Conrad’s Art

I take it as given that Joseph Conrad was a consummate artist. He worked at his craft devotedly and somewhat self-consciously. An excess of self-consciousness would have flawed the finished product which, in my view, was seldom if ever flawed. The artist must know when to “let go” and let his or her work have its head. Conrad knew. His novels are beautifully written and filled with insights into the human condition, powerful images, and flowing prose. It beggars belief that this man was writing in his third language — after his native Polish and, later, French. He was convinced that English allowed him to better express the subtleties of language and evoke the most powerful images.

Take the following brief descriptions as an example — selected almost at random from Conrad’s novel Chance:

“As often happens after a grey daybreak the sun had risen in a warm and glorious splendor above the smooth immense gleam of the enlarged estuary. Wisps of mist floated like trails of luminous dust, and in the dazzling reflections of water and vapor, the shores had the murky, semi-transparent darkness of shadows cast mysteriously from below.”

And again:

“It was in the trade winds, at night, under a velvety, bespangled sky, a great multitude of stars watching the shadows of the sea gleaming mysteriously in the wake of the ship; while the leisurely swishing of the water to leeward was like a drowsy comment on her progress.”

Or, finally:

“The night of the town with its strings of lights, rigid, and crossed like a net of flames thrown over the somber immensity of walls, closed round him, with its artificial brilliance overhung by an emphatic blackness, its unnatural animation of a restless, overdriven humanity.

Art requires imagination, not only on the part of the artist, but also of the spectator. Fully appreciating art requires of the spectator a suspension of the critical, discursive faculties and the willingness to embrace the work on its own terms. Conrad worked very hard to present in his novels hints and suggestions that pointed just beyond the words themselves and which demanded of his reader an effort, a willingness to engage the work fully in its own terms. Some have characterized his works as “impressionistic.” As Conrad himself tells us:

“[The artist] speaks to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives; to our sense of pity, and beauty, and pain: to the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation — and to the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts  in dreams, in joy, in sorrow, in aspirations, in illusions, in hope, in fear, which binds men to each other, which binds together all humanity — the dead to the living and the living to the unborn. . . .

“All art appeals primarily to the senses, and the artistic aim when expressing itself in written words must also make its appeal through the senses, if its high desire is to reach the secret springs of emotion. . . . My task, which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel — it is, before all else, to make you see. That — and no more, and it is everything.”

Art cannot be translated. It must be met on its own ground. And to the extent that we are unwilling to make the effort and open ourselves to the wonders that art can make available to us our world shrinks and diminishes. When we mistake mere entertainment for true art, demand that we be allowed to remain passive while the work dulls our senses, we move farther away from that which has the capacity to open to us a world we will otherwise remain blind to throughout our lives. The artist works in three-dimensions and we ignore his or her work at the risk of reducing our world to two dimensions and missing out on what might otherwise allow us to grow and to see and feel things that we must otherwise completely miss.

This is why we read. This is why we listen carefully to music. This is why we visit galleries and concert halls and witness the elegance of human bodies in motion. Conrad knew whereof he spoke, and he spoke of writing as only one of many forms of art. As we gradually become less and less willing to make the effort his words will fall on the ears of increasing numbers of people who will simply not know whereof he speaks. Because, above all else, engaging art fully requires an effort of imagination and in our modern world imagination is held in low esteem, art is regarded as frivolous, we are reluctant to expend effort, and we settle increasingly for mere entertainment as our senses become slowly but surely dulled and our world shrinks accordingly.

Chance And Greatness

One of the reasons I like reading literature from other cultures is because it demonstrates the universality of human experience. I am currently reading Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima, the first of four books he wrote “in his masterful tetralogy The Sea of Fertility.” It is a marvelous book and a discussion between two of the major characters in the novel struck me as worthy of reflection. The young hero Shigekuni Honda is discussing “chance” with his friend Kiyoaki Matsugae. As the discussion draws to a close,  Honda tells his friend

For if chance ceases to exist, the Will becomes meaningless — no more significant than a speck of rust on a huge chain of cause and effect that we only glimpse from time to time. Then there’s only one way to participate in history, and that’s to have no will at all — to function solely as a shining, beautiful atom, eternal and unchanging. No one should have to look for any other meaning in human existence.

This, of course, is the doctrine of determinism which the West has struggled against in its defense of free will since the Middle Ages. After all, if the human will is not free than we cannot be regarded as responsible for our actions and morality goes out the window. Kant, for one, spent most of his intellectual life struggling with this conundrum. What interests me in this context is the question of what we do with the notion of “greatness” if free will is a fiction. We assume that great men and women determine their own actions which then translate into extraordinary events in the world. But if, as Honda suggests in this passage, all actions are determined then no one can be regarded as truly great, since their accomplishments are not a function of their free will. In the end, however, I think a case can be made for chance and therefore for free will. But I’m not sure it helps us rescue the notion of greatness.

Let me take a famous historical example: the crossing of the Delaware River by the colonists in the American Revolution. It is an event that is supposed to have turned the war around and paved the way for eventual victory by the young colonists against the mighty British. And it made George Washington famous, surely one of the greatest generals ever to lead his troops into battle. A close reading of the circumstances surrounding that event demonstrates the significant role played by chance in the victory by the colonists, however. Indeed, the victory is in itself a demonstration of the role chance plays in the affairs of men.

To begin with, Washington broke his small contingent of troops into three groups. He took the first group across the river above Trenton; a second group was to have crossed at Trenton while a third group was to cross below Trenton and  attack from the South. Neither of the other two groups made it across because of ice jams! Furthermore, there were loyalists everywhere and yet no word of the crossing ever reached the ears of the Hessians who were, admittedly, a bit hung over after a night of celebrating Christmas. To make matters worse, Washington’s crossing with a few thousand men, horses, and cannons took several hours longer than anticipated and instead of a dawn attack, his out-manned and exhausted troops were faced with a late morning attack against seasoned troops who were sure to win. But fog moved in and covered the movement of troops until it was too late and the victory was assured.

Washington knew the Hessians would be celebrating Christmas and their guard would be down. That much he knew. But all of those other factors, the fog, the silence of the loyalists who might have shouted a warning, the inability of two of the three  contingents to cross the river — all of these factors were clearly a matter of chance — they were completely unpredictable — especially the sudden and unexpected appearance of  the fog which was the real life-saver. One might say the American victory was a fluke. It could have so easily gone the other way and it would have meant the end of the American Revolution and, probably, the end of this country as a nation. In a word, Washington’s greatness can perhaps be reduced to chance (luck?) as can the greatness of many of the men throughout history who have led troops into battle. And the consequences of those victories or losses can also be chalked up to chance in many cases. So if we can say that events are often the result of chance, then, contrary to what Honda suggests, our lives have meaning and  men and women are free and therefore responsible for their actions. Morality is saved — though the notion of “greatness” is somewhat questionable.