Imperial Noir: Reading Joseph Conrad
This article was originally published on The Pittsburgher’s predecessor, The Dog Door Cultural.
‘Joseph Conrad’: mention the name of the Polish sailor-turned-novelist in company and the next words spoken are inevitably ‘Heart of Darkness’, which is understandable. Conrad’s most famous novel led a series of exposés published in the 1890s, revealing to the world what was really going on in the Congo Free State, the private colonial playground of the Belgian monarch Leopold II. Fittingly, Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost, the most readable history of the Free State’s rise and fall, titles its chapter on European denouncements of Leopold: ‘Meeting Mr Kurtz’. Marlow’s objective in the novel, the nightmare-inducing ivory-trader-turned-God Kurtz, remains the most enduring demon of the Scramble for Africa.
Yet only when properly exploring the depths of Conrad’s work do we find that there is much more to him than that – he turned his gaze to other dark corners of his world, and gave them equally disturbing treatments. Perhaps the most chilling of Conrad’s work from a modern perspective is The Secret Agent, a dark vision of radicalism and secrets in a London petrified by terrorist scares. In one scene, which few modern Londoners could read without feeling a degree of nausea, an anarchist describes confronting a police officer while wearing (what might be the first ever literary depiction of) a suicide vest:
‘He looked at me very steadily. But I did not look at him. Why should I give him more than a glance? He was thinking of many things – of his superiors, of his reputation, of the law courts, of his salary, of newspapers – of a hundred things. But I was thinking of my perfect detonator only. He meant nothing to me.’
It is hard not to be chilled by Conrad’s smug revolutionaries, who discuss high politics while really dreaming only of ‘the destruction of what is’. Eight decades before Stefan Aust’s The Baader-Meinhof Complex, Conrad realised both the psychopathy behind violent radicalism, and the hideous, futile consequences after it. It’s this dimension of Conrad, his relevance to the modern world, that has inspired the most recent addition to a wide body of criticism on him, Maya Jasanoff’s The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World. Jasanoff’s thesis is that Conrad wrote at a time of unprecedented globalisation, with the world more open than it would be until the dawn of the 21st century. Attempts to see writers as ‘predicting the future’ should be taken with caution, but in many ways she’s right. Aside from the eerie prescience of Conrad’s suicide bombers, election-meddling superpowers, corporate spies and fugitives from mass-media shame, he did write in a very global world. Jasanoff effectively drives this home with a map of his novel settings, which between them cover spots in America, Africa, Asia, Oceania and Europe, and portray them as a world interlinked by steam shipping and telegraph cables. Conrad was not the only man to write in this world, but he gave it a unique and deeply disturbing ‘noir’ treatment that continues to throw off our expectations of what the Victorian era really meant. Only when one reads most or all of his work does this become clear, something which few take the time to do.
Even as we consider the deeper meanings and modern relevance of Conrad, though, we find ourselves awestruck by what a good writer he was. Conrad can create atmospheric scenes that put many more famous writers to shame, and his novels combine vivid visual descriptions with long, emotionally intense passages. Like many, I was astonished to find that English was his third language, which must rank Conrad’s linguistic skills on the level of Vladimir Nabakov – indeed, his heritage is often cited as contributing to his style and, less often, his deep distrust of continental politics. He’s best on the sea, the dark side of which is his natural home:
‘One of those wild and appealing shrieks that are heard at times passing mysteriously overhead in the steady roar of a hurricane, swooped, as if borne on wings, upon the ship, and Jukes tried to outscream it.’
Conrad’s career as a sailor gave him a unique tour of the world, along with the ‘sailor’s yarn’, the distinctively atmospheric form taken by many of his novels. Conrad is known for his long, detailed thoughts, but at times he can be terse. Take his chilling impressionist portrait of Brussels in Heart of Darkness, which anyone who has visited the city would instantly recognise:
‘...a city that always makes me think of a whited sepulchre...A narrow and deserted street in deep shadow, high houses, innumerable windows with venetian blinds, a dead silence, grass sprouting between the stone….’
When Marlow reaches the sinister ‘Company’ offices, we have had a disturbing hint at the horrors to come. Yet the best, most memorable passages are often the journeys he takes not over the seas but into the heads of his characters, showing subtlety and sympathy far removed from his implied self-portrait as a gruff seaman:
‘I recalled some words of Stein’s…“In the destructive element immerse...To follow the dream, and again to follow the dream – and so-always – usque ad finem.” He was romantic, but none the less true. Who could tell what forms, what visions, what faces, what forgiveness he could see in the glow of the West!’
