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Joseph Conrad’s Tragic Predicament

“If the world were clear, art would not exist.”
– Albert Camus

Joseph Conrad, laureate of futility and ambassador of the unspeakable, fills his fiction with indistinct forms, unknowable characters, inscrutable events and irresolvable mysteries. Repeatedly drawing attention to the insurmountable challenges to clear and precise expression, he devises stories about the impossibility of telling accurate stories. He often uses multiple, backward-looking narrators recounting partially remembered events pieced together from various sources. Conrad frequently depicts characters struggling to cope with uncertainty and overcome – or desperately sustain – the illusions they predictably develop in a confounding and ultimately meaningless universe. For a solidly productive author, Conrad’s body of work evinces remarkable doubts about the utility of language and a deep skepticism about the value of writing.

“They were born, they suffered, they died.” Conrad may really believe that mankind’s entire history could be reduced to those seven words but, as he goes on to say in the author’s note to Chance, where that précis appears, “it is a great tale!” Lacking the detachment necessary to leave the fundamental story so sparely stated, Conrad repeatedly underestimated the ultimate length of his works and the time necessary to complete them. Lord Jim, Nostromo, Under Western Eyes and others started off as short stories and ballooned into full-length novels.

Joseph Conrad, illustrated by Rachel Burgess

Conrad perceived a simultaneous heroism and foolhardiness in efforts to find meaning in stories of humanity’s suffering and death (the two acts of the birth-pain-extinction drama that interested him). His writing constantly hammers the futility of hoping to find such significance or, should it be ever so briefly spied, of communicating it to anyone else in words. Recognizing the pointlessness of the endeavor, but ceaselessly persisting – like Albert Camus’s smiling Sisyphus – has rebellious nobility: “all assertion in this world of doubts is a defiance,” Marlow says in Lord Jim. (“There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn,” Camus says in The Myth of Sisyphus.) In his not wholly factual memoir A Personal Record, from which, for instance, he excludes the minor matter of the experienced seaman’s failure to pass his master’s examination on the first try, Conrad candidly calls himself “a haunted man who looks for nothing by words wherein to capture his visions.”

Throughout his fiction, Conrad explicitly – sometimes with numbing tedium – labels events, things and people “unspeakable,” “indefinite,” “inexpressible,” “imperceptible,” “impenetrable,” “inexplicable,” “difficult to imagine,” “incomprehensible” and “inconceivable,” and he structures his narratives in ways that further diminish any appearance of certainty or reliability. As in several Conrad works, Charlie Marlow serves as the main narrator of Heart of Darkness, where a frame narrator observes that for Marlow “the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.” For Edward Said, Heart of Darkness “is preoccupied with what eludes articulate expression” and Marlow “acknowledges the tragic predicament of all speech”: its inability to convey what really happened or what an event felt like or truly meant. Further, through his use of “reported, or secondary, speech” by several narrators, Conrad avers that “all language is an interpretation of an interpretation.”

In Lord Jim, punctuation makes the point about the obfuscating distance between readers and witnesses of the events described: After the first four chapters told by an omniscient narrator, Marlow takes over, and when Marlow repeats what Jim said another man said, Conrad requires three sets of quotation marks. The surrounding shell has many layers. Marlow begins his account of what he learned about events involving the Patna by revealing that he cannot say why he paid attention in the first place. He introduces his retelling of what Jim told him by declaring himself an unfit “receptacle of confessions.” That Conrad crutch “mysterious” props up his tale again and again. Marlow repeatedly mentions his faulty memory and words’ inevitable failure to fully explain, and he has Jim express the same shortcoming.

Mists engulf Lord Jim. For Marlow, Jim’s character and personality remain indistinct, seen only in brief snatches. Truth itself can only in flashing moments be glimpsed through the ever present mist. Lord Jim is about the impossibility of recounting events or their significance, according to Conrad scholar Thomas Moser. In the novel, Conrad suggests that human thought itself is invariably vague and flawed and that any “thinker evolving a system of philosophy from the hazy glimpse of truth” is an imbecile.

