14/7/96 Old world's cracked, but Conard lives on
|Sunday, July 14,1996
The Sunday Times, Page 4
Old world's cracked, but Conard lives on
In a time when movies and television shows are blamed for the violence and crimes in American cities, it is ironic that a dense book, The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad, which not many people would have heard of, should be the agent of a trail of terror and destruction.
In The Secret Agent, based on an actual attempt to blow up the Greenwich Observatory in London in 1894, Conrad depicts a corrupt society, whose politicians and guardians of law and order are as amoral and corrupt as the law-breakers in the underworld.
The only character who is pure, perhaps because he is deranged, is a professor who holes himself up in a tiny room, and dreams of being the perfect detonator. He abandoned chemistry because he felt unfairly treated, and chooses to live alone, to build bombs. "I've the grit to work alone, quite alone, absolutely alone," he says.
Pathetically weak himself, he nevertheless wishes to wipe out the weak. If he is given "madness and despair", he declares, then it will give him a lever with which to move the world.
Like the professor, Theodore J. Kaczynski, 54, the suspected Unabomber, is a brilliant man who has been troubled most of his life. During the 26 years he lived in the wilderness, destitute and unkempt, he reportedly pored over Conrad's books.
In a perverse way, his case holds out the hope for books.
At the end of the century when digital technology threatens to wipe out the printed word forever, it is good to know that books can still have the power to move a man, no matter that he is demented. And it is all the more heartening that it was Conrad in this case, and not Brett Easton Ellis.
"Give me the right word and the right accent and I will move the world," Conrad boasted in one of his letters. Quite right, old chap.
I COULD not read The Secret Agent, just as I couldn't Nostromo and Under Western Eyes, but about 10 years ago, I read all of his Malayan books, his Heart Of Darkness and a critical biography by Jocelyn Baines.
I came to Conrad by way of Graham Greene and. V. S. Naipaul. Greene used a line from the novel Victory as the epigraph for his 1978 book, The Human Factor: "I only know that he who forms a tie is lost. The germ of corruption has entered his soul."
I cannot remember if Greene mentions Conrad in either of his two memoirs, A Sort Of Life and Ways Of Escape. But I do remember reading somewhere that The Secret Agent is the prototype of the world-weary spy thrillers that Greene and John Le Carre are celebrated for. The hard-boiled private eye genre of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler can also be traced back to The Secret Agent and the writings of Conrad.
In a 1974 essay on the Polishborn author, Naipaul said that "60 years before ... Conrad had been everywhere before me".
Conrad's works are not so much novels as we know them, with fantasy, imagination and invention. Rather, because he had been a wandering seaman for 20 years before he settled down in his late 30s in Britain, he was already a man whose character had fully formed when he started writing.
So, instead of discovering himself and his world through his work, like most imaginative writers do, he already knew his world and he set down that world on paper.
It was the new world he wrote about, the world of half-made societies, and the white man's uneasy confrontation with it.
The white man came from an ordered, organised society. In the wilderness, freed from the civilising restraints of his society, he found he had no inner restraint ña heart of darkness: The wilderness released his "forgotten and brutal instincts", and he could gratify his most monstrous passions.
Kurtz in Heart Of Darkness is a good example. He goes to Africa with grandiose ideals: "... we whites must necessarily appear to them (the Savages) in the nature of supernatural beings ... By the simple exercise of our will, we can exert a power for good practically unbounded."
He allows himself to be deified by the natives and presides at "certain midnight dances ending with unspeakable rites".
Until recent years, I could see shades of Kurtz in well-meaning expatriates from the old world who could not understand why the natives did not want them to meddle in their affairs.
During his reign as editor of The Far Eastern Economic Review, Derek Davies was, in some ways, like Kurtzñ the last romantic, manning the last colonial outpost, using his magazine to exert his will on the natives who, though liberated, did not know any better.
He was a sneering Kurtz, mocking the natives' awkward attempts at English, and pronouncing all kinds of judgement on the way they conducted their lives and organised their societies.
Today, you get bargain-basement Kurtzes like Christopher Lingle and Stephen Wrage, who are not so much romantic as cynical. They make themselves out to be heroes in a new world which they do not realise is no longer half-made, and sell themselves to those rulers of the new imperial ernpire, the media, who cannot accept that their old world has cracked, and that the new world does not need their salvation.
"The horror, the horror," they cluck, and overnight, they can go from obscure academics to media stars.
MY FAVOURITE Conrad book is Victory, about a man who chooses to be detached so that he can pass through life without suffering and without a care in the world- "invulnerable because elusive".
Victory shows how emotional and moral isolation is untenable, because humanity calls, and, when the too-long isolated individual is tempted into action, he is ill-equipped to cope with its consequences. He just does not know how to. Tragedy is the inevitable outcome.
"Those dreamy spectators of the world's agitation are terrible once the desire to act gets hold of them. They lower their heads and charge a wall with an amazing serenity which nothing but an indisciplined imagination can give."
I have always seen myself as a spectator, the better to record the world's agitation, as it were, which is just about the only thing I can do fairly adequately.
I may have withheld myself for too long. Yet, to act may be to invite tragedy. Let me stay a guilty bystander.