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Essays and posts exploring the state of journalism, teaching and nonfiction storytelling.

  • Writer's pictureTracy Dahlby

Breaking Conrad's Spell

Updated: Mar 30, 2019

The master storyteller's prodigious powers have attracted and repelled generations of readers and writers. Is it time for a fresh paradigm?

“This could have occurred nowhere but in England, where men and the sea interpenetrate, so to speak—the sea entering into the life of most men, and the men knowing something or everything about the sea …”

When I remember first reading those words, the opening line of Joseph Conrad’s story “Youth,” it’s always a clammy gray Seattle morning in Miss Norikane’s high school English class, and I’m always immediately ensorcelled.

That was over 50 years ago now, and memory is what it is. But for many years I’ve wondered what accounted for the intensity of my reaction, a case of teenage love at first sight—and why so many writers and readers have responded so passionately, both positively and negatively, to Conrad’s seductive prose.

Back in the day, our tribe of rambunctious working-class kids would have been predisposed to treat the reading of a dead writer of stuffy European pedigree with the fervor reserved for a stretch in after-school detention.

What I remember most clearly, however, is how the old spellbinder Conrad began working his magic on me from page one. A group of men “were sitting round a mahogany table that reflected the bottle, the claret-glasses, and our faces as we leaned on our elbows.” Claret was a kind of wine, apparently, and a guy named Marlow was doing the talking.

“Yes, I have seen a little of the Eastern seas,” Marlow intoned, “but what I remember best is my first voyage there.”

The words “Eastern seas” dripped with excitement—in part, I'm sure, because the image contrasted so sharply with the view from our third-floor classroom of a surrounding sea of drab blue-collar bungalows and patchwork pavement. I read on:

“You fellows know there are those voyages that seem ordered for the illustration of life, that might stand for a symbol of existence. You fight, work, sweat, nearly kill yourself … trying to accomplish something and you can’t. Not from any fault of yours. You simply can do nothing, neither great nor little—not a thing in the world—not even marry an old-maid, or get a wretched 600-ton cargo of coal to its port of destination.”

The old-maid part didn’t compute. Nonetheless, I was so bowled over I was sure Conrad was speaking directly to me. The yearning for adventure, the futility of endeavor—he had conjured up the twin tensions of teenage life and did one better by aiming them at an exotic port of call. Way cool.

And it wasn’t just the way Conrad set up his adventure tale; it was the music of his sentences that pulled you in, how he joined major chords with minor flourishes, the current of words sweeping you on and around, and then suddenly running you up against some indelible insight into human nature.

Over time I came to relish those pocket perceptions as much as the twists and turns of plot and pacing. There was Kennedy, the country doctor in “Amy Foster,” Conrad’s tale of a central European shipwreck survivor, doomed by his exuberant otherness in the dark heart of England’s green and pleasant land. Of Kennedy, the author wrote:

“He had begun life as surgeon in the Navy, and afterwards had been the companion of a famous traveler, in the days when there were continents with unexplored interiors. His papers on the fauna and flora made him known to scientific societies. And now he had come to a country practice - from choice. The penetrating power of his mind, acting like a corrosive fluid, had destroyed his ambition, I fancy. His intelligence is of a scientific order, of an investigating habit, and of that unappeasable curiosity which believes that there is a particle of a general truth in every mystery.”

Little wonder I’d come to think of Conrad as a favorite uncle who, if a wee bit pedantic at times, could be relied on to forecast the pitfalls of life’s journey, much as the master navigator, Captain Giles, revealed the hazards of navigation to the heedless young ship’s master of “The Shadow-Line”:

“He remarked casually that from Bangkok to the Indian Ocean was a pretty long step. And this murmur, like a dim flash from a dark lantern, showed me for a moment the broad belt of islands and reefs between that unknown ship, which was mine, and the freedom of the great waters of the globe.”

The yearning for adventure, the futility of endeavor—Conrad conjured up the twin tensions of teenage life and aimed them at an exotic port of call.

I picked up “The Shadow-Line” 40 years ago, when I was a young newsman covering Asia. And there, on page one, Conrad seemed to be telegraphing a private message. At the time, I was wrapped up in the personal myth-making of young adulthood-- “the charm of universal experience,” as Conrad put it, “from which one expects an uncommon or personal sensation …”

But the reality was this: Like Conrad’s unnamed narrator, I was a young fool resisting the onset of adult responsibilities that loomed ahead, like a “shadow-line warning one that the region of early youth, too, must be left behind.” Right your ship, Conrad seemed to be telling me, or watch it run aground. It took time, but I did as I was told.

