As a general rule we do not want much encouragement to talk about
ourselves; yet this little book is the result of a friendly suggestion,
and even of a little friendly pressure. I defended myself with some
spirit; but, with characteristic tenacity, the friendly voice insisted,
"You know, you really must."
It was not an argument, but I submitted at once. If one must! . . .
You perceive the force of a word. He who wants to persuade should put
his trust not in the right argument, but in the right word. The power of
sound has always been greater than the power of sense. I don't say this
by way of disparagement. It is better for mankind to be impressionable
than reflective. Nothing humanely great--great, I mean, as affecting a
whole mass of lives--has come from reflection. On the other hand, you
cannot fail to see the power of mere words; such words as Glory, for
instance, or Pity. I won't mention any more. They are not far to seek.
Shouted with perseverance, with ardour, with conviction, these two by
their sound alone have set whole nations in motion and upheaved the dry,
hard ground on which rests our whole social fabric. There's "virtue"
for you if you like! . . . Of course the accent must be attended to. The
right accent. That's very important. The capacious lung, the thundering
or the tender vocal chords. Don't talk to me of your Archimedes' lever.
He was an absent-minded person with a mathematical imagination.
Mathematics commands all my respect, but I have no use for engines. Give
me the right word and the right accent and I will move the world.
What a dream for a writer! Because written words have their accent, too.
Yes! Let me only find the right word! Surely it must be lying somewhere
among the wreckage of all the plaints and all the exultations poured out
aloud since the first day when hope, the undying, came down on earth. It
may be there, close by, disregarded, invisible, quite at hand. But
it's no good. I believe there are men who can lay hold of a needle in a
pottle of hay at the first try. For myself, I have never had such luck.
And then there is that accent. Another difficulty. For who is going to
tell whether the accent is right or wrong till the word is shouted,
and fails to be heard, perhaps, and goes down-wind, leaving the world
unmoved? Once upon a time there lived an emperor who was a sage and
something of a literary man. He jotted down on ivory tablets thoughts,
maxims, reflections which chance has preserved for the edification of
posterity. Among other sayings--I am quoting from memory--I remember
this solemn admonition: "Let all thy words have the accent of heroic
truth." The accent of heroic truth! This is very fine, but I am thinking
that it is an easy matter for an austere emperor to jot down grandiose
advice. Most of the working truths on this earth are humble, not heroic;
and there have been times in the history of mankind when the accents of
heroic truth have moved it to nothing but derision.
Nobody will expect to find between the covers of this little book words
of extraordinary potency or accents of irresistible heroism. However
humiliating for my self esteem, I must confess that the counsels of
Marcus Aurelius are not for me. They are more fit for a moralist than
for an artist. Truth of a modest sort I can promise you, and also
sincerity. That complete, praise worthy sincerity which, while it
delivers one into the hands of one's enemies, is as likely as not to
embroil one with one's friends.
"Embroil" is perhaps too strong an expression. I can't imagine among
either my enemies or my friends a being so hard up for something to do
as to quarrel with me. "To disappoint one's friends" would be nearer the
mark. Most, almost all, friend ships of the writing period of my life
have come to me through my books; and I know that a novelist lives in
his work. He stands there, the only reality in an invented world, among
imaginary things, happenings, and people. Writing about them, he is only
writing about himself. But the disclosure is not complete. He remains,
to a certain extent, a figure behind the veil; a suspected rather than
a seen presence--a movement and a voice behind the draperies of fiction.
In these personal notes there is no such veil. And I cannot help
thinking of a passage in the "Imitation of Christ" where the ascetic
author, who knew life so profoundly, says that "there are persons
esteemed on their reputation who by showing themselves destroy the
opinion one had of them." This is the danger incurred by an author of
fiction who sets out to talk about himself without disguise.
While these reminiscent pages were appearing serially I was remonstrated
with for bad economy; as if such writing were a form of self-indulgence
wasting the substance of future volumes. It seems that I am not
sufficiently literary. Indeed, a man who never wrote a line for print
till he was thirty-six cannot bring himself to look upon his existence
and his experience, upon the sum of his thoughts, sensations, and
emotions, upon his memories and his regrets, and the whole possession
of his past, as only so much material for his hands. Once before, some
three years ago, when I published "The Mirror of the Sea," a volume of
impressions and memories, the same remarks were made to me. Practical
remarks. But, truth to say, I have never understood the kind of thrift
they recommend. I wanted to pay my tribute to the sea, its ships and
its men, to whom I remain indebted for so much which has gone to make me
what I am. That seemed to me the only shape in which I could offer it to
their shades. There could not be a question in my mind of anything else.
