Sunday, March 4, 2012

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Fourteen

“Joseph Conrad,” pages 86-91

Russell met Conrad in 1913, and was surprised by his heavily accented English and by an affect which betrayed no hint of matters maritime. “He was an aristocratic Polish gentleman to his finger tips [p. 86].” Conrad had a romantic’s somewhat remote love for the sea – though he took to the English merchant marine at a young age. As Conrad’s books suggest, he did not hold a similar romantic attachment to political revolution. Despite their differing political orientations, Russell and Conrad immediately established a close connection: “...we shared a certain outlook on human life and human destiny, which, from the very first, made a bond of extreme strength [p. 87].”

Conrad’s philosophy seems best expressed in Heart of Darkness. Humans are always near to the breakdown of civilization, morality, and sanity. The recipe to avoid the breakdown is to be disciplined in channeling passions into “a dominant purpose [p. 87].” The discipline, however, must be internally generated, not imposed from without (page 89).

Conrad hated Russia, in a manner traditional for the Polish, but he adored England. Otherwise, he had little interest in politics. His concern was about passionate (and often lonely) individuals in an indifferent or hostile world. Besides loneliness, fear of the unfamiliar is a common Conradian theme. Perhaps as an immigrant in England, Conrad inspired this fear, and felt the resulting loneliness.

The depth of the Russell-Conrad connection, and the speed with which it grew at their initial meeting, verged on the mystical. “The emotion was as intense as passionate love, and at the same time all-embracing [p. 89].” Russell gave his first son the middle name Conrad in recognition of secular godfatherhood.

Russell and Conrad advanced their friendship mainly through correspondence, not face-to-face meetings. Conrad reacted warmly but with reservation about Russell’s book on China – Conrad thought (unlike Russell) that world socialism was unlikely to prove China’s salvation. Russell would prefer for the spirit of Conrad to be more well-known: “his intense and passionate nobility shines in my memory like a star seen from the bottom of a well [p. 91].”

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