Aspen Review: Moral Compass

A review of “The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in the Global World” by Maya Jasanoff

There is ample evidence that great art is often produced by highly awed people. Picasso was a womanizer. Writer Jean Genet was a thief and a criminal. Norman Mailer once stabbed his wife. Comedian Bill Cosby is alleged to have drugged women before having sex with them. Phil Spector, producer of The Beatles’ “Let It Be,” is a murderer. So was the Renaissance painter Caravaggio. Harvey Weinstein behaved despicably in his private life, but also made great movies. Is it okay to like Roman Polanski’s films? What about Woody Allen’s?

Once primarily considered a skilled literary stylist and interrogator of the human psyche, Joseph Conrad is more frequently remembered as a racist today. Worse yet than those other examples, Conrad’s art itself, especially the novella Heart of Darkness, is said to embody that racism. The late Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe’s influential 1975 speech “An Image of Africa,” argued that Conrad deliberately set Africa as “the other world” through which he sought to examine Europe. Achebe condemned using “Africa as setting and backdrop, which eliminates the African as a human factor. Africa as a metaphysical battle eld devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering Euro- pean enters at his peril.” In other words, Africa is not a place populated by real people, but merely a tool for psychoanalyzing the European mind.

For his part, Achebe did something like the inverse, using a person, Conrad, to examine social phenomena like slavery and colonialism. Even if we excuse Conrad as a victim of circumstance, having lived in a time when such negative stereotypes were the norm, the celebration of Conrad’s work by later generations shows how quick they—or we—are to dismiss these issues as peripheral. In the end, this leaves Achebe disappointed but not surprised. “Art is more than just good sentences,” he once said in an interview with The Guardian. “[Conrad] is a capable artist and as such I expect better from him.”

Though historian Maya Jasanoff does so with different intentions, she too looks to use Conrad as a lens for examining larger phenomena in her latest book. The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World contends it is part travelogue, part biography, while drawing parallels between Conrad’s life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the contemporary globalization. The approach is original and Jasanoff, a scholar at Harvard, is noted for her work taking on big themes from unusual angles. Her first book, Edge of Empire, examines cultural artifacts in arguing that the British Empire did a better job of accommodating the foreign cultures than is usually believed. Her second, Liberty’s Exiles, examines the British loyalists who ed the nascent United States during the late 18th century revolutionary period.

As in many of Conrad’s own works, Jasanoff divides The Dawn Watch into three distinct sections. They roughly correspond with Conrad’s youth, his time as a sailor, and his years as a mature novelist. She also dabbles in literary criticism by analyzing four major Conrad’s works: The Secret Agent, Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness, and Nostromo. Conrad’s treatment of themes like terrorism, capitalism, rapid technological change, and nationalism, Jasanoff argues, offer insights for today.

Born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in 1857, in Bedrychiv in present-day Ukraine, “Konrad” (later Anglicized to Conrad) was named after a character featured in a poem by Adam Mickiewicz. Conrad’s father Apollo was a poet, translator (he translated Charles Dickens’s Hard Times), and Polish nationalist revolutionary.

When Conrad was five years old, the family was exiled to Russia, at age seven his mother died of tuberculosis, and Apollo died when Conrad was just 11. He went on to live with his mother’s brother, a Polish aristocrat (szlachcic), before moving to Marseille at 16 to become a sailor. At 20, Conrad attempted suicide by shooting himself in the chest, and most biographers believe he suffered from bipolar disorder throughout his life. Conrad later joined the British merchant marine, working on sailboats and steamships all over the world for 15 years, collecting plenty of tales that would later turn up in his fiction. In 1894 he gave up life at sea, settled in England, and turned to writing full-time. He composed stories in his third language—Eng- lish—and his first novel Allmayer’s Folly, set in Southeast Asia, came out the next year.

Heart of Darkness remains Conrad’s best-known work, as well as source material for the 1979 film Apocalypse Now. In the book, the narrator and protagonist Charles Marlow travels by steamboat up the Congo River, “a mighty big river, that you could see on the map, resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curling afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land.” Marlow, a recurring character in Conrad’s stories, serves as a stand-in for the author himself. “He was a seaman, but he was a wanderer, too, while most seamen led, if one may so express it, a sedentary life,” Conrad writes. Marlow’s mission is to seek out Kurtz, a mysterious ivory trader, who is said to deal more ivory than all the other traders combined. A man of culture, Kurtz is a painter, a writer, and a musician, but Marlow discovers that years in the jungle have changed Kurtz. “His soul was mad. Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself and, by heavens I tell you, it had gone mad,” Conrad writes. 

