The Moral Agent
What he wants us to see is: the lot. Not one side or another, but the whole shooting match A Polish immigrant, cabin boy and gunrunner, Joseph Conrad wrote action-packed adventure stories, which were also modernist classics. Giles Foden celebrates an enduring master on the 150th anniversary of his birth
"I have never learned to trust it. I can’t trust it to this day … A dreadful doubt hangs over the whole achievement of literature." Thus wrote Joseph Conrad, in an essay published in the Manchester Guardian Weekly on December 4 1922. Long before Auden was telling us poetry makes nothing happen, or Adorno was saying there could be no poetry after Auschwitz, Conrad was questioning - fundamentally - the political and moral utility of writing. Yet this was a writer who drew the approbation of FR Leavis, the pre-eminent British supporter of the view that literature could play a role in the maintenance of civilisation. In 1941, Leavis described Conrad as being "among the very greatest novelists in the language - or any language".
Maybe the dichotomy is not so marked as it first appears. Leavis prized “essential organisation” in a novel, and this was something that appealed to Conrad, too. It is evident in his Guardian piece. Under the headline “Notices to Mariners”, he asserted the futility of literary effort in contrast to the informational precision of reports of the comings and goings of ships, then commonly printed in newspapers. I would also contend that Conrad prized moral intensity and perspicacity as much as Leavis, even if he did not believe in abstract moral principles. That the marine register’s “ideal of perfect accuracy” cannot be achieved by literature does not mean literature must be empty of ideals. For Conrad, there was a middle way, one in which moral values emerged from relative positions, from the “essential organisation” of the literary work itself, rather than anything beyond it.
Literature was not the only thing about which Conrad was doubtful. A decade or so before “Notices to Mariners”, he was entertaining similar doubts about identity: “Both at sea and on land my point of view is English, from which the conclusions should not be drawn that I have become an Englishman. That is not the case. Homo duplex has in my case more than one meaning.” He wrote The Secret Agent, one of the great novels of modernism, a few years later. The depiction of Verloc, the agent provocateur and double man of the title, whose diplomatic employers insist he must rouse his anarchist friends to a terrorist outrage in London, would be one of the great feats of world literature were it not outshone by the portrayal of Verloc’s wife, Winnie, whose quietist attitude to her husband and life in general is overturned by the plot. She stabs him with a carving knife.
Part of the genius of The Secret Agent is the way it shows the unknowability of people. A cold eye is cast on character - the very idea of character - in all Conrad’s novels. In his doomy worldview, as in TS Eliot’s, subjectivity cannot be pinned down with accuracy. As Marlow says of Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, it is a chimera. “He was just a word for me … it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence … its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream - alone.
For Conrad, none of the big stories, from Christianity to communism to psychoanalysis (he met a disciple of Freud’s in 1921 and was extremely scornful of the books lent to him), provided adequate explanations of selfhood. He had seen the decline and fall of too many men who put their certitude in equality or justice or liberty tout court. His fundamental position is revealed in a letter to his friend, the socialist Robert Cunninghame Graham:
Life knows us not and we do not know life - we don’t even know our own thoughts. Half the words we use have no meaning whatever and of the other half each man understands each word after the fashion of his own folly and conceit. Faith is a myth, and beliefs shift like mists on the shore; thoughts vanish; words, once pronounced, die; and the memory of yesterday is as shadowy as the hope of tomorrow.