Magazine: THE NEW CRITERION JUNE,1994

LIFE SENTENCES: THE ART OF JOSEPH CONRAD

Mr. Conrad has no ideas, but he has a point of view, a "world "; it can hardly be defined, but it pervades his work and is unmistakable.

--T. S. Eliot, "Kipling Revividus"

He [James] had a mind so fine no idea could violate it. --T. S. Eliot, "On Henry James"

From T. S. Eliot, no praise for a novelist could be higher, one must conclude, than to be found without ideas. These two Eliotic quotations, along with manifold affinities, lash Henry James and Joseph Conrad together. As for their affinities, both James and Conrad were precursors of modernism in their profound contemplation upon the endless questions of form in literary creation. In the work of each writer, plot never supersedes artistic purpose and artistic purpose is never separated from moral vision. James invoked one to be a person on whom nothing was lost and, what comes close to the same thing, Conrad affirmed that, in the moral realm, ignorance is no excuse. James loved complication, and Conrad seemed unable to avoid it. Both would be out of business without the extensive use of irony. So many qualities do the two writers share that it is possible to think of Joseph Conrad as Henry James for people who prefer to read about the out-of-doors.

Neither James nor Conrad was unacquainted or unconcerned about ideas, but both felt that the important truths for artists occurred above, beyond, in any case well outside the realm of ideas. "It is impossible to know anything," wrote Conrad to his friend Cunninghame Graham, "though it is possible to believe a thing or two" James chimed in with his own negative but nonetheless equally ardent artistic credo: "never say you know the last word about any human heart," implying, what is perfectly true, that no one after all does. Both novelists swam best in the murky waters of the morally questionable. Despite their different ways of approaching their tasks, each man understood that it was the scrupulous investigation of moral questions that gave the novel both its power and its grandeur. Each was tireless in his own investigations.

"All novelists since Conrad are cads," said George Macaulay Trevelyan. One has to assume he meant by this not only that Conrad was a gentleman to the manor (and manner) born, but that he did not feel it incumbent upon him as a novelist to do boudoir patrol as the Bloomsbury writers and those who came after them had done. Something to it, perhaps, but not much more than there is to calling Conrad a great sea-writer, a reputation he labored under for many more years than he himself wished. What Joseph Conrad was was an artist to the bone, possessed of the instincts of an artist and in search of an artist's truths.

Joseph Conrad was born in 1857, the year of the publication of Madame Bovary, and died in 1924, two years after the publication of Ulysses. As a novelist, he sat astride two traditions, the nineteenth-century tradition of the thickly plotted novel anchored in action and adventure and the twentieth-century tradition of the novel with its emphasis on irony, on analysis, and on psychological depth. Yet Conrad insisted on his modernity. Attempting to account for the commercial failure of his early fiction to the magazine publisher William Blackwood, he wrote:

I am modern, and I would rather recall Wagner the musician and Rodin the sculptor who both had to starve a lithe in their day--and Whistler the painter who made Ruskin the critic foam at the mouth with scorn and indignation. They too have arrived. They had to suffer for being "new" And I too hope to find my place in the rear of my betters. But skill--my place.

That Conrad has arrived as a classic of English literature is nowadays scarcely cause to hold the presses for the Long Island edition. But what, precisely, his place might be has not been clearly worked out. A Pole who wrote in English, a modernist artist who believed in the most old-fashioned way in duty and honor, Joseph Conrad is the great anomaly of modern, perhaps of all, literature, the exception who proves no rule. In one sense, Conrad's place is in the line begun by Flaubert and ending with Joyce--the international line of the perfectionists and experimentalists. But Conrad is also among the chief moralists of the novel. He preferred to put his characters--and his readers--in situations of ethical bafflement and then watch to discover if their moral compasses will help them find their way home. This, too, was Henry James's modus operandi. Reading both writers provides superior entertainment as well as a strenuous test of one's own equipment for moral navigation.

