JOSEPH CONRAD DIED IN 1924, but in her bold and winning book on the writer Maya Jasanoff sees him as a prophetic “embodiment” of today’s globalised world, whispering through his characters “in the ears of new generations of anti-globalization protesters and champions of free trade, liberal interventionists and radical terrorists, social justice activists and xenophobic nativists.” He didn’t just see through the pieties of his own imperial age; he espied the contours of our own. Conrad, Jasanoff says, “was one of us: a citizen of a global world.”
Jasanoff is one of the smartest and coolest-headed members of a newer generation of historians of empire: sensitive to complexities, sceptical of brute and overly ideological assessments, and given to probing Britain’s imperial history through new, oblique angles, so as to explore what empire enabled as much as what it pulverised. Her previous books spanned the arc of the British Empire’s geography. The first, centred on India, examined collecting as a way of representing imperial possession; the second recovered the histories of American loyalists who fought for the king and, after the colony became independent, fled as exiles.
The Dawn Watch is given over to one of the more curious and profound figures of the age of empire. How did a central European of vaguely aristocratic descent named Konrad Korzeniowski, born in 1857 in a landlocked Ukrainian town (known proverbially as “nowhere”) grow up to sail the world, become a fabulist of empire and spend his last decades in squire-like existence in a quiet Kentish village, come to be revered as one of the great writers in English—his third language?
Conrad has always been hard to place: he revelled in slipping free of contexts, and laboured to hide his traces. And, 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 narratives, and able to draw from his experience a profound analysis of the corruptions 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 him as a globalist, a critic of empire and a subverter of stereotypes of race and civilization—our frère semblable. Her argument is that, in reconnoitring the edges of empire in the last decades of the nineteenth century, Conrad sensed the first ripples of our own cascading conditions: terrorism, multinational capitalism, technological disruption and 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.
Conrad’s life matters because it was both the material out of which he made his fiction and the grounds on which (as a late interloper into the world of English letters) he could claim the attention of his readers. As the novelist Henry James told Conrad, his authority as a writer relied ultimately on “the things you know”: on “the prodigy of your past experience.” Yet Conrad’s experience, his life, was anything but transparent; nor is it clear what, or how much, he knew. He sheds light, but he is also himself opaque.
Jasanoff sets out to explore the connections between the life and the work: but where literary scholars have mainly relied on Conrad’s words to explain him and his life, she aims to reconstruct the worlds in which he lived. She interleaves her account of Conrad’s life with readings of four of his major works: The Secret Agent, Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness and Nostromo. (She has clearly learnt a narrative trick or two from the intricacies of Conrad’s own storytelling shufflings.) She shows brilliantly how Conrad accumulated and then transformed his lived experience into stories: the long days on the still ocean; slow passage through the dank, straggly air of Borneo’s rivers; the meetings with broken white men who imagined themselves grandees. Yet Conrad’s experience was also shaped by what he had read about the places to which he travelled—arriving in London as a 21-year-old, he absorbed the city through the eyes of Dickens, whom he had read in Polish as a boy; and his view of Borneo was moulded by his reading about James Brooke, the White Rajah of Sarawak. Jasanoff attunes us to Conrad’s habitual molestation of the facts of his own life: he 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 that Jasanoff portrays as feeding the writer’s capacity for insight.
KONRAD KORZENIOWSKI WAS BORN into Polish Catholic gentry, their wealth faded and their pride chafed by tsarist rule. Jasanoff portrays that rule as nothing less than a form of colonial oppression, one that amputated Poles from their history, suppressed their language, sidelined their religion and dismissed their way of life. Conrad’s intuition of imperialism originated in an internecine empire in the West.
One branch of Conrad’s family (that of his maternal uncle) acquiesced in Russian domination and prospered as landlords. But Conrad’s father and mother, who thought of themselves as usurped aristocrats (and showed no ability to manage an estate to any profit) preferred more or less clandestine opposition. Conrad’s father styled himself a writer: his romantic nationalist prose and verse gained some appreciation, but he had to earn his keep through translations from French (a language he taught his young son). His anti-tsarist activities got him imprisoned, then exiled, breaking both his own and his wife’s health. He died, four years after his wife, when Conrad was 11 years old. He had not managed to shape his son into the nationalist that he wished him to be, but he did imbue in Konrad a deep disdain for money and for bourgeois values, and also a despair at how commerce and machinery were corroding the habits and morals of landed communities.
