The eve and the morrow

The great Colm Tóibín assembles and unfurls several aspects of Conrad in a review of a new book about the writer, sharing earlier appraisals by V.S. Naipaul and Chinua Achebe. How’s this for precision:

In his essay, Naipaul invokes Conrad as “a writer who is missing a society…. Conrad’s experience was too scattered; he knew many societies by their externals, but he knew none in depth.” And then he laments:

The great societies that produced the great novels of the past have cracked…. The novel as a form no longer carries conviction…. The novelist, like the painter, no longer recognizes his interpretative function; he seeks to go beyond it; and his audience diminishes. And so the world we inhabit, which is always new, goes by unexamined, made ordinary by the camera, unmeditated on.


Since Naipaul cannot detach himself as a writer from “the corruption of causes, half-made societies that seemed doomed to remain half-made,” he finds “that Conrad—sixty years before, in a time of a great peace—had been everywhere before me.” In rereading The Secret Agent, he discovers characters and phrases that strike him as “real” in a way they had not before. He notes a phrase—the “exasperated vanity of ignorance”—about one of the terrorists in the book who “took the part of an insolent and venomous evoker of sinister impulses which lurk in the blind envy and exasperated vanity of ignorance.”

As Naipaul grows to appreciate that phrase he sees something essential in Conrad: nouns that seemed muted or throttled by their adjectives, as though the impulse were merely to make a fine-sounding phrase or add impressively to the mystery, can, in fact, if studied carefully or read in a certain light, stand apart, become precise. He observes that Conrad, despite all his concern with ineffability, often meant business. “Words which at one time we disregard,” Naipaul wrote, “at another moment glitter.” Even though his “reservations about Conrad as a novelist remain,” still he cannot dismiss him: “Conrad’s value to me is that he is someone who sixty to seventy years ago meditated on my world, a world I recognize today. I feel this about no other writer of the century.”

Just go read it all. It’s Friday – what else are you doing? Plus you’ll be relieved of thinking about vulgarians for a while better for it.

Image: Marlon Brando as Colonel Kurtz.

Have You Seen The Bridge, part XXI

People wonder what is happening. I certainly do, and it’s a natural curiosity. If only we were free to pursue any and everything we wanted, things would be so much better. In more ways than we care to imagine, we remain quite free to do as we please. There are some limits to be acknowledged. But there always were.

This new Gallup poll, via, points up some reluctance to embrace either these limits or to remain free to do as we please, sort of one or the other but not both. It is a squinting sort of acknowledgment where, if you strain or blur yours eyes, everything looks the same. Note the wording of the question:

Even if? That’s quite a hypothetical, knowing what we know. The indulgence to qualify what we might be willing to do in the event that what is going on is actually going on trails off from some deep shallowness, an allowance, a remove, a disconnect, however we want to identify it. The present is not sinking in. Maybe our quintessential optimism had to spring from somewhere – and this abrupt denial of the choices before us, based on the ones we’ve taken off the table, is it.

It brings to mind a conversation with a friend last night, a painter on his way back to his studio in Kansas. He had been in New England and related a dinner conversation there where people, otherwise sympathetic to environmental causes, were lamenting the prospect of wind turbines proposed for the Nantucket Sound. It would ruin their views, he said in disbelief, adding that the sentiment ran much the same in the Flint Hills, where similar proposals were being greeted with similar opposition, based on the same reluctance to deform the spectacular views of rolling hills with those God-awful renewable energy sources.

I personally have a deep affinity for magnificent vistas. Should we wait until they become directly encroached upon by burning coal for power to have a clearer choice, to make a choice that wouldn’t have been so bad after all? The choice doesn’t seem so clear at this point. There’s a time gap in which, one suspects, a belief in the power to return to just before the tipping point prevails. If and when we sufficiently win ourselves over on the wisdom of making the right decisions (and it’s not inevitable), we’ll go back and do just that.

I appreciate this kind of reporting, even if it confirms what we already know, that describes, in fact, the engine which has transported us to this point in the first place. But, in terms of the twin fantasies of time travel and an ability to reconcile ourselves with needed measures, we need to figure out a way to get there from here.

Photograph: Natural Bridge, La Prele Canyon. Converse County, Wyoming, 1870. courtesy USGS