Tag Archives: Essays

“To make you see”—Essays on Conrad

Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad

I have always been a huge fan of Joseph Conrad; I even wrote my undergraduate honors thesis on Lord Jim. But it’s difficult for me to read him today because of the powerful sway (and negative effect) he has on my writing. Graham Greene felt the same way. “The heavy hypnotic style,” he called it.

Conrad has affected many writers that way. The Polish-born genius wrote his first novel at the age of 36, in English, after twenty years working as a merchant seaman in the Far East, Africa and South America. He not only became one of the great storytellers of his time, but also a remarkable stylist who expanded what fiction could do. In other words, he is the quintessential writer’s writer.

My college thesis concentrated on Conrad’s construction of character in Lord Jim, but in order to do that I had to read widely and intensively, both Conrad and the critics.

That wonderful excuse allowed me to trace the development of Conrad’s first-person narrative technique, in the guise of Charles Marlow, first in “Youth” and Heart of Darkness, then in Lord Jim, and later in Chance. I got to see how that technique added layers of perspective and irony to his tales, and how it was fundamental to the exploration of themes that preoccupied him. This literary innovation* became the model for some of the next century’s great novels, including Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz.

Reading Conrad’s Nostromo that year, I got to experience one of the most harrowing existential episodes in modern literature, when the journalist Dacoud rows out to sea on the blackest of nights and sinks into the deepest of despairs.

I got to watch time stop and then explode in one of the most sophisticated political novels ever written, The Secret Agent.

I got to read Conrad’s remarkable prefaces, where he carefully distilled his aesthetic aims. His famous preface to The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ not only defined his mission as a writer, but became the creed for those who followed in his wake:

“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 you have ever read The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’, then you have come as close as you can, while sitting in an armchair, to experiencing the wrath of the sea.

That year I also read the academics who championed and critiqued Conrad: F.R. Leavis, who included a chapter on Conrad and Henry James in his hallmark of literary criticism, The Great Tradition; Dorothy Van Ghent, and her Harvard colleague, Albert J. Guerard, who wrote a fine book-length study, Conrad the Novelist; also Freudian critics, Marxist critics and others of uncertain pedigree.

589659What I didn’t know was that one of the foremost living Conrad scholars, Ian Watt, was busy writing his own book, Conrad in the Nineteenth Century, which appeared a few years later, in 1979. Watt planned to write a second work on Conrad’s 20th Century output, but this never came to fruition. Instead, shortly after his death, Cambridge University Press published Essays on Conrad (2000). In this collection you can see Watt building the base for the larger work, always with meticulous research and a deep-seated knowledge of his subject.

In the first essay, Watt elaborates Conrad’s core themes of alienation and commitment. Suspicious of Progress and Civilization, and all too aware of the animal within man, Conrad set his best stories in hostile environments and scrutinized his characters’ actions under duress. The ones that do right, the ones that survive, are rarely the progressive or the dreamer or the sophisticated or the bookish.

In Typhoon, for example, which Watt considers a comic masterpiece, Captain McWhirr’s ponderous approach to duty brings his ship safely through the storm. And at the moment of crisis for the ‘Narcissus’, the old sailor Singleton, by staying at the helm, steadies a mutinous crew. In these unimaginative, unlearned men, whose first duty is to their ships’ passengers and crew, Watt sees two Conradian moral imperatives: tenacity and solidarity in the face of “coercive circumstance.” That phrase is actually the one Watt used to describe his own situation as a prisoner of war on the River Kwai (see my previous post), where Colonel Toosey’s tenacity and sense of solidarity ensured his men’s survival, but it applies equally to the unwanted situations Conrad depicts in his fiction.

Conrad has ridden several waves of criticism since his death in 1924. His reputation crested after the Second World War, when his modernism and influence on next-generation writers, his psychological insights and existential themes were highlighted and hailed.

The trough may have occurred during the surge of multiculturalism in the late seventies, when the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe branded Conrad “a bloody racist,” citing his stereotyping and lack of compassion for the Congolese victims in Heart of Darkness. Watt argues otherwise, although he does not entirely succeed in dismissing Achebe’s criticism.