Meanwhile, Conrad had been headed for his own reckoning, and it was Chinua Achebe who sent up the flare. In a 1977 essay, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness,’” the Nigerian writer took on the author and his landmark 1899 novel of colonial greed and madness in a jungle hell patterned after the Belgian Congo, famously calling Conrad “a thoroughgoing racist.”

Achebe skewered Conrad for his portrayal of Africans as depersonalized cutouts, robbed of agency, and exploited as “the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization.”A dyed-in-the-wool Conrad fan boy, I found Achebe’s complaints hard to fathom. Then reading and rereading Heart of Darkness, as was my habit, I began to see the problem.

For all the righteous indignation Conrad heaped on the sins of colonialism, its victims came off as little more than stage props in a white man’s drama—the depravity of the id-ridden ivory trader Kurtz, chief of the brilliantly symbolic Inner Station, putting the lie to Europe’s vaunted “civilizing mission.” (In an oft-cited passage, Marlow underscores the point: “Black shapes crouched, lay, sat between the trees … half effaced within the dim light, in all the attitudes of pain, abandonment, and despair …. nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation, lying confusedly in the greenish gloom.”) And Conrad was no ordinary son of empire; the power with which he used language helped install primitive images of Africa in Western readers’ minds in a way that, collectively, have remained difficult to shake to this day.

In short, my reading of Conrad had some growing up to do. As a bone fide adult reader, I could gain historical insight from my old companion and enjoy the music of his words. Refusing to curb the adolescent urge to see the world hell-bent on what was once called, without snark, true-life adventure, however, was only likely to further fog the lens. Easy to say, of course, but breaking free of Conrad’s charmed circle has been, for many, a more complex journey.

* * *

Harvard historian Maya Jasanoff encountered the perils of getting swept up in Conrad’s darkly romantic currents in August 2017 when The New York Times Magazine published her travelogue “With Conrad on the Congo River.”

The piece, heralding her then soon-to-be-published book, The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World, recounted Jasanoff’s thousand-mile trek downriver, tracing the route taken by Charles Marlow, who appears as the riverboat captain in Heart of Darkness. Her sharpest critics thought Jasanoff should have stayed at home.

Karen Attiah, Global Opinions editor at The Washington Post, found Jasanoff’s opening paragraph “so cringe-worthy I wasn’t sure whether I was reading a parody.” It reads:

“The smoked monkeys brought the point home. During my first day on a boat on the Congo River, I’d embraced the unfamiliar: how to bend under the rail to fill my wash bucket from the river, where to step around the tethered goat in the dark and the best way to prepare a pot of grubs. But when I saw the monkeys impaled on stakes, skulls picked clean of brains and teeth thrusting out, I looked otherness in the face — and saw myself mirrored back.”

In a short video and short accompanying text, Attiah blasted Jasanoff and her editors at the Times for “publishing lazy writing about Africa that paints the continent as a dark, primitive and dangerous place,” an example of what she said former New York Times Africa correspondent Howard French had called “ooga-booga journalism.”

In the accompanying media tempest, a self-described traveler to the Democratic Republic of Congo, wrote in a letter to the Times, that Jasanoff’s tale “reeks of condescension and colonialist attitudes …. Congo is a troubled country that has faced international exploitation because of its wealth of natural resources. Yet it has cities with tall buildings, airports and paved roads. The Congolese people use cellphones and Twitter, and they fight for democracy and oppose oppression from both inside and abroad.”

Having activated stereotypes lurking in the public mind, an author had better show how shabby, ridiculous or downright ugly such images can look in the light of more complex realities.

Surely something had changed in the 127 years since Conrad himself signed on for a stint as a steamboat skipper on the Congo River, an experience he would eventually project onto literary double Marlow. Jasanoff didn't seem so sure:

"The Democratic Republic of Congo has now been independent for nearly 60 years, almost as long as it was a European colony. Yet it is by any measure one of the world’s most dysfunctional states. Congo’s modern-day Kurtz was the kleptocrat dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, whose ouster in 1997 led to a civil war and some five million deaths. It has one of the lowest per-capita incomes and is ravaged by continuing rebellions in the east, an escalating conflict in the central province of Kasai and a national political crisis …"

Jasanoff’s bottom line—“Measured in relative terms, most people in Congo were probably better off 100 years ago”— irked Attiah for neglecting to properly acknowledge “that the Congo was the personal piggy bank of the genocidal maniac King Leopold II of Belgium — and that under his rule, millions of Congolese were abducted, slaughtered or mutilated.”