Orphaned, Conrad 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. By his mid teens, though, Conrad had fixated on a career as far removed as possible from Poland: he would be a sailor on the high seas. He wore down his uncle, who finally dispatched him to Marseilles, thinking that the French-speaking youth might manage there. Unable to get regular work on French ships, adrift and leaking money, the young Conrad botched an attempt to shoot himself. Depression would haunt the rest of his life; and though he never spoke about his own attempt to end it, in his fiction, Jasanoff tells us, there are 17 suicides.
That same year, in 1878, he moved to London. Jasanoff evokes, in a lively portrait, the London he would have encountered—an open, cosmopolitan sprawl, with unrestricted access for visitors and immigrants. Fifty thousand continental Europeans lived in London—more, she nicely notes, than the population of Krakow. (It was not until 1905 that migration into Britain was first regulated.) Sail ships, Conrad’s love, still glided up the Thames. But his arrival coincided with their fast disappearance. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 secured the rise of a new technology: steamships were better able to navigate the sharp changing wind conditions in the Red Sea. It 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 per cent of world trade.” Manning these British ships—both those powered by steam and by wind—were crews drawn from all over the world; Jasanoff reports that in 1891 40 percent were foreigners on the longer, more gruelling routes. A sailor’s wages were poor by British standards, and the risks were high.
Conrad joined their numbers, learnt English, and within eight years gained his certificate as a captain in the British merchant marine; that same year, in 1886, he also became a naturalised British subject. He began to use the anglicised “Conrad” as his name. Aware perhaps that he was of the last generation working mainly on sail ships, he cultivated a personal mythology about the “fellowship of the craft” of sailing. He idealised the community of men on-board: they formed the last redoubt of an innately British seafarer’s morality built on fidelity, courage, and preparedness—this while, as Jasanoff observes, other Englishmen wrote of the disappearing sail boats and their crews in the “fond tones you might use to recall a beloved grandmother.”
In actuality, Conrad seems to have shared little fellow feeling with his shipmates, whether on sail boats or steam boats. Ill at ease in the company of ordinary sailors, he was no mixer, and gave off an aloofness that others recognised as snobbishness. He was often involved in on-board fights. At port stops, while the crew repaired to bars and dives, he might be seen strutting around with bowler hat and gold-knobbed cane. The other captains referred to him as “the Russian count” (though he was convinced he was being mistreated because he spoke poor English). When he made a brief trip back to Poland in 1890, “people who met him thought he spoke Polish with a foreign accent and had turned into a London snob.”
Conrad had grown up hearing his father refer to local peasants as “monkeys.” Throughout his life, he maintained what Jasanoff describes as “an enduring distaste for organized labor and radical politics,” and he regarded popular political movements as nothing but manifestations of the herd. Although he regarded class “a hateful thing,” he was deeply sensitive to it. When working in the Congo, he referred to his Belgian boss as “une espece de boutiquer africaine”—an African shop boy.
He strained to be accepted as an English gentleman. And yet he never quite conformed to that role. He chose to marry down—he wed his typist, a Protestant woman from Peckham—and even when, later, he moved his family to an estate in Kent and mixed in literary circles (Henry James, Ford Madox Ford and HG Wells were his friends), he refused the trappings of British success, waving away a knighthood and turning down honorary degrees from Cambridge, Oxford and Edinburgh. He recognised, rightly, that he could never become his ideal. He never shook off his Polish accent (Virginia Woolf, in her ur-snobbish way, did not fail to note it in her obituary for “our guest”, as she called him), and when his command of the English language was criticised, it tipped him over. In his late fifties, Conrad’s agent and close friend told him that he “did not speak English,” which provoked a breakdown and left Conrad babbling in Polish for days. These are fascinating cracks in Conrad’s polished character, which I longed to see Jasanoff probe more deeply.
CONRAD CONSIDERED IT “DÉCLASSÉ” to work on the new steamships, and he would later say that he never did. But he had little option. In the late 1880s, he worked on a steamer sailing routes in Borneo; 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 an ivory-plying route (“idiotic employment”).
From these steamer voyages, oceanic and riverine, and from the social discomfort that he felt, came his most memorable writing. The effects produced on human character by the technology of steam and the intensified commerce that it created, became a theme for Conrad. In Lord Jim (1900), we see a fine sailor, an exemplar of the fellowship of the craft, take a job as chief mate on a pilgrim-laden steamship bound for Mecca. In the face of what looks like looming disaster, he—with the rest of the white crew—abandons ship, failing the basic test of honour and courage. It is only when Jim removes himself to the edge of Western penetration, far “from the ends of submarine cables,” beyond the “haggard utilitarian lies of our civilization,” that he gets a second chance. He reclaims his honour by defending a local refugee community, who in gratitude bestow on him the title of “Lord.” But then he—and the locals—are betrayed by a white pirate: a second taint for which Jim bravely accepts his own death by the hand of the local chief.