Conrad was certainly not a racist in any active, conscious sense. But he was a staunch patriot of his adopted country, and he did hold some of the prevailing biases that bolstered the British Empire. (It’s telling that Conrad refused to write an affidavit in support of his old acquaintance from the Congo, the anti-imperialist Irish nationalist Roger Casement, when he was accused of treason.) But Conrad also understood that an individual’s tenacity and sense of solidarity must embrace all of humanity—all of us in the boat, so to speak—or those two positive attributes risk becoming their flip-side negatives: selfishness and exclusion. That’s the lesson Jim learns when, for his own survival, he jumps from the listing ‘Patna’, leaving the passengers, Mecca-bound pilgrims, to fend for themselves.

Several critics have argued that Conrad’s fiction declined in his later years. Watt is not one of them. He finds masterpieces in all phases of Conrad’s output, and moments of stylistic brilliance in even the weakest works. Virginia Woolf famously wrote of Conrad: “He could not write badly, one feels, to save his life.”

For me, Conrad’s success depended on his subject matter. I would argue he could not write about women to save his life. His female characters, with the possible exception of Winnie Verloc in The Secret Agent, are helpless, two-dimensional creatures of romantic stereotype. Whenever Conrad ventured away from the heart of darkness and into the heart of romance, as he did more frequently in his later years, the result—no matter how well written—was diminished.

Conrad wanted popular and financial success, and he believed that by following the course set by Henry James he might achieve it. But Conrad was a skeptical realist, not a dramatist of social mores and subtle gender wars; he was a former sea captain with little affinity for the feminine mind. Far more than some dubious racism (a word which, Watt points out, did not exist in his day), this was his greatest weakness as a writer.

But when he stuck to isolated men in exotic locales or men isolated by their political ideals, when he stuck to sailors and steamships, and most of all when he stuck to the sea—then, Conrad always makes you see. And it is everything.

* Conrad was not alone in the development of this first-person story-within-a-story technique. His good friend and neighbor Henry James used a similar narrative device in The Turn of the Screw, published the same year (1898) as Conrad’s story “Youth,” which introduced Marlow. But with Marlow we have a narrator-observer’s haunted reflections on the events told, not simply a narrator who serves as a go-between for another’s story, as in James’ ghost story. One produces a subjective sense of witness, the other a protective layer of ambiguity.

 

 

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Myth-making as denial of reality

About thirty years ago I read an essay that was so good I pinched the book it was in from my sister. In truth, the book, an anthology of expository writing called the Norton Reader, had been assigned in one of her college courses and when the class was over she abandoned it at home. So I was really only rescuing it from neglect.

The essay was “‘The Bridge over the River Kwai’ as Myth” by Ian Watt and was reprinted from a 1971 issue of the Berkshire Review. I knew nothing about the author except what the endnotes stated—that he was a professor of English at Stanford University and author of The Rise of the Novel. But his unique perspective and analysis impressed me, for as a young British lieutenant he was one of the prisoners of war who worked on the two-hundred-mile stretch of railroad across Thailand and the real bridges over the Kwai (yes, there were actually two).

Real bridgeWatt’s experience enabled him to explain the origins and evolution of the River Kwai “myth.” He begins with a synopsis of the surrender to Japan of more than a hundred thousand British soldiers in Malaya and Singapore in 1942. He describes the Japanese Army’s organizational structure and attitudes toward prisoners, life in the prison camp and on work details, and how the senior British officer, Colonel Philip Toosey, saved lives by organizing the prisoners and by “handling” their Japanese captors, at least as well as a captive officer could in such harsh and demoralizing conditions.