Marlow’s travels, and his encounter with Kurtz are a metaphor for the perversions of European imperialism. Even Achebe, while critical of the means, concedes that Heart of Darkness is a book that confronts deep moral questions about Europe’s so-called civilizing missions abroad. The psychopathic Kurtz, the onetime civilizer, serves as an example for how skewed European perceptions had become. “All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz,” Conrad writes.

Jasanoff discusses Conrad’s book while also detailing the history of the Congo Free State, a bizarre construction that existed from 1885 to 1908 as the personal fiefdom of Belgian King Leopold II. In sections like this Jasa- no is at her best, weaving history and fictional plots together in a seamless manner, using one to reflect on the other and vice versa. She is able to do this because in addition to being an interesting historian (in 2013 she received a Guggenheim Fellowship), she is a very good writer. “An iron suspension bridge straddled the canalized river like a policeman with his hands on his hips,” she writes in a description of 19th century Singapore. In another section she analyzes the concept of time in the context of being at sea, and how this relates to sailing’s storytelling tradition. “Quotidian time passes in a pattern of two- and four-hour blocks, cycling without regard for night and day… Shipmates build familiarity in fragments over weeks. With nothing new to talk about in the present, the past and the future become extraordinarily rich imaginative domains,” she writes in another excellent passage.

If Heart of Darkness is Conrad’s most recognized book, Nostromo is his most complex – and best. Again, Jasanoff uses a historical backdrop to examine the novel’s plotline and themes. As Conrad wrote Nostromo in installments, developments in the news kept pace, meaning the story clings more closely to specific historical events than most of his other works. In combination with Jasanoff’s approach as a historian, this makes for the best single section of The Dawn Watch.

In 1903, the Colombian Senate rejected an agreement with the United States made by a previous government that would have cleared the way for building the Panama Canal. With American backing, including the personal support of President Teddy Roosevelt, a group of businesspeople in Panama—then a province of Colombia—seceded from their mother country. “Twelve days later, a Panamanian emissary signed an agreement for the canal with the US secretary of state,” Jasanoff writes.

In Nostromo, Conrad transposes that story as a backdrop for a tale about political manipulations in the fictional Latin American country Costaguana, and the related fight for control of the country’s lucrative silver mines. “There is no peace and no rest in the development of material interests,” Conrad writes. “They have their law, and their justice. But it is founded on expediency, and is inhuman; it is without rectitude, without the continuity and the force that can be found only in a moral principle.”

Though Jasanoff’s analysis of Nostromo is clear enough, and most of The Dawn Watch interesting reading, there are also sections where her multidisciplinary aspirations—blending history, literature, biography— result in blocks of text that feel like they have only passing connection to one another. Sections about Conrad’s life end, discussion of a novel begins, and historical backdrop follows. We are left wanting clearer observations about how they relate to one another. There is also a surprising lack of attention, and verbiage, given to Jasanoff’s own travels for the book – which sought to recreate some of Conrad’s journeys.

Jasanoff took an 11-week trip on a French cargo ship from Hong Kong to England, and also traveled by barge up the Congo River. Both must have been unique experiences, but these trips are relegated to standalone mentions in the epi- and prologues, thus missing a chance to more directly connect Conrad to the present.

Whereby the book’s inner jacket flap portends “a history of globalization from the inside out” that “reflects powerfully on the aspirations and challenges of the modern world,” it is in fact much closer to a traditional literary biography. The promise that—also communicated via all-star roster of cover blurbs from John Le Carré, Colombian novelist Juan Gabriel Vásquez, and the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah—the book will o er something about Conrad’s enduring relevance or universality is never fully delivered and he still comes off as a dated figure, rather than a three-dimensional human being with contemporary relevance. The same holds true for the history itself. While there are occasional passages where the reader can make links to more current events, Jasanoff seems wary of connecting the dots herself. During one discussion of anarchist terrorism in early 20th century Britain, she notes that “terror attacks and assassinations overwhelmingly came from British subjects” while observing that this nonetheless “ramped up nativist hostility toward European immigrants.” Here, and elsewhere, there is ample opportunity for a sentence or two of digression on how that pattern has repeated in recent years. None are forthcoming.

In short, as was the case in Conrad’s description of African characters in Heart of Darkness, the history and the author feel distant and abstract. Yes, Conrad did travel around the world engaging in trade, something that also occurs today. Yes, his work confronts the human cost endured amid rapacious pursuit of natural resources or the tendency of great powers to manipulate smaller nations. But for the most part, we are left to speculate on our own about how Conrad and his writing relate to our own time. Perhaps those answers, like Kurtz’s sanity, got lost somewhere along the way.