January 7, 2021

1. Miscellaneous

A. Pascal: “Since one can’t know everything about everything, one should know a little about everything” (il faut savoir peu de tout).

B. In the last issue, I wrote about trees, birds, etc. These thoughts were triggered by some NewYorkTimes essays that I read. As Emerson said, we read to get our own team of horses moving. The Emerson scholar Robert Richardson wrote a book called First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process.1

C. Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972) is an acclaimed movie by the German director Werner Herzog. It’s about Spanish conquistadors in the 1500s who travel east from Peru, over the Andes, then float down rivers, exploring the country and looking for gold. Though not historically accurate, it draws on the journal of a Spanish missionary, Gaspar de Carvajal, and it feels authentic. It shows the infighting and divisions that existed among the Spanish at that time. It’s an impressive work, with a tasteful simplicity and great scenes of SouthAmerican mountains, rivers, etc. It’s considered a significant work in film history, influencing later films like Apocalypse Now. But I can’t recommend Aguirre enthusiastically, the plot is rather flat.

D. Civilisations (2018) is an 8-hour documentary about art history, presented by Simon Schama and others. It’s a politically-correct version of Kenneth Clark’s 1969 series, Civilisation. I recommend the Schama series, it has lots of interesting information and beautiful scenes.

If PBS is trying to educate, why don’t they make the Schama series available for free? And why don’t they modernize and digitize the Clark series, then make it available for free? If they don’t make their programs available for free, then how does PBS differ from other networks?

E. The Crown is a Netflix series about the British royal family, particularly the current queen, Elizabeth II. Some people say, “I’m not going to watch it, I wouldn’t like it, I know that stuff already,” or “Those are trivial events — just ceremonies and dressing up.” But when they start watching The Crown, they become hooked because it’s well made, and more dramatic than they expected.

F. If you want a broad view of the contemporary world, here are three books that offer that:

2. Columnists

Here are some columnists you might enjoy:

Michael BaroneWashington Examiner
Matthew ContinettiNational Review
Niall FergusonBloomberg
Walter Russell Mead  Wall Street Journal
John PodhoretzNew York Post
Nouriel RoubiniProject Syndicate
Karl RoveWall Street Journal
Martin WolfFinancial Times

3. The American Dollar

Six months ago, Yale economist Stephen Roach predicted a crash in the dollar — that is, he predicted a decline in the American dollar of around 35% over the next year, versus other currencies. So far, it seems that Roach has been right; the dollar has indeed declined versus most major currencies. But it hasn’t crashed, it has declined gradually — around 10% over the last six months.2

Roach says that the value of a currency is an indication of a nation’s overall health: “It encapsulates a broad constellation of a nation’s value proposition — economic, financial, social, and political.” Other countries are starting to question the health of the U.S.: “The world is having serious doubts about the once widely accepted presumption of American exceptionalism.” One reason for these doubts is chaos in the streets of American cities: “Wrenching social turmoil not seen since the late 1960s [is one of the] painfully visible manifestations of America’s sharply diminished global leadership.” Roach says that Trump’s shenanigans also contributed to the decline of the dollar.

The American standard of living has been propped up by budget deficits and trade deficits, and by the dollar’s privileged position as the world’s reserve currency. We aren’t sustained by our own savings, but by the savings of foreigners. “America’s saving and current-account problems are about to come into play with a vengeance.”

What would benefit from a decline in the dollar? Bitcoin and gold would benefit, but Roach says that they aren’t significant factors in currency markets — the markets for Bitcoin and gold are too small to be significant. A decline in the dollar would probably mean a rise of the Euro and the Chinese Yuan.

* * * * *

Bitcoin continues to gain value, and gain a reputation for reliability. A currency like the dollar can be diluted by making more, but the supply of Bitcoins is limited, hence the value can’t be diluted. Niall Ferguson is justly proud that he’s been bullish on Bitcoin for several years. Bitcoin can’t handle lots of transactions quickly, but it can store value for wealthy individuals, corporations, etc. “Bitcoin is gradually being adopted,” Ferguson writes, “not so much as means of payment but as a store of value.” It’s probably harder to counterfeit Bitcoins than dollars.

