Monday, September 28, 2015

"Barbarism doesn’t care if we are cultivated"

Clive James re-reads Joseph Conrad and is more impressed than when he first read the books years ago. Selected from the essays:
.... Years of reading in modern history had equipped me to understand retroactively the lethality of the historic events that Conrad seemed to know about in advance, so sensitive was he to the political forces that were already reshaping the world during his own lifetime. In my own lifetime, most of the reshaping actually got done, with a death count of many millions. It’s clear now that Conrad had guessed what might happen. ....

In Switzerland before the First World War, before the tragedy in Europe, and before the chaos of the Russian Revolution, the Russians who gather in Geneva to enjoy democratic freedom—their part of the city is nicknamed La Petite Russie—are already carrying within them all the varieties of doom that will soon engulf their land of origin. The book gives us a preview of the terrors to come. Some of the characters, indeed, are outright terrorists; but the majority of the radicals on view have as yet seen little of the life of action, although they talk a lot of theory. And some of the characters will be victims one day, if they do not have the sense to stay away: they are members of the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie, and they tend to think that tsarist despotism is the worst thing that their homeland has to offer.

They are, in fact, idealists: and idealism is a cast of mind that Conrad questions even more than he questions radicalism. The logical end of radicalism, in his view, is terrorism; but idealism is the mental aberration that allows terrorism to be brought about. Conrad’s originality was to see that a new tyranny could be generated by people who thought that their rebellion against the old tyranny was rational. Thus his writings seem prescient about what was to happen in the Soviet Union. .... Under Western Eyes is valuable not because it came true but because it rang true even at the time, only now we can better hear the deep, sad note. ....

.... Conrad knew that unarmed goodwill is useless against armed malice. It was to be a lesson that the coming century would teach over and over, and so on into the present century: peace is not a principle, it is only a desirable state of affairs, and can’t be obtained without a capacity for violence at least equal to the violence of the threat. Conrad didn’t want to reach this conclusion any more than we do, but his artistic instincts were proof against the slightest tinge of mystical spiritual solace, and so should ours be. ....

...[H]e tends to reinforce our wishful thought that cultivation—gained, for example, from reading the novels of Conrad—might be enough to ward off barbarism. But barbarism doesn’t care if we are cultivated or not. [more]