Tag Archives: Joseph Conrad

“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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How empires begin and end

It has always puzzled me how a small, technologically advantaged force can dominate vast multitudes in far reaches of the planet. It’s the story of empire: The Romans extending their rule across Europe and the Mediterranean. Cortés and a few hundred Spaniards conquering the powerful and warlike Aztecs, who had created an empire of their own. And more recently, the British building an empire on which the sun never set, its crown jewel being India.

In most cases the story of empire is one of the few taking advantage of internecine disputes among the many to seize control, of dividing and conquering. It was Rome’s way. It was Cortés’ way. And although I am not well read in Indian history, I suspect that’s what happened there as well–the British striking alliances with advantage-seeking rajahs and playing up religious and cultural differences. Certainly that’s how Kipling portrayed it in such works as Kim and The Man Who Would Be King.

Map of India under the British East India Comp...

Map of India under the British East India Company, 1857. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 1857, British control of India nearly came to an abrupt end. That year, the Indian subcontinent erupted in violent reaction to the steady incursion of the British East India Company, an event known as the Indian Rebellion. What astounds me is that the British prevailed.

In The Siege of Krishnapur Anglo-Irish novelist J.G. Farrell attempts to reconstruct the stubborn self-righteousness and contempt that enabled the British to prevail in that perilous year. But Farrell also wonders if the germ of empire’s end wasn’t inherent in those same myopic attitudes.

Farrell, who died in a freak accident in 1979 (while fishing on Ireland’s west coast, a wave swept him into the sea; his body was not recovered for a month), is best known for his Empire trilogy. In each volume he considers a watershed in the British empire’s decline. Troubles deals with a hotel in Ireland after World War I, The Singapore Grip with life in that colony on the eve of World War II. The Siege of Krishnapur, however, is his Booker Prize-winning novel based on the historical siege of Lucknow in the north-central state of Uttar Pradesh.

256280Farrell of course has the benefit of hindsight, writing in 1974, decades after India’s independence. This distance allows him to portray the imperial mindset with comedic effect. He finds ironies in the historical context and satirizes the presumptions of the age. Wisely, he scrutinizes the character of the English, whom he knows, but does not attempt to fathom the motives of the Indian sepoys who besiege his fictional Krishnapur. Regrettably, this approach reduces the rebels to faceless hordes akin to those ant-like computer-generated armies in the Lord of the Rings movies.

Despite the Kiplingesque action/adventure story he is telling, Farrell revels in dialogue and interior monologue. The best bits are wicked: “The first thing one learns about India, Burlton, is not to listen to the damned nonsense the natives are always talking,” says one fatuous character before the siege begins.

Only the Collector, the stalwart epitome of British civility and reason who runs the residency for the Company in Krishnapur, a man for whom the technological and scientific advances featured at London’s Great Exhibition of 1851 are sure signs of civilization, senses that trouble is stirring. He orders fortifications to be built which enable the small enclave of residents and soldiers to defend themselves when the attack comes.

The siege itself is central, and like the quarantine in Camus’ The Plague, provides an opportunity to observe desperate people at close quarters. The veneer of Victorian propriety soon gives way to survival. The Collector must constantly reassure himself that British rule stands for Progress; he and the Company are bringing Great Ideas to India. But as things grow dire, the busts of the European thinkers that decorate his study must be used as cannonballs against the attackers: “The most effective of all had been Shakespeare’s; it had scythed its way through a whole astonished platoon of sepoys advancing in a single file through the jungle.” Voltaire’s head jams the gun.

After months of siege and as preparations are made for the last stand, the bright red coats of the British army appear on the horizon, and the attackers flee. The Collector survives and years later, back home in London, comments to another survivor, “Culture is a sham…It’s a cosmetic painted on life by rich people to conceal its ugliness.” Farrell’s own summation of the events of 1857 are expressed in the last glimpse of the Collector: “Perhaps, by the very end of his life in 1880, he had come to believe that a people, a nation, does not create itself according to its own best ideas, but is shaped by other forces, of which it has little knowledge.”

Farrell, like Joseph Conrad before him in “An Outpost of Progress,” Nostromo and Heart of Darkness, sees a black center in the Great Ideas that empire builders use to justify taking what they want from the rest of the world.

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Two rivers, two views of empire

Two well-written histories about Europe’s scramble for Africa provide a fascinating study of how perspectives change with time.