Conrad’s novels have a well-deserved reputation for being dark, but if they are, it’s with good reason. By the 1890s, Europe’s civilisational self-confidence was on an all-time high, with globe-spanning undersea wires and the Panama Canal only confirming the hegemony of empire. ‘High Imperialism’ brought with it an ideology of supremacy to match. Those in Britain who did have misgivings were simply afraid of German unification or of losing their dominant world position to the latest empire on the scene, the USA, which in 1898 smashed the remaining colonial possessions of Spain – an occasion on which Kipling wrote his notorious ‘White Man’s Burden’, a poem that has haunted its poet’s memory in recent years. Kipling also explored the other side of empire – in ‘Recessional’ and in his chronically under-read Barrack-Room Ballads – but as his modern reputation shows, he was ultimately an imperial poet. Conrad, thanks to a career sailing on the very edges of ‘civilisation’, shows a very different world: the brutality of the colonies, the desperate loneliness of the sea. At one point he even shows us what happens when that enduring Victorian stereotype, the ‘stiff upper lip’, collapses:
‘...a water-pipe (it must have had a hole in it) performed just outside the window a parody of blubbering woe with funny sobs and gurgling lamentations, interrupted by jerky spasms of silence…”a bit of shelter” he mumbled and ceased.’
When I first found Virginia Woolf’s description of Lord Jim as a ‘superb romance’ on one of the superb 2007 Penguin Conrads, I confess I was livid. Had she missed the entire point? I maintain that she did, yet at the same time there is more to Conrad than the reading of him described here. It’s rather awkward, but necessary, to admit that many contemporaries would have opened Conrad’s novels in the hope they would be tales of European heroism and derring-do. Yet I very much doubt that this is all they would have thought of such haunting novels. Woolf’s myopic quote is also worth remembering as it reminds us of Conrad’s numerous influences on other writers. The Heart of Darkness quote ‘Mistah Kurtz – He Dead!’ appears at the beginning of T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’. Could it be too much to hope that the final lines of Eliot’s ‘Prufrock’ perhaps also show the ghost of Conrad’s famous seascapes?
Of course, there are some parts of the world with which Conrad never became disillusioned. He retained his deep belief in the brotherhood of sailors, albeit one from which many of his characters fall short. More damagingly he first developed an entirely understandable love of Britain as a bastion of freedom and never gained any substantial experience of the British empire, meaning that he was never able to give the worlds of Kipling or Baden-Powell the same treatment he did for the Belgian and American empires. This is a shame, because if he had, Forster's A Passage to India or Orwell’s Burmese Days could have had a fascinating prequel. None of this should blind us to what a magical writer Conrad is, of course, or to the fact that he remains the great exposer of the Gilded Age. Though he certainly was in at least one of his texts, any unqualified claim that Conrad was anti-imperial would stumble on a few blocks: his faith in British civilisation, his own career serving the sinews of empire, and some of his more Eurocentric mindsets. Instead, we should view Conrad as shining a torch into darkness. Again and again he does this – the bloody tearing apart of families behind high-minded radical politics, the slaughter hidden behind the imperial wealth in Africa, the human cost of corporate greed and political manipulation in South America, even the awful consequences of running afoul of his own great love, the sea.
So, why ‘Imperial Noir’? Because this is the real thread that links Conrad’s geographically and thematically far-flung works together. ‘Film noir’ enjoyed its heyday in the aftermath of the Second World War, a period of unprecedented growth in American power and national self-satisfaction, yet obsesses over society’s grimy underbelly. In many ways, Conrad is the same; he wrote at the peak of European Imperial self-confidence, yet showed a very different world, with people exposed to very different, dark psychological forces, that most contemporaries would never have dreamed of. The ‘noir’ comparison is also useful as Conrad’s books, like the ‘film noir’ genre, are often characterised less by commonality of plot and more by recurring symbols; in his case, his novels combine to form one common nautical world of smoke-stained awnings, flapping sails, sweat-soaked uniforms and darkening skies. Artistically, this is perhaps the best proof possible of Jasanoff’s idea that Conrad depicted a single, interlinked world society.
Conrad knew that this world was changing fast – early warning signs were the continued extinguishing of his native Poland and, to his indignation, the rapid downfall of sail to the advent of steam. With each year that passed, the last areas of ‘darkness’ as described by Marlow were feeling the harsh light of modernity. In 1914 he hurriedly departed the continent as the First World War escalated and in 1915 wrote:
‘[the] world of fifteen years ago is gone to pieces; what will come in its place God knows, but I imagine doesn’t care.’
He broadly supported the war, turning his back on Roger Casement, a fellow Congo activist who was arrested and executed for applying the same sympathies to his native Ireland. But unlike others who also threw their weight behind what was sickeningly called ‘The Great War for Civilisation’, Conrad realised what it meant for the future, ushering in what Hobsbawm called the ‘Age of Extremes’ and setting the clock back on globalisation for most of the century. Yet he had left a monumental series of literary portraits behind him of his own era. It’s easy to forget that looking at the world of 125 or so years ago, without Conrad we may well be slower to realise the darker side of High Imperialism – and as Jasanoff’s book has recently reminded us, Victoria’s dying days were closer to our own than we may like to think. ▲
Elliot Jordan is finishing an undergraduate degree in History at the University of St Andrews. He studies English Literature as a hobby, especially poetry, and is a member of the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship.