Nov 26 2016

Joseph Conrad and the Skulls of Berlin

mortadella in Bologna, Italia

Joseph Conrad and the Skulls of Berlin

This news story from Deutsche Welle about an unclaimed collection of African skulls in Berlin reminded me of a passage from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899):

“The old doctor felt my pulse, evidently thinking of something else the while. ‘Good, good for there,’ he mumbled, and then with a certain eagerness asked me whether I would let him measure my head. Rather surprised, I said Yes, when he produced a thing like calipers and got the dimensions back and front and every way, taking notes carefully. He was an unshaven little man in a threadbare coat like a gaberdine, with his feet in slippers, and I thought him a harmless fool. ‘I always ask leave, in the interests of science, to measure the crania of those going out there,’ he said. ‘And when they come back, too?’ I asked. ‘Oh, I never see them,’ he remarked; ‘and, moreover, the changes take place inside, you know.’ He smiled, as if at some quiet joke. ‘So you are going out there. Famous. Interesting, too.’ He gave me a searching glance, and made another note. ‘Ever any madness in your family?’ he asked, in a matter-of-fact tone. I felt very annoyed. ‘Is that question in the interests of science, too?’ ‘It would be,’ he said, without taking notice of my irritation, ‘interesting for science to watch the mental changes of individuals, on the spot, but…’ ‘Are you an alienist?’ I interrupted. ‘Every doctor should be—a little,’ answered that original, imperturbably. ‘I have a little theory which you messieurs who go out there must help me to prove. This is my share in the advantages my country shall reap from the possession of such a magnificent dependency. The mere wealth I leave to others. Pardon my questions, but you are the first Englishman coming under my observation…’ I hastened to assure him I was not in the least typical. ‘If I were,’ said I, ‘I wouldn’t be talking like this with you.’ ‘What you say is rather profound, and probably erroneous,’ he said, with a laugh. ‘Avoid irritation more than exposure to the sun. Adieu. How do you English say, eh? Good-bye. Ah! Good-bye. Adieu. In the tropics one must before everything keep calm.’… He lifted a warning forefinger…. ‘Du calme, du calme.’


Nov 22 2016

A Dialogue of High Adventure & Misdemeanors

bookbread typewriter

A Dialogue of High Adventure & Misdemeanors

let us try / Adventurous work

––Satan, Paradise Lost[1]

Everything is legal.

––Thénardier, Les Misérables[2]

SCENE: Consider the Plagiarist who was successful and had money to spare and how he encountered the Crime Writer who was muddling through her career, sometimes writing fiction, sometimes non:

I.

CRIME WRITER: Has anyone ever called you a criminal?

PLAGIARIST: I prefer to be called a “master of disguising quotations.” It’s the thrill of masquerade when all the world’s a stage….

CRIME WRITER: Has anyone ever accused you of being an adventurer?

PLAGIARIST: No, but I think I know what you mean. There is something of a riddle in how adventure sometimes functions as a synonym for criminal enterprise. An Oxford don named Tolkien played around with this idea in the opening chapter of The Hobbit (1936). But I first learned of this riddle from that Gallic journalist André Gide (1869–1951) and his character of Lafcadio in The Caves of the Vatican (1914): a motiveless criminal:

“No doubt his apparent inconsequence hides what is in reality, a subtler and more recondite sequence—the important point is that what makes him act should not be a matter of interest, or, as the usual phrase is, that he should not be merely actuated by interested motives…. A crime without a motive,” went on Lafcadio, “what a puzzle for the police! As to that, however, going along beside this blessed bank, anybody in the next-door compartment might notice the door open and the old blighter’s shadow pitch out. The corridor curtains, at any rate, are drawn…. It’s not so much about events that I’m curious, as about myself. There’s many a man thinks he’s capable of anything, who draws back when it comes to the point…. What a gulf between the imagination and the deed! … And no more right to take back one’s move than at chess. Pooh! If one could foresee all the risks, there’d be no interest in the game! …. Between the imagination of a deed and … Hullo! the bank’s come to an end….”  He preferred adventure—a word as pliable as his beaver and as easily twisted to suit his liking…. There is no reason that a man who commits a crime without reason should be considered a criminal.[3]

CRIME WRITER: You certainly can quote when called upon. But don’t expect me today to pay you for yesterday’s words.

PLAGIARIST: There’re plenty who do pay. I don’t need you. And I can perplex at will. I will perplex you with a question: can one be a law-abider––a non-criminal, full of motives or empty of inclinations––and still, nonetheless, possess “the philanthropic desire of giving the criminals something to do?” Or is that urge something that happens only amid the anarchy in the heart of the African jungle of Nod, rather than the governance of the Arabic garden of Eden?[4]

CRIME WRITER: With all my experience of writing about high adventures and misdemeanors, I well remember what Captain Conrad taught me:

Curiosity being one of the forms of self-revelation, a systematically incurious person remains always partly mysterious.[5]

which was why––

After two years of training he went to sea, and entering the regions so well known to [Jim’s] imagination, found them strangely barren of adventure. He made many voyages.[6]

So to seek adventure—to pursue crime—is rather boring, at least for crime writers like me. Yet the incurious teem with intrigue….

II.

CRIME WRITER: Gide, Conrad, and Gramsci. Besides being a bunch of men, how are these relevant to our dialogue?