Alan Moorehead was a renowned Australian journalist who began his career reporting on the Spanish Civil War and the North African campaign during the Second World War. After the war, he turned to narrative history and published one of his most highly acclaimed books, The White Nile, in 1960.

TheWhiteNileThe White Nile follows that great river’s course through the last half of the 19th Century, beginning with Richard Burton and John Speke’s 1856 expedition to find the source of the Nile and ending with Britain’s suppression of the Mahdist Revolt in the 1890s.

Tracing the source of the Nile to Lake Victoria is a story of heroic feats of endurance and hardship. In addition to Burton and Speke, it includes two names familiar to every child: the missionary Dr. Livingstone and the journalist Henry Morton Stanley. These men were soon followed by Samuel Baker who sought to tame the river for steamboats and General Gordon who sought to introduce the (British) rule of law to the Sudan. Barely a decade later, the Mahdi’s siege of Khartoum and Britain’s race to rescue General Gordon and then at Omdurman to avenge him involve two other famous Brits: a young Herbert Kitchener and an even younger Winston Churchill.

Moorehead is a gifted writer who presents a riveting, novel-like narrative replete with well-researched details about these colorful figures. His own travels up the Nile during the war and while researching the book provided a first-hand experience that shows in his fine descriptions of the land and his appreciation of the early adventurers’ accomplishments.

Moorehead wrote The White Nile as independence finally came to the “protectorates” Britain established in Sudan, Uganda, Kenya and Somalia. He isn’t an apologist for empire, but he still believes in the positive elements Britain brought with its governance. He describes the flourishing slave trade that Burton and Speke encountered (Arab traders had plundered East Africa for ivory and slaves for centuries, much as European traders did from West Africa). And he rightly asserts that Britain’s increasing influence through its missionaries and civil administrators helped put an end to that trade.

His book, however, remains largely one-sided. He acknowledges, for example, that Stanley used repeating rifles to massacre Bumbire warriors armed only with spears on the shore of Lake Victoria, yet he admires Stanley’s ingenuity to transport (on porters’ backs) a steel boat in sections to the lake. He makes plain that Stanley was not a humanitarian even by Victorian standards, yet he lauds his drive and efficiency.

What a difference in perspective forty years can make. The British Empire may never have been as abusive as the one American journalist Adam Hochschild describes in his 1999 book, King Leopold’s Ghost, but one suspects that if Moorehead were alive to write a history of the Nile today, it would require another dimension—that of the Africans who lived under British rule.

Henry Morton Stanley meets David Livingstone i...

Henry Morton Stanley meets David Livingstone in Ujiji, 1871. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Figures like Stanley might come under greater scrutiny, too. The Scottish orphan, who changed his name in America and made his name by “finding” Livingstone, doesn’t get off as lightly in Hochschild’s book. As Moorehead tells, this tough-as-nails explorer was the first European to descend the Congo River (after definitively charting the source of the Nile). But, as Hochschild tells, he later returned to oversee the rapacious development of the Congo Free State at the behest of Belgium’s King Leopold II.

KingLeopoldsGhostKing Leopold’s Ghost recounts the harrowing story of the most egregious form of exploitative colonialism in the continent’s history. You already know something of this if you have read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, for it was King Leopold’s large-scale and deceitful pillaging of the Congo’s resources that both books describe. The horror indeed.

Disguised as philanthropic development to end slavery and bring Christianity to the Congo, the mercenary king created a kind of serfdom that might as well have been slavery. Through a brutal regime of European administrators who used terror and forced labor to extract ivory and rubber, Leopold made millions (billions in today’s dollars) in profit. The horror included hangings, beheadings, the severing of hands, and whippings that often killed. Women were held hostage, raped and traded as chattel. Children were starved and worked to death. And whenever any resistance occurred, retribution came in the form of destroyed villages and mass killings. Hochschild estimates that between 1885 and 1908, due to murder, starvation, exhaustion, exposure, disease and a plummeting birth rate, the population of the Congo River basin declined by half, from twenty million to ten million.

The story would be dismal if it were not for the brave missionaries and human rights organizers like Edmund Dene Morel, William Sheppard, Alice Seeley Harris and Roger Casement, who risked their reputations, and some their lives, to bring these abuses to light. Hochschild also strives to weave into his story as many African voices from the era as he can, although there are many fewer than he would have liked. Most were silenced by death.

Moorehead wasn’t wrong to tell, in a gripping fashion, the  story of Britain’s role on the Nile, but as history it was incomplete. “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice,” Martin Luther King said. Hochschild’s important book lends credence to that claim.

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