Lit­er­ary Cur­rents: Joseph Con­rad

As sailors we share much of this famed au­thor’s world view

SAIL - - Cruising Under Sail - By Jef­frey Mc­Carthy

Here in New­port Har­bor we await the ebb tide, and with an hour to spare, I pick up a book by Joseph Con­rad. He was a sailor long be­fore he was a writer, and this mat­ters be­cause the one in­forms the other. Yes, Con­rad wrote about much more than the sea, but all his work is suf­fused with themes and in­sights sailors em­brace to this day. On the page be­fore me, for ex­am­ple, he says, “Both men and ships live in an un­sta­ble el­e­ment, are sub­ject to sub­tle and pow­er­ful in­flu­ences, and want to have their mer­its un­der­stood rather than their faults found out,” words I can very much re­late to as we sit here at an­chor.

In books like Typhoon, Lord Jim and Heart of Dark­ness, Con­rad looks at the wa­ter and the sailors who make their lives upon it to il­lu­mi­nate grand truths about such things as work, fi­delity and in­dus­trial moder­nity. These are weighty top­ics, and I won’t preach about them here. What I do want, though, is to share my sailor’s en­thu­si­asm for writ­ing that speaks es­pe­cially clearly afloat.

I’m lucky enough to be afloat this fine morn­ing on a 42ft sloop that’s just taken us to Ber­muda and back with squalls in the Gulf Stream, ships in the night and our forestay burst­ing about 50 miles from St. Ge­orge’s. Con­rad be­came a cap­tain in the world’s most pow­er­ful mer­chant marine, and I’m here in a tat­tered shirt wish­ing I could fix my raw-wa­ter pump. What would he say to a sailor like me?

Most pho­tos of Con­rad show an in­tense, hard, pa­tri­arch of a man with a beard and a skep­ti­cal look. It’s as if you’ve re­ported for duty, and he has his doubts. With some artists, you can say the work may be se­vere, but the per­son is cheer­ful—not so with Con­rad. I imag­ine him as that brood­ing ship­mate who al­ways stands his watch, but never quite opens up to the pas­sage or the crew. Still, Con­rad comes by his gloom hon­estly. His par­ents were ex­iled from Rus­sian-held Poland in the 1860s and both died in the gu­lagstyle con­di­tions to which they were sub­se­quently sub­mit­ted, so that by 11 he was an or­phan with nei­ther a fu­ture nor a coun­try.

Amaz­ingly, though, this same child­hood is what also de­liv­ered him to the ocean. In Mar­seilles, he trained to be­come a mariner, and by the age of 21 he had joined the English mer­chant marine: not the most com­fort­able path to lit­er­ary ac­claim, but a life­style that in­tro­duced him to Aus­tralia, the Indies, South Amer­ica and South­east Asia. When he fi­nally be­gan to pub­lish two decades later, he did so in his third lan­guage, was al­most 40 years old and pos­sessed an out­look on life that drew heav­ily on a kind of a salt­wa­ter train­ing that made the world sim­ple.

Sim­ple? You might object that the Con­rad you stud­ied in AP English or col­lege was any­thing but sim­ple. But that’s only be­cause your pro­fes­sor wasn’t a sailor. In fact, Con­rad takes a chaotic world and boils it down to a few ideas any sailor can hang his or her hat on, things like “work” and “fi­delity,” cru­cial ideals for any ocean voy­ager.

With re­spect to work, if you’ve ever made any trip on the ocean you know there are more days spent in prepa­ra­tion than glo­ri­ous hours at the helm. But that’s OK with Con­rad, be­cause in Heart of Dark­ness the nar­ra­tor, Mar­low (who is fix­ing a boat, no less!), says, “No, I don’t like work, I had rather laze about and think of all the fine things that can be done…but I like what is in the work—the chance to find your­self.”

These are words, of course, that speak di­rectly to any­one who knows what it’s like spend­ing hours la­bor­ing in a boat­yard, with lad­ders, buff-

ing pads and wax. His “work” is our re­pair­ing of bilge pumps; it’s re­plac­ing that worn hal­yard or the ex­tra hour you took to mea­sure sheets for that storm jib. This might not show in any In­sta­gram photo, but what it does in­di­cate is re­spect for the sea. Just like Mar­low, I’d rather laze about and day­dream, but the pres­sure of an ocean pas­sage forces me to fo­cus, to work, to pre­pare, to em­brace the process. In a sense, any sail­ing we do points us to­ward our best selves— first in the tan­gi­ble im­pacts of our la­bor, then in the ul­ti­mate test of waves and wind.

As for the se­cond of these ideals, in his 1920 mem­oir A Per­sonal Record, Con­rad as­serts, “The world rests on a very few sim­ple ideas…. It rests no­tably on the idea of Fi­delity.”

