FROM THE STACKS AUGUST 3, 2013
Joseph Conrad died 89 years ago today. In his honor, we present to you Granville Hick's reflection on the importance of Conrad's work, as originally published in The New Republic.
Though the customary bows are still made in his direction, and the several collections of his letters have been reviewed with suitable solemnity, one feels, without being able to adduce any great body of evidence, that Joseph Conrad's reputation is shrinking. Many of the critics whose praise nourished his fame on these shores have little to say about him today, while for the younger literati he appears never to have existed. His imitators seem, on the one hand, to have less and less intrinsic importance, and, on the other, to display less and less insight into his characteristic virtues. At almost any moment now some young iconoclast, to his own satisfaction and with the approval of his fellows, will administer the coup-de-grace to the Conrad myth.
Such a cooling of ardor is customary in an era when masterpieces are discovered each week, and might have been foreseen, especially in the case of an author who had been chiefly hailed for the wrong reasons. With some exceptions, the critics praised Conrad, up to the time of his death, as a spinner of romances, who could create the atmosphere of faraway lands and tell a thrilling tale of adventure.
Besides disappointing many readers, who discovered that Conrad was incredibly long-winded, indirect, and generally unsatisfactory as a writer of adventure stories, the circulation of these critical views has had the disadvantage of obscuring Conrad's real value. Primarily he is, of course, what must be called a philosophical novelist; that is to say, he is a writer who offers us an inclusive and integrated imaginative view of life. Though he stands at a considerable distance from all his contemporaries, he is nearest to Thomas Hardy; and he is a very long way from Wells, Bennett, Galsworthy and the other sociological novelists.
Conrad's philosophy is, as anyone who has thought about it recognizes, pessimistic. In all his novels, from Almayer's Folly to Suspense, is the sense of a universe not so much deliberately malicious as treacherous and alarming. And yet, so restrained is this pessimism in the novels, so completely implicit, that one might sometimes wonder how far Conrad himself was articulately conscious of it. On this point his letters set doubt aside. “If,” he wrote Cunninghame Graham, “this miserable planet had perception, a soul, a heart, it would burst with indignation or fly to pieces with sheer pity.” “The fate of a humanity condemned ultimately to perish from cold," he wrote in 1898,” is not worth troubling about.” And he added, “The ardor for reform, improvement, for knowledge and even for beauty is a vain sticking-up for appearances, as though one were anxious about the cut of one's clothes in a community of blind men." Again, he remarked, “What makes mankind tragic is not that they are the victims of Nature, it is that they arc conscious of it”—a sentiment which recalls the lines of his more outspokenly pessimistic contemporary:
But O, the intolerable antilogyOf making figments feel!
Linked with this pessimism is Conrad’s admiration for the heroic virtues, for courage and loyalty. In the face of an indifferent universe he does not yield to despair, nor does he recommend the cultivation of a stoic disinterestedness. Far from believing that intelligence can achieve the mastery of natural forces, he held that the development of intellectual powers thwarts the growth of the qualities which alone bring victory in the struggle of life. That is why most of his heroes are rather stupid, why Axel Heyst has to abandon his philosophy of dispassionate intellectuality, why Jim is sound in his obsession with his disgrace.
This philosophy is a partial explanation also of Conrad’s choice of subject matter. Mr. Ford Madox Ford has deplored Conrad s concern with the sea, and has regretted the failure of influential friends, such as Edward Garnett, to advise him to deal with the problems of men and women in our industrial civilization. Mr. Ford may be right; we may have lost much because Conrad did not occupy himself with more representative themes; he might have stood above the contemporary realists, the period novelists as Edwin Muir calls them, by as much as he stands above contemporary romanticists. But the uncertainty or that conclusion is pointed to not merely by the quality or such stones as he did write about life in England and on the Continent, but also by the fact that the ways of seafaring men matched so perfectly the problems of expression and adaptation raised by his view of life.