Such enduring uncertainty prompt doubts about the purpose of writing, or his own abilities as an author, which Conrad attempts to express in his letters. “A sorry business this scribbling,” Conrad writes to his close friend Edward Garnett while working on The Nigger of the “Narcissus” (1897). Around the same time, Conrad writes to Stephen Crane of “the drop of poison in the cup of life,” as he describes self-mistrust, elaborating:

I am no more vile than my neighbors but this disbelief in one’s self is like a taint that spreads on everything one comes in contact with: on men – on things – on the very air one breathes. That’s why one sometimes wishes to be a stone breaker. There’s no doubt about breaking a stone. But there’s doubt, fear – a black horror, in every page one writes.

Skepticism about language itself permeates his fiction as well. The respect for practical manual labor and its superiority to sad scribbling reappears two decades later in The Shadow-Line (1917). The young captain in the short novel disdains writers, “the artificial men of pen and ink,” preferring men such as he considers himself, men “who grapple with realities.” Perhaps he dismisses scribblers because they trade in those damnably vague words Conrad uses over and over. In The Secret Agent (1907), pointlessness and vanity – “the mother of all noble and vile illusions” – extend into Conrad’s preoccupations as an artist. He has Mr. Vladimir at the Embassy observe: “Artists – art critics and such like – people of no account. Nobody minds what they say.” This from a writer who received critical praise throughout his career and popular success late in it.

If a writer has such a lack of confidence in language in general and fiction specifically, why shouldn’t he frequently, deliberately turn to vague, empty words? If mysteries cannot be other than impenetrable, why not call them impenetrable mysteries?

Indicating not so much the difficulty of finding meaning but the discovery of its absence, and connecting this with the inadequacy of language, Conrad calls men “hollow” in multiple novels. In Lord Jim, Brown, the thief who disrupts Jim’s happy interlude in Patusan, dismisses him as “a hollow sham.” In Heart of Darkness, Marlow says the African wilderness revealed a deficiency in Kurtz, the rogue station chief in an ivory-hunting outfit that Marlow is charged with finding. What Kurtz discovered “echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core.” Conrad recalls the proverb about the empty vessel making the greatest sound that Shakespeare puts in Henry V. As a result, according to Conrad scholar Cedric Watts, Heart of Darkness “offers eloquent warnings about eloquence. Conrad made a similar move in The Nigger of the “Narcissus,” where title figure James Wait’s exceptionally loud cough sounds “hollow.” Conrad makes Wait’s condition ambiguous: he either feigns sickness only to truly become mortally ill, or he attempts to mislead when he seems to admit only pretending to be near death. The loud coughs do not attempt to convey meaning, but when Waits does speak, he cannot be trusted.

All but the strongest, most heroic individuals prefer illusions to facing directly the terrible hollowness of existence. Conrad’s characters either learn that the “unanswerable questions” they confront are unanswerable or remain lost in the mist of illusions. When in Lord Jim Marlow, looking for a way to assist the disgraced Jim, consults his friend Stein – a suitable person for confidences, unlike Marlow, but one with curious speech patterns – he is told: “it is not good for you to find out you cannot make your dream come true, for the reason that you not strong enough are, or not clever enough.” Whether, like Jim, someone dreams of grand sea adventures or, less dramatically, fancies writing something about men with such aspirations, waking to unfulfillment means losing illusions.

Often, struggles with illusion and feelings of futility occur in an individual’s work, where shortcomings are revealed and failures invariably occur. The Secret Agent contains several descriptions of characters’ occupations, their feelings about their jobs and the challenges of work’s various demands. Verloc is both a shopkeeper and an agent provocateur – “a seller of shady wares” who regards himself as “a protector of society.” After being told that, in the latter capacity, he must cause some sort of outrage, Verloc reflects: “There is no occupation that fails a man more completely than that of a secret agent of the police,” and if his story is representative, it’s hard to argue with that assessment. His attempt to terrorize London with a bombing ends up killing his brother-in-law, whose sister – Verloc’s wife – subsequently stabs Verloc to death before killing herself. Additionally, the Assistant Commissioner and Chief Inspector Heat irritate each other over their differing ideas of how to do police work. Satisfaction at work depends on unusual good fortune:

No man engaged in a work he does not like can preserve many saving illusions about himself. The distaste, the absence of glamour, extend from the occupation to the personality. It is only when our appointed activities seem by a lucky accident to obey the particular earnestness of our temperament that we can taste the comfort of complete self-deception.