In fact, fi­delity re­curs across Con­rad’s fic­tion, be­cause it of­fers him a sin­gle word both for what’s best about this dif­fi­cult world and what’s miss­ing when things go wrong. To some­one like me, find­ing my feet at sea, fi­delity also ar­tic­u­lates what I want from these tu­mul­tuous voy­ages, re­minds me of what I can do bet­ter when I’m tempted to take short­cuts or lose my tem­per. At the end of the day, the ocean makes fi­delity a daily prac­tice, be­cause we must keep faith with our craft and our crew—or we may all go down to­gether.

Have I made that sound overly ab­stract? Then how about this? Wind against cur­rent sends steep waves over the fore­deck and the ten­der works loose from her lashings. What is it that sends a per­son for­ward to se­cure those lines, then inch back soaked and bleed­ing? Or what about when the diesel over­heats, the boat rolls in a trop­i­cal swell and some­one digs into that cramped en­gine space to change the im­peller. Oil-stink­ing and mo­tion-sick they press on, for a cause, for the boat—for fi­delity.

Some­thing else, this time about na­ture and sail­ing: Con­rad adored sail­ing ships—the great clip­pers, the three-masted barks; he loved the prac­ticed in­ter­de­pen­dence con­nect­ing tradewinds and cur­rents to can­vas and cour­ses. He be­came a “man of masts and sails” in those re­la­tions.

This in­ter­con­nec­tion with na­ture is es­pe­cially poignant if we re­call he lived through the end of sail and into the era of steamships, all coal-fired and smok­ing, obliv­i­ous to pre­vail­ing wind or foul cur­rent. In­deed, he crit­i­cizes the steamship as less sen­si­tive to the en­vi­ron­ment than sail: “The tak­ing of a modern steamship about the world… has not the same qual­ity of in­ti­macy with na­ture,” he says and, “Your modern… steamship makes her pas­sage on other prin­ci­ples than yield­ing to the weather and hon­or­ing the sea.”

Here the con­ve­nience of modern power also car­ries with it a re­gret­table blind­ness to­ward na­ture. When we sail we at­tend to tide and wind, of course, but un­like our mo­tor­boat peers we must honor the gusts that dash from head­lands and the cur­rents that twist through chan­nels. Sail­ing in­structs an at­ten­tive­ness, a hu­mil­ity be­fore the grand­est forces of the nat­u­ral world, an at­ten­tive­ness and hu­mil­ity that Con­rad fears was lost in the in­dus­trial cul­ture’s shift from sail to steam.

Can it be that we recre­ational sailors voy­age to reignite that con­nec­tion to na­ture? Sure, we love the ca­ma­raderie and the tin­ker­ing, but in those long watches be­neath cir­cling stars, un­der a warm blan­ket of trop­i­cal rain, or when the gasp of a whale sends salt mist high into the air, we en­counter a pro­fun­dity ob­scured by modern con­ve­nience. An un­friendly reader might say it’s easy to ro­man­ti­cize this thing I do in my spare time. But let’s be clear, Con­rad never sim­pli­fied the oceans into play­grounds. He’d seen enough salt­wa­ter to tran­scend any tourist’s plea­sure and re­ported an ex­panse “promis­ing, empty, in­spir­ing—ter­ri­ble.” Still, in those same terms, we also see his re­spect for the in­de­pen­dent be­ing of the waters and es­pe­cially for the work and the fi­delity it takes us to pass across them.

Ul­ti­mately, every word from Con­rad re­flects brightly on the sailors and sail­boats around me. These are in­spi­ra­tions passed to us from the Golden Age of sail—not a bet­ter time, but one where the dan­gers and re­wards seemed some­how closer to the sur­face, the sur­face of the sea ‘that gives noth­ing, ex­cept hard knocks—and some­times a chance to feel your strength.” Con­rad re­gret­ted his po­lit­i­cal world’s greed and short­sight­ed­ness, and in his seast­o­ries he cel­e­brated prac­ti­cal grace, with ship and crew a stage for courage and thor­ough­ness. Here, yet an­other word, “craft,” be­comes both the ves­sel and the in­tel­li­gence em­bod­ied in ac­tion.

A ship at sea plus a lively in­tel­li­gence promised Con­rad some­thing wor­thy in his coun­ter­feit age. Granted, my days at sea can never com­pare to a pro­fes­sional mariner like Con­rad, but his writ­ing helps me iden­tify what I’m look­ing for out there: I’m hon­or­ing work, I’m striv­ing for fi­delity and I’m lean­ing to­ward craft. In those terms, I fathom what’s best about this drip­ping pump, the chat­ter of hal­yards on mast, and all this sail­ing of cir­cles atop an ocean that swal­lows our wake. s

Con­rad’s ex­pe­ri­ence as a sailor in­formed all his works, not just his sea sto­ries

The ship Joseph Con­rad, orig­i­nally the Ge­org Stage, serves as a fit­ting memo­rial to the renowned sailor/au­thor (be­low); Con­rad re­tained a con­nec­tion to the sea through­out his life (in­set)

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