It is quite possible that I am a bad economist; but it is certain that I
Having matured in the surroundings and under the special conditions of
sea life, I have a special piety toward that form of my past; for its
impressions were vivid, its appeal direct, its demands such as could be
responded to with the natural elation of youth and strength equal to the
call. There was nothing in them to perplex a young conscience. Having
broken away from my origins under a storm of blame from every quarter
which had the merest shadow of right to voice an opinion, removed by
great distances from such natural affections as were still left to
me, and even estranged, in a measure, from them by the totally
unintelligible character of the life which had seduced me so
mysteriously from my allegiance, I may safely say that through the blind
force of circumstances the sea was to be all my world and the merchant
service my only home for a long succession of years. No wonder, then,
that in my two exclusively sea books--"The Nigger of the Narcissus," and
"The Mirror of the Sea" (and in the few short sea stories like "Youth"
and "Typhoon")--I have tried with an almost filial regard to render the
vibration of life in the great world of waters, in the hearts of the
simple men who have for ages traversed its solitudes, and also that
something sentient which seems to dwell in ships--the creatures of their
hands and the objects of their care.
One's literary life must turn frequently for sustenance to memories and
seek discourse with the shades, unless one has made up one's mind to
write only in order to reprove mankind for what it is, or praise it for
what it is not, or--generally--to teach it how to behave. Being neither
quarrelsome, nor a flatterer, nor a sage, I have done none of these
things, and I am prepared to put up serenely with the insignificance
which attaches to persons who are not meddlesome in some way or other.
But resignation is not indifference. I would not like to be left
standing as a mere spectator on the bank of the great stream carrying
onward so many lives. I would fain claim for myself the faculty of so
much insight as can be expressed in a voice of sympathy and compassion.
It seems to me that in one, at least, authoritative quarter of criticism
I am suspected of a certain unemotional, grim acceptance of facts--of
what the French would call _secheresse du coeur_. Fifteen years of
unbroken silence before praise or blame testify sufficiently to my
respect for criticism, that fine flower of personal expression in the
garden of letters. But this is more of a personal matter, reaching the
man behind the work, and therefore it may be alluded to in a volume
which is a personal note in the margin of the public page. Not that
I feel hurt in the least. The charge--if it amounted to a charge at
all--was made in the most considerate terms; in a tone of regret.
My answer is that if it be true that every novel contains an element of
autobiography--and this can hardly be denied, since the creator can only
express himself in his creation--then there are some of us to whom an
open display of sentiment is repugnant.
I would not unduly praise the virtue of restraint. It is often merely
temperamental. But it is not always a sign of coldness. It may be pride.
There can be nothing more humiliating than to see the shaft of one's
emotion miss the mark of either laughter or tears. Nothing more
humiliating! And this for the reason that should the mark be missed,
should the open display of emotion fail to move, then it must perish
unavoidably in disgust or contempt. No artist can be reproached for
shrinking from a risk which only fools run to meet and only genius dare
confront with impunity. In a task which mainly consists in laying one's
soul more or less bare to the world, a regard for decency, even at
the cost of success, is but the regard for one's own dignity which is
inseparably united with the dignity of one's work.
And then--it is very difficult to be wholly joyous or wholly sad on this
earth. The comic, when it is human, soon takes upon itself a face of
pain; and some of our griefs (some only, not all, for it is the capacity
for suffering which makes man August in the eyes of men) have their
source in weaknesses which must be recognized with smiling com passion
as the common inheritance of us all. Joy and sorrow in this world pass
into each other, mingling their forms and their murmurs in the twilight
of life as mysterious as an over shadowed ocean, while the dazzling
brightness of supreme hopes lies far off, fascinating and still, on the
distant edge of the horizon.
Yes! I, too, would like to hold the magic wand giving that command over
laughter and tears which is declared to be the highest achievement of
imaginative literature. Only, to be a great magician one must surrender
oneself to occult and irresponsible powers, either outside or within
one's breast. We have all heard of simple men selling their souls for
love or power to some grotesque devil. The most ordinary intelligence
can perceive without much reflection that anything of the sort is bound
to be a fool's bargain. I don't lay claim to particular wisdom because
of my dislike and distrust of such transactions. It may be my sea
training acting upon a natural disposition to keep good hold on the
one thing really mine, but the fact is that I have a positive horror of
losing even for one moving moment that full possession of my self which
is the first condition of good service. And I have carried my notion of
good service from my earlier into my later existence. I, who have never
sought in the written word anything else but a form of the Beautiful--I
have carried over that article of creed from the decks of ships to the
more circumscribed space of my desk, and by that act, I suppose, I have
become permanently imperfect in the eyes of the ineffable company of
As in political so in literary action a man wins friends for himself
mostly by the passion of his prejudices and by the consistent narrowness
of his outlook. But I have never been able to love what was not
lovable or hate what was not hateful out of deference for some general
principle. Whether there be any courage in making this admission I know
not. After the middle turn of life's way we consider dangers and joys
with a tranquil mind. So I proceed in peace to declare that I have
always suspected in the effort to bring into play the extremities of
emotions the debasing touch of insincerity. In order to move others
deeply we must deliberately allow ourselves to be carried away beyond
the bounds of our normal sensibility--innocently enough, perhaps, and
of necessity, like an actor who raises his voice on the stage above the
pitch of natural conversation--but still we have to do that. And surely
this is no great sin. But the danger lies in the writer becoming the
victim of his own exaggeration, losing the exact notion of sincerity,
and in the end coming to despise truth itself as something too cold, too
blunt for his purpose--as, in fact, not good enough for his insistent
emotion. From laughter and tears the descent is easy to snivelling and
These may seem selfish considerations; but you can't, in sound morals,
condemn a man for taking care of his own integrity. It is his clear
duty. And least of all can you condemn an artist pursuing, however
humbly and imperfectly, a creative aim. In that interior world where
his thought and his emotions go seeking for the experience of imagined
adventures, there are no policemen, no law, no pressure of circumstance
or dread of opinion to keep him within bounds. Who then is going to say
Nay to his temptations if not his conscience?