To give Jasanoff her props, it’s one thing to criticize a traveler to hard places while ensconced in familiar circumstances; it is quite another to endure the rigors of the journey. Having logged my time in the business of long-distance reporting, I know traveling up that river took guts. Ducking under the ship’s rail for a bucket of water had to be a pain. Picking insects out of an unfamiliar meal, as I’ve done, is no picnic. Keeping mosquitos, spiders and larger, fanged forms of wildlife at bay can become the outlander’s preoccupation, to say nothing of the real risks of wandering into global neighborhoods where the lines separating the do’s and don’ts aren’t always clear.

What is also clear is that Jasanoff missed a good bet. Had she practiced a little journalistic jujitsu, flipping familiar stereotypes on their heads (that far places aren’t necessarily any scarier or dangerous than close places, for example), and bringing in a greater variety of local and expert voices, she might have delivered readers to a more enlightened destination.

Having heaved your mental baggage up on deck, thereby typically activating at least a few of the unexamined stereotypes lurking in the public mind, an author had better show how shabby, ridiculous or downright ugly such images can look in the light of more complex realities.

Instead, Jasanoff’s narrative appeared to drift over the line into melodrama:

"I was the real exotica: the only tourist to take this boat in nearly a decade, and the only white woman, as far as the crew knew, ever. Expect to be kidnapped, people had warned me. Expect to have everything stolen and expect every arrangement to go awry. Bring your own mosquito net, waterproof everything twice and strap your cash around your ankle …. The Democratic Republic of Congo, I read in my guidebook, was ‘a huge area of dark corners, both geographically and mentally,’ where ‘man has fought continuously against his own demons and the elements of nature at large.’ This, in other words, was the heart of darkness, which was why I had wanted to come."

Attiah was right to conclude that Conrad’s “colonial gaze should be left in the past where it belongs.”

In so doing, she pointed up a longstanding problem. When the American news media aren't ignoring Africa altogether, they do a generally lousy job of covering a continent made up of 54 countries (as recognized by the UN) and featuring thousands of ethnic groups and hundreds of languages, with the scope and detail such staggering variety demands. All too often coverage falls back on what the journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault has called the “Four D’s: Death, disease, disaster and despair.” However unintentionally, Jasanoff’s travelogue ticked some of the same boxes.

Including a healthy background paragraph or three devoted to setting off the DRC against its modern-day contradictions, what journalists call the nut graf, could have saved Jasanoff considerable trouble.

* * *

Which brings us to our story’s tantalizing plot twist: Whereas Jasanoff’s magazine piece erred on the side of “the romance of illusion,” a favorite Conrad theme, her elegantly written and painstakingly researched book, The Dawn Watch, succeeds in placing Conrad in an impressive depth of field. Using the author as her central synthesizing character, she limns the dark, complicated origins of our global age and how they connect to the dislocations, political, technological and otherwise, of our own day. In short, her magazine piece scooped off some of the story’s narrative cream without supplying adequate context; the book does pretty much the opposite.

In his review of The Dawn Watch in the March/April 2018 issue of Foreign Affairs, Adam Hochschild points out that globalization unleashed forces of colonial conquest in Africa and Asia that devastated traditional cultures. “In the late nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth, nothing reshaped the world more than European imperialism,” he says. “It redrew the map, enriched Europe, and left millions of Africans and Asians dead.”

Dislocation dogged parts of Europe, too, and put a lasting stamp on Conrad’s life. The son of a prominent Polish nationalist and poet, Conrad was born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in 1857 in the Ukraine, a former part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth that had fallen in partition to Tsarist Russia. Orphaned early, Conrad went to work as a merchant seaman, a career that lasted until 1894 and earned him a master mariner’s rating. Meanwhile, the author’s peripatetic lifestyle took him to some of the globe’s farthest-flung locales. He spoke Polish and French and, after becoming a British citizen and then settling in England, he commanded enough English, his third language, to become one of its most celebrated writers.

