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Full Online Book HomeEssaysOld And New Masters - Chapter 25. R. Joseph Conrad
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Old And New Masters - Chapter 25. R. Joseph Conrad Post by :infinityrose Category :Essays Author :Robert Lynd Date :May 2012 Read :2959

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Old And New Masters - Chapter 25. R. Joseph Conrad



Mr. Joseph Conrad is one of the strangest figures in literature. He has called himself "the most unliterary of writers." He did not even begin to write till he was half-way between thirty and forty. I do not like to be more precise about the date, because there seems to be some doubt as to the year in which Mr. Conrad was born. Mr. Hugh Walpole, in his brief critical study of Mr. Conrad, gives the date as the 6th of December, 1857; the _Encyclopaedia Britannica says 1856; Mr. Conrad himself declares in his reminiscences that he was "nine years old or thereabouts" in 1868, which would bring the year of his birth nearer 1859. Of one thing, however, there is no question. He grew up without any impulse to be a writer. He apparently never even wrote bad verse in his teens. Before he began to write _Almayer's Folly he "had written nothing but letters and not very many of these." "I never," he declares, "made a note of a fact, of an impression, or of an anecdote in my life. The ambition of being an author had never turned up among those precious imaginary existences one creates fondly for oneself in the stillness and immobility of a daydream."

At the same time, Mr. Conrad's is not a genius without parentage or pedigree. His father was not only a revolutionary, but in some degree a man of letters. Mr. Conrad tells us that his own acquaintance with English literature began at the age of eight with _The Two Gentlemen of Verona_, which his father had translated into Polish. He has given us a picture of the child he then was (dressed in a black blouse with a white border in mourning for his mother) as he knelt in his father's study chair, "with my elbows on the table and my head held in both hands over the pile of loose pages." While he was still a boy he read Hugo and _Don Quixote and Dickens, and a great deal of history, poetry, and travel. He had also been fascinated by the map. It may be said of him even in his childhood, as Sir Thomas Browne has said in general of every human being, that Africa and all her prodigies were within him. No passage in his autobiography suggests the first prophecy of his career so markedly as that in which he writes: "It was in 1868, when nine years old or thereabouts, that while looking at a map of Africa of the time and putting my finger on the blank space then representing the unsolved mystery of that continent, I said to myself with absolute assurance and an amazing audacity which are no longer in my character now: 'When I grow up I shall go _there_.'" Mr. Conrad's genius, his consciousness of his destiny, may be said to have come to birth in that hour. What but the second sight of genius could have told this inland child that he would one day escape from the torturing round of rebellion in which the soul of his people was imprisoned to the sunless jungles and secret rivers of Africa, where he would find an imperishable booty of wonder and monstrous fear? Many people regard _Heart of Darkness as his greatest story. _Heart of Darkness surely began to be written on the day on which the boy of nine "or thereabouts" put his finger on the blank space of the map of Africa and prophesied.

He was in no hurry, however, to accomplish his destiny. Mr. Conrad has never been in a hurry, even in telling a story. He has waited on fate rather than run to meet it. "I was never," he declares, "one of those wonderful fellows that would go afloat in a washtub for the sake of the fun." On the other hand, he seems always to have followed in his own determined fashion certain sudden intuitions, much as great generals and saints do. Alexander or Napoleon could not have seized the future with a more splendid defiance of reason than did Mr. Conrad, when, though he did not yet know six words of English, he came to the resolve: "If a seaman, then an English seaman." He has always been obedient to a star. He likes to picture himself as a lazy creature, but he is really one of the most dogged day-labourers who have ever served literature. In _Typhoon and _Youth he has written of the triumph of the spirit of man over tempest and fire. We may see in these stories not only the record of Mr. Conrad's twenty years' toil as a seaman, but the image of his desperate doggedness as an author writing in a foreign tongue. "Line by line," he writes, "rather than page by page, was the growth of _Almayer's Folly_." He has earned his fame in the sweat of his brow. He speaks of the terrible bodily fatigue that is the lot of the imaginative writer even more than of the manual labourer. "I have," he adds, "carried bags of wheat on my back, bent almost double under a ship's deck-beams, from six in the morning till six in the evening (with an hour and a half off for meals), so I ought to know." He declares, indeed, that the strain of creative effort necessary in imaginative writing is "something for which a material parallel can only be found in the everlasting sombre stress of the westward winter passage round Cape Horn." This is to make the profession of literature a branch of the heroic life. And that, for all his smiling disparagement of himself as a Sybarite, is what Mr. Conrad has done.

