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Notes On My Books - Within The Tides Post by :cclittle Category :Nonfictions Author :Joseph Conrad Date :May 2012 Read :3522

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Notes On My Books - Within The Tides

The tales collected in this book have elicited on their appearance two utterances in the shape of comment and one distinctly critical charge. A reviewer observed that I liked to write of men who go to sea or live on lonely islands untrammeled by the pressure of worldly circumstances because such characters allowed freer play to my imagination which in their case was only bounded by natural laws and the universal human conventions. There is a certain truth in this remark no doubt. It is only the suggestion of deliberate choice that misses its mark. I have not sought for special imaginative freedom or a larger play of fancy in my choice of characters and subjects. The nature of the knowledge, suggestions or hints used in my imaginative work has depended directly on the conditions of my active life. It depended more on contacts, and very slight contacts at that, than on actual experience; because my life as a matter of fact was far from being adventurous in itself. Even now when I look back on it with a certain regret (who would not regret his youth?) and positive affection, its colouring wears the sober hue of hard work and exacting calls of duty, things which in themselves are not much charged with a feeling of romance. If these things appeal strongly to me even in retrospect it is, I suppose, because the romantic feeling of reality was in me an inborn faculty, that in itself may be a curse but when disciplined by a sense of personal responsibility and a recognition of the hard facts of existence shared with the rest of mankind becomes but a point of view from which the very shadows of life appear endowed with an internal glow. And such romanticism is not a sin. It is none the worse for the knowledge of truth. It only tries to make the best of it, hard as it may be; and in this hardness discovers a certain aspect of beauty.

I am speaking here of romanticism in relation to life, not of romanticism in relation to imaginative literature, which, in its early days, was associated simply with mediaeval subjects, or, at any rate, with subjects sought for in a remote past. My subjects are not mediaeval and I have a natural right to them because my past is very much my own. If their course lie out of the beaten path of organized social life, it is, perhaps, because I myself did in a sort break away from it early in obedience to an impulse which must have been very genuine since it has sustained me through all the dangers of disillusion. But that origin of my literary work was very far from giving a larger scope to my imagination. On the contrary, the mere fact of dealing with matters outside the general run of everyday experience laid me under the obligation of a more scrupulous fidelity to the truth of my own sensations. The problem was 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.

The other utterance of the two I have alluded to above consisted in the observation that in this volume of mine the whole was greater than its parts. I pass it on to my readers merely remarking that if this is really so then I must take it as a tribute to my personality since those stories which by implication seem to hold so well together as to be surveyed en bloc and judged as the product of a single mood, were written at different times, under various influences and with the deliberate intention of trying several ways of telling a tale. The hints and suggestions for all of them had been received at various times and in distant parts of the globe. The book received a good deal of varied criticism, mainly quite justifiable, but in a couple of instances quite surprising in its objections. Amongst them was the critical charge of false realism brought against the opening story: The Planter of Malata. I would have regarded it as serious enough if I had not discovered on reading further that the distinguished critic was accusing me simply of having sought to evade a happy ending out of a sort of moral cowardice, lest I should be condemned as a superficially sentimental person. Where (and of what sort) there are to be found in The Planter of Malata any germs of happiness that could have fructified at the end I am at a loss to see. Such criticism seems to miss the whole purpose and significance of a piece of writing the primary intention of which was mainly aesthetic; an essay in description and narrative around a given psychological situation. Of more seriousness was the spoken criticism of an old and valued friend who thought that in the scene near the rock, which from the point of view of psychology is crucial, neither Felicia Moorsom nor Geoffrey Renouard find the right things to say to each other. I didn't argue the point at the time, for, to be candid, I didn't feel quite satisfied with the scene myself. On re-reading it lately for the purpose of this edition I have come to the conclusion that there is that much truth in my friend's criticism that I have made those people a little too explicit in their emotion and thus have destroyed to a certain extent the characteristic illusory glamour of their personalities. I regret this defect very much for I regard The Planter of Malata as a nearly successful attempt at doing a very difficult thing which I would have liked to have made as perfect as it lay in my power. Yet considering the pitch and the tonality of the whole tale it is very difficult to imagine what else those two people could have found to say at that time and on that particular spot of the earth's surface. In the mood in which they both were, and given the exceptional state of their feelings, anything might have been said.

The eminent critic who charged me with false realism, the outcome of timidity, was quite wrong. I should like to ask him what he imagines the, so to speak, lifelong embrace of Felicia Moorsom and Geoffrey Renouard could have been like? Could it have been at all? Would it have been credible? No! I did not shirk anything, either from timidity or laziness. Perhaps a little mistrust of my own powers would not have been altogether out of place in this connection. But it failed me; and I resemble Geoffrey Renouard in so far that when once engaged in an adventure I cannot bear the idea of turning back. The moment had arrived for these people to disclose themselves. They had to do it. To render a crucial point of feelings in terms of human speech is really an impossible task. Written words can only form a sort of translation. And if that translation happens, from want of skill or from over-anxiety, to be too literal, the people caught in the toils of passion, instead of disclosing themselves, which would be art, are made to give themselves away, which is neither art nor life. Nor yet truth! At any rate not the whole truth; for it is truth robbed of all its necessary and sympathetic reservations and qualifications which give it its fair form, its just proportions, its semblance of human fellowship.

Indeed the task of the translator of passions into speech may be pronounced "too difficult." However, with my customary impenitence I am glad I have attempted the story with all its implications and difficulties, including the scene by the side of the gray rock crowning the height of Malata. But I am not so inordinately pleased with the result as not to be able to forgive a patient reader who may find it somewhat disappointing.

I have left myself no space to talk about the other three stories because I do not think that they call for detailed comment. Each of them has its special mood and I have tried purposely to give each its special tone and a different construction of phrase. A reviewer asked in reference to the Inn of the Two Witches whether I ever came across a tale called A Very Strange Bed published in _Household Words in 1852 or 54. I never saw a number of _Household Words of that decade. A bed of the sort was discovered in an inn on the road between Rome and Naples at the end of the 18th century. Where I picked up the information I cannot say now but I am certain it was not in a tale. This bed is the only "fact" of the Witches' Inn. The other two stories have considerably more "fact" in them, derived from my own personal knowledge.

J. C.

1920

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