This is found in the writer’s preface to a work whose title, perhaps even whose content — in the manner in which it makes of a West Indian sailor aboard a Bombay to London merchant ship a sometimes odious and undeniably complex metaphor — poses problems for modern shibboleths and sensibilities. And, though I aspire always to challenge “political correctness” I deem it unfortunate that Conrad didn’t stay with either of the original titles, i.e., A Tale of the Sea, or Children of the Sea.
The work ultimately became kn0wn as , The N****r of the Narcissus. It is a profound work, and a great “tale of the sea.”
What follows, as noted, are the introductory paragraphs of the novel’s preface, Conrad’s famous artistic manifesto of what some have characterized as “literary impressionism.”
I’m fond of it. It follows here:
A work that aspires, however humbly, to the condition of art should carry its justification in every line. And art itself may be defined as a single-minded attempt to render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe ( emphasis added), by bringing to light the truth, manifold and one, underlying its every aspect. It is an attempt to find in its forms, in its colors, in its light, in its shadows, in the aspects of matter and in the facts of life what of each is fundamental, what is enduring and essential — their one illuminating and convincing quality — the very truth of their existence. The artists then, like the thinker or the scientist, seeks the truth and makes his appeal. Impressed by the aspect of the world the thinker plunges into ideas, the scientist into facts — whence, presently, emerging they make their appeal to those qualities of our being that fit us best for the hazardous enterprise of living. They speak authoritively to our common sense, to our intelligence, to our desire of peace or to our desire of unrest; not seldom it our prejudices, sometimes to our fears, often to our egoism — but always to credulity. And their words are heard with reverence, for their concern is with weighty matters: the cultivation of our minds and the proper care of our bodies, with the attainment with the attainment of our ambitions, with the perfection of the means and the glorification of our precious aims.
It is otherwise with the artist.
Confronted with the same enigmatical spectacle the artist descends within himself, and in that lonely region of stress and strife, if he be deserving and fortunate,he finds the terms of his appeal. His appeal is made to our less obvious capacities: to that part of our nature which, because of the warlike conditions of existence is necessarily kept out of sight within the more resisting and hard qualities — like the vulnerable body within a steel armor. His appeal is less loud, more profound, less distinct, more stirring — and sooner forgotten. Yet its effect endures forever….
He (the artist) speaks to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives; to our sense of pity, and beauty, and pain; to the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation – and to the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts, to the solidarity in dreams, in joy, in sorrow, in aspirations, in illusions, in hopes, in fears, which binds men to each other, which binds together all humanity — the dead to the living and the living to the unborn….
Conrad refers to music as “the art of arts.” But in striving to achieve the musicality of which language is capable, or the visual properties and qualities of painting or sculpture, he writes…
…it is only through an unremitting never-discouraged care for the shape and ring of sentences that an approach can be made to plasticity, to color,and that the light of magic suggestiveness may be brought to play for an evanescent instant over the commonplace surface of words: of the old, old words, worn thin, defaced by ages of careless usage.
I find myself wondering, given these sentiments and convictions of Conrad, if he ever tried his hand a poetry, for it is in that genre more than any other, arguably, that words are supreme. Flannery O’Connor, a great fan of Conrad’s, though, like him never a poet, and a very different writer stylistically, told a correspondent that when she spoke of the moral basis of poetry being ” the accurate naming of the things of God,” she meant ” about the same that Conrad meant when he said that his aim as an artist was to render the highest possible justice to the visible universe. For me the visible universe is a reflection of the invisible universe.“
Here’s to Joseph and Flannery — who with their words try to make us see what is most worthy of seeing.