As Jasanoff observes in her book, “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.” He also lived its contradictions. “For all his disgust with Russian and Belgian imperialism,” Hochschild notes, the naturalized Englishman “believed that British imperialism was splendid.”

Conrad’s allure has been by no means limited to a Western audience. Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’O says that he, too, fell hard for Conrad. In his New York Times review of The Dawn Watch, Ngugi writes: “The majesty and musicality of his well-structured sentences had so thrilled me as a young writer that I could cure a bout of writer’s block simply by listening to the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony or reading the opening pages of Conrad’s ‘Nostromo.’”

Jasanoff's New York Times travelogue is likely go down as an ill-conceived hors d’oeuvre to a book whose critical appraisal adds to our understanding of Conrad’s outsized role in the Western canon.

Like Chinua Achebe and other African writers and intellectuals, Ngugi eventually rejected Conrad. “Achebe’s essay helped explain what I had found repellent in Conrad’s work,” he says, “and why I’d stopped reading him. In the novels set in the outer reaches of European empire the native characters always seemed to merge with their environment, reminiscent of the Hegelian image of Africa as a land of childhood still enveloped in the dark mantle of the night …”

“This critical perspective has become an inevitable companion to any discussion of the writer’s work,” Ngugi points out, giving Jasanoff credit for citing it “to frame her quest for a more complex vision of Conrad.”

Like many an American reader of Conrad reader, Jasanoff says in The Dawn Watch that she first encountered the author in high school and her views matured in twists and turns. “Often enough,” she writes, “I’ve questioned my attachment to this dead white man, personally depressed, incorrigibly cynical, alarmingly prejudiced by the standards of today. As a woman I balked at spending so much time with an author whose fiction was so short on plausible female characters … As a half-Asian, I winced at Conrad’s often exoticized and denigrating portrayals of Asians; as a half-Jew, I bridled at his occasional but undeniable anti-Semitism.”

And yet, Jasanoff says, she found Conrad “… in places unexpectedly tolerant by the standards of his time,” a “worthwhile” companion who “brought to the page a more international and multiethnic assortment of voices than any other writer of his day that I knew.” The relationship resolves itself, Jasanoff says, in what “Conrad made me see … a set of forces whose shapes may have changed but whose challenges have not. Today’s hearts of darkness are to be found in other places where civilizing missions serve as covers for exploitation.”

For Jasanoff, globalization stays a dark business. She acknowledges it has “helped link up even more people and more places than in Conrad’s era,” but at the same time, the world is rife with “the universal potential for savagery” that Conrad saw, “and the hollowness of civilization” that “explains why Heart of Darkness lends itself so well to transposition.”

In his review, Hochschild marvels at how major European writers of Conrad’s day gave imperialism a pass. “It would be as if almost no major nineteenth-century American novelist dealt with slavery,” he writes, “or no major twentieth-century German one wrote about the Holocaust.” Author of the critically acclaimed King Leopold’s Ghost (1998), about imperial Belgium’s murderous conduct in the Congo, Hochschild sees Conrad as the “standout exception… In his novel Nostromo, the American mining tycoon Holroyd declares, ‘We shall run the world’s business whether the world likes it or not.’”

Indeed, reading Conrad in a time of Trump may serve as a reminder of how easily a society can fall prey to blindness, arrogance and greed when under the stress of demographic change and technological disruption, and the heavy political weather it can bring. “In the best of his work…” Hochschild maintains, Conrad “portrayed the corrosive effect of the lust for riches more powerfully than any other writer of his day—and perhaps of our day as well.”

No less a figure than the late Edward Said, the author of Orientalism and great piercer of Western stereotypes about the Other, is more measured in his assessment but also pegs Conrad as a man of his time who was nonetheless onto something new. In “Two Visions in the Heart of Darkness” (1993), Said observed:

“Conrad’s tragic limitation is that even though he could see clearly that on one level imperialism was essentially pure dominance and land-grabbing, he could not then conclude that imperialism had to end so that “natives” could lead lives free from European domination. As a creature of his time, Conrad could not grant the natives their freedom, despite his severe critique of the imperialism that enslaved them."

Eventually, Ngugi, adopted a more forgiving stance. “Somehow,” he writes, Chinua Achebe’s “essay failed to explain what had once attracted me: Conrad’s ability to capture the hypocrisy of the ‘civilizing mission’ and the material interests that drove capitalist empires, crushing the human spirit.” Accordingly, he credits Jasanoff for not letting Conrad off the hook for his “blindness, but she does try to present his perspective on the changing, troubled world he traveled, a perspective that still has strong resonance today.”

