The Human and the Digital   /   Spring 2018   /    Book Reviews

The Last Universalist

Sunil Khilnani

Joseph Conrad by Jeffrey Morgan; Chronicle/Alamy Stock Photo.

Reconsidering Conrad as a citizen of the global world.

Joseph Conrad died in 1924, but in her bold and winning book Maya Jasanoff portrays him as a prophetic “embodiment” of today’s globalized world. Through his characters, she claims, he whispers “in the ears of new generations of antiglobalization protesters and champions of free trade, liberal interventionists and radical terrorists, social justice activists and xenophobic nativists.” Conrad, Jasanoff says, “was one of us: a citizen of a global world.” He didn’t just see through the pieties of his own imperial age; he espied the contours of our own.

Jasanoff is one of the smartest and coolest-headed of a new generation of historians of empire: sensitive to complexities, skeptical of brute and overly ideological assessments, and given to exploring what empire enabled as much as what it pulverized. Her previous books have examined India and the histories of loyalists who fought on the king’s side in the American Revolution. The Dawn Watch is given over to one of the more curious and profound figures of the age of empire, one who has always been hard to place: He reveled in slipping free of contexts, and labored to hide his traces.

Whereas literary scholars have mainly relied on Conrad’s words to explain him and his life, Jasanoff aims to reconstruct the worlds in which he lived. She interweaves her account of Conrad’s life with readings of four of his major works: The Secret AgentLord JimHeart of Darkness, and Nostromo. (She has clearly learned a narrative trick or two from the intricacies of Conrad’s own storytelling shufflings.) She shows brilliantly how Conrad transformed his experience into strings of stories: the long days on the still ocean; slow passage through the dank, straggly mist hanging over Borneo’s rivers; the meetings with broken white men who imagined themselves grandees.

Conrad’s experience was also shaped in advance by what he had read about the places to which he traveled. Arriving in London as a twenty-one-year-old, he absorbed the city through the eyes of Dickens, whom he had read in Polish as a boy; his view of Borneo was molded by reading about James Brooke, the White Rajah of Sarawak. Jasanoff shows us how Conrad constantly and cannily rearranged his experiences into his own preferred tales. Conrad’s uncle once complained to him that “he lacked endurance…in the face of facts,” a weakness Jasanoff recasts as insight. 

Like the empire he wrote about, Conrad’s work divides opinion. To some, he is a writer of high refinement and subtlety, modernist in his handling of complex and loping narrative, and able to draw from his experience a profound analysis of the corrupting effects of power and wealth on human character. For others, he is a grandiose spinner of Edwardian adventure and romance yarns, archaic in diction and portentous in meaning. And to some of those whose lands he wrote about, he is simply an imperialist—“a bloody racist,” in the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe’s words.

Jasanoff wants us to see Conrad as a globalist, a critic of empire, and a subverter of stereotypes of race and civilization—our frère and semblable. Her argument is that, in reconnoitering the edges of empire in the last decades of the nineteenth century, Conrad sensed the first ripples our own cascading conditions here in the twenty-first: terrorism, multinational capitalism, technological disruption, immigration. And as he wrought his personal experience into prose, Conrad “captured something about the way power operated across continents and races, something that seemed as important to engage with today as it had been when he first wrote.” Those are big, startling claims. And while Jasanoff’s book accomplishes much, she does not quite make her case.

Konrad Korzeniowski was born in 1857 to Polish Catholic gentry whose pride had been chafed by tsarist rule. Jasanoff portrays that rule as nothing less than a form of colonial oppression, one that separated Poles from their history, suppressed their language, sidelined their religion, and dismissed their way of life. One branch of Konrad’s family (that of his maternal uncle) acquiesced in Russian domination, and prospered as landlords, but Konrad’s father and mother preferred clandestine opposition. His father, who styled himself a writer, was imprisoned, then exiled, for his antitsarist activities. By the time Konrad was eleven, he was an orphan.