Watt then traces how a Free French officer named Pierre Boulle, who served in Indochina during the war, heard of the British colonel and the building of the bridges. Boulle subsequently wrote The Bridge over the River Kwai, which was published in 1954. Boulle

Boulle’s fictional Colonel Nicholson is an infantile egomaniac obsessed with the means of the work and, as a result, he becomes an unwitting collaborator. According to Watt, he is much more a representation of French officers who called Boulle a traitor when they switched their allegiance to Vichy France than he is of the real Colonel Toosey.

As Watt states, the novel thematically explores “how the vast scale and complication of operations which are rendered possible, and are even in one sense required, by modern technology tend finally to destroy human meanings and purposes. The West is the master of its means, but not its ends.”

In David Lean’s 1957 Oscar-winning movie The Bridge on the River Kwai, which achieved great popular success and critical acclaim, the myth expands further and moves still farther from reality. The bridge becomes an engineering marvel, a cantilevered wooden fantasy instead of the real iron-truss bridge built beside a temporary wooden bridge. And, most significantly, it is blown up at the end.

The movie, in contrast to the novel and in contradiction to the real lessons of survival learned by the prisoners, is about the institutional insanity of war and the irony of its senseless outcomes. (For Watt, the movie’s theme is made even more ironic by the facts of its making: the bridge for the movie was built not in Thailand, which didn’t look the part, but in Ceylon, at the cost of a quarter-million dollars, only to be destroyed along with a real train in that final audience-pleasing scene.)

For Watt, the further preposterousness of the myth-making is the fact that tourists in Thailand go to see the real steel bridge and nearby cemeteries of the prisoners who died building it to feed a fantasy perpetrated by the movie.

Bridge-on-the-river-kwai1

Alec Guinness as Colonel Nicholson in the 1957 movie.

Pierre Boulle borrowed a quote from Joseph Conrad’s Victory for the epigraph to his novel: “No, it was not funny; it was rather pathetic; he was so representative of all the past victims of the great Joke. But it is by folly alone that the world moves, and so it is a respectable thing upon the whole. And, besides, he was what one would call a good man.”

Watt provides a plausible reason why Boulle may have made that choice—to emphasize the absurdity of the human condition in this, the dead-end of history. At the end of the essay, however, Watt returns to Conrad to defend the real Colonel Toosey: “a hero of the only kind we could afford then, and there. For he was led not by what he wanted to believe, but by what he knew: he knew that the world would not do his bidding; that he could not beat the Japanese; that on the Kwai—even more obviously than at home—we were for the most part prisoners of coercive circumstance.”

For Watt, the myth of the Kwai denies the reality Colonel Toosey represented, those two Conradian moral imperatives: work and restraint in the face of coercive circumstance.

Note to the reader: The good news is that Ian Watt’s thought-provoking essay is still available, and you don’t have to find a forty-year-old edition of the Norton Reader to read it. It turns out that, until his death in 1999, Watt was one of the leading scholars on the English novel and, in particular, Joseph Conrad. In 2000, Cambridge University Press published his Essays on Conrad (which I will review another time); thankfully the publisher included this remarkable essay as the coda of that collection.

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Arguably, our great loss

“Well, call me old-fashioned if you will, but I have always taken the view that swastika symbols exist for one purpose only—to be defaced.” —Christopher Hitchens, from “The Swastika and the Cedar”

Any blogger who pretends to write about books (note to self) would do well to read the essays of the late Christopher Hitchens. Arguably, his last book to be published before his death from esophageal cancer in December 2011, is largely a collection of book reviews written for Vanity Fair, Slate, The Atlantic, Foreign Affairs, The New Statesman, The Wilson Quarterly, and sundry newspapers here and in Britain. Most were written in the preceding ten years.

In its entirety, the book is a massive tribute to Hitchens’ eclectic erudition. The collection is a feast of brilliant, impassioned argument for anyone who holds views on American history, the British empire, literature, politics, the Left, the Right, famous authors, infamous dictators, religion, atheism, fascism, capitalism, journalism, Afghanistan, Iraq, torture, language, or popular culture. I may have left something out.