It is curious how thoroughgoing the parallel is between the sea and the universe as Conrad looks upon them. There are passages in Conrad, notably, in Youth, in which the romanticist, gaining the upper hand, leads him into rhapsody on the glories of the Seaman’s career; but even in such passages the sea itself is grim and pitiless, and there are other descriptions which unsparingly portray the inscrutable terror of the ocean.
As if it were to great, too mighty for common virtues, the ocean [he writes] has no compassion, no faith, no law, no memory. Its fickleness is to be held true to men’s purposes only by an undaunted resolution and by a sleepless, armed, jealous vigilance, in which, perhaps, there has always been more hate than love.
So also it is with the world, which ahs no concern with our carefully computed hierarchies of values, and in which we survive, if we survive at all, only by heroic struggle. There is, Conrad believes, as little place in this world for the paralyzing touch of cold reason as there would be room in a ship’s crew for a typical academic philosopher. In describing his own art, Conrad remarked that success comes only to the fortunate and deserving. The phrase, a key to all his work, applies equally well to the captain of the ship, who cannot be sure of gaining port whatever his efforts, but is certainly lost if for a moment those efforts are abated. To be deserving, of course, is to be faithful, brave, honest, persevering. If one has these qualities, and if fortune makes the sea smooth, such success as this life holds may be achieves; and if one has these qualities, even if fortune does fail, there is the inner victory—the victory of Heyst In the flames, of Jim on Patusan, of Peyrol in his tartane.
Although it is in this philosophy and this moral code that any discussion of Conrad’s place in literature must center, there are other questions to be asked and answered. There is, for example, Conrad’s method of construction, his Jamesian doublings and redoublings, his introduction of this person and that to aid in the telling of the story. Mr. Mencken has pointed out that this method, relieving Conrad from the obligations of omniscience, increases the realism of his pictures. It might also be discovered that Conrad, always seeing his subject from many sides, found the task of selection simplified by assuming the point of view of an imaginary character. At the very least, the method of narration makes it clear that Conrad focused his imagination on the problem of bringing out the moral values involved, not on the problem of thrilling the reader. The style raises further questions. Beautifully effective at times, it carries a sense of strain, of ceaseless effort, quite unlike the feeling of unlimited resources conveyed by the great masters. But here again, though we recognize this quality as one more evidence that Conrad falls something short of the first rank, we perceive that the strain and pressure in the writing correspond to the unremitting struggle that dominates the lives of the characters.
We are not so rich in geniuses of universal scope that we can afford to disregard an author who has done well any one thing worth doing.
In the end, then, we come back to the philosophy, not as philosophy, but as a way of looking at life that lends itself to the creative function. So far as the current depreciation of Conrad is not the result of misunderstanding, it comes from the belief that his subject matter is without a true significance. In the general reestimation of the middle generation he has suffered the fate of his contemporaries, but for different reasons. Galsworthy, Bennett and Wells, recent criticism tends to assert, derive such importance as they have from non-esthetic elements in their work; they have performed the task of the sociologist, the journalist or the reformer, not the proper task of the novelist. Against Conrad, the charge is that he is a romanticist in the more profound sense; that is to say, a man who, instead of occupying himself with what is central in our civilization, chooses subjects on the periphery of normal experience.
Conrad’s code, obviously, does not please the modern taste. It is too simple for the sophisticates, too barbaric for the humanists, and not barbaric enough for the new primitivists. It makes him indifferent to the kind of problems with which most of us are concerned, and it leads him to omit from his novels the kinds of characters which are most representative of our civilization. Our culture is founded on the work of science; it gives highest praise to the cool, rational experimentalist. Conrad portrays the man of intellect only to show his weaknesses, as he shows the weaknesses of Axel Heyst and D’Alacer. “The habit of profound reflection,” he comments, “is the most pernicious of all the habits formed by civilized man.” In the same manner, he ignores the modern woman; always weak in the portrayal of female characters, he attains moderate success only with the more primitive types. His choice of characters permits him to ignore the involved situations in the relations of the sexes which are so extremely interesting to the present generation of writers. Toward questions of social reform his attitude is neither that of his sociologically-minded contemporaries nor that of the modern sophisticates. The anarchist, as Conrad reveals him in “The Secret Agent,” and various short stories, is the welcher, the man who refuses to accept the consequences of living in the difficult world in which we find ourselves; he occupies the same contemptible position in the world of courageous effort that Donkin occupied on board the “Narcissus.”