Konrad came under the care of his rich and conformist uncle, who saw the boy’s future in business and tried to settle him in Krakow. But by 1878 he was living in London. In a lively portrait, Jasanoff evokes the city young Korzeniowski would have encountered—a cosmopolitan sprawl with unrestricted access for visitors and immigrants. Sail-rigged ships, his enduring love, still glided up the Thames. But his arrival coincided with their fast disappearance. Steamships were better able to navigate the sharply changeable wind conditions found in the Red Sea. Steam propulsion was a technology that Britain, with its advanced steel production, efficient dockyards, and worldwide network of coaling stations, quickly dominated: By the 1880s, British-owned shipping companies “controlled around 70 percent of world trade.” Manning these British ships were crews drawn from all over the world.

Korzeniowski joined their ranks, learned English, and by 1886 had earned his certificate as a captain in the British merchant marine and become a naturalized British subject. Now going by the anglicized “Joseph Conrad,” he cultivated a personal mythology about the “fellowship of the craft” of sailing. He idealized the community of men onboard: They formed the last redoubt of an innately British seafarer’s moral code built on fidelity, courage, and preparedness. In actuality, Conrad seems to have shared little fellow feeling with his shipmates. Ill at ease in the company of ordinary sailors, he gave off an aloofness that others recognized as snobbishness. (Conrad had grown up hearing his father refer to local peasants as “monkeys.”) He was often involved in onboard fights. At port stops, while the crew repaired to bars and dives, he might be seen strutting the streets in a bowler hat, gold-knobbed cane in hand. 

Nor did Conrad quite fit in once he forsook the sea and took up permanent residence in his adopted country. He strained to be accepted as an English gentleman, though he never fully conformed to that role. He chose to marry down—Jessie George was his typist, a working-class woman from south London. Even when he moved his family to an estate in Kent and mixed in literary circles, he refused the trappings of British success, waving away a knighthood and turning down honorary degrees from Cambridge, Oxford, and Edinburgh. He never shook off his Polish accent. Keen snob that she was, Virginia Woolf did not fail to note it in her obituary for “our guest,” as she called him. When Conrad was in his late fifties, his agent and close friend told him that he “did not speak English,” which provoked a breakdown, and left the author babbling in Polish for days. On the other hand, when he made a brief trip back to Poland in 1890, Jasanoff writes, “people who met him thought he spoke Polish with a foreign accent and had turned into a London snob.”

As a sea captain, Conrad had considered it “déclassé” to work on the new steamships, and he would later say that he never did. But he’d had little option. In the late 1880s, he worked on a ship implicated in slave trading and gunrunning (a “monotonous huckster’s round” was how he described the work). A few years later, he accepted the captaincy of an inland transport boat, journeying up the thousand-mile Congo River, along a route plied by the ivory trade. From these steamer voyages came his most memorable writing. 

Heart of Darkness, published in serial form in 1899 and in one volume in 1902, was based on Conrad’s months spent in the Congo almost a decade before. The short novel transformed Conrad from a writer of sea stories into something of a cultural visionary. Of all his fiction, Jasanoff tells us, this work was most closely tied to “contemporary records of his experience.” In this uncanny short masterpiece, Conrad’s narrator, Marlow, makes a journey up river, the jungle closing in on him, in search of a man named Kurtz, who has set himself up as a civilizing scourge in the midst of African savagery. Kurtz is the author of a report written for the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs—pages of closely written, flowing prose, “burning noble words” that end with a scrawled postscript: “Exterminate All the Brutes!” Marlow finally discovers Kurtz installed as a savage chief, surrounded by a stockade decorated with human skulls. 

As part of his self-mythology, Conrad liked to say that he had always intended to scour the depths of Africa. But in fact it was a combination of necessity (money) and chance (social connections to Belgium) that took him to Africa to captain a steamboat transporting elephant tusks along the Congo River. He arrived in the Congo in 1890, five years after the Belgian king, Leopold II, had established the Congo Free State—founded, Leopold announced, not on imperial conquest but on principles of free commerce and a commitment to extending emancipation and civilization to the African people. 