Conrad also includes a hackney driver’s response to his pay: “The cabman looked at the pieces of silver, which, appearing very minute in his big, grimy palm, symbolized the insignificant results which reward the ambitious courage and toil of a mankind whose day is short on this earth of evil.” (Conrad does not shy away from explaining his symbols.)

Conrad anticipates Camus, not stylistically but philosophically. According to John Howard Weston, in the world as Conrad understands it, “until a man comes to grips with the essential meaninglessness of existence he lives a life of illusion.” In Lord Jim, Marlow goes on and on about this. Jim’s jumping off the Patna along with the rest of the ship’s officers and abandoning its passengers shakes Marlow’s confidence in what he calls “the solidarity of the craft” of seamanship, but he does not want to release himself from that illusion. He believes the hunt for meaning involves navigating amid illusions, which he defines as “visions of remote, unattainable truth, seen dimly.” The scholar Weston designates Singleton in The Nigger of the “Narcissus” as Conrad’s “ideal seaman” because the sailor recognizes life’s existential meaninglessness but courageously fulfills his duties rather than shirking them as the shirker and would-be mutineer Donkin does in the same novel and like Jim in Lord Jim does by leaping from a ship that ends up not sinking. After the storm that nearly destroys the Narcissus, Singleton realizes his unavoidable mortality in an absurd universe. While he then finds “the burden of all his existence … almost too heavy for his strength,” he manages to shoulder it and carry on with his work. He is Sisyphus.

Conrad may allude to the Sisyphus myth in Lord Jim as well. He describes the sun as looking like a disc rolling to the bottom of a precipice, which recalls the story of a figure condemned to push a stone up a hill only to have it roll back down again and again that Robert Graves says originated with a sun-cult envisioning the rock as precisely the sort of sun-disc Conrad has Marlow imagine.

Illusions have a dubious utility. What John Howard Weston calls “existential meaninglessness,” Tony Tanner dubs “an abysmal absence of meaning and value in the world.” Tanner says Conrad reached the “last stage of pessimism” where “no meaning at all can be found.” There, illusions “sustain and dignify mankind.” (Marlow in Heart of Darkness uses a similar rationale for keeping women “out of touch with the truth.” He says the “beautiful” world of their own where women reside would crumble if it came into contact with the ugly facts men live with as a matter of routine.) If Donkin in The Nigger of the “Narcissus” represents “the basest instincts and inclinations of man,” as Tanner claims, then Jim in Lord Jim “stands for our best illusions.” Yet there is nothing ennobling about laboring under falsehoods. Conrad explicitly “rejects all formulas, dogmas and principles of other people’s making” for the reason that they “are only a web of illusions.”

Conrad suggests that men can look into the existential abyss without succumbing to its horror. Singleton in The Nigger of the “Narcissus” qualifies as courageous precisely because he sees the vision-clouding illusions yet sustains fidelity to the code that unites dutiful seamen. In Chance, Marlow reiterates the understanding of the honorable craft of sailing earlier identified with Singleton (and so different from writing): “The exacting life of the sea has this advantage over the life of the earth, that its claims are simple and cannot be evaded.” Men like Singleton commit [themselves] to ceaseless toil and, unlike Kurtz, Donkin and Jim, resist succumbing to their moral deficiencies.

