Corresponding with Bertrand Russell in 1922, Joseph Conrad confessed: ‘I have never been able to find in any man’s book or any man’s talk anything … to stand up for a moment against my deep-seated sense of fatality governing this man-inhabited world.’ Conrad was responding to Russell’s book The Problem of China, published in the same year, in which Russell had pinned his hopes for China and the world on ‘international socialism’ – ‘the sort of thing to which I cannot attach any sort of definite meaning’, Conrad observed. International socialism, he continued, was ‘but a system, not very recondite and not very plausible … and I know you wouldn’t expect me to put faith in any system’.
Conrad was a sceptic who believed that the human world was fuelled by illusions. He felt strongly about a number of the political issues of his day, such as the threat posed to Europe by Russian autocracy, and was horrified by the rapacity he witnessed being inflicted on the local population when he travelled through the Belgian Congo in 1890. But nothing could have been further from his way of thinking than high-minded dreams of a world without tyranny or empire. In his view, no change in political systems could eradicate the universal human propensity for savagery. He was suspicious of all large schemes of improvement.
Conrad’s political scepticism was contentious in his own day, when it went against the grain of European imperialism, the chief proponents of which claimed to be exporting civilisation throughout the world. Today it would be considered heresy against the liberal creed that decrees self-government to be an overriding good. Maya Jasanoff, a professor of British and imperial history at Harvard, has felt the force of the anathema that is visited on anyone who appears to question this orthodoxy. Writing in the New York Times in August about a journey she had made on the Congo River retracing Conrad’s path, Jasanoff ventured the judgement: ‘Measured in relative terms, most people in Congo were probably better off 100 years ago.’ This provoked a storm of righteous indignation among fellow academics, who claimed it showed condescension to the Congolese people. But the issue Jasanoff addressed is at least in part a factual matter. Are people in the Congo today more or less likely to die a violent death than they were in colonial times? Whatever the answer, it is a legitimate question.
Nowadays any study of Conrad invites controversy unless it recites a ritual condemnation of his sins. Jasanoff herself comments, seemingly without irony, ‘Often enough I’ve questioned my own attachment to this dead white man, perpetually depressed, incorrigibly cynical, alarmingly prejudiced by the standards of today.’ Written with a novelist’s flair for vivid detail and a scholar’s attention to texts, The Dawn Watch is by any standard a major contribution to our understanding of Conrad and his time. Whether Jasanoff fully enters into Conrad’s vision of the world is more questionable.
‘Conrad wouldn’t have known the word “globalization”, but with his journey from the provinces of imperial Russia across the high seas to the British home counties, he embodied it,’ notes Jasanoff. She is not the first to see Conrad as an incarnation of the new world that was coming into being during his lifetime. V S Naipaul, whose essay ‘Conrad’s Darkness’ (1974) probes deeper than anything published before or since the divided nature of the Polish seaman, born Konrad Korzeniowski, who would become one of the greatest writers in the English language, asked how it was that Conrad ‘had been everywhere before me’. One answer lies in the shifting fortunes of globalisation itself. As Jasanoff observes, between the voyages he made as a sailor in the British Merchant Navy, Conrad made his home in London, the hub of a global market that was more integrated during his lifetime than at any point until the 1980s. She goes on:
Conrad’s world shimmers beneath the surface of our own. Today Internet cables run along the seafloor beside the old telegraph wires. Conrad’s characters whisper in the ears of new generations of antiglobalization protestors and champions of free trade, liberal interventionists and radical terrorists, social justice activists and xenophobic nativists. And there’s no better emblem of globalization today than the container ship, which has made transport so cheap that it’s more cost-efficient to catch a fish in Scotland, send it to China to be filleted, then send it back to Europe for sale, than it is to hire laborers in situ. Ninety percent of world trade travels by sea, which makes ships and sailors more central to the world economy today than ever before.
After the First World War, globalisation went rapidly into reverse and only regained momentum in the late 20th century following the collapse of communism. The world that has emerged since then resembles that of the late 19th century more than the one that existed during much of the 20th. But there are many signs of strain, and a reversal like that which followed the Great War must be a realistic possibility. If we can recognise Conrad’s world in our own, one reason is that the two share some of the same fragility.
What Jasanoff offers the reader is not one more conventional biography, but a fresh view of a much-scribbled-on writer that enables us to see him in a time in many ways like our own. ‘I set out to explore Conrad’s world with the compass of a historian,’ she writes, ‘the chart of a biographer, and the navigational sextant of a fiction reader.’ It is arresting to learn how much of Conrad’s first impressions of London were formed by reading Charles Dickens. Conrad ‘stumbled out of Liverpool Street Station to discover his shipping agent in “a Dickensian nook”, perched in a “Dickensian” office, eating a mutton chop bought “from some Dickensian eating-house around the corner”’. As part of the relentless irony that infuses The Secret Agent (1907), Conrad’s only novel to be set entirely in London, the city in which a purveyor of pornography plots a terrorist atrocity is still recognisably that portrayed by Dickens.
It is instructive to be reminded how unexpected was Conrad’s marriage to Jessie George, a young typist from Peckham to whom he proposed after they had met ‘maybe five times’, and how surprisingly successful the marriage seems on the whole to have been. It is a pity the book does not explore Conrad’s relations with the swashbuckling American journalist and sometime spy Jane Anderson. The late-life romance he seems to have had with her in 1916–17 goes some way to resolving an enduring mystery flagged up by Jasanoff: ‘Whether he had any sexual relationships with any woman at all, in Europe or beyond, there was never the slightest contemporary clue.’ We are reminded of Conrad’s prescience when we read how unimpressed he was with Woodrow Wilson’s plans for national self-determination in Europe, which would create ‘countries whose independence would endure only as long as the bigger powers thought it worthwhile’. It is interesting to read how Jasanoff, in the course of her Congo River journey, came on sights that Conrad could not have seen: ‘Even the river itself looked different from in Conrad’s day, dappled by floating clumps of water hyacinth, an invasive species introduced in the 1950s.’
Describing himself in a letter as ‘homo duplex in more than one sense’, Conrad remains as elusive to critics and interpreters now as he was during his lifetime. Repeatedly, Jasanoff refers to him as ‘cynical’ – a strange description for this often despairing, half-broken yet intrepid figure. If Conrad sounds cynical to readers today, it is because he voices truths that are now deemed unmentionable. He did not believe in what Russell, in a 1937 essay, called the ‘superior virtue of the oppressed’. All human institutions, including newly independent states, were steeped in crime; barbarism and civilisation would always be intertwined, with old evils continually reappearing in new guises. It is a vision as disruptive to the censorious liberalism that holds the reins today as it was to imperial fantasies of progress a hundred years ago.