Penguin Press, 2017, 400 pp., $30
Is it possible that a Polish sea captain who died nearly one hundred years ago should serve as the right guide to the modern world? That is what Maya Jasanoff proposes in The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World. The Dawn Watch takes Conrad out of the English department and into relevance for all kinds of readers interested in the problems, questions, and origins of globalization. For a simple reason: to read Conrad, to know Conrad, is to watch the modern world in its formation. His life and travels spanned Europe, Africa, and Asia, and his work is known to most American readers. His influence was felt by master writers from F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway to Jorge Luis Borges and T.S. Eliot. Jasanoff shows us that there is still more to Conrad than his enduring works and impact on literature. The Dawn Watch has already been celebrated by critics as innovative, combining genres from biography and literary criticism to modern history. What is more is Conrad’s relevance today.
One of our great problems is how few reliable guides there are to where the world is now, and to where the world is going. After at least one hundred years of globalization, why would it be so complex and difficult to foresee major events and historical shifts? From the election of Donald Trump, to the alleged retreat of Western liberalism, from the return of Russian aggression and subversion, to the rise of an ambitious, irrepressible China, a world once explained by hopeful certitudes such as “The World Is Flat” and “The End of History” is coming undone. And yet, we have, from the turn of the 19th into the 20th century, a master writer whose depth of experience of his own world is perhaps unmatched in our time, and whose understanding of his world and of its future is regarded by some as prophetic. What can we learn from this man? And why has someone gone to such great lengths to bring him to us, intact and modern, for our consideration at the turn of this century, one hundred years after the turn of his own?
Conrad’s work took shape when high technology meant the advent of the steamship and the laying of undersea cables for telegraph communications. The world was already growing smaller, and yet, as his novels memorialize, many of its places were far less connected than they are today. Conrad lived his life at the frontiers, and saw firsthand on multiple continents the competition between European empires for wealth and power. He began his life as an exile, in a family of Polish revolutionaries, whose hopes of independence had been crushed by Czarist Russia.
And Conrad chose to see the world for what it was. He remains best known for his writings on the Belgian Congo in Heart of Darkness, and for his novels of Southeast Asia, Lord Jim, and South America, Nostromo. In the course of his life he traveled globally, spending extended periods at sea, in ports and countries far from his chosen home in London, and even further apart from his birthplace in the Russian Empire. As his literary stand-in, Charles Marlow, explained in a passage that sings of the author’s own life, he had “returned to London after a lot of Indian Ocean, Pacific, China Seas…” Jasanoff shows that he is rather less the wayfarer and much more the connoisseur of understanding. While Conrad is usually known for his exploration of the human condition, it is Jasanoff that reveals him as the man of experience.
Opening with the beautiful line from Conrad’s Victory, “I am the world itself, come to pay you a visit,” the book is layered with maps, of Conrad’s travels, of the world as it was changing, alongside photographs and images of his life and time. It largely follows a chronological timeline of his life, but is structured thematically as both Conrad the man and his world evolve. The beginning is “Nation,” then “Ocean,” and then “Civilization,” and then Jasanoff, perhaps best of all, walks us through Conrad’s major works as he wrote them, using major lines from the texts in order to show us how The Secret Agent, Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness, and Nostromo all took their shape as sinews between his life and world. By the end, even if you hadn’t read the man, now you would know the nature of what he was writing.
The historian and the traveler have always been an important combination. Sometimes they are one and the same as in the case of Herodotus. It is unsurprising that throughout the centuries historians have relied on the accounts of travelers to substantiate the places that they aim to understand. And here, for Jasanoff, Coolidge Professor of History at Harvard, the historian has found a guide not to one or two places, but a figure whose life and work is sufficient enough to base upon it a portrait of the entire world and of a phenomenon which began in earnest one hundred years ago, and which continues to this day: globalization, the growing interconnectedness of humanity around the planet.
To be fascinated by Conrad is, as it must be for Jasanoff, to be fascinated not only by the human condition, but by the pure immensity of a world whose roads lead to so many places, and yet a world which can be seen, and even understood. Jasanoff describes London when Conrad arrived there in his youth:
. . . London caught the world in lines of news. Steamers made ready for Calcutta, Adelaide, Buenos Aires, and Yokohama. Arriving ships brought reports of hurricanes in the West Indies, unrest in southern Peru, a plague of locusts in El Salvador. Stevedores packed warehouses with American cotton, Australian wool, and Caribbean cocoa. On the money markets prices ticked up and down in Turkish, Brazilian, and Swedish stocks, Latin American mines, Indian tea, and North American railroads.
This description of the world’s great size evokes America’s bard, Walt Whitman. But what distinguishes Conrad from nearly all his peers in literature is that he chose to go and see it all. What could make such a person possible? And are we lacking or still producing this spirit of voracious curiosity today?
In his lifetime, Conrad struggled financially until near the end of his life. Like Richard F. Burton who, despite extraordinary escapades in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, would walk past the grocery stores of London unable to afford their delicacies, Conrad found fame and financial security mostly in his final years in a country he disliked: the United States. But what makes Conrad so extraordinary is the sensitivity of his vision. To understand this, we must turn not to the Congo, but rather to America.
