joseph-conrad

[Chinua] Achebe’s essay helped explain what I had found repellent in Conrad’s work and why I’d stopped reading him. In the novels set in the outer reaches of European empire the native characters always seemed to merge with their environment, reminiscent of the Hegelian image of Africa as a land of childhood still enveloped in the dark mantle of the night. I accepted everything Achebe said about Conrad’s biases.

And yet, I could not wholly embrace Achebe’s overwhelmingly negative view of ‘Heart of Darkness’ or Conrad in general. Somehow, the essay failed to explain what had once attracted me: Conrad’s ability to capture the hypocrisy of the “civilizing mission” and the material interests that drove capitalist empires, crushing the human spirit. [In The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World, Maya Jasanoff] does not forgive Conrad his blindness, but she does try to present his perspective on the changing, troubled world he traveled, a perspective that still has strong resonance today.”

— Ngugi wa Thiong’o, The New York Times

“Today, more than ever, Conrad demands our attention for his insight into the moral challenges of a globalised world. In an age of Islamist terrorism, it is striking to note that the same author who condemned imperialism in Heart of Darkness (1899) also wrote The Secret Agent (1907), which centres around a conspiracy of foreign terrorists in London. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, it is uncanny to read Conrad in Nostromo (1904) portraying multinational capitalism as a maker and breaker of states. As the digital revolution gathers momentum, one finds Conrad writing movingly, in Lord Jim (1900) and many other works set at sea, about the consequences of technological disruption. As debates about immigration unsettle Europe and the US, one can only marvel afresh at how Conrad produced any of these books in English – his third language, which he learned only as an adult.

[…]

Across his writing, Conrad grappled with the ethical ramifications of living in a globalised world: the effects of dislocation, the tension and opportunity of multiethnic societies, the disruption wrought by technological change. He understood acutely the way that individuals move within systems larger than themselves, that even the freest will can be constrained by what he would have called fate. Conrad’s moral universe revolved around a critique of the European notion of civilisation, which for Conrad generally spelled selfishness and greed in place of honour and a sense of the greater good. He mocks its bourgeois pieties in The Secret Agent; in Heart of Darkness, he tears off its hypocritical mask. In Lord Jim, he offers a compelling portrait of a flawed person stumbling to chart an honourable course when the world’s moral compass has lost its poles.”

Maya Jasanoff, The Guardian