One might suppose that creating Bitcoins is easier on the environment than mining gold, but actually it takes a great deal of computing power, and a great deal of electricity, to create Bitcoins.

4. Joseph Conrad

A. A Sketch of His Life

Joseph Conrad was born in 1857 in Berdychiv, which is now in Ukraine. He was born into the Polish nobility, the landowning class, but this class had been declining since the Russians took over in the late 1700s (Poland had been divided in the late 1700s between Russia, Austria, and Prussia). Conrad’s father wasn’t a member of the landed gentry, he was a member of the “working intelligentsia.”3

Conrad’s father introduced Conrad to Polish Romantic poets like Adam Mickiewicz. Conrad’s father and grandfather had aided the Polish independence movement, which aimed to throw off the Russian yoke. Conrad’s grandfather had fought in Napoleon’s army, during Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. Conrad’s father was imprisoned by the Russians in the Warsaw Citadel. Conrad later wrote, “In the courtyard of this Citadel — characteristically for our nation — my childhood memories begin.”

Conrad and his parents (Conrad was an only child) were later exiled for eight months to a city north of Moscow, a city “known for its bad climate.”4 Conrad’s mother died when he was 8, his father when he was 11; both died of tuberculosis. One might say that Conrad imbibed anti-Russian feelings with his mother’s milk. For the young Conrad, politics was a matter of life and death.

The region where Conrad was born was at a crossroads — an intersection of various peoples and nations. Poles like Conrad’s father would say that the region was rightfully Polish, and had been part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth for 300 years. But many of the people who lived in Berdychiv, where Conrad was born, were Jewish, and many of the people in the countryside were Ukrainian. While Poles tried to expel Russians, Ukrainians might try to expel Poles; Ukrainians might say that the region was Ukrainian before it was Polish.

Beginning in his childhood, Conrad had various physical and mental ailments. His physical ailments were regarded as psycho-somatic — an offshoot of his mental state. As a boy, Conrad enjoyed sea stories, like those written by Frederick Marryat. At 13, Conrad “announced his intention to become a sailor.” The young Conrad seemed more at home in the world of his imagination than in the real world. “A playmate of his adolescence recalled that Conrad spun fantastic yarns, always set at sea, presented so realistically that listeners thought the action was happening before their eyes.”

After his parents died, Conrad was cared for by his maternal uncle. When Conrad was 15, his uncle sent him to a boarding school in what is now western Ukraine. The owner’s daughter later recalled,

He stayed with us ten months... Intellectually he was extremely advanced but [he] disliked school routine, which he found tiring and dull; he used to say [he] planned to become a great writer.... He disliked all restrictions. At home, at school, or in the living room he would sprawl unceremoniously. [He suffered] from severe headaches and nervous attacks.4B

At 16, Conrad was sent to Marseilles to join the French merchant marine. At 20, his career stalled after he had a problem with his papers (immigration papers); he fell into debt and attempted suicide “by shooting himself in the chest with a revolver.”5 At 21, he joined the British merchant marine, and remained there until he was 36, working his way up to captain. He interrupted his tenure in the British merchant marine to work briefly for a Belgian ship on the Congo River, an adventure that inspired his novella, Heart of Darkness.

At 36, Conrad left the merchant marine because his health was poor, and because he wanted to make his way as a writer. At 38, he published his first novel, Almayer’s Folly, which was set in Borneo. At 39, he married an Englishwoman, Jessie George. “Jessie was an unsophisticated, working-class girl, sixteen years younger than Conrad. To his friends, she was an inexplicable choice of wife.”6 When I wrote about the psychology of genius, I noted that Goethe and Heine married lower-class women. Conrad and Jessie had two children.

