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Notes for
A Symbolic Paragraph from "Kamongo" 
by Homer W. Smith

De-Combine Exercise AK SC - WB Free SC

     I ran across "Kamongo," also known as "The Lungfish and the Padre," in Alexander Woollcott's The Woollcott Reader: Bypaths in the Realms of Gold (NY: The Viking Press, 1935). Although I had never heard of Homer W. Smith before, the work is an excellent example of what is known in literary criticism as "Naturalism." Writers are always seeking new forms and new content. By the end of the nineteenth century, the Realist movement was basically exhausted. Realism, itself a reaction to the Romantic movement, had attempted to explore real people in real typical settings. But after Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky in Russia, Flaubert in France, and Henry James, among others, in England, there was not much left to explore. 
     In addition, the philosophical/religious mood was changing. Descartes and Darwinism, among other things, challenged the religious optimism of Euro-American culture. The result was twofold. Some writers turned to the spiritual world and developed what has come to be known as the Symbolist movement. Others turned to a blind, deterministic materialism, the essence of "Naturalism." For them, man was nothing but a creature driven by incomprehensible fate. The most famous representatives of Naturalism are probably Emile Zola in France and Theodore Dreiser in the U.S. Among other things, the Naturalists extended the realms of literature by focussing on the lower classes -- the poor members of society. The plight of these poor people appeared to be God-forsaken, and thus the Naturalists generally adapted a Darwinian idea -- the struggle for survival -- and portrayed mankind as caught in a universe that he could neither control nor comprehend.
     Although Smith was, according to Woollcott, a biologist, his "Komongo" clearly illustrates some of the themes and style of the Naturalists. The story is basically a dialogue between Joel, an evolutionary biologist, and a padre as they travel on a boat into Africa. The biologist is on his way to Lake Victoria, in search of lungfish -- Komongo. The padre is returning to his parish in an African mission. Most of the narrative, including the selection in the exercise, is from the perspective of the biologist. The vocabulary and sentence structure add to the Naturalistic tone of the passage used in the exercise, and that passage as a whole is probably symbolic of the biologist's beliefs.
     The searchlight, the grammatical subject of the first sentence, is itself an interesting symbol in that the biologist is searching for light (or meaning) in what he perceives to be a basically meaningless world (symbolized by the "night"). From his perspective, however, the searchlight probably represents life itself. Earlier in the work, we get Joel's thoughts:

     You were always either fighting inanimate Nature, Joel thought, or you were fighting other kinds of life. Fighting not because you wanted to, but because you had to, to keep alive! Life fighting for life against the wind, the sand, the water, against every other living thing. That was the only purpose that one could find in any living thing--that was the first law of animate Nature-- life fighting for life . . . (566)
From Joel's perspective, one of the primary ways in which life fights for life is through evolutionary changes. Life will mutate into any possible form that will sustain life. This is reflected in the image of the searchlight which pokes its "ghostly finger" here, there, and anywhere:
     Once a searchlight shoved its ghostly finger through the night and moved it with incredible speed here and there in crazy paths, lighting up for brief instants bits of ship's gear, spidery coaling-towers, giant derricks; it rested for a moment on the grey-clad figure of a sailor stretched face upward on a deck; the man rolled over and the luminous finger shot downwards to the black water, revealing a boat being poled by an Arab in a banded gown; then it shot across more black water to come to rest pointing down along a ship's ladder into a dory waiting for its passenger. 
Like Joel's concept of "life," the searchlight cannot see or think. It simply "shoved," "moved," ("in crazy paths"), "lighting up" ("for brief instants"), "rested," "shot," and "shot." The mysterious "life" force is the subject of almost all of the main clauses in this multi-clause sentence, the only exception being the short "the man rolled over." That, from Joel's perspective, is about all that man can do. The three semicolons in the first sentence syntatically pick up and repeat the "here and there" in the first main clause, emphasizing that the light poked here; it poked there; it poked here; it poked there.
     It is "life," not man that is in charge. This is further emphasized in the prepositional phrases. The light moves "with incredible speed," but it lights up only "for brief instants," and rested "for a moment" on the figure of the sailor. Indeed, the structure of this clause emphasizes the power of "life." Instead of "it rested for a moment of the grey-clad figure of a sailor stretched face upward on a deck," the clause could have been written as "a sailor, clad in grey, shone for a moment, face upward on the deck." The latter structure, however, would have put a person, not the generalized "life force" into the subject position, i.e., into the "doer" position. A similar type of grammatical control appears twice more in the sentence, emphasizing that things, not man, are the primary focus of the searchlight. The light reveals "a boat being poled by an Arab," not "an Arab poling a boat." And it comes to rest pointing not to a passenger, but "into a dory waiting for its passenger." Generally speaking, the most important ideas are in the S/V/C patterns of main clauses, and the further one gets from the core of the pattern, the less important are the ideas. In these sentences, the Arab and the passenger are pushed far away from the core of their clauses.
     Note that the passenger not simply "was," but rather "turned out to be" a portly main in baggy white clothes. The "turned out to be" suggests the results of a process over which there is not much control. The portly man, particularly because of the "briefcase under his arm," may symbolize people like Joel -- evolutionary biologists. The next sentence reinforces this -- "He chose to descend the ladder backwards and he stopped every few steps to look up and gesticulate an emphatic farewell to some invisible person above him." The "ladder" is a clear symbol of evolution, and the passenger descends "backwards," in the same way that Joel, in studying the lungfish, is looking back into evolutionary history. He "gesticulates" because, obviously, we cannot talk to our evolutionary predecessors -- they are "invisible." The "emphatic farewell" encapsulates Joel's attitude toward all those forms of life that have preceded us, and then disappeared. The entire passage, of course, is somber, and the final line of the paragraph makes it symbolically more so. When the passenger reaches the dory, "the searchlight was abruptly switched off." The use of passive voice is significant here. The searchlight (life) does not simply turn off (die), something else puts an end to it.
     Although most of this story is presented from Joel's point of view, the work has an fascinatingly ambiguous ending. This dialogue between a biologist and a priest is, after all, a variation on the classic confrontation between science and religion. The priest never says much, but the final paragraph of the work is:
     Joel watched the priest with a puzzled frown as he walked across the deck. His resounding footsteps seemed to echo some familiar phrase, and Joel stopped to listen; but it was not until they had died away that his memory captured it. He chuckled to himself -- it was the pulse of life, it had escaped again! (597)
Note that the priest's footsteps died "away," not "out."  The footsteps of the priest, and not the theories of Joel, are "the pulse of life." 
     An interesting additional way to use this exercise might be to ask students to revise it by removing "searchlight" from the subject slot and, as much as possible, making the people the subjects of main clauses. For example, the first main clause could be rewritten as "Once the night was pierced by the ghostly finger of a searchlight that moved with incredible speed here and there in crazy paths."