Joseph Conrad: The Sea As Morality

by Manuel Vicent (translated by Louis S. Bedrock), May 3, 2017

During any melancholy evening, no child with a vivid imagination, lying face down in bed with an open atlas, has hesitated to sail through every blue sea with the tip of his index finger, or advance with reckless abandon deep into the most dangerous jungle. With his mind filled with pirate ships, treasure chests, lions, and the tusks of elephants, there comes a moment in which the child detains his finger over some point on the map — the most exotic place possible, and thinks: “One day, when I’m older, I will go there.”

Some manage to realize this dream; however, only one was named Joseph Conrad.

This boy was not the son of a Polish count, nor was his aunt a Belgian princess, nor was he, at a tender age, presented to the Emperor Franz Joseph during a private meeting at Hofburg Imperial Palace in Vienna. The early years of this writer, whose baptized name was Jázef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, are enveloped in aristocratic fantasies that he either fomented or didn’t bother to deny. Thus, he wandered through the port of Marseilles or the docks of the Thames with his hands in his pockets like a rootless youth trying to sign on to the first ship that would carry him to the seas of the South.

He came from the cold, from a country of mist. Joseph Conrad was born on December 3, 1857 in Berdichev, a territory of the Ukraine, 220 kilometers southeast of Kiev. At that time, Poland only had an ethnic and linguistic identity: politically it did not exist — it was a territory subjected to the yoke of Russia.

His ancestors were people who wanted to free the country and for that reason, they joined up with Napoleon’s army in the advance party moving toward Moscow; in this same spirit, Conrad’s father Apollo later fought with the revolutionary left, was captured, tried, and condemned to exile-- rough strokes of fate that soon left the future writer without a mother or a father.

Twelve-year old Joseph Conrad was left under the guardianship of his maternal uncle Tadeusz. This methodical and pragmatic man could not reign in the dreams of his nephew, a visionary adolescent who heard urgent voices in his neck during the convulsion of epileptic attacks which told him to run away. On an October day in 1871, he got on a train at the station and following a vague plan, he did not stop running until he arrived at Marseilles.

He was 18 years old.

With this flight in the pursuit of a dream, he abandoned his country, his religion, and his family. His entire past was replaced by the sea.

In the port city of Marseilles, there are enough bastards to fill an entire life with emotions, but Conrad was only waiting for a ship in which he could go far away. While waiting for this wish to be fulfilled, he devoted himself to winding up shipwrecked in whorehouses and gambling dens through his own efforts--sometimes winding up broke, other times holding on to the trunk of a prostitute or of a naked friend as if it were a piece of driftwood in the middle of the ocean.

When he felt lost amid his own disorder, he sent distress signals to Uncle Tadeusz who would come to his rescue with remissions of money accompanied with a lot of advice.

After three years of foundering on land, he managed to embark as a passenger on the ship *Mont-Blanc* which carried him to Martinique. The moist heat, the cries of the parrots, and the palette of different tropical skin tones filled the void of his lost country and at that moment his adventures began.

At the time of embarkation, sailors fall into two groups: those who are distressed because they are leaving their wives, children, friends, and sedentary pleasures; and those who go aboard happily because they are freeing themselves from debts, quarrels, and false proclamations of love by putting an ocean in between for a long time. Joseph Conrad belonged to this second group of sailors. On land, he was a creature struggling to survive; however, at sea he became a hardworking, rigorous, free man.

On returning from his first crossing to the Antilles, while waiting to sign on to another ship, he was once again consumed by debts and had to grab a revolver and shoot himself in the chest to gallantly resolve the problem.

The bullet passed very close to his heart but did not want to kill him.

Successive voyages to the West Indies in other ships transformed him from a passenger to apprentice navigator involved in rum trafficking and arms smuggling. Later, he carried coal to Constantinople and wool to Australia.

“If I have to be a sailor, I want to be an English sailor,” he promised himself in the hospital where he was recovering from his wound. After passing through the ranks, he realized his desire and as a First Officer in the British Merchant Marine he sailed the seas of China and New Zealand; he incorporated into his spirit the names Sumatra, Borneo, and the Gulf of Bengal; he penetrated into the heart of Africa along the Congo River.

During every voyage, he shared his life with heroes and heartless rogues, whom he would later convert first hand into characters of his novels. He had become a British citizen in 1886 and was a sailor for eight years, but after his back was broken by a blow from the boom, he abandoned the sea, began wearing dark suits, donned a bowler, and became a gentleman. At that moment, he stepped out of his own shadow.

On land, suffering from gout, he took a wife, Jessie Emmoline George, had two children, Borys Leo and John Alexander, and began to write stories of the sea in the English he had studied and revered; an English that vibrated in his being with the same force as the shanks of the ships he piloted when he was a captain.

Conrad converted the sea into morality. Expiation and remorse after an act of cowardice in Lord Jim; serenity before misfortune and the thirst for power in Nostromo; the constant mutation of passions echoing changes in the waves in The Nigger of the Narcissus; the penetration into the depths of human misery in The Heart of Darkness. A writer measures himself before the sea. In this sense, Conrad didn’t produce one foolish page nor did he allow himself to capsize.

It was different on land.

Amid the international fame that his books bestowed upon him, Conrad had to struggle with his own debts and those of his son Borys, with the sickness of his wife, with the jealousy of an old man in love with a very young woman, with a ruined body propped up in an arm chair in his residence at Oswalds, which was not far from Canterbury. He was dependent upon the assistance of his literary agent Pinker like one holding on to the mainmast during a large terrestrial storm.

He died of a heart attack on August 3, 1924 at the age of 67. Upon his tomb are engraved these words of Spenser:

Sleep after toil, port after stormy seas,

Ease after war, death after life does greatly please.

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