After meeting Conrad and Jessie, Ottoline Morrell wrote, “His manner was perfect, almost too elaborate; so nervous and sympathetic that every fiber of him seemed electric.” Morrell described Jessie as “a good and reposeful mattress for this hypersensitive, nerve-wracked man, who did not ask from his wife high intelligence, only an assuagement of life’s vibrations.” Bertrand Russell described Conrad thus:

He spoke English with a very strong foreign accent, and nothing in his demeanor in any way suggested the sea. He was an aristocratic Polish gentleman to his fingertips.... At our very first meeting, we talked with continually increasing intimacy. We seemed to sink through layer after layer of what was superficial, till gradually both reached the central fire.... We looked into each other’s eyes, half appalled and half intoxicated to find ourselves together in such a region.

Conrad and Russell remained friends until Conrad’s death.

At 47, Conrad published Nostromo, often called his best novel (F. Scott Fitzgerald said that Nostromo was “the great novel of the past fifty years”).7

According to Wikipedia, Conrad had “a genius for companionship,” and he was on friendly terms with many of the writers of his day, including Henry James, André Gide, and Ford Madox Ford. As a teenager in Marseilles, “Conrad had an intensive social life, often stretching his budget.” At 31, when he was on the island of Mauritius, Conrad’s “excellent French and perfect manners opened all local salons to him.”

Though Conrad’s early works brought him a reputation in the literary world, popular success eluded him, and he was often short of money. At 56, he finally achieved popular success with the novel Chance, “which is often considered one of his weaker novels.”

At 66, Conrad died of a heart attack. His grave in Canterbury is inscribed with a quotation from Spenser, a quotation that he had used as an epigraph for his last novel:

Sleep after toil, port after stormy seas,
Ease after war, death after life, doth greatly please.

B. On Russia

Conrad had a deep grasp of politics. For him, the great powers of Europe were like chess-pieces, and he could anticipate, not just the next move, but the move after that. When World War I broke out, Conrad predicted that Poland would gain its independence if the Central Powers (Germany and Austria) defeated Russia, and then the Allied Powers (France and Britain) defeated the Central Powers.8

But no sooner did Poland gain its independence than it had to fight to protect its borders from Ukrainians and from the new Soviet regime in Russia. The borders that were awarded at the conference table would need to be vindicated on the battlefield. In 1920, Conrad’s hometown of Berdychiv became part of the reborn Polish state, but it was soon torn away by Ukraine, which became part of the Soviet Union.

In 1905, Conrad wrote an essay on world affairs called “Autocracy and War.” The essay begins by discussing an ongoing war, the Russo-Japanese War. The war wasn’t going well for Russia, and inside Russia there were uprisings against the Czar’s regime, just as, ten years later, World War I didn’t go well for Russia, and there were more uprisings against the Czar’s regime. Conrad’s essay was published in July, 1905, just two months before Russia and Japan signed a peace treaty in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The war had begun in early 1904; it lasted 18 months, and ended with a Japanese victory.9

Conrad at 47
around the time he wrote “Autocracy and War”

Conrad describes the Russo-Japanese War as a kind of rehearsal for World War I. He speaks of, “the struggles in Manchuria engaging half a million of men on fronts of sixty miles, struggles lasting for weeks, flaming up fiercely and dying away from sheer exhaustion.” Conrad says that, when we read about these faraway battles in the newspaper, they don’t trouble us much. But Conrad foresees, with the prophetic gift of genius, that soon there will be battles closer to home:

We shall have a wealth of appallingly unpleasant sensations brought home to us with painful intimacy, while the apostles of war’s sanctity will crawl away swiftly into the holes where they belong, somewhere in the yellow basements of newspaper offices.... War is with us now; and, whether this one ends soon or late, war will be with us again. And it is the way of true wisdom for men and states to take account of things as they are.

Conrad notes that modern war destroys the soul as well as the body:

In both armies, many men are driven beyond the bounds of sanity by the stress of moral and physical misery. Great numbers of soldiers and regimental officers go mad.

(In an earlier issue, I discussed the English poet Wilfred Owen, one of those whose mind was unhinged by World War I.)