The only child of Polish aristocrats, of the class in Poland known as the szlachta, that combination of nobility and gentry that made up the ruling class, Conrad was born Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski. His mother died when he seven, his father when he was eleven. Conrad's father, Apollo Korzeniowski, a translator, poet, and essayist, was also a great Polish patriot, which meant, in the nature of the case, a great enemy of Russia, which held Poland under its thick and brutal thumb. Owing to his father's politics, the Korzeniowskis were sent into exile in the northern part of European Russia in 1862. This exile was especially hard on Conrad's mother, who became tubercular; Conrad's father also acquired tuberculosis, and only because of his extremely poor health was he allowed to return to Poland for the last eighteen months of his life. When he died, he was given a hero's burial, with several thousand people following the cortege to the cemetery outside of the medieval city of Cracow.

Conrad grew up under the watchful eye of his uncle, his mother's brother, Tadeusz Bobrowski, a man of much more conservative bent than his father, both politically and temperamentally, who attempted to steer the boy unto a safer path than that chosen by his father. Conrad's orphaned youth was jittery and erratic. He was an uneven student, given to illness, fits of anxiety, rebellion, cigar smoking, and awkward adolescent amorous passions. He spoke about one day becoming a great writer, a boast his classmates found laughable.

Perhaps only because the young Korzeniowski--he would change his name to Joseph Conrad in 1894--seemed such a hopeless misfit was he permitted to take the extraordinary leap, for a Polish aristocrat, of joining, at the age of seventeen, the French merchant marine. In A Personal Record (1912), Conrad writes that "I verily believe mine was the only case of a boy of my nationality and antecedents taking a, so to speak, standing jump out of his racial surroundings and associations [to go to sea]. . . . the truth is that what I had in mind was not a naval career but the sea."

In fact, the truth in this matter is in flux of controversy. When Conrad first presented his notion of going to sea, his tutor called him "an incorrigible, hopeless Don Quixote." Some thought that a life at sea would teach him much-needed discipline; others that it might be good for his health. His Uncle Tadeusz, according to Zdzislaw Najder, Conrad's best biographer, saw in his going to sea the prospect for his nephew of a career combining "maritime skills and commercial activities--better still as a middleman in the huge agricultural products trade." It is known, too, that his uncle wanted him to obtain another citizenship, so that he should be out of the legal clutches of Russia. Early attempts at acquiring Austrian and Swiss citizenship both came to nought, and Conrad was eventually granted British citizenship, in 1886, when he was twenty-nine.

Joseph Conrad's career at sea spanned twenty years, from 1874 to 1894, though during this period he was actually assigned to ships for only ten years and eight months, and of this time he spent, according to Najder, "just over eight years at sea, nine months of this as a passenger." Taking a succession of maritime examinations, he rose through the ranks from second mate to captain, though he only served briefly in the latter capacity, including a crucial six-month stint in command of a steamer on the Congo that resulted in a near fatal case of fever and dysentery and the masterpiece novella "Heart of Darkness" (1899).

A most odd figure the young Conrad must have cut among his fellow seamen. Small, dandiacal in his dark suits, bowler hat, and gold-knobbed walking stick, formal, taciturn, speaking a greenhorn's English, a reader of books, obviously a man of wide culture, Conrad commanded the hard drinkers, vagabonds, and thuggish sailors who signed on for long international voyages on merchant ships. (The better class of sailor joined the Royal Navy.) Other captains and officers referred to him as "the Russian Count"

"No," Conrad would write in retrospect, "perhaps I should say that the life at sea--and I don't mean a mere taste of it, but a good broad span of years, something that really counts as real service--is not, upon the whole, a good equipment for a writing life." Yet without his years at sea, Conrad's later literary life is difficult to imagine. Life at sea, and in the ports and places to which the sea took him, furnished the perfect subject matter for a writer born to a life of permanent exile. (As Henry James wrote to Conrad: "No one has known--for intellectual use--the things you know.") Life at sea was the only society that he would ever really know from the inside.

