Literature Post > Conrad, Joseph > Some Reminiscences > Chapter 1

Some Reminiscences by Conrad, Joseph - Chapter 1

Joseph Conrad

A Familiar Preface.

As a general rule we do not want much encouragement to talk about
ourselves; yet this little book is the result of a friendly
suggestion, and even of a little friendly pressure. I defended
myself with some spirit; but, with characteristic tenacity, the
friendly voice insisted: "You know, you really must."

It was not an argument, but I submitted at once. If one must!. . .

You perceive the force of a word. He who wants to persuade
should put his trust, not in the right argument, but in the right
word. The power of sound has always been greater than the power
of sense. I don't say this by way of disparagement. It is
better for mankind to be impressionable than reflective. Nothing
humanely great--great, I mean, as affecting a whole mass of
lives--has come from reflection. On the other hand, you cannot
fail to see the power of mere words; such words as Glory, for
instance, or Pity. I won't mention any more. They are not far
to seek. Shouted with perseverance, with ardour, with
conviction, these two by their sound alone have set whole nations
in motion and upheaved the dry, hard ground on which rests our
whole social fabric. There's "virtue" for you if you like!. . .
Of course the accent must be attended to. The right accent.
That's very important. The capacious lung, the thundering or the
tender vocal chords. Don't talk to me of your Archimedes' lever.
He was an absent-minded person with a mathematical imagination.
Mathematics command all my respect, but I have no use for
engines. Give me the right word and the right accent and I will
move the world.

What a dream--for a writer! Because written words have their
accent too. Yes! Let me only find the right word! Surely it
must be lying somewhere amongst the wreckage of all the plaints
and all the exultations poured out aloud since the first day when
hope, the undying, came down on earth. It may be there, close
by, disregarded, invisible, quite at hand. But it's no good. I
believe there are men who can lay hold of a needle in a pottle of
hay at the first try. For myself, I have never had such luck.

And then there is that accent. Another difficulty. For who is
going to tell whether the accent is right or wrong till the word
is shouted, and fails to be heard, perhaps, and goes down-wind
leaving the world unmoved. Once upon a time there lived an
Emperor who was a sage and something of a literary man. He
jotted down on ivory tablets thoughts, maxims, reflections which
chance has preserved for the edification of posterity. Amongst
other sayings--I am quoting from memory--I remember this solemn
admonition: "Let all thy words have the accent of heroic truth."
The accent of heroic truth! This is very fine, but I am thinking
that it is an easy matter for an austere Emperor to jot down
grandiose advice. Most of the working truths on this earth are
humble, not heroic: and there have been times in the history of
mankind when the accents of heroic truth have moved it to nothing
but derision.

Nobody will expect to find between the covers of this little book
words of extraordinary potency or accents of irresistible
heroism. However humiliating for my self-esteem, I must confess
that the counsels of Marcus Aurelius are not for me. They are
more fit for a moralist than for an artist. Truth of a modest
sort I can promise you, and also sincerity. That complete,
praise-worthy sincerity which, while it delivers one into the
hands of one's enemies, is as likely as not to embroil one with
one's friends.

"Embroil" is perhaps too strong an expression. I can't imagine
either amongst my enemies or my friends a being so hard up for
something to do as to quarrel with me. "To disappoint one's
friends" would be nearer the mark. Most, almost all, friendships
of the writing period of my life have come to me through my
books; and I know that a novelist lives in his work. He stands
there, the only reality in an invented world, amongst imaginary
things, happenings, and people. Writing about them, he is only
writing about himself. But the disclosure is not complete. He
remains to a certain extent a figure behind the veil; a suspected
rather than a seen presence--a movement and a voice behind the
draperies of fiction. In these personal notes there is no such
veil. And I cannot help thinking of a passage in the "Imitation
of Christ" where the ascetic author, who knew life so profoundly,
says that "there are persons esteemed on their reputation who by
showing themselves destroy the opinion one had of them." This is
the danger incurred by an author of fiction who sets out to talk
about himself without disguise.

While these reminiscent pages were appearing serially I was
remonstrated with for bad economy; as if such writing were a form
of self-indulgence wasting the substance of future volumes. It
seems that I am not sufficiently literary. Indeed a man who
never wrote a line for print till he was thirty-six cannot bring
himself to look upon his existence and his experience, upon the
sum of his thoughts, sensations and emotions, upon his memories
and his regrets, and the whole possession of his past, as only so
much material for his hands. Once before, some three years ago,
when I published "The Mirror of the Sea," a volume of impressions
and memories, the same remarks were made to me. Practical
remarks. But, truth to say, I have never understood the kind of
thrift they recommended. I wanted to pay my tribute to the sea,
its ships and its men, to whom I remain indebted for so much
which has gone to make me what I am. That seemed to me the only
shape in which I could offer it to their shades. There could not
be a question in my mind of anything else. It is quite possible
that I am a bad economist; but it is certain that I am