PLAGIARIST: the political prisoner Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937), whether or not technically a “criminal,” certainly possessed motives and rendered them upon the pages of his notebooks. He was motived to philosophize in order to rise above religion and common sense:

Philosophy is intellectual order, which neither religion nor common sense can be. It is to be observed that religion and common sense do not coincide either, but that religion is an element of fragmented common sense. Moreover common sense is a collective noun, like religion: there is not just one common sense, for that too is a product of history and a part of the historical process. Philosophy is criticism and superseding of religion and “common” sense. [7]

On the other hand, for sea captain Joseph Conrad (1857–1924) if a society’s objects of royalty and religion make not good targets for terrorists (who are criminals, members of anti-society), then– at least in his novel The Secret Agent (1907)––science emerges as the preferred target for terrorists, the new motive of criminality:

“You are too lazy to think,” was Mr Vladimir’s comment upon that gesture. “Pay attention to what I say. The fetish of to-day is neither royalty nor religion. Therefore the palace and the church should be left alone. You understand what I mean, Mr Verloc?” …. But there is learning—science. Any imbecile that has got an income believes in that. He does not know why, but he believes it matters somehow. It is the sacrosanct fetish….[8]

Finally, through his character of James Duffy, exiled penman James Joyce (1882–1941) shows that to be a good citizen of a murderous empire, a non-criminal needs merely no royalty (if Irish at least), a few friends, and a little religion. These things make the life of the good citizen “adventureless”:

He had neither companions nor friends, church nor creed. He lived his spiritual life without any communion with others, visiting his relatives at Christmas and escorting them to the cemetery when they died. He performed these two social duties for old dignity’s sake but conceded nothing further to the conventions which regulate the civic life. He allowed himself to think that in certain circumstances he would rob his hank but, as these circumstances never arose, his life rolled out evenly—an adventureless tale.[9]

CRIME WRITER: Crime and adventure….

PLAGIARIST: Advice and censure….

NOTES

wood-h-small

[1] Milton, John. Paradise Lost. 1667. X, 254–55. Compare 439–41.

[2] Hugo, Victor. Les Misérables. 1860. IV, vi, i.

[3] Gide, André. Les caves du Vatican. (Lafcadio’s Adventures.) 1914. Translated by Dorothy Bussy. NY: Knopf. 1953. IV, vii; V, i and ii.

[4] Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. 1899. § I.

[5] Conrad, The Secret Agent: a Simple Tale. 1907. XI.

[6] Conrad, Lord Jim. 1900. II.

[7] Gramsci, Antonio. Quaderni del carcere. 1929–1935. (Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci.) Edited and translated by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith. NY: International Publishers. 1971. “The Study of Philosophy” 325–26.

[8] Conrad, The Secret Agent: a Simple Tale II.

[9] Joyce, James. Dubliners. 1914. “A Painful Case.”


Nov 15 2016

Pondering Pipes with Conrad, Gide, & Dostoevsky

pencil shavings

Pondering Pipes with Conrad, Gide, & Dostoevsky

Each of the five sections of Les caves du Vatican (Lafcadio’s Adventures) begins with an epigram. The fifth section, “Lafcadio” begins with an epigram from Conrad’s Lord Jim (1900),[1] written fifteen years prior. Gide writes:

His beaver hat was pulled down over his eyes and kept out the landscape; he was smoking dried juniper, after the Algerian fashion, in a little clay pipe and letting his thoughts wander at their will.[1]

Now compare Lord Jim:

When he moved, a skeleton seemed to sway loose in his clothes; his walk was mere wandering, and he was given to wander thus around the engine-room skylight, smoking, without relish, doctored tobacco in a brass bowl at the end of a cherrywood stem four feet long, with the imbecile gravity of a thinker evolving a system of philosophy from the hazy glimpse of a truth.[3]

On the other hand, Dostoevsky’s character of Makar Devushkin can do anything but think when he puffs his pipe:

Frankly, sweet, I can sit with them, listen to what is said, even smoke a pipe like them, but when they begin to argue about all sorts of lofty maters, I just keep quiet. Yes, dear, I’m sure that both you and I, we’d have to keep quiet most of the time. I turn out to be a real, poor fool, and I am ashamed of myself sitting there all evening, trying to put in a word on those lofty subjects, but never finding that wretched word! And I’m sorry that I’m not up to them, Varinka, that, as the saying goes, “a man can be fully grown and still have no mind of his own.” For what do you think I do with myself in my spare time? Well, I just sleep like a fool. Ah, it’d be better if, instead of wasting my time sleeping, I could do something useful—sit down and write, for instance. It’d be good for me, and perhaps of some use to theirs. Why, my dear, you can’t imagine how much they get for it, God forgive them![4]

So what was Gide getting at? Why did he feel the need to rewrite the passage from Conrad? What was the basis for the Frenchman’s anxiety of influence?

NOTES

wood-h-small

[1] Gide, André. Les caves du Vatican. (Lafcadio’s Adventures.) 1914. Translated by Dorothy Bussy. NY: Knopf. 1953.  “V. Lafcadio,” i, 176.

[2] Gide, Les caves du Vatican. (Lafcadio’s Adventures) “V. Lafcadio,” i, 178–79. The quotation runs:

“There is only one remedy! One thing alone can cure us from being ourselves! …” “Yes; strictly speaking, the question is not how to get cured, but how to live.”

–Ch. XX

[3] Conrad, Joseph. Lord Jim. 1900. Lord Jim: The Authoritative Text. Edited by Thomas C. Moser. NY: Norton. 1968.  III, p. 15–16.

[4] Dostoevsky, Poor Folk. 1846. In Dostoevsky – Three Short Novels. Translated by Andrew R. MacAndrew. Bantam Books, NY. 1966. “June 26,” p. 70.