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THE MORALITY OF CONRAD'S IMAGINATION / Daniel Melnick IN A LETTER written as he was beginning Lord Jim, Conrad describes the problem of discerning and firmly holding the values by which life may be lived, and his remarks identify an issue central to the reading and criticism of his works: the difficulty of defining Conrad's values. In his letter, the same English novelist of decent commitments who would write that Jim is "one of us," speaks with the voice of the profound pessimist of obscure European origin. There is no morality, no knowledge and no hope: there is only the consciousness of ourselves which drives us about a world that is always but a vain and floating appearance.1 What exactly was the novelist's view of the social and moral condition of human life? The difficulty of answering the question grows out of the conflict between Conrad's basic yet sometimes only suggested pessimism and his explicit affirmations. His finest novels lead the reader into a world of "vain and floating appearance," into a symbolic heart of darkness where he is made to doubt the reality and effective value of all social and personal order. Yet, in the face of the evoked moral disintegration, Conrad's narrators often affirm a morality of decency and fidelity, of "human solidarity." This contradiction between pessimism and affirmation is a complex and integral part of our experience of reading the novels. I want here to examine the elements of the contradiction—this ambiguous tension—in Conrad's finest work. Central to his pessimism is a subversive perception of the vacant, indeed malevolent nature of reality, a perception which grew steadily in the mind of Conrad, most of whose childhood was spent with a sick and pessimistic father in political exile from his native Poland and who spent half of his manhood without roots in any homeland, sailing the world's oceans as a merchant seaman. In his view, reality provides man with a shattering test to the endurance of his human identity, to the value of his every thought and act. And in each of Conrad's best novels, the heart of the vision of reality toward which everything leads and from which all falls away is hollow, both literally and symbolically an inhuman and thus malevolent core. In Heart of Darkness, the center and climax of vision is Kurtz's The Missouri Review · 239 "hollow voice," compelling, horror-struck, and perverted. The center of the reality richly envisioned in Nostromo is Mount Azuera with the silver which is its issue, both inevitably and destructively indifferent to human life. Yet, Conrad's pessimism is ambiguous. The "heart of darkness" into which his finest fiction leads the reader is itself at the center of a vision rendered by a vital imaginative richness of language, scene, and character. There are, for example, those expansive and detailed impressionistic visions of human life in the disintegrating Costaguana of Nostromo, in anarchic and oppressive London of The Secret Agent, or Europe's imperialistic venture in the Africa evoked by Heart of Darkness itself. These visualizations are brilliant, rich, and surely constructed; yet as each is imagined, the envisioned life is, of course, profoundly precarious—threatened or, indeed, destroyed by forces within characters , societies, and nature. • The reader is made to penetrate and to question the reality and value of a world which has been given the illusion of depth and substance. This paradox in Conrad's best novels is central to their power, and to their modernity. For the modern consciousness is concerned with the relativity and potential destructiveness of all ordering, and the modern imagination in Conrad—as in the works of later twentieth century novelists—exists amid the disordered ruin of disintegrating social and moral reality. Given such a desperately paradoxical situation, what values can modern fiction embody? Must it, indeed, project a nihilistic acquiescence to meaninglessness? This is the question posed implicitly when, in the face of the evoked moral disintegration, Conrad's narrators often affirm a basic code of decency and commitment. The novelist's allegiances seem here to be divided between two opposed world views: that human experience is inevitably destructive, and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9930
Print ISSN
0191-1961
Pages
pp. 139-156
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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