At a time of uncertainty, what’s to read? There’s the consolation of religion, the Bible. Any number of thinkers have their proposals. And then, quite apart, is Joseph Conrad, the Polish-born English writer whose many novels and stories deal with uncertainty, a fact of life that is always with us he seems to say, a perpetual challenge to which we must somehow rise.
No country was more uncertain than 19th century Poland, partitioned and oppressed by the great powers, futilely opposed by such patriots as Conrad’s father. Born in 1857 with the name Joseph Conrad Korzeniowski, later shortened aboard ship to just Joseph Conrad, the youngster escaped politics for the freedom of the sea. As the narrator says in the novel “The Shadow Line, ”I discovered how much of a seaman I was, in heart, in mind and physically – a man exclusively of sea and ships; the sea the only world that counted, and the ships the test of manliness, of temperament and courage and fidelity – and of love.”
It was often grueling, demanding, dangerous work, but he persevered to become the first Polish born captain in the British merchant marine. Along the way he read books in English and picked up every day expressions from his fellow seamen. But twenty years was enough. Time to put his new found English to use and in fact to rival the eminent London writers who welcomed him into their ranks. They had never read anything quite like his stirring sea tales – written, to be sure, from genuine experience, though he cautioned: “People have great opinion of the advantage of experience. But experience always means something disagreeable as compared to the charm and innocence of illusions.”
His readers warned him to stick to the sea. “Behind the flattery I can hear something like a whisper: Keep to the open sea. Don’t land. They want to banish me to the middle of the ocean.” He didn’t take their advice and plunged into the politics of the time. He became the plague of ideologies. Avoid them on land, he warned, as you would shoals at sea. He forecast where they would lead in such novels as “Heart of Darkness,”in which the protagonist, Mr. Kurtz, determined to remake the world in his image in the Congo, ends up impaling the heads of resisting Africans and declares: “Exterminate all the brutes.”
Conrad says he wanted to be as objective as possible and as a novelist he doesn’t take sides. In “Under Western Eyes,” about terrorism in czarist Russia, he describes the conflict of the repressive regime and violent revolutionaries as “a furious strife between equally furious antagonisms.” In a poignant passage in The Secret Agent,” the desperate wife of the agent wonders what to do after he has taken her cherished, invalid brother on a terrorist mission that leads to his death. The essence of humanity vs. ideology.
The question is why the incoming century didn’t follow the model of a Conrad instead of the crusading ideologies that exterminated so many non-brutes. It’s never too late – time to read Conrad and heed him.