Sea Pages, Joseph Conrad

The debt we owe to certain novels is that which we contract with rivers. Beneficial channels or overflowing torrents, good novels nourish and drag along. In Conrad’s you see the furnishings of the West floating. A piano plays on the glittering waves of a windy sea of ​​Banda, hundreds of black arms push a ship up a hill of mud, a library is ablaze in the jungle. Conrad gave us powerful images, images quoted by filmmakers, painters and other writers. Ahead of his time, like any man of genius, he was labeled an ‘exotic writer’. This, Conrad, a contemporary of Oscar Wilde, never digested. In the salons of London as in the Cafè Chantant in Paris, the West enjoyed the belle époque. The controversial authors, the decadents, wrote essentially about customs. And of sex, like Lawrence and de Maupassant. Alfred Russell Wallace, however, with his book Malay Archipelago had opened a window on new worlds by delivering to the reader the details of scientific exploration and the wonders observed. Traveling to exotic destinations soon became a fad for the privileged few. For the others it was left to embark or enlist in some Navy. But Conrad’s European bourgeoisie is not always welcome in the tropics, he often creates conflicts with the locals. In ‘The Malata Planter’, the ‘local’ is a white settler who commits suicide. This tale, in some ways profoundly misogynistic, nails the typical Conradian character to his irreconcilable nature with the civilized and modern world. Do you know Gauguin?

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Writer or man of the sea?

“There is nothing more seductive, disappointing and enslaving than life at sea” he already writes in the second chapter of Lord Jim. Conrad on the sea knew it all: was the youngest skipper to steer a ‘Cutty Sark’ class clipper. The shadow line is the abundantly autobiographical story that describes the transition from second officer to the first command post, moreover with an unknown crew. He was a brusque, solitary, fussy, but impeccable commander. His pessimism led him to carry out dozens of checks, to govern the ships rigorously, without ever giving room to chance, that bastard punctual as a cleaver as soon as a crack was left open. In literature, his pessimism went entirely to the crisis of the West. For Conrad the West is above all a system, a system of moral rules familiar to us but with which we try to know the outside world, often ending up misunderstanding or corrupting it. Conrad celebrates no heroes. Even his granite characters, like Lord Jim, are anti-heroes. Conrad celebrates nature more often, absolute depths of sea and jungle, where his characters live their destiny strewn with mistakes, heroic acts, obtuseness and misunderstandings. It is always nature that wins. Its sea and its jungles always take everything back. Conrad’s great characters identify themselves with a concept of honor often bordering on self-harm. No one before Conrad and Freud explores so well the delusions, obsessions, blinding and rooted convictions, the dark sides. The metaphor never falls into simplification between the ‘noble savage’ and the moralizing structure of the West. The ‘savages’ are the offspring of the jungle, as impenetrable, misunderstood and incomprehensible even to themselves, as their gods to our eyes. The western occupiers try to recreate and impose their own world which is often only a puerile parody of a London or an Amsterdam, tenaciously clinging to the only idea they know, that they understand. Everything is always on the verge of collapse, the few bitter and exhausting victories. From his stories the protagonists come out defeated or transfigured. No one will ever be the same again. Not even the reader. Works such as ‘The Secret Companion’, set almost entirely in the cabin of a ship, and Lord Jim himself, an epic novel, contain the workings of a new genre: psychological realism.

At thirty-six, his physique was undermined by malaria contracted in the Congo, Joseph Conrad abandoned the sea life and dedicated himself to writing. In 1895 it comes out ‘Almayer’s Folly’, his first novel, is a prophetic work. The cynical abandonment of the colonies to their fate, to the ravenous interference of multinationals and of a rampant Islam that fills all the moral and power voids, is chillingly topical. Joseph Conrad is immediately noted for the rich language and complex prose. Colleagues such as Herbert George Wells, Henry James, Bertrand Russel and Ford Maddox Ford had few doubts about him. The latter, as director of the most authoritative literary magazines of the time, published the works of Conrad and of authors who ended up establishing themselves throughout the 20th century. His stable includes James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, TSEliot. It is in this company that Joseph Conrad rightfully enters the Olympus of Anglo-Saxon literature, the only non-native speaker. Quite a success for someone who learned English at the age of twenty and as a third language after Polish and French. Born in an area then disputed between Russia and Poland, Conrad, whose real name was Joseph Theodore Konrad Korzeniowski, was the son of a Polish nobleman who opposed the Tsars. He soon became a stateless person. At seventeen, to escape enlistment in the tsarist army, he embarked in Marseilles for the Caribbean. In those waters he met smugglers, traffickers and revolutionaries, men of the sea as extraordinary as they were real, such as Corso Dominic Cervoni, who later became one of the most complex and most successful characters in the history of literature: Nostromo.

Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim these are the works that have traditionally brought Conradian themes before the eyes of the general public. In Heart of Darkness a young commander goes up the Congo River as if sucked into a black hole, a psychedelic journey into the darkest sides of the human soul and colonialism. Lord Jim instills in us the uncomfortable idea that we can all be damned by a single instant of weakness, that none of us know each other well enough to predict our own behavior in critical condition. Conrad tells of decisions made in circumstances no ordinary man could ever have imagined. The extreme conditions, the extreme places, the storms at sea and the short predictability window of disasters are the test of the psychological integrity of his characters. With his sounding launched to deeply probe souls and destinies, and with masterful descriptions of tropical environments (and situations), Conrad influenced Graham Green, Borges, Garcia Marquez, Naipaul, Burroughs, Hemingway, and others.

Apocalypse Now

He leaves readers with a very rich bibliography: from the short story to the great historical novel like ‘Nostromo’, Conrad’s legacy is still today an inexhaustible source of inspiration, there are at least a hundred cinematographic, television and radio works inspired by the works of Joseph Conrad, which leaves us with an unequaled, romantic, but raw, disenchanted vision of adventure at sea:

‘The sea has never been a friend of man. At the most he was complicit in his restlessness.”

Joseph Conrad

Sea Pages, Joseph Conrad – Imperial Bulldog