Joseph Conrad’s Tragic Predicament

“If the world were clear, art would not exist.” – Albert Camus 

Joseph Conrad, laureate of futility and ambassador of the unspeakable, fills his fiction with indistinct forms, unknowable characters, inscrutable events and irresolvable mysteries. Repeatedly drawing attention to the insurmountable challenges to clear and precise expression, he devises stories about the impossibility of telling accurate stories. He often uses multiple, backward-looking narrators recounting partially remembered events pieced together from various sources. Conrad frequently depicts characters struggling to cope with uncertainty and overcome – or desperately sustain – the illusions they predictably develop in a confounding and ultimately meaningless universe. For a solidly productive author, Conrad’s body of work evinces remarkable doubts about the utility of language and a deep skepticism about the value of writing.

“They were born, they suffered, they died.” Conrad may really believe that mankind’s entire history could be reduced to those seven words but, as he goes on to say in the author’s note to Chance, where that précis appears, “it is a great tale!” Lacking the detachment necessary to leave the fundamental story so sparely stated, Conrad repeatedly underestimated the ultimate length of his works and the time necessary to complete them. Lord Jim, Nostromo, Under Western Eyes and others started off as short stories and ballooned into full-length novels.

Conrad perceived a simultaneous heroism and foolhardiness in efforts to find meaning in stories of humanity’s suffering and death (the two acts of the birth-pain-extinction drama that interested him). His writing constantly hammers the futility of hoping to find such significance or, should it be ever so briefly spied, of communicating it to anyone else in words. Recognizing the pointlessness of the endeavor, but ceaselessly persisting – like Albert Camus’s smiling Sisyphus – has rebellious nobility: “all assertion in this world of doubts is a defiance,” Marlow says in Lord Jim. (“There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn,” Camus says in The Myth of Sisyphus.) In his not wholly factual memoir A Personal Record, from which, for instance, he excludes the minor matter of the experienced seaman’s failure to pass his master’s examination on the first try, Conrad candidly calls himself “a haunted man who looks for nothing by words wherein to capture his visions.”

Throughout his fiction, Conrad explicitly – sometimes with numbing tedium – labels events, things and people “unspeakable,” “indefinite,” “inexpressible,” “imperceptible,” “impenetrable,” “inexplicable,” “difficult to imagine,” “incomprehensible” and “inconceivable,” and he structures his narratives in ways that further diminish any appearance of certainty or reliability. As in several Conrad works, Charlie Marlow serves as the main narrator of Heart of Darkness, where a frame narrator observes that for Marlow “the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.” For Edward Said, Heart of Darkness “is preoccupied with what eludes articulate expression” and Marlow “acknowledges the tragic predicament of all speech”: its inability to convey what really happened or what an event felt like or truly meant. Further, through his use of “reported, or secondary, speech” by several narrators, Conrad avers that “all language is an interpretation of an interpretation.”

In Lord Jim, punctuation makes the point about the obfuscating distance between readers and witnesses of the events described: After the first four chapters told by an omniscient narrator, Marlow takes over, and when Marlow repeats what Jim said another man said, Conrad requires three sets of quotation marks. The surrounding shell has many layers. Marlow begins his account of what he learned about events involving the Patna by revealing that he cannot say why he paid attention in the first place. He introduces his retelling of what Jim told him by declaring himself an unfit “receptacle of confessions.” That Conrad crutch “mysterious” props up his tale again and again. Marlow repeatedly mentions his faulty memory and words’ inevitable failure to fully explain, and he has Jim express the same shortcoming.

Mists engulf Lord Jim. For Marlow, Jim’s character and personality remain indistinct, seen only in brief snatches. Truth itself can only in flashing moments be glimpsed through the ever present mist. Lord Jim is about the impossibility of recounting events or their significance, according to Conrad scholar Thomas Moser. In the novel, Conrad suggests that human thought itself is invariably vague and flawed and that any “thinker evolving a system of philosophy from the hazy glimpse of truth” is an imbecile.

Such enduring uncertainty prompt doubts about the purpose of writing, or his own abilities as an author, which Conrad attempts to express in his letters. “A sorry business this scribbling,” Conrad writes to his close friend Edward Garnett while working on The Nigger of the “Narcissus” (1897). Around the same time, Conrad writes to Stephen Crane of “the drop of poison in the cup of life,” as he describes self-mistrust, elaborating:

I am no more vile than my neighbors but this disbelief in one’s self is like a taint that spreads on everything one comes in contact with: on men – on things – on the very air one breathes. That’s why one sometimes wishes to be a stone breaker. There’s no doubt about breaking a stone. But there’s doubt, fear – a black horror, in every page one writes.
Skepticism about language itself permeates his fiction as well. The respect for practical manual labor and its superiority to sad scribbling reappears two decades later in The Shadow-Line (1917). The young captain in the short novel disdains writers, “the artificial men of pen and ink,” preferring men such as he considers himself, men “who grapple with realities.” Perhaps he dismisses scribblers because they trade in those damnably vague words Conrad uses over and over. In The Secret Agent (1907), pointlessness and vanity – “the mother of all noble and vile illusions” – extend into Conrad’s preoccupations as an artist. He has Mr. Vladimir at the Embassy observe: “Artists – art critics and such like – people of no account. Nobody minds what they say.” This from a writer who received critical praise throughout his career and popular success late in it.

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