Conrad tended both to demean and to idealize his time at sea, though at no time did he consider it permanent. In later life, whenever he compared life on land and life at sea, the latter was always made to seem simpler, more manly, better. At the same time, from letters and from reports of people who remembered him during his time at sea, Conrad was among his maritime colleagues a misfit, lonely and cut off from the larger European culture into which he was brought up and for which he yearned.

The incipient writer in Conrad must have felt deep frustration aboard ship. He claimed to have begun his writing life in 1890, when, at the age of thirty-three, he started writing the novel that was to be Alymayer's Folly. But there is reason to believe that, four years earlier, he had entered a short-story contest sponsored by the magazine Tit-Bits with a story called "The Black Mate" In Conrad's own, so to say approved, version, he one day spotted from the deck of his ship an outcast named Charles Olmeijer on an island in the Malay Archipelago, and four years later began, as a way to while away a holiday, his novel based on this character. Some time later he showed pages of the far from complete novel to a young, educated English passenger on a ship on which Conrad served as a mate, and because this fellow found Conrad's pages readable and interesting, he determined to persist. The writing of this novel, Conrad wrote, "was not the outcome of a need," but "the necessity which impelled me was a hidden, obscure necessity, a completely masked and unaccountable phenomenon." With the writing of the first page of Almayer's Folly, Conrad wrote, "the die was cast."

More likely it was cast well before. Given Conrad's background--a greatly admired father with belletristic interests, an early dreaminess that found an outlet in reading, a youthful rebelliousness that precluded his learning a profession, the condition of exile, a deep moodiness of temperament that issued in deep reflection--there probably wasn't much else he could have done but write. Conrad would never for a moment have suggested that his becoming a writer was a matter of conscious decision or free will. "I like the worthy folk who will talk to you of the exercise of free will, 'at any rate for practical purposes, " he wrote. "Free is it? For practical purposes! Bosh!" Then, again, Conrad's becoming a writer may have been as simple as Desmond MacCarthy once put it: "I think it was because he had seen so many things in human nature and the world that he did not wish to be forgotten or to forget, that Conrad, to our great gain, became a writer." Almayer's [Folly was begun when Joseph Conrad was thirty-three and published when he was thirty-eight. Although Conrad would become both a smoother prose writer and one more accomplished at organizing and orchestrating his novels and stories, his view, his outlook, his vision was settled from the first. It was never to be changed, only tested, amplified and exfoliated to its full, immensely rich complexity. This was the advantage in his beginning to write only after coming to maturity.

H. L. Mencken, an early admirer, said that, in reading Conrad, a reader "must bring something with him beyond the mere faculty of attention. If, coming to Conrad, he cannot, he is at the wrong door." To grasp anything like the full power of Conrad's fiction, one must, I think, at some point in one's life have been impressed with the utter indifference of the universe to even the most grand of human plans. One must have felt the brute fact that we both come into and go out of this world alone--and, however much surrounded by other people, nonetheless spend much time in between in spiritually this same condition of loneliness. However great one's love of justice, one must know that it is not evenly meted out in this world, nor is it ever likely to be. One must understand that good frequently goes without reward while at the same time evil is never justified and always brings its own punishment. Life must be considered a struggle, a battle, a riddle to which it may well be that nothing resembling a persuasive answer is available.

Conrad never posited any of this directly, but one can scarcely conclude otherwise from his stories and novels. Although he often alluded to his true purpose as an artist, the two most famous of his statements on the matter come from prefaces, the first to his novel The Nigger of the Narcissus and the second to A Personal Record. In the former, Conrad wrote:

My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel--it is, before all, to make you see. That--and no more, and it is everything. If I succeed, you shall find there according to your deserts: encouragement, consolation, fear, charm--all you demand--and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.

