“Try to be civil, Marlow“ - On Joseph Conrad

3 August 1924, the Polish-British novelist Joseph Conrad died aged 66 in Bishopsbourne, England.

“Efficiency of a practically flawless kind may be reached naturally in the struggle for bread. But there is something beyond — a higher point, a subtle and unmistakable touch of love and pride beyond mere skill; almost an inspiration which gives to all work that finish which is almost art — which is art.“ (Joseph Conrad)

Sir William Rothenstein (1872 - 1945) "Portrait of Joseph Conrad" (1903)

There is a white man’s grave in Yambuya on the upper reaches of the Aruwimi, a tributary of the Congo River. Yambuya once served as the base for Morton Stanley’s relief expedition to bring back the German-born condottiero Emin Pasha, one of Gordon of Khartoum’s paladins, governor of Egypt’s Equatoria province, besieged by Mahdists. The white man’s name was Major Edmund Barttelot, commander of Stanley’s rear column, and even the Bula Matari Stanley, an infamous martinet himself, called him a disgrace for treating native porters and workers quite beastly. Besides completely messing up Stanley’s base camp because the man obviously was unable to organise more than having people beaten and tortured to death by the dozen. Nothing out of the ordinary, really, in the hell of King Leopold II’s so called Congo Free State, but Barttelot was shot dead by the husband of a woman he had tyrannised, in July 1888. Two years later, a Polish-born captain of a riverboat steaming up the Lualaba towards the Belgian government station at Kisangani below the Stanley Falls had heard the tale of a bad man gone to worse in the heart of Africa and it might be that the sea- and river-faring aspiring author had heard the enthralling voice of Mr Kurtz for the first time. Nine years later, the author had combined the madness of Barttelot with the cruelty of another one of King Leopold’s worthies at Stanley Falls, Léon Rom, who decorated his flower beds with severed heads, adding a layer of the merchant empire the Zanzibari slave and ivory trader Tippu Tip had established in the region, and the popularity of the Bula Matari himself, the “breaker of stones” Henry Morton Stanley. But beyond taking the mendacity of King Leopold and his minions’ allegedly humanitarian and civilising mission in the Congo ad absurdum, Mr Kurtz had received the superstructure of a Nietzschean Übermensch, the psychological abyss of Dostoevsky’s outré protagonists and Captain Ahab’s hubris. And founders at the Heart of Darkness, the distorting mirror Africa had become for Europe’s cloud-cuckoo-land at the end of the long 19th century The only remedy against things falling apart, the centre that might hold, were the seamannish virtues of the tale’s narrator, idealised by its author, Joseph Conrad, but he always was a novelist who went to sea instead of a seaman who became an author.

Few, if any of Poland’s poets and authors, revered at home, are known beyond their motherland’s borders. Nobel laureate Henryk Sienkiewicz, of “Quo Vadis” fame, was an exception, at least for a while, making Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, Joseph Conrad, the best known of all of them in the whole wide world. And he famously wrote in English, ranking tops among the English-speaking novelists and not only of his day and age. A phenomenon, since he learned the language not before his early twenties when he decided to join the British Merchant Navy. However, many of his tales might look like tarry, rough handed sailors at first acquaintance, but they soon take on the guise of Marlow, Conrad’s alter-ego and oftimes narrator, sitting on deck of the Nellie riding at anchor in Gravesend, spinning his yarn, with “sunken cheeks, a yellow complexion, a straight back, an ascetic aspect, and, with his arms dropped, the palms of hands outwards,” resembling “a Buddha preaching in European clothes and without a lotus-flower“ or comforting aspects beyond the “bond of the sea” and British civilisation. Not of the “White Man’s Burden” type of Kipling, whom Conrad despised, but of common decency, discipline and the quiet but infrangible endurance that once was associated with the Empire. At least sometimes. And from far away. Consequently, Conrad seldom deals with the British from close up at home, only with their seafaring minority, and at heart, his motifs are deeply Polish, of peoples and individuals in their struggle for freedom and finding or preserving their identity. Even his nom de plume resounds with Adam Mickiewicz’ epic poem “Konrad Wallenrod”, a highly influential, inspiring and patriotic piece in the days when Poland had all but disappeared from the maps.

The barque "Otago", Captain Joseph Conrad's command in 1888/89 and the cover image of Conrad's "Mirror of the Sea" (1906)

experience, things he had seen and done or had seen done while he was in foreign climes, whatever that meant for a wanderer between the worlds, trivial novels, politics of the day, from abroad, mind you, not in England, where he lived since 1894, were the sources from which Conrad drew the ideas of his tales, or rather prose poems. Again, at first glance his narrative is straightforward like a naval log until the reader realises he has been drowned in sea of imagery, nautical and otherwise, while being held in thrall by Conrad’s narrators and their perceptions and their single-minded insights. His psychological depths have been compared to Dostoevsky’s, Conrad despised him even more than Kipling, mostly for being Russian and an advocate for Russian imperialism, Pole that he was. And for indulging himself in the abyss of the human soul that is seen and heard in Conrad’s work but never voiced in single arias with all highs and lows, standing out from the choir of highly polyphonic arrangements, like Dostoevsky’s. It’s a horror, and that’s that. With a surprisingly simple remedy: “Try to be civil, Marlow“, despite the tragédie humaine Conrad usually narrates. And while his matchless prose with all its Gallicisms, Polonisms and artificially wonderful word and grammar structures and creations no native speaker could come up with remains unrivalled, his influence, at the very least through his rich images, is felt to this day, in novels, movies and even computer games and a journey up a river is never the same after reading Conrad, whether the stretch of water flows up into a foreign country or down into one’s own Heart of Darkness.

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