While Singleton does what needs to be done to keep the Narcissus afloat, he does not free himself from all illusions. He holds on to exactly the sort of superstitious thinking Conrad dismisses. Conrad had life-long reservations regarding Christianity because, as he put it, “the absurd oriental fable from which it starts” annoyed him. Despite his own impatience with religion, Conrad at times, but inconsistently, writes as if an interested force were active in nature and affected men’s affairs. On one page of Lord Jim, for instance, he describes nature as wholly indifferent; on the next, he portrays “the anger of the sea” as purposefully malevolent. Mr. Burns, chief mate on the becalmed ship in The Shadow-Line, may resort to “superstitious fancy” when trying to comprehend the immobilizing lack of wind and the absence of medicine for the malaria-stricken crew, but Conrad insists in his afterword that he put nothing supernatural in the novel. (Just as Conrad’s writing about terrorists made The Secret Agent and Under Western Eyes look vitally relevant after September 11, 2001, his vigorous statement of disbelief appeals to assertive secularists. Martin Amis quotes the author’s note to The Shadow-Line in The Second Plane; Christopher Hitchens reproduces part of the same passage at the start of a chapter in God Is Not Great and includes the entire afterword in The Portable Atheist, the anthology of unbelief he edited.) Singleton similarly hews to superstitious thinking, convinced of a real mystical connection between the death of James Wait and the Narcissus’s reaching land. Even his best characters have their ineradicable weaknesses.

Marlow wants Jim – a more complex and evidently flawed character than Singleton – to redeem himself after his lapse. Marlow endeavors to prove Jim is “one of us,” as the narrator longingly, insistently and frequently says Jim is, even though the yarn-spinner simultaneously acknowledges that Jim stands “at the heart of a vast enigma” (which in its way does indeed make him just like all of us). Despite Jim’s hollowness – if Singleton willingly rolls the stone uphill everyday, Jim dreams of propelling it to the summit but actually does nothing – Marlow tenaciously hews to his conviction in Jim’s greatness.

Marlow does not persuade all of his listeners (such as the “privileged man” who received “the last word of the story” from Marlow via the mail) or all of Conrad’s readers. The privileged man faults Jim for not adhering to “a firm conviction” in beneficent imperialism and “the truth of ideas racially our own.” Marlow acknowledges that Jim “failed” when he jumped ship, but still contends that Jim committed to a worthy “ideal of conduct.” It seems Marlow fell for Jim’s own illusions about himself.

Yet Marlow does not fully convince himself either. His talk of inscrutability and enigmas points to awareness of incomplete and unsatisfying self-deception. And Conrad certainly encourages a more skeptical view than the one Marlow advocates. He undermines his narrator, showing readers Marlow’s blind spots. When in Heart of Darkness Marlow tells his listeners aboard the Nellie that he won’t bother them with what happened to him personally, the first-person narrator who frames Marlow’s story spies “the weakness of many tellers of tales who seem so often unaware of what their audiences would best like to hear.” In Lord Jim, the novel’s very structure raises questions about Marlow’s account. The final portion consists of his reconstruction of Jim’s death and the incidents preceding it, which Marlow cobbled together from discussions with the piratical Gentleman Brown as well as with Jim’s disappointed former lover and his embarrassed ex-servant. Marlow does not always specify who told him what. Indeed, Marlow would not have seen the final “proud and unflinching” expression of Jim’s that Marlow takes as meaning so much about his supposedly brave acceptance of death, and he does not indicate his sources. The man who received Marlow’s description of Jim’s last days – like every reader of it – has plenty of reasons to remain unsure about Marlow’s interpretation. Marlow continues to struggle with illusions in later works. In Chance (1914), he observes: “You understand that nothing is more disturbing than the upsetting of a preconceived idea. Each of us arranges the world according to his notions of the fitness of things.” He ought to know.

If Conrad concerns himself with what cannot be said, then John Stape might be his ideal biographer. Like Conrad, Stape sets out to be concise in The Several Lives of Joseph Conrad, and unlike his subject he succeeds. He speeds through Conrad’s story, limiting himself to demonstrable facts and treating his subject much as the novelist treats his characters. The biographer tries to see Conrad through the fog of passing time, untrustworthy memories of contemporaries and incomplete documentary evidence. He knows he cannot give an exhaustive account – since no one can.