As for that glimpse of truth, in the preface of A Personal Record, Conrad wrote:

Those who read me know my conviction that the world, the temporal world, rests on a few very simple ideas; so simple that they must be as old as the hills. It rests notably, among others, on the idea of Fidelity.

So there it is, Conrad's artistic credo, to make his readers hear, feel, and see, and after that to make plain to them, through the exempla of stories, that the world rests on a small number of ideas, fidelity notable among them. It explains everything and yet stated baldly it explains nothing. As Marlow, Conrad's narrator in "Heart of Darkness,' says, "Droll thing life is--that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose. The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself--that comes too late--a crop of unextinguishable regrets." And knowledge of yourself, self--knowledge, seems to be only available in Conrad through traumata brought about by extreme moral tension. In Conrad's fiction, characters meet the problems that moral tension sets them and through doing so acquaint themselves with glimmerings of the larger significance of life; or they avoid these problems--through insensitivity, through ignorance, through removing themselves from life--and live, outside the realm of self-knowledge, in degradation or ignominy or triviality.

For Conrad "imagination, not invention, is the supreme master of art as of life." Imagination is inseparable from language, and not the least interesting of Conrad's choices --if choice it was--was to write in English, the third of his languages in order of acquisition. He claimed himself "adopted by the genius of the language, which directly I came out of the stammering stage made me its own so completely that its very idioms I truly believe had a direct action on my temperament and fashioned my still plastic character." He went on to say that "if I had not written in English I would not have written at all."

Whatever the inevitability of Conrad's writing in English, the language was never easy for him. To add to his torments, he was a writer in the mot juste tradition. One must imagine in operation here the perfectionism of a Flaubert but perfectionism sought in a language not one's own. In making the corrections for Almayer's Folly, Conrad is said to have made more than eight hundred changes that had to do with the replacement of one word by another. His wrestle with English was endless. Everyone who met Conrad seems to have remarked on his punctilious manners and his difficult English. E. V. Lucas, the English essayist, noted that Conrad "spoke with a very strong foreign accent and in sentences not too well constructed" Edward Garnett, who was most helpful to Conrad in his dealings with publishers and editors, reported that Conrad, when reading from the manuscript of An Outcast of the Islands to him, "mispronounced so many words that I followed him with difficulty. I found then that he had never once heard these English words spoken, but had learned them all from books! "

One can see--one can feel and hear--Conrad's struggle with English in these two separate passages from Almayer's Folly:

While the sun shone with the dazzling light in which her love was born and grew till it possessed her whole being, she was kept firm in her wavering resolve by the mysterious whisperings of desire which filled her heart with impatient longing for the darkness that would mean the end of danger and strife, the beginning of happiness, the fulfilling of love, the completeness of life.

Dain Maroola, dazzled by the unexpected vision [of Almayer's daughter Nina], forgot his brig, his escort staring in open-mouthed admiration, the object of his visit and all things else, in his overpowering desire to prolong the contemplation of so much loveliness met so suddenly in such an unlikely place--as he thought.

That the author of these awkward sentences would go on to become a master of English prose is part of the measure of Joseph Conrad's achievement. His struggle with English would never end, never get easier, but, over the years, as he got better and better, it took place on higher and higher ground. His prose was dinstinctly his own; he struck a note that sounded like that of no one else. But then great masters --the name of Henry James once again comes to mind--teach us not only to accept but to love their original, their absolutely characteristic no matter how idiosyncratic, note. Max Beerbohm, who held both James and Conrad in the greatest regard, wrote his two best parodies of these writers. Here, from Beerbohm's Christmas Garland, is the perfect first paragraph from his Conrad parody:

The hut in which slept the white man was on a clearing between the forest and the river. Silence, the silence murmurous and unquiet of a tropical night, brooded over the hut that, baked through by the sun, sweated a vapour beneath the cynical light of the stars. Mahamo lay rigid and watchful at the hut's mouth. In his upturned eyes, and along the polished surface of his lean body black and immobile, the stars were reflected, creating an illusion of themselves who are illusions.

