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The Puzzling Mr. Conrad

ISSUE:  Summer 1979
Joseph Conrad: The Three Lives. By Frederick R. Karl. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $25.00.

During the major phase of Conrad’s career, a Scotch reviewer perceptively observed in a discussion of Typhoon that “character is (for him) an essentially individual creation, separate from, comparatively untouched by ordinary human relationship.” The critic also noted Conrad’s dislike of French naturalism, as exemplified by Zola; that, while the French writer made his characters social types, Conrad pushed toward the other extreme, regarding his types as “self-pivoted units,” conceived in terms less ethical and more artistic than is the case with Zola. Conrad was perceived to be “different” from the more traditional English and American writers of the period (Kipling, Wells, Henry James, etc. ) but the difference was puzzling; the reviewers at that time (1902, approximately) could not “locate” it. It now appears that the movement toward the characterization of “self-pivoted units” is connected to the novelist’s modernity. Mr. Karl believes that, if Joyce had published the fiction he was writing at the time, he would have been the subject of similar comments.

In fact, Conrad was more of a transitional writer than Joyce and other moderns like Gide and Hemingway, with whom Conrad has an odd affinity. Hence the puzzlement he inspired, for his work also expresses Victorian themes, including a romantic, Byronic, and essentially moralistic sense of life as an ill-fated adventure, of the “destructive element” intrinsic to existence. His pessimism is perhaps more romantic than existentialist because of its moral and metaphysical overtones, so that the influence of Thomas Hardy is quite apparent. It is true, however, that Conrad expresses the nexus between romantic and existentialist writing.

Conrad considered himself a disciple of Flaubert. So far as Flaubert reflected the influence of scientific observation and analysis, we find in Conrad an interesting paradox: the significance for modernity of science as a source of analytic attitudes that have produced an estheticism of the concrete, the fragmented, the particular, and the discontinuous. That is, the viewpoint of Walter Pater, let alone the French symbolists— other notable influences on Conrad—is psychologically related to that of the laboratory. The role of modern science has been, to some extent, to create a world of fragmentation or anomie peculiarly evident in Conrad’s literary technique, egoistic moralism, intense psychological preoccupation, and narcissism.

Throughout his literary career, Conrad was regarded as a man of mystery. There is obviously much that is magical in his prose but, more significantly, his estheticism leads us inexorably to the mystery of existence itself—sensuous, immediate, and inscrutable—as it is apprehended in experience. He believed that “feelings” are the only true reality. Out of this belief, Conrad evolved a mystique of adventure, self-reliance, self-assertion, and duty—the affirmation of natural energy (a mirror of the sea, so to speak), despite the passive overtones of so much of his writing. This mystique is essentially pessimistic and fatalistic, since he so comprehensively postulates the “destructive element”; but his writing is not without its vital moralism—traditional, romantic, and heroic. Conrad’s heroes as a youth were Ulysses and Don Quixote.

It is tempting to suppose that Conrad’s aristocratic ancestry—the Polish gentry—plus the anarchistic associations or projections of his literary imagination express his identity as a prototype of the Bohemian artist of our century and the 19th. Vital to note in this respect is the fact that, toward the end of his life, he declined a number of high honors that were offered. In February 1924, Cambridge University wanted to confer an honorary degree; indeed, a knighthood was offered the novelist by Ramsay MacDonald. Mr. Karl observes that the rejection of these awards is intelligible in relation to Conrad’s view of himself as a writer moving outside institutions and traditions (although scarcely uninfluenced by them), intact in his own sphere as a creative person.

Karl’s thesis is that Conrad was just such a “marginal” personality, an outsider or “secret sharer.” His three lives are profoundly intertwined in his work: Pole (the son of nationalistic revolutionaries who suffered exile and early death), sailor (a mixture of “idleness and intense activity,” like the life of a writer), and novelist in England, whose language and nationality he finally adopted. His impressionistic, recollective, projective art has an unusual “static” quality that is related, possibly, to its function for the author as a sort of symbolic or therapeutic reminiscence. Paradoxically, despite his strength of character, he was decidedly neurotic and immature—his wife was fond of calling him “dear boy,” and he signed his letters to her in a similar vein—so that his resemblance to Proust is suggestive. He read Proust avidly, having learned French during his stay in France (1874—1878) prior to his enlistment in the British merchant marine (ultimately a captain). Karl says:

At his best he enters the Proustian world of immobility, static analysis, snail-like movement, retrieval of memory, convolution of time, creation of segregated temporal empires, destruction of spatial elements, passivity of character and observation. Conrad was not inventive . . . . He felt, himself, that Lord Jim lacked sufficient invention for its prolonged size and that Nostramo was a failure of imagination.

Conrad’s father, Apollo Korzeniowski, despite his artistocratic heritage, was passionately devoted not only to the cause of Polish liberation from Russia and her allies but also to the poor, to those who suffered in the “class struggle.” He is described by Karl as a “Marxist before Marx.” But Apollo, a writer of some talent, was wholly ineffectual in his wordly efforts, although painfully and no doubt self-destructively absorbed in them. As a result, we are told, his son was obsessively disillusioned about politics, society, and human nature. The memory of his father was to serve him well as a consummate expression of the futility of idealism. Combined with Conrad’s political and ethical pessimism was his sense that everything connected to “modernization, industrialization, business, capitalism, socialism or science is corruptive of the individual life.” Karl notes that Conrad, despite his modernity as a writer, remained fixed in his early Polish values. For example, as a seaman, he had a decided preference for sailing vessels as opposed to steamships. Thus, apparently, his repudiation of Poland and his family at age 16—commencing his life at sea—contained paradoxical elements at once rejecting his past and identifying with it. Karl’s narrative leads us to believe that this contradictory response to the tyranny of an oppressive life and environment may be universal. If so, it corresponds perfectly to Conrad’s dark vision of man’s fate in society.

In 1889, Conrad’s descent into the Belgian Congo, notable at the time for the unspeakable brutality of King Leopold’s rule, underlined the author’s intensely modern literary concern to experience and “express” the ineifable. Karl observes that, in Heart of Darkness, written some years later, experience is hallucinatory, a journey into the unconscious or to the end of the world. There are echoes of Dante and Virgil—not to mention Rimbaud—in the voyage. Indeed, it is evident that, in Heart of Darkness, Kurtz is reaching for a demonic level of existence, Nietzschean perhaps—let alone Freudian—in its sense of what lies beyond the obviously human. Like Kurtz in regard to the ivory, “both Gould and Nostromo (in Nostromo) try out the silver for what it can bring them, as if it were a magic elixir whose possession will confer on them powers hitherto lacking.” Ivory, silver, water, jungle, etc. are mythical or hallucinatory entities, Jungian archetypes or transformative symbols, that express the irrational and mysterious dynamics of growth, decay, and history—sublimity and degradation, malevolence and inspiration. The thrust of modernity in Conrad’s case has been to confirm the psychoanalytic insight that the inscrutable or magical component of existence is precisely the psychological; more often than not his work portrays the psychologism of our age in terms synonymous with evil.

The truth is that this is an excellent book, despite occasional infelicities of style. Even its heavy cargo of psychoanalytic interpretation has considerable interest; and its perception of Conrad’s place in literary history is particularly acute and revealing. Moreover, the scope of this work is prodigious. The first biography of Conrad to appear in 20 years, it far surpasses its predecessors in insight, erudition, and detail.


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