In The Several Lives, Stape often writes of what the mist obscures, what others say happened that may not have or that cannot be stated with confidence. Rumors of, say, Conrad’s gun-running expeditions remain mere hearsay. Stape says myths endure “despite lack of evidence.” He tries to expose their speciousness, but cannot confidently say what did occur, admitting that “the truth is unrecoverable.” At times he resembles Marlow contemplating shadowy figures, as when he finds the motivation for some of Conrad’s action “unknown,” questions about them “unanswerable.” Stape cannot reveal much about Conrad’s feeling for family because “documentation is scant.” Stape judges Conrad’s fondness for Stephen Crane “inexplicable.” Stape says it is “impossible to tell” if Conrad, who generally preferred not to declare publicly his political beliefs, really meant it when he expressed indifference to the Russian Revolution. What happened with Conrad’s money “is a question likely to remain unresolved.” Further, “there are areas of Conrad’s carefully guarded emotional life that remain too dark to allow for easy gauging,” Stape says, and, as Conrad knew, people cannot see in the dark.

Just as Marlow questions the feasibility of truthful story telling, Stape condemns biographers who traduce their subject. He says Ford Madox Ford’s Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance almost belongs beside Ford’s fiction. “It is typically Fordian – unbalanced, insouciant as to facts, and extravagantly creative.” He says Conrad’s wife’s multiple books about the novelist amount to bids to “cash in” on his fame and notes that Edward Garnett called the third one she published “the most detestable book ever written by a wife about her husband.” (After George Orwell read Jessie Conrad’s Joseph Conrad as I Knew Him, he threw it to his wife Sonia and demanded: “Don’t ever do that to me!”) Stape refuses “to think up ‘mistresses’ for Conrad when none existed,” as he says others have done. When “very little is known” about a period in Conrad’s life, Stape says as much.

Stape prefers not to say much about Conrad’s work beyond confidently pointing to real-world bases for fictionalization. Stape limits his discussion of specific Conrad novels and stories to sentence-length distillations of their themes. The Shadow-Line, “Falk” and “The Secret Sharer” – the three parts of Conrad’s Bangkok Trilogy – “circle round the themes of transgression (dereliction of duty, cannibalism, murder), expiation, initiatory experience, and profound alienation and loneliness.” Typhoon “focuses on “man’s puniness and indomitability.” “The Tale” deals “with tested loyalties and the limits of moral knowledge.” Illness bedeviled Conrad throughout his life, and he wrote multiple stories turning on physical incapacity. Patterns emerge, and persist, but Stape only refers to them; he does not ponder them at any length.

Stape largely sidesteps the usual critical knocks on Conrad: that he was a racist and a misogynist and sometimes wrote grindingly clunky prose. After quoting a letter in which Conrad calls someone “that horrible Jew,” Stape writes: “Given his statements about the issue elsewhere, the anti-Semitism, however crude, was casual.” He cites none of those other statements. He could, for instance, have quoted another letter, one about The Nigger of the “Narcissus” no less, where Conrad combines anti-Semitism with misogyny: “That Israelite is afraid of women.” He could have considered incidents in the fiction itself, such as Lord Jim, in which the placement of “eight hundred pilgrims (more or less)” aboard the Patna suggests that the exact number, and thus each individual not enjoying “the distinction of being white” like the officers, does not really matter. Instead, Stape prefers to remain conspicuously silent.

Even if Conrad did harbor some views that look unenlightened, he should not be wholly rejected for this reason. To those, like Chinua Achebe, who would disqualify Conrad from serious consideration, dismissing him as merely a racist, Edward Said sensibly responds: “There’s no reason for me to perform acts of amputation on myself, intellectual, spiritual, or aesthetic, simply because in the experience of other people from the Third World, a black novelist from Nigeria like Achebe … can make my … Conrad into someone who is only despicable.” Writing as a self-described member of a minority group and immigrant, Salman Rushdie similarly finds room in his personal library for Conrad, noting in Imaginary Homelands that “Indian writers in England have access to a second tradition, quite apart from their racial history…. We can quite legitimately claim as our ancestors the Huguenots, the Irish, the Jews; the past to which we belong is an English past, the history of immigrant Britain. Swift, Conrad, Marx are as much our literary forebears as Tagor or Ram Mohan Roy.” Stape essentially ignores the matter.