It is all the more curious that he should ever have been regarded as one who had added to the literature of despair. He is a tragic writer, it is true; he is the only novelist now writing in English with the grand tragic sense. He is nearer Webster than Shakespeare, perhaps, in the mood of his tragedy; he lifts the curtain upon a world in which the noble and the beautiful go down before an almost meaningless malice. In _The End of the Tether_, in _Freya of the Seven Isles_, in _Victory_, it is as though a very Nero of malice who took a special delight in the ruin of great spirits governed events. On the other hand, as in _Samson Agonistes_, so in the stories of Mr. Conrad we are confronted with the curious paradox that some deathless quality in the dying hero forbids us utterly to despair. Mr. Hardy has written the tragedy of man's weakness; Mr. Conrad has written the tragedy of man's strength "with courage never to submit or yield." Though Mr. Conrad possesses the tragic sense in a degree that puts him among the great poets, and above any of his living rivals, however, the mass of his work cannot be called tragic. _Youth, Typhoon, Lord Jim, The Secret Sharer, The Shadow Line_--are not all these fables of conquest and redemption? Man in Mr. Conrad's stories is always a defier of the devils, and the devils are usually put to flight.

Though he is eager to disclaim being a moralist or even having any liking for moralists, it is clear that he is an exceedingly passionate moralist and is in more ardent imaginative sympathy with the duties of man and Burke than with the rights of man and Shelley. Had it not been so, he might have been a political visionary and stayed at home. As it is, this son of a Polish rebel broke away from the wavering aspirations and public dreams of his revolutionary countrymen, and found salvation as an artist in the companionship of simple men at sea.

Some such tremendous breach with the past was necessary in order that Mr. Conrad might be able to achieve his destiny as an artist. No one but an inland child could, perhaps, have come to the sea with such a passion of discovery. The sea to most of us is a glory, but it is a glory of our everyday earth. Mr. Conrad, in his discovery of the sea, broke into a new and wonder-studded world, like some great adventurer of the Renaissance. He was like a man coming out of a pit into the light. That, I admit, is too simple an image to express all that going to sea meant to Mr. Conrad. But some such image seems to me to be necessary to express that element in his writing which reminds one of the vision of a man who has lived much underground. He is a dark man who carries the shadows and the mysteries of the pit about with him. He initiates us in his stories into the romance of Erebus. He leads us through a haunted world in which something worse than a ghost may spring on us out of the darkness. Ironical, sad, a spectator, he is nevertheless a writer who exalts rather than dispirits. His genius moves enlargingly among us, a very spendthrift of treasure--treasure of recollection, observation, imagery, tenderness, and humour. It is a strange thing that it was not until he published _Chance that the world in general began to recognize how great a writer was enriching our time. Perhaps his own reserve was partly to blame for this. He tells us that all the "characters" he ever got on his discharge from a ship contained the words "strictly sober," and he claims that he has observed the same sobriety--"asceticism of sentiment," he calls it--in his literary work as at sea. He has been compared to Dostoevsky, but in his quietism he is the very opposite of Dostoevsky--an author, indeed, of whom he has written impatiently. At the same time, Mr. Conrad keeps open house in his pages as Dostoevsky did for strange demons and goblins--that population of grotesque characters that links the modern realistic novel to the fairy tale. His tales are tales of wonder. He is not only a philosopher of the bold heart under a sky of despair, but one of the magicians of literature. That is why one reads the volume called _Youth for the third and fourth time with even more enthusiasm than when one reads it for the first.


Mr. Joseph Conrad is a writer with a lure. Every novelist of genius is that, of course, to some extent. But Mr. Conrad is more than most. He has a lure like some lost shore in the tropics. He compels to adventure. There is no other living writer who is sensitive in anything like the same degree to the sheer mysteriousness of the earth. Every man who breathes, every woman who crosses the street, every wind that blows, every ship that sails, every tide that fills, every wave that breaks, is for him alive with mystery as a lantern is alive with light--a little light in an immense darkness. Or perhaps it is more subtle than that. With Mr. Conrad it is as though mystery, instead of dwelling in people and things like a light, hung about them like an aura. Mr. Kipling communicates to us aggressively what our eyes can see. Mr. Conrad communicates to us tentatively what only his eyes can see, and in so doing gives a new significance to things. Occasionally he leaves us puzzled as to where in the world the significance can lie. But of the presence of this significance, this mystery, we are as uncannily certain as of some noise that we have heard at night. It is like the "mana" which savages at once reverence and fear in a thousand objects. It is unlike "mana," however, in that it is a quality not of sacredness, but of romance. It is as though for Mr. Conrad a ghost of romance inhabited every tree and every stream, every ship and every human being. His function in literature is the announcement of this ghost. In all his work there is some haunting and indefinable element that draws us into a kind of ghost-story atmosphere as we read. His ships and men are, in an old sense of the word, possessed.