Conrad’s first African journey was a days-long march along an unnavigable stretch of the river to get to his ship. Unusually for him, he kept a journal. What did he see? He noted the landscape and the weather, birds, frogs, and mosquitoes (“beastly”). Africans? Insofar as he noticed them at all, they were either dead (“horrid smell”), injured (“gave him a little glycerine to put on the wound”), or repellent (“three women, one of whom albino passed our camp.… Features very Negroid and ugly”). When Africans appear in Heart of Darkness, they are described by Marlow as “black shadows of disease and starvation,” as “raw matter,” as “dusty niggers with splay feet.” 

To find in Conrad’s writing the racial prejudices of his era is not shocking. But it is certainly troubling. Unfortunately, Jasanoff offers more wishful thinking on this point than analysis: In condemning the European civilizing mission in Africa, what if Conrad was invoking a humanity common across races? Marlow, she suggests, is thrilled by the thought of some remote human kinship with the savages he sees around him. For Conrad, “anyone could be ‘savage.’ Everywhere could go dark.” In purveying such stereotypes—of women, too: they are “savage and superb,” “wild and gorgeous”—Conrad “subverted prejudices as much as he reinforced them.”

But there is little evidence to support such a hopeful exoneration. Indeed, what Jasanoff tells us about Conrad’s contemporary response suggests the opposite. Even the critic and editor Edward Garnett, a sophisticated reader, interpreted Heart of Darkness as a story of what happens when a European “goes native.” To Garnett, the work revealed “the deterioration of the white man’s morale, when he is let loose from European restraint, and planted down in the tropics.” Which is to say, he read it as Conrad wrote it.

In her effort to compensate for Conrad’s blind spots, Jasanoff also claims that Conrad “brought to the page a more international and multiethnic assortment of voices than any other writer of his day.” It is true that Conrad’s pages are more open to other European voices—Swedes, Germans, Frenchmen, Russians, Scots, Irish—than those of his English contemporaries. But non-European voices? Conrad rarely conceded to Africans anything more than inarticulate cries of rage. Perhaps the most striking expression his Asian characters manage is the “philosophical shriek” uttered by a Malay Muslim in Almayer’s Folly. When Conrad did try to evoke the thoughts of non-Europeans, even Jasanoff has to accept that he did little more than project his own moods. It is surprising, then, that Jasanoff contrasts Conrad favorably with Rudyard Kipling. Kipling was certainly an imperialist in his worldview, but in his fiction we hear a range of Indian voices (his version, of course): Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists, as well as women. 

Some of Conrad’s contemporaries did read his fiction as a call to action. As the serial rendering of Heart of Darkness made its appearance, the shocking depredations of Leopold’s rule were coming into European view. Because the Congo’s supply of ivory was dwindling, Leopold’s men were turning to the extraction of a substance made lucrative by the invention of the pneumatic tire: rubber. Africans were terrorized into doing this miserable work; those who didn’t might be shot, or (to save bullets) have their hands cut off.

After the publication of Heart of Darkness, Roger Casement, a diplomat who would become a leading voice in the campaign against Belgium’s exploitation of Congo, had Conrad read exposés of Belgium’s administration of the Congo, in hopes of recruiting him to the cause. Conrad privately expressed his dismay to Casement, but he never joined the movement. After all, as Jasanoff points out, Conrad’s own experience in the Congo predated by some years the “Red Rubber” era. Conrad claimed that what Casement was telling him did not tally with what he had seen. He would later dismiss Casement as emotional and unreliable.

But Conrad’s refusal to get involved also rested on his innate skepticism. He rejected the motivating assumption of Casement and his fellow campaigners (who included Arthur Conan Doyle) that “there was a way to clean up Congo and do civilizing right.” Conrad, Jasanoff argues, had seen “the horror” even earlier, during the supposedly liberal era of the Congo Free State.