Regardless of their opinions about Conrad’s presumed attitudes, plenty of critics praise his prose style. Cedric Watts lauds his “linguistic precision and tonal control,” for example. Stape notes that obituary writers declared him a great stylist. Although Said says Conrad’s prose “often seems at a loss for exactness,” he also notices that the “virtuosity of Conrad’s language, even when it has offended critics by its untidy sprawls and rhetorical emptiness, regularly carries with it eloquent indications that language is not enough.”

Others have stronger reservations. F.R. Leavis complains of Conrad’s “adjectival and worse than supererogatory insistence” on using what Watts calls “polysyllabic privative adjectives.” Reliance on those not very illuminating modifiers did not only define relatively early works like Lord Jim (1900) and Heart of Darkness (first published serially in 1899). It recurs throughout his career. In The Shadow-Line, the at-times obtuse narrator, after chucking his berth on one ship but before becoming captain of another, finds “mysterious” the complaints of the chief steward at the Officers’ Home where he resides. Even mundane matters become inscrutable. He cannot guess by what “mysterious accident” the man acquired his furniture. He judges the drunkenness of another tenant an “unspeakable condition.” The sober seaman regards Captain Giles, who steers him toward a command of his own, as having a mysterious way of speaking. He, like other Conrad narrators, finds matters “inconceivable.” He says there is “something touching” about a ship returning from the sea – but does not say what that something is.

Graham Greene, an admirer of Heart of Darkness and The Secret Agent, disliked Conrad’s occasionally awkward phrasing. “I think it is possible to say that his books sometimes read as though they were extremely brilliant and understanding translations from the French,” Greene observed (French was Conrad’s second language; English his third). Even so, Greene allowed, this aspect of Conrad’s writing “does not destroy in any way the value of his contribution to English letters.” Critic Wilfrid Sheed was less forgiving. Conrad compared writing to carrying heavy bales on a hot day, but “reading Conrad can be like that,” Sheed quipped.

Conrad’s biographer is ambivalent about his style, about which he makes just a few general comments. He calls Conrad “incontestably a great writer” but “not quite a ‘great’ novelist.” Stape says Conrad’s prose, usually “sinuously seductive,” could also degenerate into “mere brittle mannerism … or at times flap about as his grasp on grammatical niceties and idiom relaxes.” Stape notes a tendency toward “odd turns of phrase and outright grammatical errors.” He identifies weaknesses both in ill-advised efforts and in Conrad’s best work: “topical satire was not a vein for his talent,” Stape says of The Inheritors, one of Conrad’s collaborations with Ford Madox Ford; journalism was also “not his métier”; Conrad’s attempts at drama reveal that “dialogue was not his strong suit.”

Similar to Marlow straining to locate greatness in obviously imperfect Jim, Stape indefatigably searches for what the undeniably major and influential author actually did well. Stape calls Conrad a writer “concerned with both stylistic effects and his characters’ inner states.” He says Conrad’s “essential loneliness and sense of the horror of existence was finding a means of expression in highly wrought prose and in fiction of … coruscating insight….” That’s in the final paragraph of The Several Lives of Joseph Conrad and contains much less of the hesitation Stape voices elsewhere. Conrad’s brilliant perspicacity relates to the limits of human knowledge and the unavoidable constraints of transmitting experience in language that can do little more than approximate what a story-teller (or, more accurately, re-teller) wants to impart. Like Conrad, Stape sees something bold in the ultimately futile bid to articulate others’ inner states.