Like the prose on which it was modeled, this passage, capturing Conrad exactly, is slightly awkward and out of beat ("The hut in which slept"), laced with surprising juxtapositions ("the cynical light of the stars"), oddly placed adjectives ("lean body black and immobile"), and impressive portentousness ("an illusion of themselves who are illusions"). Easy enough to mock, Conrad's prose became more and more elegant--and, when needed, eloquent--over the years. The opening paragraph of Nostromo (1904), for example, shows Conrad writing prose of a pellucidity any native-born writer of English would envy:

In the time of Spanish rule, and for many years afterwards, the town Sulaco--the luxuriant beauty of the orange gardens bears witness to its antiquity--had never been commercially anything more important than a coasting port with a fairly large local trade in ox-hides and indigo. The clumsy deep-sea galleons of the conquerors that, needing a brisk gale to move at all, would lie becalmed, where your modern ship built on clipper lines forges ahead by the mere flapping of her sails, had been barred out of Sulaco by the prevailing calms of its vast gulf. Some harbours of the earth are made difficult of access by the treachery of sunken rocks and the tempests of their shores. Sulaco had found an inviolable sanctuary from the temptations of a trading world in the solemn hush of the deep Golfo Placido as if within an enormous semi-circular and unroofed temple open to the ocean, with its walls of lofty mountains hung with the mourning draperies of cloud.

Writing in a language he never spoke with ease, Conrad really did make us, his readers, see--and from this all else followed. As he himself put wv hat he took to be both his problem and his task, he had "to make unfamiliar things credible. To do that I had to create for them, to reproduce for them, to envelop them in their proper atmosphere of actuality. This was the hardest task of all and the most important in view of that conscientious rendering of truth in thought and fact which has been always my aim."

Note that it is both thought and fact that interested Conrad. Perhaps this is why so much of his fiction seems, as iT, S. Naipaul once remarked, "like a simple film with an elaborate commentary." By the early 1920s, Conrad, always in need of money, sold the film rights to all his novels; and many of these have been made into movies or done on stage or on television. But none has been anywhere near successful, chiefly because in Conrad it is the thought accompanying the fact that makes him--as it makes James and Proust--a great writer; and it is the thought, precisely, that the movies cannot accommodate.

In creative-writing courses, young students are regularly exhorted to show and not to tell. But the great writers have always been splendid tellers, and Conrad has been the among the best of them. "What men wanted was to be checked by superior intelligence,' Conrad writes in his story "The End of the Tether,' "by superior knowledge, by superior force, too--yes, by force held in trust from God and sanctified by its use in accordance with His declared will. Captain Whalley believed a disposition for good existed in every man, even if the world were not a very happy place as a whole." As Naipaul rightly notes, "by his sheer analytical intelligence, Conrad holds us" Naipaul adds: "For Conrad, though, the drama and the truth lay not in events but in the analysis: identifying the stages of consciousness through which a passionless man might move to the recognition of the importance of passion."

Most of Conrad's characters begin in a state of passionlessness. It is their want of passion that often puts them beyond the pale of normal humanity. Beyond that pale they indubitably are. Conrad gave his second novel the title An Outcast of the Islands, and at the center of nearly all of his fiction is an outcast of one sort or another. Sometimes one is made an outcast by conditions beyond one's control (as in "Amy Foster" or Under Western Eyes); sometimes one is made an outcast by greed, fantasy, or laziness (Almayer's Folly, The Secret A,gent), sometimes by a will to power or pride (Nostromo), sometimes by moral purpose gone madly awry ("Heart of Darkness"), sometimes by deliberate philosophical decision (Victory), sometimes by too great reliance on irony (Nostromo, again).