Conrad seems quite out of touch. He apparently fails to be representative either in the inclusive manner of the great writers or in the more specific, localized manner of his contemporaries. Yet there is a sense in which Conrad’s themes are at the center of human experience, and this becomes apparent when he is studied in comparison with those critics who most vigorously deplore the eccentricity of the romanticists. Professor Babbitt and his followers insist on the recognition of a fundamental dualism, on discrimination between the law for man and the law for thing. Conrad agrees with them: he believes that, in the face of an indifferent universe, all we can do is cultivate the specifically human virtues. Babbitt holds, furthermore, that the characteristically human qualities derive from the will; so, obviously, does Conrad. Babbitt argues that the animal instincts must be held in check by the human will—the superrational will, as he calls it. Conrad believes that the cowardice and laziness of the natural man can be subdued only by the exercise of a will directed toward courage and loyalty. Babbitt appeals to history and experience to sanction the selection of the peculiarly human qualities; Conrad relies on experience but might equally well, if he had been a philosopher instead of a novelist, have appealed to history for support.
Such similarity in assumptions and methods arrives, however, at very dissimilar results. Where Babbitt's virtues depend on intelligence, even though he places intelligence in a secondary position, Conrad's virtues rely on the elimination of reflection. Where Babbitt's creed is adapted only to the cultivated minority, Conrad's meets the needs of the masses of the thoughtless and simple-minded. Where Babbitt's dogmas spring from the written words of countless philosophers, Conrad's, though their history is quite as long and quite as honorable, grow out of the daily actions of the inarticulate.
Neither code, it may be said, recognizes the peculiar elements in the modern situation; to both men, it appears, the development of the past few centuries seems irrelevant. Neither philosophy, moreover, convincingly defends either its assumption of dualism or its view of the will. But it is not the purpose of this essay to analyze either the code of humanism or the code of Joseph Conrad. It is enough to demonstrate that Conrad is not the centrifugal writer that criticism commonly makes him out to be. He does, in a perfectly defensible way, deal with central elements in human experience. On the level to which he lifts them, the sufferings of a ship's crew rounding the Cape or the struggles of a band of white men in the Malaysian archipelago are as representative of normal human experience as anything that could happen in London or Leningrad. From his point of view such deeds are more representative than discussions over teacups, or intricate analyses of the psychological elements in the sex act. In human affairs the intellect has, after all, figured briefly, and its importance is disputable; the heroic emotions, it may be reasonably argued, have had far more to do with the creation of whatever civilization we have.
It is idle to deny that Conrad's outlook is partial, limited. It would be foolish to suggest that more novelists should share his point of view, or that Virginia Woolf and James Joyce would be greater writers if they turned to the portrayal of simple souls on foreign shores. That is not, of course, the point. For the most part, and with very few exceptions in the whole history of literature, we have to accept writers who are excellent only within limitations. We are not so rich in geniuses of universal scope that we can afford to disregard an author who has done well any one thing worth doing.
Conrad’s philosophy is empirically justified because he was able to make it the starting-point from which his imagination set out in the creation of living men and women. It is also justified, as has been shown, by certain aspects of history and certain types of experience. It is not, moreover, to be disposed of as merely fashionable; it has always appealed to some people, and there is no reason to suppose that it will ever be without appeal. In other words, it is one of those ways of looking at life which, while admittedly partial, has a degree of validity. That is why, despite the current depreciation, Conrad has better chances of survival than almost any other writer of his period. Though he fell short of the first rank, he rose well above the level of the temporarily popular. He may be of little value, fifty years from now, to the antiquarian, but there are very likely to be some people who will read him because he has a modicum of truth to convey to them concerning the human spirit.
Lede image via Shutterstock.