A Modern Prophet
Biographers should ideally try to visit all the places where their subject lived and travelled. When preparing to write The Dawn Watch Maya Jasanoff took long sea voyages from Hong Kong to England and sailed a thousand miles down the Congo River to the Atlantic coast. Her innovative method, a kind of participatory journalism, combines practical experience as a ship’s passenger with a historian’s approach to biography.
Jasanoff narrates for the general reader the plot of Joseph Conrad’s greatest works – The Secret Agent (1907), Lord Jim (1900), Heart of Darkness (1899) and Nostromo (1904) – out of chronological order. She illuminates their background, but does not show their development. She argues that Conrad’s incisive portrayal of migration, capitalism, imperialism, nationalism, assassination, revolution and terrorism make him a ‘prophet of globalism.’ Her intelligent, thoroughly researched and well-written biography is, despite serious faults, one of the best books on Conrad in recent years.
Many readers skip a book’s Acknowledgments, which can be revealing as strategic bragging, seductive bribery and formidable defence. This one shows a shrewd operator in action. Jasanoff, who describes herself as half-Jewish, half-East Indian (the perfect female candidate for prizes), is extremely well connected, gets rave blurbs from many influential writers including John le Carré and a prominent admiral, and erects a protective firewall against hostile reviewers. An undergraduate and now professor at Harvard, where both her parents also teach, she effusively and sometimes repeatedly thanks eminent colleagues and historians, leading Conrad scholars, ‘inspiring authors’ and a ‘wonderful team’ of agents and editors
as well as family, friends, disciples, courtiers and camp-followers. The darling of the academic world and beyond, she modestly lists seventeen places where she has lectured and made valuable contacts, her Guggenheim grant and fellowship at Oxford, and writing holidays at the Yaddo and MacDowell phalansteries.
John Maynard Keynes condemned Poland as a country ‘with no industry but Jew-baiting.’ Conrad – the archetypal loner and wanderer – was a Pole and landless member of the landed gentry. Surrounded by alien and often hostile people, he was born in Berdychev, in the Ukraine and part of the Russian empire. It was a centre of Jewish life and culture and, later on, the birthplace of the Russian novelist Vasily Grossman, whose novel Life and Fate describes the ruthless Nazi massacres in that town. Jasanoff condemns Conrad’s ‘undeniable anti-Semitism.’ In fact, for his time and place, Conrad was astonishingly free of anti-Jewish prejudice. Both the brave Hirsch who defies his torturers in Nostromo and the innkeeper Yankel in ‘Prince Roman’ are entirely sympathetic characters.
Conrad moved restlessly throughout his early life, from Zhitomir in the Ukraine and Warsaw, to exile with his father, a failed revolutionary, in Vologda, 300 miles north of Moscow, and from there to Krakow, Odessa, Switzerland, Lvov and Marseilles. He went to sea from France when he was sixteen to escape the patriotic burden that had destroyed the lives of his parents. (Jasanoff describes Conrad’s mother as a ‘great beauty,’ a claim not confirmed by her photograph.)
There is no evidence that Conrad led a sailor’s reckless life ashore. He did not get drunk, consort with prostitutes, keep a native mistress, or seduce the well-bred and carefully chaperoned French women he unsuccessfully courted in Switzerland and Mauritius. He may even have been, like his teenaged bride Jessie, a virgin when he married at the age of thirtyseven. Jasanoff claims that Conrad ‘countered hints of homosexuality by presenting sailors . . . joined in love for their ship.’ But the evil Mr. Jones in Victory, like Claggart in Herman Melville’s sea-novella Billy Budd, is a vicious homosexual who invades Heyst’s remote island to steal his money
and kill him. In her epigraph Jasanoff weirdly quotes Jones’s threat, ‘I am the world itself, come to pay you a visit,’ as if he represented her theme of globalisation.
Though Conrad was a certified Master in the British Merchant Marine, he never became the permanent captain of a ship, which would have provided a good berth for life and blown him off course as a writer. He began his literary career with formidable disadvantages. Before he published Almayer’s Folly in 1895 the perpetual outsider was insecure, high strung and subject to depression. He did not hear spoken English until he was eighteen, did not have a perfect command of his third language (after Polish and French) or a sound knowledge of English literature and history. He had not gone to a university, had never taught school or worked as a journalist, and had no contacts in the literary world.
Conrad’s beliefs were an idealized version of his father’s thought. Jasanoff writes:
He transformed the British sailing ship into a gold standard for moral conduct. It became for him what Poland had been for his parents, a romantic ideal that served as a guide for life. . . . Conrad promoted the values (as he imagined them) of the [landed gentry] and the sailing ship; the dreams of the depressive who at once depended on and doubted them.
But she also states, without noting the contradiction, that his characters, who often fail to meet that gold standard and achieve solidarity, ‘struggle with displacement, alienation and despair. Seventeen of them commit suicide.’
Conrad’s tin-pot steamboat in the Congo, Jasanoff writes, ‘provided the only job he’d ever had that relied on each of his distinctive traits, as a Polish-born, French-speaking, British-certified captain,’ though coming from landlocked Poland did not qualify him for this job. He was strong enough to take a gruelling trek on foot around the Congo River rapids to
Léopoldville and needed another four weeks to steam up river to Stanley Falls. He avoided the oppressive Belgian officials as much as possible, bitterly regretted coming to the Congo and lamented, ‘everything here is repellent to me.’ But his fury stoked his imagination.
