See It’s Conrad’s 156th - TopicsExpress


See It’s Conrad’s 156th birthday: I began with The Secret Agent fifty years ago – but if I were to give an account of everything since then, I’d be here all day. So, just three thoughts: one biographical, one literary, one philosophical. They are all commonplace for which I make no apology. You don’t want to try to be clever about Conrad. 1] His birthplace is Berdychiv, now in northern Ukraine. We were very near it a couple of years ago, when we were in Vinnytsia. What happened in both towns in the twentieth century after Conrad’s time is almost too terrible to think about, but it’s hard to think he would have been entirely surprised. Sholom Aleichem lived there, Balzac was married there, Vasily Grossman was born there. Conrad has some of the strongest qualities of all three. 2] When Conrad wrote about writing, he said unforgettable things. This comes just before one of the most famous of all: ‘…Confronted by the same enigmatical spectacle the artist descends within himself, and in that lonely region of stress and strife, if he be deserving and fortunate, he finds the terms of his appeal. His appeal is made to our less obvious capacities: to that part of our nature which, because of the warlike conditions of existence, is necessarily kept out of sight within the more resisting and hard qualities — like the vulnerable body within a steel armour. His appeal is less loud, more profound, less distinct, more stirring — and sooner forgotten. Yet its effect endures forever. The changing wisdom of successive generations discards ideas, questions facts, demolishes theories. But the artist appeals to that part of our being which is not dependent on wisdom; to that in us which is a gift and not an acquisition — and, therefore, more permanently enduring. He 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, to the solidarity 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….’ 3] It’s Stein – not Conrad himself – who says this. It’s possibly the best-known and most enigmatic thing he wrote. If you already know it, marvel again at its indecipherable secret; if you’re reading it for the first time, marvel at how lucky you are: ‘…“Yes! Very funny this terrible thing is. A man that is born falls into a dream like a man who falls into the sea. If he tries to climb out into the air as inexperienced people endeavour to do, he drowns—nicht wahr? . . . No! I tell you! The way is to the destructive element submit yourself, and with the exertions of your hands and feet in the water make the deep, deep sea keep you up. So if you ask me—how to be? His voice leaped up extraordinarily strong, as though away there in the dusk he had been inspired by some whisper of knowledge. I will tell you! For that too there is only one way. With a hasty swish-swish of his slippers he loomed up in the ring of faint light, and suddenly appeared in the bright circle of the lamp. His extended hand aimed at my breast like a pistol; his deepset eyes seemed to pierce through me, but his twitching lips uttered no word, and the austere exaltation of a certitude seen in the dusk vanished from his face. The hand that had been pointing at my breast fell, and by-and-by, coming a step nearer, he laid it gently on my shoulder. There were things, he said mournfully, that perhaps could never be told, only he had lived so much alone that sometimes he forgot—he forgot. The light had destroyed the assurance which had inspired him in the distant shadows. He sat down and, with both elbows on the desk, rubbed his forehead. And yet it is true—it is true. In the destructive element immerse. . . . He spoke in a subdued tone, without looking at me, one hand on each side of his face. That was the way. To follow the dream, and again to follow the dream—and so—ewig—usque ad finem. . . .…’
Posted on: Tue, 03 Dec 2013 08:04:49 +0000

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