(On the 150th birth anniversary of Joseph Conrad that seems to have gone largely unnoticed today)
Joseph Conrad’s works written in the early part of the 20th century were unbelievably perceptive of his times and deeply insightful into the 19th century globalisation phase in world history that came to an end with the Great War.
Early twentieth century had seen an upsurge in the East West encounter in literature. This was caused primarily by the colonial expansion of the Western world over the East. Joseph Conrad was an outstanding author who wrote much on this from first hand experience.
He also wrote about Africa, the Far East and Latin America (in The Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim and Nostromo respectively) in which he painted a rather dreary picture of the East. With the benefit of hindsight one can say that Conrad’s perceptive insights into the limits and ability of Western ideas to break down the physical as well as mental structures in the East sound quite true. During those times, however, this truth was less visible, even as critical a thinker as Marx had expressed the hope in his famous phrase about British colonialism in India creating the world in its own image.
As we are drawn by the wave of renewed imperial expansionism under globalization, Conrad’s works help us to reflect again on the East- West encounter.
Conrad remained, with the influence of his father’s revolutionary ideals, a sympathetic liberal, though his works on Africa have been criticized by no less than the great African writer Chinua Achebe.
Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as “the other world,” the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant beastiality. The book opens on the River Thames, tranquil, resting, peacefully “at the decline of day after ages of good service done to the race that peopled its banks.” But the actual story will take place on the River Congo, the very antithesis of the Thames. The River Congo is quite decidedly not a River Emeritus. It has rendered no service and enjoys no old-age pension. We are told that “Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world.”
His novel, The Secret Agent that celebrates its 100th anniversary this year was a study of anarchism and the psychology of its adherents. Conrad’s prognosis of his times was rather dark.
One of his finest works is Under Western Eyes, a prophetic successor to Dostoevsky’s The Devils that pre- empted the developments of the Russian Revolution by a couple of years (I think it was published in 1914, three years before the Russian Revolution.)
A large number of Conrad’s works, including the complete texts of The Secret Agent and Under Western Eyes are available here.
Update: A defence of Conrad’s allegedly ‘racist’ viewpoints by Jonathan Jones at the Guardian’s arts blog (and a very good discussion in the comments section).