In 1905, the war was far away, but Conrad could sense that the atmosphere in Europe was darkening. He describes an early-Victorian “sentimentalist” who looked at the crowds on Fleet Street, and “wept for joy at seeing so much life.” But no one would weep for joy at such a sight today, Conrad says. “I should think that now, after eighty years, the emotion would be of a sterner sort.”

In the novels of Dickens, tears flow frequently, but Conrad is known for restrained emotion: “He scorned sentimentality; his manner of portraying emotion in his books was full of restraint, skepticism and irony.”10 So Conrad differs from Dickens, who was born about forty years before Conrad. Conrad’s restrained emotion reminds one of Hemingway, who was born about forty years after Conrad; Hemingway was a big fan of Conrad, as I noted in an earlier issue.

One might say that our response to a crowd on Fleet Street is an individual matter, not a reflection of the atmosphere of the age. But Conrad points out that the individual is molded by his time, and reflects his time: “The psychology of individuals, even in the most extreme instances, reflects the general effect of the fears and hopes of the time.” As the psychologist Erik Erikson put it, “We cannot separate personal growth and communal change, nor can we separate [the] identity crisis in individual life and contemporary crises in historical development.”11

We saw above how Conrad’s hatred of Russia had been building up for generations. In the essay “Autocracy and War,” the dam breaks, the hatred pours forth. I never heard anyone criticize any nation as harshly as Conrad criticizes Russia.

He says that the Czar’s regime was born in “an unspeakable baseness of subjection to the Khans of the Tartar Horde.” The Czar’s regime “has never been sanctioned by popular tradition, by ideas of loyalty, of devotion.... Its only sanction has been the fear of the lash.” The Czars are

mere owners of slaves.... In whatever upheaval Autocratic Russia is to find her end, it can never be a revolution fruitful of moral consequences to mankind. It cannot be anything else but a rising of slaves.... It is safe to say that tyranny, assuming a thousand protean shapes, will remain clinging to [Russia’s] struggles for a long time.11B

In light of the history of Russia in the 20th century, Conrad’s criticisms seem justified. The tyranny of the Soviet regime makes Czarist tyranny seem mild and benevolent. Is it surprising that Russia’s current government has tyrannical features — murdering journalists on the street, poisoning opposition leaders, etc.?

Conrad describes Russia as

a bottomless abyss that has swallowed up every hope of mercy, every aspiration towards personal dignity, towards freedom, towards knowledge; every ennobling desire of the heart, every redeeming whisper of conscience....

This despotism has neither a European nor an Oriental parentage.... It is a visitation, like a curse from heaven falling in the darkness of ages upon the human plains of forest and steppe, lying dumbly on the confines of two continents: a true desert harboring no spirit either of the East or of the West. This pitiful fate of a country, held by an evil spell....

From the very first ghastly dawn of her existence as a state, she had to breathe the atmosphere of despotism, she found nothing but the arbitrary will of an obscure Autocrat at the beginning and end of her organization.

Conrad is contemptuous of Russia’s performance on the battlefield:

As a military power, it has never achieved by itself a single great thing.... Even the half-armed were always too much for the might of Russia.... It was victorious only as against the practically disarmed.... In its attacks upon its specially selected victim, this giant always struck as if with a withered right hand.

As for Russia defeating Napoleon, Conrad concedes that Russia was “able to repel an ill-considered invasion, but only by having recourse to the extreme methods of desperation.” Forty years after Conrad wrote this, Russia repelled another “ill-considered invasion.” Russian patriots will long remember Russia’s victories over Napoleon and Hitler.

C. On Dostoyevsky

Did Conrad extend his criticism to Russian writers like Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy? Conrad says that “the poison of slavery drugged the national temperament into the apathy of a hopeless fatalism. It seems to have gone into the blood, tainting every mental activity in its source by a half-mystical, insensate, fascinating assertion of purity and holiness.” This half-mystical assertion of holiness is what one finds in Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy.