12618752Whether Hitchens is criticizing the West’s tolerance of North Korea’s psychotic theocracy, lamenting the deterioration of political campaign slogans, or reassessing the works of Saul Bellow, Vladimir Nabokov, P.G. Wodehouse, Graham Greene, or his good friend Martin Amis, what illuminates each essay is his objectivity, honesty and critical insight. In clear, engaging prose, Hitchens comes off as if he is conversing with an intelligent friend. (Thankfully, I read the book on my Kindle, since I frequently had to look up words he used; invariably they were pitch perfect.)

Hitchens honed his prose through decades of journalism, “pamphleteering” as he liked to call it. After attending Oxford, he began his career at The New Statesman, Britain’s left-leaning political affairs magazine (equivalent to The Nation in the U.S., to which he subsequently contributed as well).

In his memoir Hitch-22 (reprinted in 2011 with the poignant, unflinching preface he wrote after receiving his death sentence from the doctors), Hitchens charted the evolution of his political views from the antiwar-protesting Trotskyist of his Oxford days to the naturalized American advocate for democracy and pluralism in the post-9/11 world.

Much like George Orwell (whom he admired enough to write the book-length study, Why Orwell Matters), Hitchens experienced a political conversion that shaped everything he subsequently wrote, including the essays in Arguably.

Orwell of course went to Spain as a socialist to fight fascism, only to discover that totalitarian oppression was ingrained in both political systems. A bullet through the neck nearly muted that discovery forever, but Orwell survived and documented his experience in one of his finest works, Homage to Catalonia. He devoted the rest of his life, in works of allegory and essay, to warn the West of the inherent tyranny of political isms and the need to defend democracy and individual freedom from this threat at all cost.

7332753For Hitchens, doubts about the Marxist Left first surfaced during travels to Cuba, Portugal and Poland in the sixties and seventies. When, in 1982, Argentina’s military dictatorship attempted to seize the Falkland Islands, unlike many of his colleagues, Hitchens agreed with the Iron Lady’s decision to send the British fleet to defend the islands, not for the timeworn reasons of empire but to defeat a tyranny.

And, in 1988, when the Ayatollah issued a fatwa calling for the murder of Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses, Hitchens condemned the prevarications of many liberal intellectuals, politicians and religious leaders and launched a staunch public defense of his close friend. As he wrote in Hitch-22, “It was, if I can phrase it like this, a matter of everything I hated versus everything I loved. In the hate column: dictatorship, religion, stupidity, demagogy, censorship, bullying, and intimidation. In the love column: literature, irony, humor, the individual, and the defense of free expression. Plus, of course, friendship…”

9/11, however, was Hitchens’ Spain—the crystalline solidification of his evolving convictions. Just as Orwell determined party-line Communism to be the great totalitarian threat of his day, so Hitchens perceived fundamentalist religion, especially the intolerant strain of Islam espoused by Al Qaida and the Taliban, as the new totalitarian threat to Western humanism. “They claim that they will win because they love death more than life, and because life-lovers are feeble and corrupt degenerates,” he wrote in the introduction to Arguably. “Practically every word I have written, since 2001, has been explicitly or implicitly directed at refuting and defeating those hateful, nihilistic propositions, as well as those among us who try to explain them away.”

Hitchens’ wholehearted support for the invasion of Iraq and the ouster of Saddam Hussein troubled many of his liberal friends, but for him this stance was consistent with his revulsion for tyranny in any shape or form. Like Churchill in the thirties directing his rhetoric against the rising tide of National Socialism, Hitchens was willing to become a political outlier in order to warn against the new intolerant fascism he saw in extremist Islam.

I bring up this backstory only because Hitchens applies the same consistent logic to all of the essays in this collection. You may agree or disagree with this masterful polemicist, but always you will find him adhering to a high standard of debate, basing his arguments on empiricism and laying them out with incisive wit. And I guarantee that no matter how much or how little you agree with him, you will come away from Arguably with a long list of books to read or reread, a few new words, and an invigorated desire to grapple with the important issues of our world. Indeed, we have lost a great pamphleteer.

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011)

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011)

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