Conrad was especially sensitive to this condition of being an outcast, for he was himself not so much an outcast by conscious decision as he was cast out of normal life by the harsh political and autobiographical conditions of his early life. V. S. Pritchett has noted that "before anyone else . . . Conrad the exile foresaw that in half a century [after he wrote] we should all become exiles, in a sense " It is by no means clear that Pritchett understood what this sense was, for in his fiction Conrad is dealing with matters much deeper than the sense of feeling like an exile inherent in the alienation, however vague or specific, that many people have come to feel at the end of the twentieth century toward their family, or culture, or country. In good part Conrad's genius resides in his taking particular cases of outcasts, specifying their situations until they become crushingly real, and while doing so--here the magic of art comes into play--elevating these particular cases into a universal condition.

The solitariness, the absolutely devastating aloneness, of so many of Conrad's central characters can send a shudder through one's soul. To be an outcast means, in the root sense, to be cast out from the wider community. In good measure, the sadness at the heart of so much of Conrad's fiction is that the surrounding community comes itself to resemble an abyss of self-deception and self-seeking. Perhaps the only relief from this loneliness in Conrad's books comes, oddly enough, in that loneliest of settings, where the universe itself seems most cruelly indifferent, the sea.

In many of Conrad's sea stories, men pull together, not merely for a common but usually for a crucial goal, as in the horrendous storms in "Typhoon" or The Nigger of the Narcissus, where life itself is at stake, and emerge heroic in blending their lives into a larger common purpose. As Conrad wrote in Lord Jim: "we exist only insofar as we hang together" I earlier quoted Conrad remarking that notable among the ideas on which the world rests is that of Fidelity. In his fiction, Fidelity is often another word for duty. Those who understand their work, stay on the job, ever faithful to their duty, these are the characters Conrad seems most to admire. As Conrad puts it in "Youth,' where his narrator attempts to grasp the reasoning behind the dutifulness of the English seaman:

They didn't think their pay half good enough. No; it was something in them, something in-born and subtle and everlasting.... There was a completeness in it, something solid like a principle, and masterful like an instinct--a disclosure of something secret--of that hidden something, that gift of good or evil that makes racial difference, that shapes the fate of nations.

Among the more sentient of Conrad's characters, self-knowledge is crucial to any chance not for happiness, a quality that doesn't seem to enter into Conrad's figurings, but for measured contentment. Self-knowledge, in Conrad, does not have necessarily to do with high intelligence. Once again as in the novels of Henry James, so in Conrad, great intelligence is as likely as not to lead a character to disaster: to make him more manipulative, greedy, cruel. No, what is wanted is not so much intelligence as moral sensibility. The quality of moral sensibility determines one not to harm others but to understand, if not quite one's exact place in the larger, otherwise utterly mysterious scheme of the world, at least to understand that one can never for a moment pretend that one is a free agent, unbounded by the legitimate claims of others. The one piece of clear, cautionary advice on this point in Conrad is given to us through the mouth of Axel Heyst, the lonely hero of Victory, who emerges from the philosophical nihilism taught him by his father, to report from the depths of his soul: "Ah, Davidson, woe to the man whose heart has not learned while young to hope, to love--and to put its trust in life."

Conrad meant love not in the sexual or even the romantic but in the larger sense of love of life itself. Although Victory is in good part a love story, and so, too, is Almayer's Folly a love story, while The Secret Agent may be the most powerful anti-love story ever written, Conrad was not a writer whose own passions were greatly engaged by the erotic. Conrad refused to read Freud, saying, "I do not want to reach the depths. I want to treat reality like a raw and rough object which I touch with my fingers" Zdzislaw Najder is surely correct when he writes: "I believe that Conrad opposed the emphasis on erotic themes in literature because he was convinced that it would overshadow more vital and serious problems. Among the subjects that concerned him most--responsibility, sense of duty, guilt, justice, freedom, honor, solidarity, anarchy, order--masculine-feminine affairs were not in the forefront."