Given this awareness, it is surprising that Stape uncritically accepts Conrad’s account of his aesthetic ambition from the preface to The Nigger of the “Narcissus,” where the novelist declares his aim to “make you see” (Conrad’s emphasis). Conrad also claims writers should bring “to light the truth.” Rather than exposing truth, however, Conrad chronicles its elusiveness. The same writer who asserted that any “work that aspires, however humbly, to the condition of art should carry its justification in every line” – as Conrad does in the first line of the preface to The Nigger of the “Narcissus” – also writes redundantly of a “mysterious” incident being assessed as “so mysterious that a certain mystery attaches to the people to whom such a thing happens” – as he does with determined vagueness in Chance. He knows the unlikeliness of definite artistic accomplishment. It’s the effort to provide “that glimpse of the truth” that matters. “Art is long and life is short,” he says, “and success is very far off.” All the unspeakable, unutterable, indistinct and mysterious doings and states in Conrad’s prose, and the strenuous stress on men’s inevitable failure to articulate or communicate what they see, raises questions about his sincerity. Yet Stape simply declares the preface Conrad’s “artistic credo.”

Certainly, Conrad could compose striking visuals, especially when describing weather or ships. He deftly touches on both topics in The Nigger of the “Narcissus” when he writes: “The loose upper canvas blew out in the breeze with soft round contours, resembling small white clouds snared in the maze of ropes.” The novel also contains a graphic description of hail in the highly detailed storm scene in the third chapter. In Typhoon, the narrator describes being thrown sideways and noticing stars transform into streaks: “the whole lot took flight together and disappeared.” This is a “scintillating descriptive stroke,” according to critic Clive James, but for Conrad “not hard.”

James praises Conrad’s ability to make readers see Jim’s shame as a far greater accomplishment than his ability to make them see stars. In his take on the preface, Ian Watt also says Conrad’s “seeing” includes more than sensory impressions. Conrad, he says, wants readers to see ideas and truths as well. Watt recognizes, though, that Conrad’s formula does not fully encapsulate the novelist’s artistic goals. Regarding the preface, Watt outlines the various aesthetic concepts Conrad bounces between before concluding that Conrad displayed a consistent “skepticism about intellectual formulae” and refused to take sides in debates over critical theories. “A man haunted by a fixed idea is insane,” Conrad writes in Nostromo (1904), which Stape takes as indicative of Conrad’s personal outlook. Conrad cannot be accused of committing himself to such a single, reductive certainty. (Born in Polish Ukraine, Conrad chose to dispense with nationality, language, religion, profession and begin again as an English writer.)

Stape thinks that Conrad lacked a sense of humor, but the idea that there could be something funny about the human predicament, as if it were all a grand cosmic joke, recurs regularly in Lord Jim, where Conrad refers frequently to clowns and masks. If laughter punctures pomposity and offers a way for men to cope with the absurdity of existence, then the laughter resounding throughout that and other novels suggests Conrad has a greater appreciation for jokes than Stape recognizes. (“One must imagine Sisyphus happy,” Camus concludes.) Even Conrad’s bleakest work has its funny side. When in Heart of Darkness Kurtz’s fiancée asks Marlow to tell her Kurtz’s last words, he answers: “your name.” Kurtz’s anguished groan – “The horror! The horror!” – can and has been read as judgment upon imperialism’s debasement of both colonies and colonizers or, more broadly, as recognition of a frightening lack of purpose or meaning in human existence. Or the novella can be taken as an elaborate if crude joke at the expense of Kurtz’s Intended. (Stape suggests, briefly, that Conrad may have regarded his own marriage with something like horror.) There is irony – and perhaps an attempt at humor – in Conrad’s insistence on making readers see unrelieved darkness and hear the inchoate sounds made by hollow men.

John G. Rodwan, Jr.’s essays and reviews have been published by The Mailer Review, The Oregonian, Spot Literary Magazine, California Literary Review, Logos, Slow Trains, Shaking like a Mountain, The Brooklyn Rail, American Writer, Free Inquiry and The Humanist.

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