Forms of collective protest grated against what Conrad described as his “deep-seated sense of fatality governing this man-inhabited world.” In a letter to a glamorous friend, the leftist and progressivist swashbuckler Robert Cunninghame Graham, Conrad wrote, “If you believe in improvement you must weep, for the attained perfection must end in cold, darkness, and silence. In a dispassionate view the ardour for reform, improvement, for virtue, for knowledge and even for beauty is only a vain sticking up for appearances, as though one were anxious about the cut of one’s clothes in a community of blind men.”

The bleakness of Conrad’s vision is arresting; among nineteenth-century figures writing in English, it is matched perhaps only by Thomas Carlyle. Conrad is one of the early cracks in the imaginative edifice of Western self-confidence. Kipling was another; then came a slew of writers—E.M. Forster, the Bloomsberries, T.S. Eliot, and, beyond the Anglophone world, Paul Valéry and Oswald Spengler.

Conrad’s work seems not so much to provide a vantage point from which to view our own world as to serve as a historical weathervane of European consciousness and sentiment. International politics gave Conrad much of the subject matter for his fiction—terrorist plots and émigré spies in European cities, revolution in Central America, imperial rapaciousness in Africa. Yet he was not really a political writer. He was, much more, a moralist. His sense of the world predates the age of modern politics. He belonged to the last generation that could aspire to inhabit a wholly European moral world, a world accrued and made possible by the force of European power. 

For a long time, that power could sanctify the exertion of its force by asserting moral certitude without having to engage in political negotiation. But by the beginning of the twentieth century, old moral terms—embodied in such codes as “the fellowship of the craft” or “playing the game”—were losing their persuasiveness as self-evident truths or distinctly European conceptualizations. European power was embroiled in a world where people were starting to talk back—not in shrieks, but in intelligible words and arguments that demanded to be heard. 

Even as Conrad might lament the hollowness of civilization and disbelieve that anything could be done about it, others from outside the metropoles of Western power were dreaming up schemes and mobilizing minds. Jasanoff knows all of this very well—as she herself writes, Ho Chi Minh and Sun Yat-sen and Gandhi and W.E.B. Du Bois were all honing their own counterdefinitions of human good, and planning how to achieve it. Gandhi’s famous joke about Western civilization (“it would be a good idea”) was far from the flippant dismissal it is often taken to be. It stated a serious intention to break Europe’s monopoly over definitions of civilization—to pluralize its meanings.

V.S. Naipaul, another fatalist master of fiction, has portrayed Conrad as the upholder of a “universal civilization,” one able “to accommodate the rest of the world, and all the currents of the world’s thought.” But even as he traced the limits of the universal claims of his own civilization, Conrad stayed within its bounds. In the last decade and a half of his life, as politics stirred Asians, Africans, and American blacks, setting them thinking about how to reclaim civilization for themselves and inspiring them to embark on collective movements of political change and revival, the aging writer grumbled and wagged his finger against such hopes. Is it a coincidence that in these final years of his life, at a time of revolutionary ferment in both politics and the cultural imagination, his own work became conventional and conservative? Conrad believed that what threatened the old moral order was the worldwide spread of “material interests”—the greed for money, which in his view was the defining feature that would drive America’s inevitable rise.

But today’s battles over globalization are not just struggles over who gets what in the great shakeout of Conrad’s “material interests.” By drawing people into common competition for spoils, material interests might even encourage some agreement about what is worth prizing across geographies and cultures. The real divides lie in the multiplicity of beliefs, many of them increasingly virulent, that embrace exclusiveness and intolerance. Globalization does not just elicit these doctrines of exclusion; it also brings them dangerously, sometimes lethally, into adjacency. Some of these doctrines are Eastern and Southern, but some of them are Western and Northern. And some of them may fairly be called Conradian. Conrad recognized difference, but he turned his back on it. We should trouble about his questions but not about his answers. We have advanced beyond his understandings, which is what makes the savagery in our own world so shattering.