In the end, Jasanoff’s New York Times travelogue is likely go down as an ill-conceived hors d’oeuvre to a book whose critical appraisal adds to our understanding of Conrad’s role in the Western canon.

* * *

What, then, of Conrad himself? Does the “Man of His Time Ahead of His Time” argument set a firm anchor in our time? Although it pains the adolescent fan boy in me to say, I think the old spellbinder needs to be carefully watched and fully contextualized. Yes, it was Conrad who helped ratchet open the world for me in Elaine Norikane’s classroom in Seattle a half-century ago. But that's the challenge: When I reread “Youth,” as I still do with some regularity, I’m a myth-hungry fifteen-year-old boy again, ready to hop the fence and run away to sea, adult experience be damned.

Charles Marlow describes the phenomenon. As he finishes telling his tale to his companions over the claret glasses in “Youth,” he reflects on his long-ago berth aboard the Judea and how a fire that starts in the ship’s “wretched cargo of coal” sends her to the bottom. From a lifeboat the next morning, Marlow gets his first glimpse of the East:

“I see it now—the wide sweep of the bay, the glittering sands, the wealth of green infinite and varied, the sea blue like the sea of a dream, the crowd of attentive faces, the blaze of vivid colour—the water reflecting it all, the curve of the shore, the jetty … and the three boats with tired men from the West sleeping unconscious of the land and the people and of the violence of sunshine …. [F]or me all the East is contained in that vision of my youth. It is all in that moment when I opened my young eyes on it. I came upon it from a tussle with the sea—and I was young—and I saw it looking at me.”

Study Conrad for his insights into human psychology? You bet. Enjoy the music of those pleasingly encrusted sentences? Of course. Yet let’s also get on with it.

So yes, good: Conrad, man of his time if in some ways impressively ahead of it. But parsing the author, as with all the greats, requires that we look not just to authorial freedom or mastery of technique but also at the extent to which we can access the full-range of human experience including what is available to us today in our digitally transformed global moment. And so I would also say this: Having peeped into a few of the world’s captivating corners, I recognize that stereotypes can still do their damnedest to deny others their humanity.

I was reminded of this when I came across a 2003 conversation in The Guardian, in which Kittitian-British novelist Caryl Phillips sets out to challenge Chinua Achebe on his acerbic view of Conrad and Heart of Darkness. Phillips asks Achebe if he isn’t “suggesting that outsiders should not write about other cultures?”

Achebe: “No, no … We should welcome the rendering of our stories by others, because a visitor can sometimes see what the owner of the house has ignored. But they must visit with respect and not be concerned with the colour of skin, or the shape of nose, or the condition of the technology in the house.”

“Chinua,” Phillips seems to tease just a bit, “I think Conrad offends you because he was a disrespectful visitor,” to which Achebe replies: “I am an African. What interests me is what I learn in Conrad about myself. To use me as a symbol may be bright or clever, but if it reduces my humanity by the smallest fraction I don't like it…. [Y]ou cannot compromise my humanity in order that you explore your own ambiguity.”

In that respect, it seems to me, Achebe was well ahead of his time in pointing to a new paradigm for the West by which those with power and privilege on their side, writers included, put behind them the reflexive views to which our brave new world is still addicted, and address as fully as possible the humanity, good, bad and middling, in all our global neighbors.

Read Conrad for the way he anticipated the contradictions and disruptions of the global age, with changes wrought by human movement, technological innovation and vast gaps between rich and poor? By all means. Study him for his insights into human psychology? You bet. Enjoy the music of those pleasingly encrusted sentences? Of course.

Yet let’s also get on with trading in more fully realized images of humanity suitable to our time. In fact, Conrad suggests a formula. In his story "The Secret Sharer," a young captain, ill at ease with himself and his command, hides in his cabin a mysterious soul mate, a fugitive accused of murder, and clings to the relationship for reasons he is hard pressed to explain. With his own future on the line, he puts his ship through a highly risky maneuver to allow Leggatt, his doppelgänger, to escape, “a free man, a proud swimmer striking out for a new destiny.”

But let’s remember: In breaking with his primitive alter-ego, the captain is really liberating himself.

(Top photo: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/NYPL Digital Gallery)

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