice calling his name.  It comes from “a very frail, grey, emaciated body… being carried on a man’s back.”  The narrator doesn’t recognize the man at first, but then “his quavering tone suddenly reminded me -- yes, poor old Robinson, he’d been in my ward in Roberts’ Hospital, just after the capitulation of Singapore.” Watt’s first published article was on fictional naming, and we can’t help but remember Daniel Defoe’s stranded mariner: this Robinson, too, is a lost and stranded soul, “here he was again, broken and forlorn, still trying to pretend he didn’t feel he was the unluckiest man alive.” What is an individual’s responsibility to another, even a less than sympathetic victim of self-pity, under conditions of duress?  “He hadn’t got many friends, and if I didn’t help him, no one else would.  So I said mechanically, ‘I’ll come and see you when you’ve settled in.’”  The narrator and Robinson are secret sharers, even against the narrator’s will. Watt registers the moral tensions that are foremost, among Conrad’s fictions, in The Secret Sharer and The Nigger of the “Narcissus.”     

Like Leggatt in The Secret Sharer and Jim Wait in The Nigger of the “Narcissus,” Watt’s hapless Robinson is the stranger “who comes to town” -- one of Tolstoy’s two archetypal plots -- and, like Leggatt and Wait, he is a wounded stranger who presumes on others’ sympathy.  In The Secret Sharer, a  young captain, alone at night, sees a man clinging to the side-ladder on his ship.  It is Leggatt, fleeing a ship where, as first mate, he has killed a member of the crew.  Mysteriously drawn to Leggatt, the captain hides him in his own cabin and eventually, with a daring piece of seamanship, enables him to escape. In The Nigger of the “Narcissus,” the black sailor who announces himself dramatically and ambiguously by his name, “Wait!”, when he is overlooked on the ship‘s first roll-call, sickens with tuberculosis in the voyage from Bombay to London.  The crew is anxious for his fate; the captain and one old sailor, more concerned for the ship’s discipline and safety, dismiss Wait’s plight.  Sympathy is a suspect emotion: “The latent egoism of tenderness to suffering appeared in the developing anxiety not to see him die.”  In The Secret Sharer, the captain’s tenderness for Leggatt, though it eventually earns him mastery, entails risk for himself and for his crew.  Jim Wait’s sickness threatens the solidarity of his ship’s company. In “The Revenge of Mercy,” “the latent egoism of tenderness” faces off against claims of selfless sympathy.  It is a Conradian story with an unresolved dilemma at its heart.

The Narrative Eye

Remembering his promise to Robinson, the narrator takes him some milk and finds him in a hut housing the worst cases of dysentery. Robinson also has a gangrenous leg.  “It looked horribly swollen, and I asked him if he’d had it dressed yet.”  The leg hasn’t been dressed: “You see, it’s not really an ulcer ward -- I’m here for the dysentery.” The narrator asks the wardmaster if something can be done. “What d’you say his name was,” the wardmaster asks.  “Robinson, in the third bay.” “Oh yes,” says the wardmaster, “I know him, already making a fuss is he.”  When the wardmaster says “I’ll see what I can do,” the narrator returns to the officers’ hut, “feeling I’d done all I could for the moment.” Conditions in the officers’ quarters are less dreadful than in the hospital huts, and he sits down to a decent meal with a friend and fellow officer: “I knew he shared my feeling of guilt,” guilt, that is, at the inequity dividing officers and enlisted men. Under fearful strain themselves, the officers avoid the hospital huts and can’t bear to watch, much less stand at attention, when a burial party goes by. 

But “suddenly I remembered Robinson.”  The narrator finds him in a different hut.  He has lost his wallet, some letters, and photos that he cherishes, during the move. The narrator tells Robinson he will look for the wallet, though he knows it will be fruitless. The wardmaster is unsympathetic, the narrator takes Robinson his tin of milk. “Could you open it for me, Sir? The orderlies won’t do anything for me.”  The narrator draws back: “ I haven’t got a tin opener, but there must be somebody in the ward who has. You’ve really got to make an effort yourself.”  He is shocked by his own response: “why was I being so cruel and unfair.” Yet he knows why. Robinson is demanding, the orderlies “have a down on him,” and the narrator can’t bring himself to blame them: “No one could stand the strain of dealing with someone who made such large demands on the little pity we could spare from ourselves.” Maybe sympathy is nothing more than the latent egoism of tenderness. 

Now things spiral downwards.  Robinson tells the narrator that the wardmaster and the orderlies refuse to notice him: “I haven’t had a dressing for three days.  And last night I kept on needing the bedpan and none of them would listen.  I reckon he told them not to. In the end I had to get up and go right out to the latrine, and it’s terrible for my leg.”  The narrator says: “I’ll do something.” Robinson says: “I don’t think you’d better say anything to the wardmaster.”  “I won’t,” says the narrator.  “I’ll fix him, and see you again tomorrow morning early.  Goodbye. Good luck.” At this point, for several pages, the narrative is marked up badly, as if Watt has lost command of the story. But finally the narrator goes to headquarters where the camp commander, to his surprise, agrees that things are in a bad way and “a new program of voluntary assistance from the whole camp” is needed. Relieved by the flow “of soft promises that delayed the need for action,” the narrator returns to officers’ quarters. There he meets his fellow officer Wyn, who protests that “it’s no good breaking yourself up for things you can’t help.”  Why feel Robinson’s case “more personally” than that of all the others who are suffering? The narrator answers: “I don’t know but I do. It’s very queer.”  Why Robinson? Because, like Leggatt and the ship’s captain, he and the narrator are secret sharers.

The story continues with the narrator’s obscure reflections on “the impotence of pity” and “the flattering testimony of remorse,” all this in a paragraph that Watt has marked with a notation: “I know I must finish this,” which seems to mean, I know I don’t have this right.  The next morning the narrator heads for the hospital, all the while feeling that “I couldn’t bear to see Robinson again.”  When he arrives, he finds that the old wardmaster has been replaced -- and that Robinson is not in his bed. “Could you find out about Robinson for me?” he asks the new wardmaster, who turns to another prisoner: “Hey, George d’yer know anything about a bedpatient called Robinson?”  Robinson has died in the night, “they found him out at the latrine. Heart failure, the doctor said. Of course, he was a bedpatient, really, should have used a bedpan.” And then a final sentence that is stricken through: “Can’t think what he was doing out there, must have been queer.”

The Memory of Ian Watt

Five years later, Watt revisited “The Revenge of Mercy.” A notation on University of California stationery, dated, May 18, 1953, is filed with “The Revenge of Mercy”: “Need to clarify main point. my inaction? his loneliness? Either way needs much shortening.”  If “my inaction” is the main point, then the story is about, in its first title, “the ways of guilt.”  If “his loneliness” is the main point, then it is not the narrator’s “inaction” but his unaccountable sympathy for Robinson that matters. In that case, “the revenge of mercy” is the lingering suspicion that mercy stems from the latent egoism of tenderness. The story is not only unfinished but hardly finishable. Conrad gave the moral dilemma separate and discrete incarnations in the stories of Leggatt and Jim Wait.  Grappling with Conradian questions, the young Ian Watt could not help falling short, as he realized, of Conrad’s steely claritity.

It was Ian’s wish, in keeping with his customary reticence, that there should be no memorial service when he died. Many of us wished he had chosen otherwise. “The Revenge of Mercy,” unfinished as it is, enriches the memory of a remarkable man. 


Bliss Carnochan, Richard W. Lyman Professor of Humanities, Emeritus, Stanford University.