And besides--this, remember, is the place and the moment of perfectly
open talk--I think that all ambitions are lawful except those which
climb upward on the miseries or credulities of mankind. All intellectual
and artistic ambitions are permissible, up to and even beyond the limit
of prudent sanity. They can hurt no one. If they are mad, then so
much the worse for the artist. Indeed, as virtue is said to be, such
ambitions are their own reward. Is it such a very mad presumption to
believe in the sovereign power of one's art, to try for other means, for
other ways of affirming this belief in the deeper appeal of one's work?
To try to go deeper is not to be insensible. A historian of hearts is
not a historian of emotions, yet he penetrates further, restrained as he
may be, since his aim is to reach the very fount of laughter and tears.
The sight of human affairs deserves admiration and pity. They are
worthy of respect, too. And he is not insensible who pays them the
undemonstrative tribute of a sigh which is not a sob, and of a smile
which is not a grin. Resignation, not mystic, not detached, but
resignation open-eyed, conscious, and informed by love, is the only one
of our feelings for which it is impossible to become a sham.
Not that I think resignation the last word of wisdom. I am too much the
creature of my time for that. But I think that the proper wisdom is to
will what the gods will without, perhaps, being certain what their will
is--or even if they have a will of their own. And in this matter of life
and art it is not the Why that matters so much to our happiness as the
How. As the Frenchman said, "_Il y a toujours la maniere_." Very true.
Yes. There is the manner. The manner in laughter, in tears, in irony, in
indignations and enthusiasms, in judgments--and even in love. The manner
in which, as in the features and character of a human face, the inner
truth is foreshadowed for those who know how to look at their kind.
Those who read me know my conviction that the world, the temporal world,
rests on a few very simple ideas; so simple that they must be as old as
the hills. It rests notably, among others, on the idea of Fidelity. At
a time when nothing which is not revolutionary in some way or other can
expect to attract much attention I have not been revolutionary in my
writings. The revolutionary spirit is mighty convenient in this, that
it frees one from all scruples as regards ideas. Its hard, absolute
optimism is repulsive to my mind by the menace of fanaticism and
intolerance it contains. No doubt one should smile at these things; but,
imperfect Esthete, I am no better Philosopher.
All claim to special righteousness awakens in me that scorn and danger
from which a philosophical mind should be free. . . .
I fear that trying to be conversational I have only managed to be unduly
discursive. I have never been very well acquainted with the art of
conversation--that art which, I understand, is supposed to be lost now.
My young days, the days when one's habits and character are formed, have
been rather familiar with long silences. Such voices as broke into them
were anything but conversational. No. I haven't got the habit. Yet
this discursiveness is not so irrelevant to the handful of pages which
follow. They, too, have been charged with discursiveness, with
disregard of chronological order (which is in itself a crime), with
unconventionality of form (which is an impropriety). I was told severely
that the public would view with displeasure the informal character of
my recollections. "Alas!" I protested, mildly. "Could I begin with the
sacramental words, 'I was born on such a date in such a place'? The
remoteness of the locality would have robbed the statement of all
interest. I haven't lived through wonderful adventures to be related
seriatim. I haven't known distinguished men on whom I could pass fatuous
remarks. I haven't been mixed up with great or scandalous affairs. This
is but a bit of psychological document, and even so, I haven't written
it with a view to put forward any conclusion of my own."
But my objector was not placated. These were good reasons for not
writing at all--not a defense of what stood written already, he said.
I admit that almost anything, anything in the world, would serve as a
good reason for not writing at all. But since I have written them, all I
want to say in their defense is that these memories put down without
any regard for established conventions have not been thrown off without
system and purpose. They have their hope and their aim. The hope that
from the reading of these pages there may emerge at last the vision of
a personality; the man behind the books so fundamentally dissimilar
as, for instance, "Almayer's Folly" and "The Secret Agent," and yet a
coherent, justifiable personality both in its origin and in its action.
This is the hope. The immediate aim, closely associated with the hope,
is to give the record of personal memories by presenting faithfully the
feelings and sensations connected with the writing of my first book and
with my first contact with the sea.
In the purposely mingled resonance of this double strain a friend here
and there will perhaps detect a subtle accord.
J. C. K.