Conrad, Joseph (1857-1924), british novelist of polish origin. One of the great modern writers in English language. .
Conrad was born in Poland, son of a polish noble. He inherited his love for literature from his father. His father died when he was twelve. When he was 16 he abandoned Poland, occupied by the Russians, and went to Marseille. During the following 4 years, he sailed in French merchant ships, he fought in Spain in the Carlist Wars, in Don Carlos troops, and he lived a love story that almost led him to commit suicide. Then he joined an English merchant and he became an English subject. During the following decade, he sailed a lot, mostly in the west. Conrad´s experiences, specially in the Malasian islands and in the river Congo, are reflected in his tales, written in English, his fourth language after the polish, russian and french.
In 1894 he left the sea and devoted himself to literature.
The life in the sea and in foreign coasts makes up the background of almost all his tales. His devotion to the sea, is seen at its best in his “Mirror of the sea”. Sometimes, the narrator is a retired sailor, possibly Conrad´s alter ego, like in Almayer´s folish. With the world of the sea as a background, the real theme of his work was the human condition and the struggle of the individual between good and evil. His three major works, are related as explorations of “man in society”.
In “Heart of darkness”, Conrad deals with a primitive society explored and exploited by the colonists from a more evolved society. Its main character, Marlowe, is a sailor who is involved in a journey up river Congo, to the heart of Africa. He has been encommended a mission to find Kurtz, a man who has gone crazy, metaphorically swallowed by the darkness of the jungle. The idea could have been inspired by a real fact: In 1871, Henry Stanley, writer and explorer finds the missing missionary Dr Livingstone, who had been lost in the heart of the black continent.
Although the temporal and spatial setting of the book is that of the colonation of Africa by England, the point of the book is less historic than antropologic. There is a concrete moment and place. The important thing about the characters is not their condition of English men in the XIX, but their condition of men. This is presented in the very first pages of the book: in the same way as rivers and seas form a continuum, the Nile, The congo, the Thames is the same river with different names, mankind is continued throughout lands and times. Conrad takes part neither towards colonialists nor colonized. He feels an inherent solidarity with the Congo natives, but also with colonialists, who he compares with First roman invaders of England.
On the basis of this jouney from civilization to primitiveness, Conrad displays a game of parallelisms. It is also a psychologic journey from reason to instinct, from wisedom to madness, from the world of whites to the world of niggers. As the ship gets far and far from civilization, the conventional references of the civilized world, gradually disappear, and all the coats of conventions and logic that cover our real ego are removed, showing what we really are, clearing our perception, and revealing an inner truth hidden in reality. But what is this darkness Marlowe is trying to comprehend? When this mistery, this darkness is alluded to in the story, it is surrounded by a vagueness and an ambiguity that gets us away from it. This vagueness is both deliberate, and a failure. Darkness is the unknown, the subconscious, a moral darkness, the evil which swallows up Kurtz, the spiritual emptiness he sees at the centre of existence but above all it´s mistery itself. This darkness, then is pre-verbal, it doesn´t belong to the world of logic and reason, which is the world to which language belongs, so it is impossible to convey by means of words. Marlowe´s failure is to attempt to translate that darkness into abstract metaphysical concepts such as “inscrutable, inconceivable, unspeakable”, which make them get away from the spirit of darkness he is trying to aprehend.
The character of Kurtz is also as enigmatic as the darknes in which he dwells. Kurtz is for Marlowe the sole object of the journey, as Marlowe believes that Kurtz is the only man who will explain to him the lesson of the darkness. For us, kurtz is never a character, but a rumour, a voice. Marlow is vague again in this point: “smiles of indefinable meaning, unspeakable rites”, Marlowes physical journey is the same as the one made before by Kurtz, the man who has gone crazy and lost touch with civilization. Kurtz is supposed to have undergone the same psychologic journey as Marlowe, and to be the only person who can reveal Marlowe that inner truth hidden in surface reality. When Marlowe gets to Kurtz, this is so ill and mad that is not able to reveal any truth. So Marlow never gets beyond the surface, and is also denied the final self knowledge that kurtz had.
For Kurtz, in the final stage of this psychologic journey, the borders between good and evil disappear, he submits to the temptations of wilderness, which leads him to brutality and madness. What prevents individuals from undergoing this initiation journey escaping Marlowe´s end, is the “moral equipment” of each individual. Kurtz has no belief, no urgent work, no moral equipment, so he turns out unable to cope with the forces of savagery and malevolence within him which the journey brings out.
Conrad himself had made this journey up river Congo, and although he didn´t encounter any malevolant Kurtz-like figure in this journey, he experienced a similar sense of enlightenment. He undergoes a process of maturing through disillusion and defeat, which supplies him with a deeper understanding of man.
Conrad takes this journey as a raw material for the writing of Heart of Darkness, but in order to adapt his development from idealism to understanding and disillusion into fiction, he distorted experience by means of 4 main changes:
He makes Marlowe sceptical from the first moment, while the journey was a childish dream for Conrad
He gives Marlowe a significant role: Captain, while Conrad was a mere observer.
He predates Congo, exaggerating the isolation and primitiveness of the place.
He gives the journey a mythical quality. For example, he gives places more significant names: Matadi-Company station. Kinshasa-Central station. Stanley falls- Inner station, emphasizing the sense of penetration to some sort of mistery.
Some critics have seen here a psychological-anthropological “night journey”, an archetypical myth dramatized in much great literature from the book of Jonah: the story of an essentially solitary journey involving deep spiritual change in the voyager. In its classical form the journey is a descent into the earth, followed by a return to light. In the prologue, Marlowe mentions that “it is like a travel to the centre of the earth”. He says that it seemed to throw a kind of light into his thoughts. The atmosphere of a night journey is also developed by suggestion that the river Congo moves spatially as well as temporally: It is also a journey from present to past. As it is said in the book, “going up that river was like going back to beginnings, when big trees were kings”.
To convey this multi-faced journey, Conrad displays a two level structure. By paying attention to the “surface reality” of Marlowe´s story, an inner meaning should emerge for the reader. This structure is amazingly repeated in the plane of fiction. Marlowe himself interpretates the surface reality of his journey, as a key to find an inner truth, and this way the physical journey becomes a psychologic one. This double device is what allows Conrad to blend morality and adventure in his novels.This technique is described by Conrad in the preface to The nigger of the Narcissus.
Una de las novelas más conocidas de Conrad es Lord Jim (1900), en la que explora el concepto del honor a través de las acciones y sentimientos de un hombre que se pasa la vida intentando expiar su cobardía durante un naufragio ocurrido en su juventud. Otras obras suyas son: El negro del Narciso (1897), centrada en un marinero negro; El agente secreto (1907), sobre los anarquistas londinenses; Bajo la mirada de Occidente (1911), ambientada en la Rusia represiva del siglo XIX; Victoria (1915), ambientada en los mares del sur.
Conrad was influences by writers as Mallarmé, Flaubert, Henry James.
He influenced: Graham Greene, George Orwell (1984), William Golding (Lord of the flies), Céline, (Jouney to the end of the night).
For Jorge Luis Borges he is the “greatest novel”.
T.S.Elliot in “the waste land” quotes “the horror, the horror”, Kurtz words, and Mistah kurtz, he dead in “the hollow man”.
The novel has still all its power in that it also deals with the gap existing between high ideals of humanity and the things humanity actually does.