Having matured in the surroundings and under the special
conditions of sea-life, I have a special piety towards that form
of my past; for its impressions were vivid, its appeal direct,
its demands such as could be responded to with the natural
elation of youth and strength equal to the call. There was
nothing in them to perplex a young conscience. Having broken
away from my origins under a storm of blame from every quarter
which had the merest shadow of right to voice an opinion, removed
by great distances from such natural affections as were still
left to me, and even estranged, in a measure, from them by the
totally unintelligible character of the life which had seduced me
so mysteriously from my allegiance, I may safely say that through
the blind force of circumstances the sea was to be all my world
and the merchant service my only home for a long succession of
years. No wonder then that in my two exclusively sea books, "The
Nigger of the 'Narcissus'" and "The Mirror of the Sea" (and in
the few short sea stories like "Youth" and "Typhoon"), I have
tried with an almost filial regard to render the vibration of
life in the great world of waters, in the hearts of the simple
men who have for ages traversed its solitudes, and also that
something sentient which seems to dwell in ships--the creatures
of their hands and the objects of their care.

One's literary life must turn frequently for sustenance to
memories and seek discourse with the shades; unless one has made
up one's mind to write only in order to reprove mankind for what
it is, or praise it for what it is not, or--generally--to teach
it how to behave. Being neither quarrelsome, nor a flatterer,
nor a sage, I have done none of these things; and I am prepared
to put up serenely with the insignificance which attaches to
persons who are not meddlesome in some way or other. But
resignation is not indifference. I would not like to be left
standing as a mere spectator on the bank of the great stream
carrying onwards so many lives. I would fain claim for myself
the faculty of so much insight as can be expressed in a voice of
sympathy and compassion.

It seems to me that in one, at least, authoritative quarter of
criticism I am suspected of a certain unemotional, grim
acceptance of facts; of what the French would call secheresse du
coeur. Fifteen years of unbroken silence before praise or blame
testify sufficiently to my respect for criticism, that fine
flower of personal expression in the garden of letters. But this
is more of a personal matter, reaching the man behind the work,
and therefore it may be alluded to in a volume which is a
personal note in the margin of the public page. Not that I feel
hurt in the least. The charge--if it amounted to a charge at
all--was made in the most considerate terms; in a tone of regret.

My answer is that if it be true that every novel contains an
element of autobiography--and this can hardly be denied, since
the creator can only express himself in his creation--then there
are some of us to whom an open display of sentiment is repugnant.
I would not unduly praise the virtue of restraint. It is often
merely temperamental. But it is not always a sign of coldness.
It may be pride. There can be nothing more humiliating than to
see the shaft of one's emotion miss the mark either of laughter
or tears. Nothing more humiliating! And this for the reason
that should the mark be missed, should the open display of
emotion fail to move, then it must perish unavoidably in disgust
or contempt. No artist can be reproached for shrinking from a
risk which only fools run to meet and only genius dare confront
with impunity. In a task which mainly consists in laying one's
soul more or less bare to the world, a regard for decency, even
at the cost of success, is but the regard for one's own dignity
which is inseparably united with the dignity of one's work.

And then--it is very difficult to be wholly joyous or wholly sad
on this earth. The comic, when it is human, soon takes upon
itself a face of pain; and some of our griefs (some only, not
all, for it is the capacity for suffering which makes man august
in the eyes of men) have their source in weaknesses which must be
recognised with smiling compassion as the common inheritance of
us all. Joy and sorrow in this world pass into each other,
mingling their forms and their murmurs in the twilight of life as
mysterious as an over-shadowed ocean, while the dazzling
brightness of supreme hopes lies far off, fascinating and still,
on the distant edge of the horizon.

Yes! I too would like to hold the magic wand giving that command
over laughter and tears which is declared to be the highest
achievement of imaginative literature. Only, to be a great
magician one must surrender oneself to occult and irresponsible
powers, either outside or within one's own breast. We have all
heard of simple men selling their souls for love or power to some
grotesque devil. The most ordinary intelligence can perceive
without much reflection that anything of the sort is bound to be
a fool's bargain. I don't lay claim to particular wisdom because
of my dislike and distrust of such transactions. It may be my
sea-training acting upon a natural disposition to keep good hold
on the one thing really mine, but the fact is that I have a
positive horror of losing even for one moving moment that full
possession of myself which is the first condition of good
service. And I have carried my notion of good service from my
earlier into my later existence. I, who have never sought in the
written word anything else but a form of the Beautiful, I have
carried over that article of creed from the decks of ships to the
more circumscribed space of my desk; and by that act, I suppose,
I have become permanently imperfect in the eyes of the ineffable
company of pure esthetes.

As in political so in literary action a man wins friends for
himself mostly by the passion of his prejudices and by the
consistent narrowness of his outlook. But I have never been able
to love what was not lovable or hate what was not hateful, out of
deference for some general principle. Whether there be any
courage in making this admission I know not. After the middle
turn of life's way we consider dangers and joys with a tranquil
mind. So I proceed in peace to declare that I have always
suspected in the effort to bring into play the extremities of
emotions the debasing touch of insincerity. In order to move
others deeply we must deliberately allow ourselves to be carried
away beyond the bounds of our normal sensibility--innocently
enough perhaps and of necessity, like an actor who raises his
voice on the stage above the pitch of natural conversation--but
still we have to do that. And surely this is no great sin. But
the danger lies in the writer becoming the victim of his own
exaggeration, losing the exact notion of sincerity, and in the
end coming to despise truth itself as something too cold, too
blunt for his purpose--as, in fact, not good enough for his
insistent emotion. From laughter and tears the descent is easy
to snivelling and giggles.

