Great writers are great because they notice things about the people around them and the world in which they live. One of the greatest of these is Joseph Conrad whom I would list among my top five favorite writers — a list that includes George Eliot, Edith Wharton, Jane Austen, and Fyodor Dostoevsky. They not only notice things: they write about them with extraordinary psychological insight and a distinctive writing style — even in the case of Dostoevsky whom most of us must read in translation.
Conrad was, in addition to being a magnificent writer, a relentless critic of man’s inhumanity to man — especially with regard to the exploitation of the Congo, which he witnessed first-hand, “the vilest scramble for loot that has ever disfigured the history of human conscience and geographical exploration.” This concern was most powerfully expressed in his remarkable novella Heart of Darkness where he made clear that the white Europeans were guilty of the most heinous crimes against the native people as well as the earth they exploited out of unfettered greed. Unfortunately, this message was lost on Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian author and critic, who wrote an essay attacking Conrad and urging people not to read his novels, calling him a “racist” because his moderator, Marlowe, used the word “nigger” — a word freely bandied about by merchant seamen in the early part of the last century. Ironically, Achebe simply could not see beyond this to uncover Conrad’s obvious sympathies with the native people and hatred of what the Europeans were doing to them. In any event, Conrad would have us all become astute observers of our world and the people around us. In his “Personal Record” he says that we should all become engaged in
“visionary activities. . . unwearied self-forgetful attention to every phase of the living universe . . . [make it] our appointed task on this earth. . .to bear true testimony to the visible wonder, the haunting terror, the infinite passion, and the illimitable serenity; to the supreme law and the abiding mystery of the sublime spectacle.”
The problem, of course, is that we can no longer engage in “self-forgetful attention” to the world, because we cannot for a moment forget ourselves: we have reduced the world to OUR world. With exceptions like the delightful artist Z, who is alive to the world around her, increasingly we suffer from our inverted consciousness, our attention focused solely on ourselves — a condition exacerbated by the electronic toys we are addicted to that direct our attention away from our world and other people to the ego at the center. Surely, the word “social media” is a misnomer: there is no real socializing going on here; we just write about ourselves. Beauty is no longer regarded as out there in the world, it is “in the eye of the beholder.” We no longer see the beautiful sunset or the grace of the deer as it leaps over the fallen tree. We “see” only our own reactions to those events, our own feelings. It is now all about us, not about our world. How does it make me feel? That’s the only question we ask. Some even go so far as to deny that there is any truth to be told about the world, that all truth, like all value, is subjective — just a reflection of the subject himself or herself. In the process, of course, we have flattened the world and made of it a two-dimensional sheet that merely reflects back the face and the feelings of the observer, ugly though that image might be.
In a word, if we ever were able to realize what Conrad seems to regard as our true, human calling — to “bear testimony to the visible wonder. . .” — few of us today are able to do so. I would guess that most don’t even know what Conrad is talking about — assuming that they read Conrad (or anything else for that matter!)