Conrad took a dim view of Dostoyevsky: “The detested Dostoyevsky,” one Conrad scholar writes, “was for Conrad practically identified with Russianness.” “He is too Russian for me,” Conrad wrote of Dostoyevsky, “it sounds to me like some fierce mouthings from prehistoric ages.” Dostoyevsky’s political views may have contributed to Conrad’s animosity; “of Poles and their national aspirations [Dostoyevsky] was openly contemptuous.”12

And there was a philosophical difference between Dostoyevsky and Conrad. “For Dostoyevsky, God was necessary for the existence of a moral order.” On the other hand, Conrad was an agnostic who found Christianity “distasteful.” Conrad “believed that moral norms are man-made, shaped and passed on by tradition.... His ethical dramas were played out in the categories of duty, fidelity and honor.” While Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy remain within the “gravitational field” of Christianity, Conrad subscribes to a non-Christian morality; this may be one reason why Conrad was idolized by later writers like Hemingway and Fitzgerald.13

And finally, there was an aesthetic difference between Dostoyevsky and Conrad. Dostoyevsky was “verbose, disorderly in construction of his stories, wallowing in exhibitionist introspection.” Conrad, on the other hand, “declares his repugnance at the ‘open display of sentiment’ and preaches restraint.”

Conrad was more respectful toward Tolstoy, but it was a moderate respect. Conrad criticized Tolstoy’s “anti-sensualism,” and he criticized the “monstrous stupidity” of Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata. Conrad’s favorite Russian writer was the mellow Ivan Turgenev. In general, Conrad preferred French writers to Russian writers, and his favorite French writer was Flaubert — the cool, controlled Flaubert.

When I discussed the fiction of Mark Twain, I said that his characters and incidents were usually based on real characters and real incidents. Conrad also drew on real characters and real incidents; he often named characters after people he knew. He would have agreed with Twain’s remark,

If you attempt to create a wholly imagined incident, adventure or situation, you will go astray and the artificiality will be detectable, but if you found on fact in your personal experience, it is an acorn, a root, and every created adornment that grows out of it... will seem reality, not invention.

D. On Germany

Conrad says that Europeans don’t realize “the worth and force of the inner life,” and don’t realize that “even in the greatest darkness there is nothing that we need fear.” So they want to assert themselves by physical activity. “‘Let us act lest we perish’ is the cry.”

European nations long to “grow in territory, in strength, in wealth, in influence — in anything but wisdom and self-knowledge.” And so they turn to war to satisfy their longing for action and growth. “Never before has war received so much homage at the lips of men, never has it reigned with less undisputed sway in their minds.” The apostles of war preach “the gospel of the mystic sanctity of its sacrifices.”

Conrad looks back nostalgically on the old monarchies; he speaks of, “the regard paid to certain forms of conventional decency.” But now Europe has no such regard for decency, no principle capable of restraining ambition, greed, and national aspirations. Conrad says prophetically, Beware Germany:

It is a powerful and voracious organism, full of unscrupulous self-confidence, whose appetite for aggrandizement will only be limited by the power of helping itself to the severed members of its friends and neighbors. The era of wars, so eloquently denounced by the old republicans as the peculiar blood-guilt of dynastic ambitions, is by no means over yet.

Conrad says that the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 was characterized by “a special intensity of hate.” Bismarck wanted “to see men, women and children — emphatically the children, too — of the abominable French nation massacred off the face of the earth.”

E. Pessimism

Nietzsche called himself an immoralist, and he felt that civilization advanced, not by grand moral ideals, but by the conquests of the powerful. Nietzsche admired conquerors like Caesar and Napoleon. Conrad, on the other hand, put his faith in moral ideals, and felt that Napoleon had done great harm. Conrad speaks of, “the solidarity of Europeanism which must be the next step towards the advent of Concord and Justice; an advent that has been and remains the only possible goal of our progress.” But Conrad saw little chance of this goal being reached.