These may seem selfish considerations; but you can't, in sound
morals, condemn a man for taking care of his own integrity. It
is his clear duty. And least of all you can condemn an artist
pursuing, however humbly and imperfectly, a creative aim. In
that interior world where his thought and his emotions go seeking
for the experience of imagined adventures, there are no
policemen, no law, no pressure of circumstance or dread of
opinion to keep him within bounds. Who then is going to say Nay
to his temptations if not his conscience?

And besides--this, remember, is the place and the moment of
perfectly open talk--I think that all ambitions are lawful except
those which climb upwards on the miseries or credulities of
mankind. All intellectual and artistic ambitions are
permissible, up to and even beyond the limit of prudent sanity.
They can hurt no one. If they are mad, then so much the worse
for the artist. Indeed, as virtue is said to be, such ambitions
are their own reward. Is it such a very mad presumption to
believe in the sovereign power of one's art, to try for other
means, for other ways of affirming this belief in the deeper
appeal of one's work? To try to go deeper is not to be
insensible. An historian of hearts is not an historian of
emotions, yet he penetrates further, restrained as he may be,
since his aim is to reach the very fount of laughter and tears.
The sight of human affairs deserves admiration and pity. They
are worthy of respect too. And he is not insensible who pays
them the undemonstrative tribute of a sigh which is not a sob,
and of a smile which is not a grin. Resignation, not mystic, not
detached, but resignation open-eyed, conscious and informed by
love, is the only one of our feelings for which it is impossible
to become a sham.

Not that I think resignation the last word of wisdom. I am too
much the creature of my time for that. But I think that the
proper wisdom is to will what the gods will without perhaps being
certain what their will is--or even if they have a will of their
own. And in this matter of life and art it is not the Why that
matters so much to our happiness as the How. As the Frenchman
said, "Il y a toujours la maniere." Very true. Yes. There is
the manner. The manner in laughter, in tears, in irony, in
indignations and enthusiasms, in judgments--and even in love.
The manner in which, as in the features and character of a human
face, the inner truth is foreshadowed for those who know how to
look at their kind.

Those who read me know my conviction that the world, the temporal
world, rests on a few very simple ideas; so simple that they must
be as old as the hills. It rests notably, amongst others, on the
idea of Fidelity. At a time when nothing which is not
revolutionary in some way or other can expect to attract much
attention I have not been revolutionary in my writings. The
revolutionary spirit is mighty convenient in this, that it frees
one from all scruples as regards ideas. Its hard, absolute
optimism is repulsive to my mind by the menace of fanaticism and
intolerance it contains. No doubt one should smile at these
things; but, imperfect Esthete, I am no better Philosopher. All
claim to special righteousness awakens in me that scorn and anger
from which a philosophical mind should be free. . .

I fear that trying to be conversational I have only managed to be
unduly discursive. I have never been very well acquainted with
the art of conversation--that art which, I understand, is
supposed to be lost now. My young days, the days when one's
habits and character are formed, have been rather familiar with
long silences. Such voices as broke into them were anything but
conversational. No. I haven't got the habit. Yet this
discursiveness is not so irrelevant to the handful of pages which
follow. They, too, have been charged with discursiveness, with
disregard of chronological order (which is in itself a crime),
with unconventionality of form (which is an impropriety). I was
told severely that the public would view with displeasure the
informal character of my recollections. "Alas!" I protested
mildly. "Could I begin with the sacramental words, 'I was born
on such a date in such a place'? The remoteness of the locality
would have robbed the statement of all interest. I haven't lived
through wonderful adventures to be related seriatim. I haven't
known distinguished men on whom I could pass fatuous remarks. I
haven't been mixed up with great or scandalous affairs. This is
but a bit of psychological document, and even so, I haven't
written it with a view to put forward any conclusion of my own."

But my objector was not placated. These were good reasons for
not writing at all--not a defence of what stood written already,
he said.

I admit that almost anything, anything in the world, would serve
as a good reason for not writing at all. But since I have
written them, all I want to say in their defence is that these
memories put down without any regard for established conventions
have not been thrown off without system and purpose. They have
their hope and their aim. The hope that from the reading of
these pages there may emerge at last the vision of a personality;
the man behind the books so fundamentally dissimilar as, for
instance, "Almayer's Folly" and "The Secret Agent"--and yet a
coherent, justifiable personality both in its origin and in its
action. This is the hope. The immediate aim, closely associated
with the hope, is to give the record of personal memories by
presenting faithfully the feelings and sensations connected with
the writing of my first book and with my first contact with the

In the purposely mingled resonance of this double strain a friend
here and there will perhaps detect a subtle accord.