The Charlotte News
SUNDAY, APRIL 3, 1938
A Note on Joseph Conrad:
Death with Honor
--By W. J. Cash
Site ed. note: For another article by Cash on Conrad, see "The Strange Story of Conrad" - October 3,1937.
The longer I live the more impressed I am with the fantastic character of old Joseph Conrad. In our cozy times, he seems not a man at all but a legend--not somebody who died less than twenty years ago but the mythus of a knight-errant dead a thousand years. It is not impossible, indeed, that someday an archaeologist delving among the ruins of our libraries will set him down as the last completely civilized man of the Western world.
Let me not mislead you, however. If I compare him to the myths of the knights-errant, I do not suggest, of course, that he ever gave any signs of believing in the broad fashion in which the knights-errant were or are at least supposed to have believed. As Henry Mencken said long ago, he was a vastly disillusioned mind, and gave little sign of really believing in anything--except, Henry said, honor. But I amend it to include a kind of belief in women that was not un-akin to that which the myths ascribe to the old good knights. He sees all his good women--and few of them are really bad--through a haze of awe and a kind of remote tenderness. The passage in the drawing room, which concludes "Heart of Darkness," is strictly in the vein of medieval geneolatry. It could not have been done even by the Nineteenth-century poets--not even by a Tennyson or a Browning--for in both, beneath all their ecstasies about the miracle of womankind, there was a distinct vein of bitterness toward women.
THE THING WAS--HONOR
But that is only incidental. The main thing he believed in was undoubtedly honor, though he rarely used the word. And in that he believed with a passionate, undeviating faith. What did he mean by honor? Why, simply that man to be man must accept the fact that he was under a bond to his fellows. It did not much matter what your credo was--that was pretty well fixed, indeed, by the environment out of which you had come--but whatever it was, you were bound to keep the common faith, to hold by decency as you understood it at whatever the cost to yourself. Lord Jim, after the sinking of the pilgrimage ship, was not really ruined, at all as the world goes. The story might have followed him around in the East, oh yes. But there was nothing overt to keeping him from going back to England, where, into the quiet of a country town, the story could never have penetrated, or from moving on to, say, America. He had moved before. But it was in Jim's code that he should stay and tough it out. It was in Jim's code that, with the memory of that one moment of cowardice--or paralysis--locked in his heart, he could never go back to look England in the face. It was in Jim's code that he must go up the river and die fantastically and--most bravely.
HE LACKED BELIEF
Heyst, again, might just as well have got off the island, but chose not to. The old captain in "The End of the Tetner" might just as well have escaped from the sinking steamer, too, but didn't. And so on and so on. The great tragedy of the protagonist of "Heart of Darkness" was precisely that he lacked any real belief in anything--even honor.
And it undoubtedly is the tragedy of our times, too. This moment, three great nations have already, as nations, officially set up the philosophy that man is under no bond whatever to his fellows--that he is simply a beast subject to no law save that of force. And something of the same doctrine is creeping insidiously into the books of our modern writers. All the young leftists and rightists who write novels in America, even, exhibit it plainly. And in even the novels of such a superior European novelist as Thomas Mann, the best we can find is complete doubt and complete chaos--groping for solid ground which is admittedly not found.
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