Conrad never visited the United States while writing about South America in Nostromo. But his understanding of the rise of the United States is almost prophecy in retrospect. Conrad is generally known today for his moral prescience in viewing the barbarities of colonialism in Africa: Where contemporaries like Kipling wrote of “the white man’s burden,” Conrad wrote “the horror, the horror.” What he is less known for is his ability to foresee one of the most epoch-making events of modern history: the rise of the United States of America.
In Nostromo, as Jasanoff explains, Conrad wrote of “competing visions of the world.” As the British Empire reached its zenith, the author captured an ascendant America. It is here that the man of global travels could come to tell us of the future: “by pouring his experience from Europe, Asia, and Africa into Latin America, Conrad turned the past into prologue.” Written as headlines, prose emerged of Teddy Roosevelt’s interventions in Colombia to secure American control of the Panama Canal; the novel was a “prophecy of American dominance,” asserting, in the words of Conrad’s fictional American investor, Mr. Holroyd: “We shall run the world’s business whether the world likes it or not.”
Here, Jasanoff brings the historian’s eye to the subject, drawing in voices from the time:
A new age was dawning in geopolitics, [Halford] Mackinder announced. For centuries, European powers had played out their ambitions in other parts of the world. Now, suddenly, the world was full up. Africa partitioned, the center of Asia staked out, North America bound by coast-to-coast railroads. . . . Almost overnight, international relations had become a zero-sum game.
But, “As Conrad’s peers scribbled frantically about Germany, [Conrad] looked the other way and saw a second rival rising in the west: the United States.” As Jasanoff writes, “Joseph Conrad knew one thing for sure. The future would be American.”
As globalization took shape across all continents, Conrad captured more than one phenomenon with singular understanding. A man who did not live beyond the presidency of Calvin Coolidge could work with headlines in the early 1900s in order to show a changing, moving world with such detail and accuracy that it stands today almost as knowledge of the future. As the collapse of consensus among today’s commentariat shows us: nothing is harder to achieve.
How does one do this? The fortuitous combination of Jasanoff and Conrad may help open our minds to what it takes to know the world. While Jasanoff, like the best biographers of American Presidents, has gone to extraordinary lengths to retrace her subject’s life, the two of them, in the Dawn Watch, function as something of a team: the writer-traveler and the historian. What they bring to us is more than a guide to globalization’s origins. It is a guide to knowledge of the world. And they do this in a time in which such knowledge, such craft and method, is desperately lacking.
Importantly for us, Jasanoff puts her finger on the craft and method that was Joseph Conrad: “He channeled his global perspective into fiction based overwhelmingly on personal experience and real incidents.” It was this immensity of experience that made him possible. As Henry James explained of his literary colleague, “No one has known . . . the things you know, and you have, as the artist of the whole matter, an authority that no one has approached.” Writing of Nostromo, Jasanoff explains, “It was a novel about every place he’d been.” Even his reviewers understood the work was made of his experience: “a greater range of knowledge . . . of the strange ways of the world than any contemporary writer,” an author who remade “the world in miniature.”
Something else must be said for The Dawn Watch. It is a brave undertaking to make Joseph Conrad a contemporary figure. Arguably the most important piece of writing in the Conrad canon—alongside Heart of Darkness itself—is an essay not by Conrad but by Chinua Achebe: “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’,” which accompanies the primary text in the W.W. Norton Critical Anthology. As Achebe writes:
Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as “the other world,” the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality.
Achebe writes of Conrad’s “dehumanization of Africa and Africans,” adding that, “Conrad did not originate the image of Africa which we find in his book. It was and is the dominant image of Africa in the Western imagination and Conrad merely brought the peculiar gifts of his own mind to bear on it.” In other words, Conrad, rather than being a critic of colonialism’s brutalities, advanced through literature this sense of the world that enabled such brutalities—he was no different from those who could not see the humanity of others.
As a professor at Harvard, Jasanoff is keenly aware of every critique and problem of Conrad in our contemporary discourse. She nods to this throughout the text, and still she presses on. Her fascination and even devotion to this figure shows us on its own that there is more to him for her, and should be more to him for all of us, than even the most withering critiques can strip away. Conrad is not reducible to, as Achebe puts it, “a bloody racist.” His life contains too much, and his experience of so many places, however problematic or even at times misconstrued, makes him, for no less capable a critic than Jasanoff, a true guide to the modern world.
It takes courage to bring this man to our attention. It takes courage to see past attitudes that are not in keeping with our own. As it has been written: “The past is a foreign country.” And the “otherness” that Conrad may indeed have applied to those around him—in his quest to know the world—is no more virtuous when it is applied to Conrad.
So, to bring back to us this extraordinary figure, not for his masterful literary work on the human condition, but for his experience of his time, and to show that he is a guide not only to his world but to ours, is why this book is more than just a strong biography of a major writer. And this matters, because above all a fear, a tension about “otherness,” persists in the modern mind. And yet the world must be explored, and attempts to know and understand the world, both its present and its future, must be made. Conrad shows us what this looked like in his time. Now who will show us what it will look like in ours?