Conrad was, in brief, after larger game. He sought to comprehend humankind in all its grandeur, pathos, enigmas, contradictions, and irreconcilable qualities. While sticking strictly to the particular--the true realm of fiction--he sought the highest generality. The kind of human mystery that engaged Conrad's interest as a novelist is formulated in the following, from a letter to a friend: "Egoism, which is the moving force of the world, and altruism, which is its morality, these two contradictory instincts, of which one is so plain and the other so mysterious, cannot serve us unless in the incomprehensible alliance of their irreconcilable antagonism "

An interest in the larger questions is also useful in being one sure way of escaping the entrapments of personality. "When once the truth is grasped that one's own personality is only a ridiculous and aimless masquerading of something hopelessly unknown, Conrad wrote to Edward Garnett, "the attainment of serenity is not far off." Conrad would not himself ever attain much in the way of serenity, but his wanting to escape personality is reminiscent of nothing so much as T. S. Eliot, in "Tradition and the Individual Talent,' remarking that poetry--and by extension all art--"is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things."

Joseph Conrad was among those who knew. Through the publication of letters and of much biographical study, it has become evident that Conrad was what we should nowadays call a depressive. Conrad's own statement of the case for personality, handsomely stated to his friend Marguerite Poradowska, is itself put with the dark force of the depressive: "We must drag the chain and ball of our personality to the end. This is the price one pays for the infernal and divine privilege of thought; so in this life it is only the chosen who are convicts--a glorious band which understands and groans but which treads the earth amidst a multitude of phantoms with maniacal gestures and idiotic grimaces. Which would you rather be: idiot or convict?"

Conrad's view of his own writing, set out in letters to friends, publishers, and his agent (J. B. Pinker), is that of a man serving a life sentence--sentenced to the endless making of sentences. His complaints about the difficulty of composition make Flaubert's seem as cheerful as a Doris Day song. In 1894, in a letter to Marguerite Poradowska, he writes: "I am completely stuck. I have not written a single word for a fortnight. It's all over, I think. I feel like burning what there is. It is very bad! Worse than bad." And, to the same correspondent: "I work a little. I agonize, pen in hand. Six lines in six days." To Cunninghame Graham he wrote: "I am like a tight-rope dancer who, in the midst of his performance, should suddenly discover that he knows nothing about tight-rope dancing. He may appear ridiculous to the spectators, but a broken neck is the result of such untimely wisdom" But then most of his comments about his writing are of this tenor, ending with his comment, near the close of his life, to Jacob Epstein, who was doing his bust, that he, Conrad, "was finished." "I am played out,' Epstein remembers him saying, "played out"

His own past achievements seemed to offer Conrad scarcely any solace at all. Mentally, he allowed himself no time off for work well done; there was only the torture of books still to do, prose perpetually owed to magazines and agents. "I do not dream of making a fortune,' he wrote to a childhood friend in Poland, "and anyway it is not something to be found in an ink-well. However, I must confess that I dream of peace, of a little recognition and of devoting to Art the rest of a life that would free me from financial worry."

All this might have been easier had Conrad not been so wreckless with money. As a born aristocrat, he felt that he must live, even in his adopted country of England, in the expansive manner of the aristocracy, which meant living in too large houses, driving too large cars, and racking up too large bills. "I can't exist very long in this penury,' runs a fairly standard Conradian cri de poche, "I've got some small liabilities to attend to.... And besides...." Besides, besides, besides--there was always a besides: his wife's poor health, his children's school bills, his need to find a better place to write.

Great difficulties with writing and genuine ineptitude with finances do not generally guarantee a jolly outlook. But Conrad would probably have been depressed even without these serious barriers to contentment. The commercial success that came with his novel Chance (1913) did not much lessen it. His depression was not merely a habitual gloominess or a variant of the blues. It came closer to lapsing into insanity. To his agent, Pinker, he writes: "Really all these anxieties do drive me to the verge of madness--but death would be the best thing" To a friend he writes: "I must go through these depressing periods; there is no cure for them apparently'; and to another friend he adds: "Half the time I feel on the verge of insanity." To John Galsworthy, he writes: "I am trying to put off this horrid dread of the future which oppresses me. I am dispirited by that feeling of mental exhaustion of which I cannot get rid at all now. I have learned to write against it--that's all" Such sentences play like a threnody through Conrad's lengthy correspondence. They make one feel sorry for him. But they also make his achievement seem all the greater.