One might compare Mr. Conrad in this respect with his master--his master, at least, in the art of the long novel--Henry James. I do not mean that in the matter of his genius Mr. Conrad is not entirely original. Henry James could no more have written Mr. Conrad's stories than Mr. Conrad could have written Henry James's. His manner of discovering significance in insignificant things, however, is of the school of Henry James. Like Henry James, he is a psychologist in everything down to descriptions of the weather. It can hardly be questioned that he has learned more of the business of psychology from Henry James than from any other writer. As one reads a story like _Chance_, however, one feels that in psychology Mr. Conrad is something of an amateur of genius, while Henry James is a professor. Mr. Conrad never gives the impression of having used the dissecting-knife and the microscope and the test-tubes as Henry James does. He seems rather to be one of the splendid guessers. Not that Henry James is timid in speculations. He can sally out into the borderland and come back with his bag of ghosts like a very hero of credulity. Even when he tells a ghost story, however--and _The Turn of the Screw is one of the great ghost stories of literature--he remains supremely master of his materials. He has an efficiency that is scientific as compared with the vaguer broodings of Mr. Conrad. Where Mr. Conrad will drift into discovery, Henry James will sail more cunningly to his end with chart and compass.

One is aware of a certain deliberate indolent hither-and-thitherness in the psychological progress of Mr. Conrad's _Under Western Eyes_, for instance, which is never to be found even in the most elusive of Henry James's novels. Both of them are, of course, in love with the elusive. To each of them a bird in the bush is worth two in the hand. But while Henry James's birds perch in the cultivated bushes of botanical gardens, Mr. Conrad's call from the heart of natural thickets--often from the depths of the jungle. The progress of the steamer up the jungle river in _Heart of Darkness is symbolic of his method as a writer. He goes on and on, with the ogres of romance always lying in wait round the next bend. He can describe things seen as well as any man, but it is his especial genius to use things seen in such a way as to suggest the unseen things that are waiting round the corner. Even when he is portraying human beings, like Flora de Barrel--the daughter of the defalcating financier and wife of the ship's captain, who is the heroine of _Chance_--he often permits us just such glimpses of them as we get of persons hurrying round a corner. He gives us a picture of disappearing heels as the portrait of a personality. He suggests the soul of wonder in a man not by showing him realistically as he is so much as by suggesting a mysterious something hidden, something on the horizon, a shadowy island seen at twilight. One result of this is that his human beings are seldom as rotund as life. They are emanations of personality rather than collections of legs, arms, and bowels. They are, if you like, ghostly. That is why they will never be quoted like Hamlet and my Uncle Toby and Sam Weller. But how wonderful they are in their environment of the unusual! How wonderful as seen in the light of the strange eyes of their creator! "Having grown extremely sensitive (an effect of irritation) to the tonalities, I may say, of the affair"--so the narrator of _Chance begins one of his sentences; and it is not in the invention of new persons or incidents, but in just such a sensitiveness to the tonalities of this and that affair that Mr. Conrad wins his laurels as a writer of novels. He would be sensitive, I do not doubt, to the tonalities of the way in which a waitress in a Lyons tea-shop would serve a lumpy-shouldered City man with tea and toasted scone. His sensitiveness only becomes matter for enthusiasm, however, when it is concerned with little man in conflict with destiny--when, bare down to the immortal soul, he grapples with fate and throws it, or is beaten back by it into a savage of the first days.

Some of his best work is contained in the two stories _Typhoon and _The Secret Sharer_, the latter of which appeared in the volume called _'Twixt Land and Sea_. And each of these is a fable of man's mysterious quarrel with fate told with the Conrad sensitiveness, the dark Conrad irony, and the Conrad zest for courage. These stories are so great that while we read them we almost forget the word "psychology." We are swept off our feet by a tide of heroic literature. Each of the stories, complex though Mr. Conrad's interest in the central situation may be, is radically as heroic and simple as the story of Jack's fight with the giants or of the defence of the round-house in _Kidnapped_. In each of them the soul of man challenges fate with its terrors: it dares all, it risks all, it invades and defeats the darkness. _Typhoon was, I fancy, not consciously intended as a dramatization of the struggle between the soul and the Prince of the power of the air. But it is because it is eternally true as such a dramatization that it is--let us not shrink from praise--one of the most overwhelmingly fine short stories in literature. It is the story of an unconquerable soul even more than of an unconquerable ship. One feels that the ship's struggles have angels and demons for spectators, as time and again the storm smashes her and time and again she rises alive out of the pit of the waters. They are an affair of cosmic relevance as the captain and the mate cling on, watching the agonies of the steamer. Opening their eyes, they saw the masses of piled-up foam dashing to and fro amongst what looked like fragments of the ship. She had given way as if driven straight in. Their panting hearts yielded before the tremendous blow; and all at once she sprang up again to her desperate plunging, as if trying to scramble out from under the ruins. The seas in the dark seemed to rush from all sides to keep her back where she might perish. There was hate in the way she was handled, and a ferocity in the blows that fell. She was like a living creature thrown to the rage of a mob: hustled terribly, struck at, borne up, flung down, leaped upon.

