REVIEW: Joseph Conrad: Witness to a Changing, Often-Horrific World

Screen Shot 2018-01-30 at 9.10.30 PM.png

The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World

By Maya Jasanoff  

Penguin Press   400 pp.

By Jim Swearingen

“Free” markets have always developed at the expense of less powerful people, often accompanied by exploitation and brutality. Globalization, the creation of new wealth through the commercial interconnectedness of nations, came in the late 19th century with catastrophic consequences for legions of Africans, South Americans, and Asians. Joseph Conrad, the seafarer and novelist, was there to log the tempest well over a century before popular assertions that the world had recently become flat.

In The Dawn Watch Maya Jasanoff, a history professor at Harvard, chronicles much of that 19th century colonization and subjugation of European conquests through the eyes of its most steely-eyed observer. The book is in large part an insightful Conrad biography that Jasanoff mines for plot lines in Conrad’s fiction while also establishing the origins of his ethnic, linguistic, and psychic displacement.  It also is about much more, however, notably the fast-changing, often brutal world Conrad lived in and observed so closely.

With the partition and absorption of Poland into Prussia, Austria, and Russia in the 1800’s, Conrad grew up in the bosom of a heart-broken and defiant family of Polish nationalists. Orphaned at a young age, and maturing into a man literally without a country, Conrad adopted England, the English language, and British racial and cultural hegemony to forge a new sense of self. Jasanoff describes the echoes of his obliterated nationality in his unmoored psyche—a young man without roots, without parents, and for much of his young life, without direction. The life of an acclaimed novelist, sea captain, and global wayfarer that looks so glamorous from the outside was fraught with aimlessness, profligacy, and bouts of severe depression.

Noting the link between cynicism and yearning, Jasanoff traces Conrad’s resentment of technological progress—embodied for him in the replacement of sails with the steam engine—back to his family’s frustrated national identity. The erasure of their beloved Poland from the world map left disillusionment and a lost-cause nostalgia embedded deep in his psyche. That interrupted nationality led him toward an image of history that was more about violent disruption than steady evolution.

While Jasanoff constructs an impressive historical arc stretching from the sea trade routes of the mid-19th century to the nanosecond commercial patterns of the 21st, most of her narrative traces the parallel courses of Conrad’s seafaring and literary lives as windows on the march of technology and globalization in the late 19th century.

The Dawn Watch follows Conrad’s water-borne adventures through hemispheres and across meridians as the major historical events of his time ignited the globe, his voyages intersecting colonization, revolution, espionage, terrorism, and world war. The fiction for which he would become famous explores where the wild things are, describing the outer reaches of physical and psychological civilization.

Jasanoff deftly describes a 19th century multi-ethnic commercial world that extended from Africa to India to Southeast Asia, with London as its commercial capital -- a world connected by the globalizing forces of free trade, capital investment, communication, and human audacity. As Conrad witnessed, it was also connected through militarization, exploitation, enslavement, and avarice.

Perhaps the only redeeming feature of existence for Conrad in this barbarous maelstrom, she argues, was man’s ability to act honestly, bravely, and selflessly. His sole refuge from savagery and oppression was to behave splendidly, an ethic to be found a generation later in writers from Hemingway to Camus.

Some of Jasanoff’s best writing comes in the middle of the book, where she documents Belgium’s colonial land grab in central Africa, the first hints of Congolese resistance against it, and the door that opened for Conrad, the aspiring young ship’s captain, when rebellious villagers murdered a Danish skipper.

It is often not hard to identify which parts of a book the author most enjoyed writing, and the story of lowly Belgian King Leopold’s conning the great powers of Europe into backing an ostensibly humanitarian colonization of central Africa reads like that for Jasanoff. She sets the stage for one of the most savage chapters in European domination of the “dark continent” and Joseph Conrad’s entry into the heart of it.

So brutal were his depictions of colonial atrocities in Heart of Darkness that his fictional masterpiece was mistaken for a reformer’s expose rather than a novelist’s attempt to transform a series of horrified impressions into a coherent portrait. In other words, like most of Conrad’s work, it was fiction, not fact, but it was far from fictitious.

Though much of The Dawn Watch focuses on Conrad’s life, it also provides considerable insight into his fiction, and places him in the Anglo-American literary tradition alongside Melville, Hemingway, Ford Madox Ford, and V.S. Naipaul. Conrad’s connection to the most famous writers of his time, either by acquaintance or admiration, was extensive. It would be enlightening to hear Jasanoff extend her analysis of Conrad’s works to the French existentialists for whom he arguably laid the philosophical groundwork. But that is not what she is up to here.

While largely a literary biography, The Dawn Watch does not follow traditional delineations of genre. Jasanoff mixes colonial history with author travelogue, literary criticism with child psychology. The combination of lenses is interesting, yet at times it interferes with the momentum of the work. Just as her writing gains steam, it can suddenly veer down an alternate path leaving the different portions somewhat disjointed, her abrupt segues decelerating the pace of her narrative.

Nevertheless, The Dawn Watch serves as an insightful profile one of the 19th century’s greatest adventure writers, and one far more digestible than the biographical tomes that precede it. Ultimately, Jasanoff argues, the combination of Conrad’s displaced nationality and his distaste for technology and mistrust of global commercialism rendered a literary philosophy that had faith only in the individual’s slim capacity for sporadic displays of compassion and courage.

Jim Swearingen is a Minneapolis-based writer.