Conrad is pessimistic, perhaps because he lived in a dark time, perhaps because of personal factors — his tendency toward depression, the early deaths of his parents, the plight of his homeland, etc. He sometimes embraces “a sort of blanket incredulity... the negation of all faith, devotion, and action.”14 He compared the universe to a machine:

The most withering thought is that the infamous thing has made itself; made itself without thought, without conscience, without foresight, without eyes, without heart. It is a tragic accident... you can’t even smash it.... It knits us in and it knits us out. It has knitted time, space, pain, death, corruption, despair and all the illusions — and nothing matters.

This passage shows how, when people lost their faith in God, it was difficult to take an upbeat view of the world. This passage also shows how a mechanical view of the world can lead to pessimism, hence an organic view of the world is man’s best hope.

In a letter to a friend, Conrad wrote, “In this world — as I have known it — we are made to suffer without the shadow of a reason, of a cause or of guilt.... There is no morality, no knowledge and no hope.” Conrad takes a bleak view of the end of the world: “A moment, a twinkling of an eye and nothing remains — but a clod of mud, of cold mud, of dead mud cast into black space, rolling around an extinguished sun. Nothing. Neither thought, nor sound, nor soul. Nothing.” (In an earlier issue, I took a more upbeat view of the end of the world.) Conrad’s pessimism is evident in his fiction: “In keeping with his skepticism and melancholy, Conrad almost invariably gives lethal fates to the characters in his principal novels and stories.”

In the passage I quoted earlier, Conrad spoke of, “the solidarity of Europeanism.” Both Conrad and Nietzsche wanted to see Europe become more united.15 Conrad felt that, after the Napoleonic Wars, Europe seemed to be coming together; he speaks of, “The idea of a Europe united in the solidarity of her dynasties, which for a moment seemed to dawn on the horizon of the Vienna Congress.”

But this hope has been dashed by the rise of an aggressive, ruthless Prussia. Quoting a “distinguished statesman of the old tradition,” Conrad writes, “‘Il n’y a plus d’Europe!’ There is, indeed, no Europe.... There is only an armed and trading continent, the home of slowly maturing economical contests for life and death.” Conrad concludes his essay thus: “So far as a future of liberty, concord and justice is concerned, ‘Le Prussianisme — voilà l’ennemi!’”16

F. Further Reading

If you want to learn more about Conrad, Zdzislaw Najder wrote Joseph Conrad: A Life (revised edition 2007), Frederick Karl wrote Joseph Conrad: The Three Lives, and Albert Guerard wrote a critical study of Conrad called Conrad the Novelist. Robert Hampson has edited several Conrad volumes, and his biography (Joseph Conrad) has been called “the best short guide to Conrad’s life.” Conrad wrote two autobiographical works, The Mirror of the Sea, and A Personal Record (also known as Some Reminiscences).

There are several Conrad associations, and they each have a website; the American association is here, the British here.

© L. James Hammond 2021
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1. Richardson quoted Emerson in his biography Emerson: The Mind on Fire, Ch. 28, p. 173. The exact phrase is, “You only read to start your own team.” When Emerson wrote this, he was giving advice to a young intellectual named Charles Woodbury, who later wrote Talks With Emerson. I found the phrase in Richardson’s introduction to an essay collection called Emerson and Thoreau: A Batch from The New England Quarterly.

Emerson’s use of the word “team” reminds me of “teamster,” meaning a union worker. Teamsters were originally those who drove a team of horses, as we see on their logo:

Language is history. back

2. If we compare the dollar to the euro, we find that on May 11, 2020, one dollar would buy you .93 euros, but on January 4, 2021, one dollar would only buy you .81 euros. On May 26, one dollar would buy you 7.14 yuan, but on January 4, only 6.46 yuan. On May 13, one dollar would buy you 24.19 Mexican pesos, but on January 4, only 19.75 pesos. back
3. Wikipedia. All quotes in this essay are from Wikipedia or from Conrad’s essay “Autocracy and War,” unless otherwise indicated.