It is in the midst of these blinding, deafening, whirling, drowning terrors that we seem to see the captain and the mate as figures symbolic of Mr. Conrad's heroic philosophy of life.

He (the mate) poked his head forward, groping for the ear of his commander. His lips touched it, big, fleshy, very wet. He cried in an agitated tone, "Our boats are going now, sir."

And again he heard that voice, forced and ringing feebly, but with a penetrating effect of quietness in the enormous discord of noises, as if sent out from some remote spot of peace beyond the black wastes of the gale; again he heard a man's voice--the frail and indomitable sound that can be made to carry an infinity of thought, resolution, and purpose, that shall be pronouncing confident words on the last day, when the heavens fall and justice is done--again he heard it, and it was crying to him, as if from very, very far: "All right."

Mr. Conrad's work, I have already suggested, belongs to the literature of confidence. It is the literature of great hearts braving the perils of the darkness. He is imaginatively never so much at home as in the night, but he is aware not only of the night, but of the stars. Like a cheer out of the dark comes that wonderful scene in _The Secret Sharer in which, at infinite risk, the ship is sailed in close under the looming land in order that the captain may give the hidden manslayer a chance of escaping unnoticed to the land. This is a story in which the "tonalities of the affair" are much more subtle than in _Typhoon_. It is a study in eccentric human relations--the relations between the captain and the manslayer who comes naked out of the seas as if from nowhere one tropical night, and is huddled away with his secrets in the captain's cabin. It is for the most part a comedy of the abnormal--an ironic fable of splendid purposeless fears and risks. Towards the end, however, we lose our concern with nerves and relationships and such things, and our hearts pause as the moment approaches when the captain ventures his ship in order to save the interloper's life. That is a moment with all romance in it. As the ship swerves round into safety just in the nick of time, we have a story transfigured into the music of the triumphant soul. Mr. Conrad, as we see in _Freya of the Seven Isles and elsewhere, is not blind to the commonness of tragic ruin--tragic ruin against which no high-heartedness seems to avail. He is, indeed, inclined rather than otherwise to represent fate as a monstrous spider, unaccountable, often maleficent, hard to run away from. But he loves the fantastic comedy of the high heart which persists in the heroic game against the spider till the bitter end. His _Youth is just such a comedy of the peacockry of adventure amid the traps and disasters of fate.

All this being so, it may be thought that I have underestimated the flesh-and-blood qualities in Mr. Conrad's work. I certainly do not want to give the impression that his men are less than men. They are as manly men as ever breathed. But Mr. Conrad seldom attempts to give us the complete synthesis of a man. He deals rather in aspects of personality. His longer books would hold us better if there were some overmastering characters in them. In reading such a book as _Under Western Eyes we feel as though we had here a precious alphabet of analysis, but that it has not been used to spell a magnificent man.

Worse than this, Mr. Conrad's long stories at times come out as awkwardly as an elephant being steered backwards through a gate. He pauses frequently to impress upon us not only the romance of the fact he is stating but the romance of the circumstances in which somebody discovered it. In _Chance and _Lord Jim he is not content to tell us a straightforward story: he must show us at length the processes by which it was pieced together. This method has its advantages. It gives us the feeling, as I have said, that we are voyaging into strange seas and harbours in search of mysterious clues. But the fatigue of reconstruction is apt to tell on us before the end. One gets tired of the thing just as one does of interviewing a host of strangers. That is why some people fail to get through Mr. Conrad's long novels. They are books of a thousand fascinations, but the best imagination in them is by the way. Besides this, they have little of the economy of dramatic writing, but are profusely descriptive, and most people are timid of an epic of description.

Mr. Conrad's best work, then, is to be found, I agree with most people in believing, in three of his volumes of short stories--in _Typhoon, Youth_, and _'Twixt Land and Sea_. His fame will, I imagine, rest chiefly on these, just as the fame of Wordsworth and Keats rests on their shorter poems. Here is the pure gold of his romance--written in terms largely of the life of the old sailing-ship. Here he has written little epics of man's destiny, tragic, ironic, and heroic, which are unique in modern (and, it is safe to say, in all) literature.

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