At the same time, they endanger this achievement by suggesting that the dark vision at the heart of Conrad's fiction is the result of something akin to mental illness. His art could be easily written off as so much solipsism--the egocentric projections of an all but certified depressive. Conrad himself despised such easy biographical criticism, especially of a psychologizing kind. When Edward Garnett, a Russophile and a great friend of the Soviet Union, attributed the strong distaste for Russia shown in The Secret A;gent to Conrad's being a Pole, Conrad retorted by asking, "Is my earnestness of no account? Is that a Slavonic trait?"

Conrad reserved to himself the right granted the most serious of artists to announce a plague on both your houses when he felt that neither side in a political conflict was the right side--and the right side was that of human solidarity. Thus, in his Author's Note to Under Western Eyes (1911), a book which anticipates the Russian Revolution of 1917, Conrad wrote:

The ferocity and imbecility of an autocratic rule rejecting all legality and in fact basing itself upon complete moral anarchism provokes the no less imbecile and atrocious answer of a purely Utopian revolutionism encompassing destruction by the first means to hand, in the strange conviction that a fundamental change of hearts must follow the downfall of any given human institutions. These people are unable to see that all they can effect is merely a change of names.

In a contemporary spirit of proving that the great writers of the past were less great-souled than academic critics of the present, Conrad has in recent years been taken as a racist who was on the side of imperialism for "Heart of Darkness" and as a reactionary for The Secret Agent and Under Western Eyes. Conrad in fact detested Belgian imperialism in central Africa for its selfishness, its brutishness, its extracting everything and leaving nothing behind but destruction and bloodshed. (As Nostromo demonstrates, he was no happier with American business intervention in Latin America.) He was, moreover, fully cognizant of and always made plain in his writings the foolish role that unwarranted white superiority played in distant native cultures. Kurtz's final utterance, "the horror, the horror,' is precisely about how little separates supposedly civilized man from savagery when the bounds of civilization are transgressed. For maintaining his views Conrad has been taken, variously, as a pessimist, a moral nihilist, an inept artist, a right-wing reactionary. What he was, as all great writers are, was on the side of civilization. Having lived as he did--practically born into exile, or phaned by politics, exposed to danger at sea and viciousness in strange lands, under siege his lifelong by an unrelenting depression--Conrad had a clearer view than most of the tenuousness of civilization. And yet, he felt, "some kind of belief is very necessary." His own kind of belief was complex, qualified, but nonetheless genuine. "To be hopeful in an artistic sense,' Conrad wrote, "it is not necessary to think that the world is good. It is enough to believe that there is no impossibility of its being made so."

But this doesn't mean that the artist has for a moment to believe we are close to realizing the possibility. Despite his own need for belief, his own deeply reserved but quite real hope for a different and better world, Conrad took it as his task as a novelist to show the many ways in which men and women, through their moral blindness--through conceit and vanity, selfishness and false ambition--make life harder for themselves and even for those they all too ineptly love. Yet he must have harbored a clear view of human goodness, for how else could he have so intricately known, and so potently portrayed, the manifold ways it could be betrayed? Joseph Conrad's own career is itself a stellar example of fidelity: to our moral heritage, to the perhaps impossible but nonetheless necessary ideal of civilization, to the fundamental truths we all know and choose to forget and about which he, as a great artist, determined against staggering odds to spend his life reminding us.

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by Joseph Epstein


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Source: New Criterion, Jun94, Vol. 12 Issue 10, p16, 10p.