Jasanoff, blindly following politically correct academic conformity, questions her attachment – using a stupid but widely accepted phrase – to a ‘dead white male’ and makes the obligatory obeisance to Edward Said’s disgracefully distorted concept of ‘Orientalism.’ Westerners wrote the early history of the Middle East, but without them there would have been no written history. Worst of all and with a surprising unawareness of the African historical background, Jasanoff gives credence to the most fatuous but frequently quoted essay ever written about Conrad. The Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe falsely claimed that in Heart of Darkness Conrad was a ‘bloody racist,’ wrote ‘an offensive and totally deplorable book’ and scarcely recognised Marlow’s African crew as fellow humans. In two consecutive pages Jasanoff repeats this name-calling with ‘racist caricatures,’ ‘racist stereotypes’ and ‘racist descriptions.’ But accusations are not evidence. In fact, in 1890, when Conrad journeyed to the Congo, Africans were either cruelly treated slaves on the rubber plantations or dangerous enemies, pagan headhunters and naked cannibals. They fiercely defended their territory by shooting at the white invaders steaming up the river.
Conrad had no common language with Africans in the bush, and at the end of the nineteenth century it was impossible for any European writer to portray them as fully developed characters. The Belgians deliberately restricted education to prevent the spread of revolutionary ideas. As late as independence in 1960 the Congo, with a population of more than fifteen million, had only sixteen university graduates. One hundred and twentyfive years after Conrad’s journey Jasanoff dedicates her book to the generic ‘Friends who have travelled with me’ rather than to specific Africans (if any) who actually were her friends.
She ignores Conrad’s extraordinary compassion for the victims in the
‘grove of death,’ and Marlow’s astonishment that the starving cannibals, working on his ship and fed on rotten hippo meat, have not killed and eaten him. Kurtz, the epitome of the civilised European, was based on the intrepid explorer H. M. Stanley and the cultured, German-born, provincial governor of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, Emin Pasha. But Kurtz regresses into barbarism, surrounds his house with the skulls of his victims, and is far more bloodthirsty and savage than any of the Africans. Conrad believes Corruptio optimi pessima: corruption of the best is the worst of all. Jasanoff does not seem to recognise that Conrad’s powerful novella played a major role in ending the secret slavery and atrocities in King Leopold’s Congo.
Conrad’s 1887 voyages on the Vidar, which circled around the river ports in Malaya, Borneo and Sulawesi in the Dutch East Indies, inspired his first two novels, Almayer’s Folly and An Outcast of the Islands (1896) as well as Lord Jim and The Rescue (1920). He introduced British readers to an exotic region that few had ever heard about and was crowned as ‘the Kipling of the Malay Archipelago.’ When Conrad’s uncle-and-guardian died in the Ukraine, the telegram announced ‘regret to inform you.’ He used the same formulaic expression when he told his Polish cousin that his fictional hero had died and he had finally finished his first novel: ‘I regret to inform you of the death of Mr. Kaspar Almayer, which occurred this morning at 3 o’clock.’
At the end of Almayer’s Folly and Victory both heroes burn down their houses. And the menacing Gentleman Brown in Lord Jim ‘sailed into Jim’s history, a blind accomplice of the Dark Powers,’ just as the destructive Mr. Jones sailed to Heyst’s island. Lord Jim portrays Conrad’s great theme: the attempt to recover personal honour and self-esteem after committing a cowardly and degrading act. Jasanoff quotes the famous description of the handsome and popular Lord Jim, ‘he was of the right sort; he was one of us,’ without seeing the thematic allusion to Genesis 3:22, when God says to the angels after Adam has eaten the forbidden fruit: ‘Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil.’
Jasanoff describes how the dynamite outrages of Irish nationalists in the
1880s in London, who killed civilians in symbolic locations to maximise the emotional impact of the blast, influenced The Secret Agent. The novel also illuminates conditions in our time. Conrad hated repressive government as much as social disorder, and wanted to arouse indignation and contempt for the terrorists’ ideological pretensions, cowardly nihilism and absurd cruelty. He saw acts of terrorism in terms of individual human lives, their origins in illusions both noble and vile, which inspired men and women to kill both themselves and their innocent victims.
Jasanoff writes that the novel ‘captured the tragic irony of Conrad’s life. He had been raised to belong to a country, Poland, he could never be truly in, because it [had been partitioned by its powerful neighbors and] didn’t formally exist. He’d adopted a country to which he could never fully belong, because he remained in certain ways an alien, and to some extent by choice. “I have lived amongst strangers but not with strangers, and wandering around the world I have never left” ’ the memory of and nostalgia for Poland. Conrad’s great theme is loss.
The character of Holroyd in Nostromo represents American imperialism, and the novel, Jasanoff remarks, brings together important elements in Conrad’s life: ‘The flimsiness of ideals he’d encountered among the nationalists of his youth, the perils of modernisation he’d seen at sea [during the change from sail to steam ships], the malignancy of greed he’d witnessed in Africa – all of it landed in [the creation of his fictional] Costaguana.’ The central tragedy of the novel is the conflict between material profit and moral principles. As Emilia Gould realises, ‘there was something inherent in the necessities of successful action which carried with it the moral degradation of the idea.’ Her husband’s pursuit of the silver forces him to compromise his principles, and the civilising mission of the Europeans corrupts the promises of the mine and betrays the hopes of the country.
It is worth noting that Conrad was born and raised a Roman Catholic. Though he was not observant, when he visited his native Krakow in August 1914 his son saw Conrad kneel and pray at his father’s sacred grave.