Jef­frey Mey­ers

A Modern Prophet

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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.

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