Heart of Darkness, first published in serial form in 1899 and as a 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. It remains the most highly charged of all his writing, and it lurks at the centre of Jasanoff’s study. 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 upriver, the jungle closing in on him, in search of a man named Kurtz, who has set himself up as a civilising 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 post scriptum: “Exterminate All the Brutes!” Marlow finally discovers Kurtz installed as a savage chief, surrounded by a stockade decorated with human skulls.
Conrad, as part of his self-mythology, liked to say that he had always intended to scour the depths of Africa: ever since he was a young boy, he had determined to voyage into “the blank space then representing the unsolved mystery of the continent.” By extension, Heart of Darkness was the tale he was always fated to tell, and he worked to conjure for it a primordial, timeless air, making it a universal parable.
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, had established the Congo Free State—a vast territory thrown open to Western intrusion, and founded, Leopold announced, not on imperial conquest but on principles of free commerce and a commitment to extending emancipation and civilisation 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 boat. 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”). It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that when Africans do appear in Heart of Darkness they are described by the story’s narrator, 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, and it is not a reason to disregard his work. But it is certainly troubling, especially given the rising racism in Western societies right now, and it asks for direct address. Jasanoff acknowledges its presence in Conrad’s writing, and the subject bobs awkwardly along the surface of her book: addressed, it seems to me, more through hope than analysis. Jasanoff seeks some redemptive meaning in Conrad’s racist language—a “potentially radical suggestion,” she calls it. In Conrad’s story, neither civilisation nor savagery are racially coded; they are fluid, and not the fixed attributes of any racial group. In condemning the European civilising mission in Africa, says Jasanoff, Conrad was invoking a humanity common across races. Marlow, she suggests, is thrilled by the thought of some remote human kinship with the wild savages he sees around him: “The difference between savagery and civilization, Conrad was saying, transcended skin color; it even transcended place. The issue for Conrad wasn’t that savages were inhuman. It was than any human could be a savage.” For Conrad, “Anyone could be savage. Everywhere could go dark.”
Jasanoff goes further. She suggests that Conrad, in purveying such stereotypes (of women, too: they are “savage and superb,” “wild and gorgeous”) “subverted prejudices as much as … reinforced them.” But there is little evidence to support such a hopeful exoneration. In fact, whatever Jasanoff tells us about Conrad’s contemporary readers suggests the opposite. Take the case of Charles Buls, the mayor of Brussels. Buls read Conrad before travelling to the Congo in the 1890s, and he found his own racist views corroborated and reinforced. Conrad showed him how civilisation might collapse when white men came in contact with “pure savagery, primitive nature, barbarism.” Even the critic and editor Edward Garnett, a far more sophisticated reader and a man whose critical intelligence Conrad admired, read Heart of Darkness as a story of what happens when a European “goes native,” when Western values become contaminated by local non-Western conditions—which is to say, he read it as Conrad wrote it. 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.”
In her effort to compensate for Conrad’s blind spots, Jasanoff also claims that he “brought to the page a more international and multiethnic assortment of voices than any other writer of his day that I knew.” It is true that Conrad’s pages, when compared to those of his English-language contemporaries, are more open to European voices—seafaring and sometimes megalomaniac Swedes, Germans and Frenchmen and Russians and Scots and Irish. But non-European voices? Conrad rarely conceded to Africans anything more than inarticulate cries of rage: in Lord Jim, he describes them making “gurgling, choking, inhuman sounds.” Perhaps the most striking expression that any of 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 favourably with Rudyard Kipling. Kipling was certainly an imperialist in his worldview, but in his fiction we hear a range of Indian voices (his versions, of course): Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists, as well as women.
SOME OF CONRAD’S CONTEMPORARIES—the ancestors of today’s protesters and activists—did read his fiction as a call to action. By the turn of the century, as Conrad published Heart of Darkness, the shocking depredations of Leopold’s rule—the appropriation of huge swathes of territory as private land, the pillage of tens of thousands of tons of ivory, the routine use of forced labour in frenzied rubber cultivation—were coming into European view. In his first days in Africa, Conrad had met Roger Casement, who would become a leading voice in the campaign against Belgium’s exploitation of the Congo. After Conrad published Heart of Darkness, Casement got him to read exposés of Belgium’s administration of the Congo by the journalist Edmund Dene Morel, in hopes of recruiting Conrad into the Congo Reform Association, the campaign against Belgian misrule. Conrad privately expressed his dismay to Casement, but he never joined the movement. “It is not in me … I am only a wretched novelist inventing wretched stories and not even up to that miserable game.” He claimed that what Casement and Morel were telling him did not tally with what he had seen, and Conrad would later dismiss Casement as emotional and unreliable.
