Magazine | December 18, 2017, Issue

Polish Blood, English Heart

The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World, by Maya Jasanoff (Penguin, 400 pp., $30)

Joseph Conrad and Thomas Hardy were near-exact contemporaries: Hardy was 17 years older, but he outlived the younger man by four years — the quiet life in Dorset was more healthful than Conrad’s melancholic and lonely existence down the road in Kent, where he died of heart trouble and was buried, under a marker with his surname misspelled, as oblivious crowds of sport enthusiasts descended on Canterbury for the 1924 cricket festival. The two might have passed each other on the beach at Brighton or on the street in London, and they were conjoined in the minds of their contemporaries. “Except Thomas Hardy,” The New Republic editorialized in a literary eulogy, “no English man of letters could have given by his death such historic importance to the year 1924 as Joseph Conrad.”

Strange, then, that Hardy, enjoyed from the vantage point of 2017, is an absolutely thoroughgoing Victorian: “Celestial imperiousness, love, wrath, and fervour had proved to be somewhat thrown away on netherward Egdon. Her power was limited, and the consciousness of this limitation had biased her development. Egdon was her Hades, and since coming there she had imbibed much of what was dark in its tone, though inwardly and eternally unreconciled thereto.” Etc. It is difficult to imagine the words “celestial imperiousness” surviving the blue pencil of a modern literary editor. But in Conrad — who wrote in his third language, English, which he did not begin to acquire until adulthood — we encounter something and someone different: “one of us,” as Maya Jasanoff puts it in The Dawn Watch, a new literary biography of the Anglo-Polish sailor and storyteller that attempts to situate him within that much-remarked-upon phenomenon of the moment, globalization.

Before he was the great novelist Joseph Conrad, Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski was a seaman, spending nearly two decades in the French and British merchant marines, about half of that time at sea. At 17, he sailed from Marseille to Martinique, and during his later voyages between Europe and the West Indies he encountered Dominique Cervoni, the first mate on the Saint-Antoine, who inspired the title character of Nostromo, arguably the finest of his novels. There was an element of play-acting to his nautical career: His wealthy uncle gave him an allowance that was five times his salary on the Saint-Antoine. But his career as a merchant mariner put him in the middle of the great instrument of modernization and globalization: the ship.

The economic meaning of the ship is tied up with its political meaning. Professor Daniel Cloud of Princeton describes this in his book The Lily:

Once you own a ship, you, like a honeybee, are wherever you are voluntarily. If you choose to, you can sail away. You’re in a position to negotiate with the king. He may put you in a ghetto, but the joke is on him, because you can fly; he’s the one that’s rooted in one place like a shrub. In fact, if you can find such a crazy place, you can base yourself where there is no king, where everything is up for negotiation, someplace across the sea like Attica or America.

Or, as Joseph Conrad would learn to his horror, the Congo, where slavery and brutality were part of the negotiations.

It was ships that built England and then the United States into global superpowers: merchant ships enabling international trade and helping to bring the miracle of modern capitalism to the world; naval ships protecting that trade and projecting the power of the Anglosphere around the world; Pilgrim ships bearing dissidents to the New World, where traditional ideas of English liberty would take root and flower. “The American is the Englishman left to himself,” as Alexis de Tocqueville put it. Conrad’s taking up the merchant mariner’s profession and his taking up the English language were in a sense of a piece: Maritime trade made England England, and that same trade made a great deal of the rest of the world England, too. From maritime law to modern finance, the world still clings gratefully to a different kind of British empire. Ships were the Internet of things before electricity, and Conrad — “a Polish nobleman cased in British tar,” Jasanoff calls him — was perfectly placed to understand how those pieces fit together — and how they didn’t.

He was a perfectly “rootless cosmopolitan,” in the phrase favored by Joseph Stalin and American alt-rightists, but he was not without moral roots. He ultimately took no side in the great philosophical contest between Hobbes and Rousseau — in his journeys, he discovered neither an enduring social contract nor a great many noble savages — and, instead of developing broad and sweeping theories of human affairs, he took note of particular things in particular places: cruelty, cowardice, avarice, corruption, and the occasional flash of heroism, an endowment that he generally treated with some skepticism and sometimes with derision. Consider the opening sentence of Lord Jim, Conrad’s introduction to his not-quite-heroic protagonist: “He was an inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built, and he advanced straight at you with a slight stoop of the shoulders.” Just shy of the fully heroic six feet, determined but not quite entirely upright, Jim is the crooked timber of humanity pruned before he could become a Kurtz.

As Jasanoff reports, Conrad could be very plain in his judgment but was not naïve. He described the colonial project of bringing European civilization to the dark corners of the world as only the taking of the world “from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves.” But he also distinguished between King Leopold’s brutal campaign in the Congo Free State (Jasanoff’s publishers helpfully include photographic evidence of the disciplinary amputations that marked the Belgian reign of terror in central Africa) and the British colonies — “because,” he wrote, “one knows that some real work is being done” in the latter. He was not a movement man, writes Jasanoff:

For all that Conrad had seen and written of “the horror” in Congo, he never joined the Congo Reform Association. . . . “It is not in me,” he admitted. “I am only a wretched novelist inventing wretched stories and not even up to that miserable game.” He’d been raised, after all, in the shadow of an idealistic crusade against savagery that went nowhere but an early grave: his parents’ struggle against tsarist Russia.

Conrad’s experience inoculated him against most ideological fashions, but not against fashionable ideologues. Jasanoff describes in amusing detail his friendship with R. B. Cunninghame Graham, who led a career right out of one of the adventure novels of Conrad’s early milieu — after Harrow he became a cattle baron in Argentina, a pal of Buffalo Bill Cody’s in Texas, a gold prospector in Spain, a fencing instructor in Mexico, and a faux sheikh in Morocco — before becoming the first socialist to serve in the House of Commons. Graham was an insipid Romantic who detested the ways in which material progress eroded the traditional gaucho folkways of his beloved Argentina. He published a book titled “A Vanished Arcadia,” in which he shared a fantasy worthy of Walter Duranty, writing of the locals’ enjoying “a semi-communistic settlement.” Jasanoff writes that he “grieved for ‘A Vanishing Race’ of gauchos, rugged individualists who were getting shoved aside ‘by the heavy-footed Basque, the commonplace Canary Islander, and the Italian in his greasy velveteen suit.’”

He bemoaned the building of railroads and other blessings of civilization. His influence on Nostromo is plain enough. “Conrad saw Spanish-speaking America through the filter of Graham,” Jasanoff writes, “and Graham, in turn, saw Latin America through a filter of mounting distaste for everything that passed in the name of ‘progress.’” Which is of course a funny thing for a moneyed Scot who swanned around South America styling himself “Don Roberto” to do, but irony is lost on Romantics.

Jasanoff’s book suffers from the expected defects, especially from a heckling attitude toward modern global capitalism that often fails to distinguish adequately between what King Leopold was up to and what Jeff Bezos is up to. She even goes so far as to suggest a kind of connection between the 2008 financial crisis and the resource-curse corporatism of Conrad’s imaginary Costaguana. Her prose often is quite bad in the way of a writer tempted to stretch herself, inspired by her literary subject. Here she is on London: “In the first week of autumn, 1878, the biggest city on earth turned around its global axis, getting by and getting ahead, making and spending, investing, inventing, sinning, and selling.” Her argument is interesting, but much of her treatment of globalization after Conrad feels tacked on. Still, there are some worthy observations in that, too:

Younger men than Conrad now crossed oceans and challenged the inequities of an entangled world. A Vietnamese ship’s steward called Ho Chi Minh worked between berths in Marseille and San Francisco, where he learned about the revolutionary potential of socialism. An Indian lawyer named Mohandas Gandhi holed up in his cabin on a sea voyage from London to South Africa and wrote a treatise about how India could become free from British rule. A Chinese doctor raised in Hawaii named Sun Yat-sen traveled to Europe, Japan, and Singapore, plotting how to overthrow China’s Manchu emperor. . . . But Conrad’s experience of the world had made him skeptical that you could change systems, or redirect fate. He kept his focus on the individuals bound up in these systems and pegged his hopes for good in the world on a sense of human solidarity that encouraged individuals to be just and true.

Jasanoff ends her tale by retracing Conrad’s journey up the Congo . . . on a beer barge. She finds the scene rather different from how Conrad left it: no suffocating jungle, no marauders from the shore, no danger:

Where Conrad and his peers feared attacks from shore (and vice versa), barely an hour passed without pirogues approaching us from the riverbanks. Villagers sold fish, plaintains, cassava, and a menagerie of bushmeat — from fat white grubs to smoked monkeys on stakes — and bought urban luxuries from the passengers in turn: toothpaste, salt, biscuits, and batteries. Sensationalists had led me to expect disorder, menace, even danger in Congo; whereas all I saw were a lot of extremely enterprising people minding and finding business.

What’s remarkable is how little Jasanoff seems to understand how that happened, and how little she seems interested in the question. What are those riparian entrepreneurs in Congo up to if not capitalism?

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