One might compare Poland to Korea. As Poland was squeezed between Russia, Austria, and Prussia, and struggled to maintain its independence, so Korea was squeezed between Russia, China, and Japan. back

4. The city was Vologda. A monument to Conrad was erected there in 2013, and taken down in 2016. Perhaps it was erected when Russians were ready to admit their past mistakes, ready to admit their harsh foreign policy, ready to honor a writer who was virulently anti-Russian. Then it was taken down when Russians became more nationalistic, and didn’t want to admit past mistakes. back
4B. Genius often has psychological problems, problems that are apparent in childhood. When I discussed Gide, I said “Like Jung, Gide had a childhood neurosis that kept him out of school for long periods.” back
5. Conrad seems to have had gambling losses, too. The Conrad scholar Zdzislaw Najder speaks of Conrad’s “youthful casino debacle in Monte Carlo, which ended with an attempted suicide.”(Conrad in Perspective, Ch. 10) back
6. After Conrad died, Jessie wrote several books about him. Conrad’s son Borys also wrote a book about him. back
7. There’s an annotated version of Nostromo at nostromoonline.com. back
8. Conrad wasn’t the only novelist with a deep grasp of politics. In earlier issues, I noted how Graham Greene anticipated how events would unfold in Vietnam, and E. M. Forster anticipated how events would unfold in India. back
9. In earlier issues, I discussed two other essays written shortly before World War I — one by Lewis Namier, and another by Guglielmo Ferrero. back
10. Who was the early-Victorian “sentimentalist”? Was it Dickens? Despite their differences, Conrad seems to have been a fan of Dickens. back
11. Youth: Identity and Crisis, Prologue, #3. If philosophy can change the atmosphere, change the “fears and hopes,” then this change will seep into all individuals. A more hopeful philosophy, a more optimistic answer to the ultimate questions, will affect all individuals. back
11B. One wonders if Conrad’s essay was read by George Kennan, who criticized the Czar’s regime in books like Siberia and the Exile System (1891). Wikipedia calls Kennan “an ardent critic of the Russian autocracy.” When the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917, Kennan realized that they would be no better than the Czar’s regime, and Kennan wanted Woodrow Wilson to take strong measures against the Bolsheviks. Kennan’s younger relative, also named George Kennan, was one of the leading Russia experts of his time. back
12. The quotes in this paragraph, and the next three paragraphs (ending with “the cool, controlled Flaubert”), are from Najder’s Conrad in Perspective, Ch. 10, “Conrad, Russia and Dostoyevsky.” back
13. Perhaps we should compare Conrad to Kipling, who was born in 1865, eight years after Conrad. Like Conrad, Kipling advocated a morality of duty and stoicism, the sort of morality that you might find in an army, or on a ship. Like Conrad, Kipling is known for writing about foreign climes, not life in England. back
14. Will a future novelist, who isn’t burdened by this pessimistic worldview, achieve more than Conrad? back
15. One of Conrad’s friends, the Pole Jozef Retinger, was the co-founder of the European Movement, a precursor of the European Union. Retinger wrote a book called Conrad and His Contemporaries. back
16. Conrad speaks of, “the envious acquisitive temperament of the last comer amongst the great Powers of the Continent [i.e., Germany], whose feet are not exactly in the ocean — not yet, whose head is very high up.” This implies German hubris (“whose head is very high up”). Does hubris lead to destruction? Doesn’t the Bible say, “Pride goeth before a fall”? Conrad doesn’t predict Germany’s defeat, but it probably wouldn’t surprise him.

While Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky foresaw genocide, Conrad probably didn’t. And Conrad didn’t foresee that Japan might be as aggressive as Germany; he praises Japan for defeating Russia, for performing “an important mission in the world’s struggle against all forms of evil.” Conrad didn’t realize that Japan itself was a form of evil. And Conrad felt that nothing could be worse than the Czar’s regime, he didn’t suspect that Stalin and Hitler would be far worse.

Now that Germany has been defeated, and Europe has grown weary of war, the idea of European unity has again come to the fore. But there’s still no principle capable of restraining ambition and national aspirations, there are still rogue nations (Russia, China, Iran, etc.) that seem intent on disturbing the peace, as Germany and Japan once did. back