Jasanoff ascribes Conrad’s unwillingness to engage in part to the fact that his own experience in the Congo predated by some years the “Red Rubber”-era brutalities of the late 1890s. As ivory supplies dwindled, Leopold’s men turned to the extraction of a substance made lucrative by the invention of the pneumatic tire: rubber. Africans were terrorised into doing this miserable work: those who did not could be shot or, to save on bullets, have their hands cut off. (Whether the violence only came with the Europeans is debatable. Recent historians of central Africa have argued that the region became increasingly violent even before European intrusions, as slave and ivory caravans through the nineteenth century undermined existing forms of rule and established the warrior figure—the man who could kill, capture or maim—as the source of sovereignty. Europeans were observing and in part imitating this violence, though of course with far more lethal equipment.)
Conrad did not see himself as a political pamphleteer but as a maker of complex allegorical fictions. He built into his work warnings against overly literal interpretations of it. The “meaning of an episode,” Conrad’s narrator Marlow says, “was not inside like a kernel but outside like a haze.” “Foggishness,” as he called it, hidden and secret meanings, were indeed integral to Conrad’s art of storytelling. According to Jasanoff, Conrad’s refusal to get involved rested also on his innate scepticism. He rejected the motivating assumption of Casement and his co-campaigners (who included the writer 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. For Conrad, she writes, “the problem wasn’t a hypocritical betrayal of civilization—it was the European notion of civilization as a good in itself.”
That goes straight to something even deeper that kept Conrad from being a joiner or a campaigner: his unshakeable fatalism. Forms of collective protest—founded on what he regarded as misplaced idealism—grated against what he described as his “deep-seated sense of fatality governing this man-inhabited world.” The bleakness of Conrad’s vision is arresting; among nineteenth-century figures writing in English, it is matched perhaps only by Carlyle. In a letter to a glamorous friend, the leftist and progressivist swash-buckler 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.
JASANOFF IS A TIRELESS RETRACER of Conrad’s itineraries. Up the Congo River she goes, using her copy of Heart of Darkness to swat away the tsetse flies. She makes us feel his restless movements, across Europe, through south-east Asia, Africa and over the oceans. But all this travel and exoticism should not lead us to forget just how rooted Conrad was in a certain stance of European self-doubt. He is one of the early cracks in the imaginative edifice of Western self-confidence. Kipling was another; and then came a slew of writers—Forster, the Bloomsberries, Eliot, and, beyond the anglophone world, Valery and Spengler. Rather than a vantage point on our own world, his work seems to me 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 and imperial rapaciousness in Africa. Yet it strikes me that 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 who could aspire to inhabit a wholly European moral world: a world accrued and made possible by the force of European power.
As that power pressed outward, it could for a long period sanctify the exertion of its force by asserting moral certitude without having to engage in political negotiation. By the beginning of the twentieth century, though, old moral terms—embodied in such codes as “the fellowship of the craft” or “playing the game”—were ceasing to be self-evident or European monopolies. European power was embroiled in a world where people were starting to talk back—not in shrieks or by clamour, but through intelligible words and arguments that demanded to be heard.
Even as Conrad lamented the hollowness of civilisation and doubted that anything could be done about it, others from outside the metropoles of Western power were dreaming up schemes and mobilising minds. Jasanoff knows all of this very well—as she herself writes, Ho Chi Minh, Sun Yat Sen, Mohandas Gandhi and WEB Du Bois were all honing their own counter-definitions of human good, and planning how to achieve it. Gandhi’s famous joke about Western civilisation (“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 civilisation—to pluralise its meanings.
VS 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 Conrad, even as he traced the limits of the universal claims of his own civilisation, stayed within its bounds. In the last decade and a half of Conrad’s life, as politics stirred Asians, Africans and black Americans, setting them thinking about how to reclaim civilisation for themselves and inspiring them to embark on collective movements of political change and revival, the ageing 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 globalisation are not just struggles over who gets what in the great shake-out of Conrad’s “material interests.” Material interests are not the greatest thing that divides us: by drawing people into common competition for spoils, they might even encourage some agreement about what is prizeworthy across geographies and cultures. The real divides lie in the multiplicity of beliefs, many of them increasingly virulent, that preach exclusiveness and intolerance. Globalisation not just elicits these doctrines of exclusion but 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 recognised 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.
Sunil Khilnani is the author of Incarnations: A History of India in Fifty Lives and The Idea of India. He is the Avantha professor and the director of the India Institute at King’s College London.