Sunday, June 17, 2018

Joseph Conrad on Our Purpose

The ethical view of the universe involves us at last in so many cruel and absurd contradictions, when the last vestiges of faith, hope, charity, and even of reason itself, seem ready to perish, that I have come to suspect that the aim of creations cannot be ethical at all. I would fondly believe that its object is purely spectacular; a spectacle for awe, love, adoration, or hate, if you like, but in this view – and in this view alone – never for despair! Those visions, delicious or poignant, are a moral end in themselves. The rest is our affair – the laughter, the tears, the tenderness, the indignation, the high tranquility of a steeled heart, the detached curiosity of a subtle mind – that's our affair! And the unwearied self-forgetful attention to every phase of the living universe reflected in our consciousness may be our appointed task on this earth. A task in which fate has perhaps engaged nothing of us except our conscience, gifted with a voice in order to bear true testimony to the visible wonder, the haunting terror, the infinite passion and the illimitable serenity; to the supreme law and the the abiding mystery of the sublime spectacle.
From Conrad's Memoirs, published in 1912. This was then a common notion: that creation is something like a great work of art, and our main role is to observe and appreciate it. For all I know it may still be a fairly common view, although I don't see much of this sort of speculation in the things I read. This attitude even made it into the creation myth of the great believer Tolkien, whose world sprang from a work of music composed by God and performed by angels, made even more powerful and beautiful by the attempt of Satan and his rebel angels to sabotage the performance.

Conrad's theology helps to explain his notion of the purpose of novel writing:
And what is a novel if not a conviction of our fellow men's existence strong enough to take upon itself a form of imagined life clearer than reality and whose accumulated verisimilitude of selected episodes puts to shame the pride of documentary history?

4 comments:

G. Verloren said...

Such an odd viewpoint, from my own vantage point.

A willingness to observe the universe, and yet also a rejection of science and reason, and a clinging to theological and metaphysical frameworks that rely on faith instead.

An insistence that everything must have been created and that we must be here for a purpose, and yet a despair that no such purpose can be found, and a refusal to consider that perhaps we aren't here for any reason, and that nothing was created, because there is no creator.

I'll never understand how people can be so caught up in desperately seeking external meaning, when it's so ver easy (and seemingly necessary) to make meaning for yourself instead.

Shadow said...

I think (could be wrong) Conrad was a bit of a Naturalist, and as such a believer in science. I call this Naturalism at this time pessimistic realism. You see it in his writings, especially Nostromo. A Naturalist American writer of roughly the same period would be Stephen Crane. Conrad's thoughts above look to me to be, at least in part, due to an abiding belief in determinism.

David said...

I'm puzzled by that jibe at documentary history. Perhaps it would seem less gratuitous in its original context. But it sits ill with Conrad's professed faith, in that it can be taken to say that the universe as it is is not necessarily the object of wonder, but rather the universe as the observer might wish it to be--which at the least calls into question the honesty of Conrad's whole would-be theology.

I recognize that in art one can sometimes express worthy notions about history and historical actors that can't be demonstrated from documents. But I'm also reminded of, for example, the notorious bananeras massacre, which forms arguably the climactic episode of 100 Years of Solitude, and which, with its 3000 corpses spirited away by a secret train in the night, became a talking point and rallying cry whose factuality was taken for granted by Latin American leftists, readers worldwide, and statements read into the official record of Colombia's congress. The problem is that, as far as one can tell from the documents, the massacre either never happened or was at most a stupid accident that killed less than a score of people. This doesn't make Marquez's novel less than a masterwork or the issue of Yankee quasi-colonial dominance less important. But maybe one might spare a little respect for the dull, police-procedural empiricism of folks who, after all, are perhaps only admiring the universe in their own way, and aspire to admire it at least partly for what it is.

John said...

I think Conrad was trying to say that through history we rarely get to know other people in the way that he is looking for. He says the point is to truly see one another; how often does that happen in history? It does happen; there are historical characters more real to me than anyone in a novel. Most of them are famous people, but some are obscure, like the midwife Martha Ballard. I think Conrad would despise a lot of sociological history, because it does not help us truly see one another, etc. But I don't think he is denigrating facts.