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Chapter 5

In the career of the most unliterary of writers, in the sense that
literary ambition had never entered the world of his imagination, the
coming into existence of the first book is quite an inexplicable event.
In my own case I cannot trace it back to any mental or psychological
cause which one could point out and hold to. The greatest of my gifts
being a consummate capacity for doing nothing, I cannot even point to
boredom as a rational stimulus for taking up a pen. The pen, at any
rate, was there, and there is nothing wonderful in that. Everybody keeps
a pen (the cold steel of our days) in his rooms, in this enlightened age
of penny stamps and halfpenny post-cards. In fact, this was the epoch
when by means of postcard and pen Mr. Gladstone had made the reputation
of a novel or two. And I, too, had a pen rolling about somewhere--the
seldom-used, the reluctantly taken-up pen of a sailor ashore, the pen
rugged with the dried ink of abandoned attempts, of answers delayed
longer than decency permitted, of letters begun with infinite
reluctance, and put off suddenly till next day--till next week, as like
as not! The neglected, uncared-for pen, flung away at the slightest
provocation, and under the stress of dire necessity hunted for without
enthusiasm, in a perfunctory, grumpy worry, in the "Where the devil _is_
the beastly thing gone to?" ungracious spirit. Where, indeed! It might
have been reposing behind the sofa for a day or so. My landlady's anemic
daughter (as Ollendorff would have expressed it), though commendably
neat, had a lordly, careless manner of approaching her domestic duties.
Or it might even be resting delicately poised on its point by the side
of the table-leg, and when picked up show a gaping, inefficient beak
which would have discouraged any man of literary instincts. But not me!
"Never mind. This will do."

O days without guile! If anybody had told me then that a devoted
household, having a generally exaggerated idea of my talents and
importance, would be put into a state of tremor and flurry by the fuss
I would make because of a suspicion that somebody had touched my
sacrosanct pen of authorship, I would have never deigned as much as the
contemptuous smile of unbelief. There are imaginings too unlikely for
any kind of notice, too wild for indulgence itself, too absurd for a
smile. Perhaps, had that seer of the future been a friend, I should have
been secretly saddened. "Alas!" I would have thought, looking at him
with an unmoved face, "the poor fellow is going mad."

I would have been, without doubt, saddened; for in this world where the
journalists read the signs of the sky, and the wind of heaven itself,
blowing where it listeth, does so under the prophetical management of
the meteorological office, but where the secret of human hearts cannot
be captured by prying or praying, it was infinitely more likely that
the sanest of my friends should nurse the germ of incipient madness than
that I should turn into a writer of tales.

To survey with wonder the changes of one's own self is a fascinating
pursuit for idle hours. The field is so wide, the surprises so varied,
the subject so full of unprofitable but curious hints as to the work of
unseen forces, that one does not weary easily of it. I am not speaking
here of megalomaniacs who rest uneasy under the crown of their unbounded
conceit--who really never rest in this world, and when out of it go
on fretting and fuming on the straitened circumstances of their last
habitation, where all men must lie in obscure equality. Neither am I
thinking of those ambitious minds who, always looking forward to some
aim of aggrandizement, can spare no time for a detached, impersonal
glance upon them selves.

And that's a pity. They are unlucky. These two kinds, together with
the much larger band of the totally unimaginative, of those unfortunate
beings in whose empty and unseeing gaze (as a great French writer has
put it) "the whole universe vanishes into blank nothingness," miss,
perhaps, the true task of us men whose day is short on this earth, the
abode of conflicting opinions. The ethical view of the universe involves
us at last in so many cruel and absurd contradictions, where the last
vestiges of faith, hope, charity, and even of reason itself, seem ready
to perish, that I have come to suspect that the aim of creation cannot
be ethical at all. I would fondly believe that its object is purely
spectacular: a spectacle for awe, love, adoration, or hate, if you
like, but in this view--and in this view alone--never for despair! Those
visions, delicious or poignant, are a moral end in themselves. The rest
is our affair--the laughter, the tears, the tenderness, the indignation,
the high tranquillity of a steeled heart, the detached curiosity of
a subtle mind--that's our affair! And the unwearied self-forgetful
attention to every phase of the living universe reflected in our
consciousness may be our appointed task on this earth--a task in which
fate has perhaps engaged nothing of us except our conscience, gifted
with a voice in order to bear true testimony to the visible wonder, the
haunting terror, the infinite passion, and the illimitable serenity; to
the supreme law and the abiding mystery of the sublime spectacle.

Chi lo sa? It may be true. In this view there is room for every religion
except for the inverted creed of impiety, the mask and cloak of arid
despair; for every joy and every sorrow, for every fair dream, for every
charitable hope. The great aim is to remain true to the emotions called
out of the deep encircled by the firmament of stars, whose infinite
numbers and awful distances may move us to laughter or tears (was it the
Walrus or the Carpenter, in the poem, who "wept to see such quantities
of sand"?), or, again, to a properly steeled heart, may matter nothing
at all.

The casual quotation, which had suggested itself out of a poem full of
merit, leads me to remark that in the conception of a purely spectacular
universe, where inspiration of every sort has a rational existence, the
artist of every kind finds a natural place; and among them the poet as
the seer par excellence. Even the writer of prose, who in his less noble
and more toilsome task should be a man with the steeled heart, is worthy
of a place, providing he looks on with undimmed eyes and keeps laughter
out of his voice, let who will laugh or cry. Yes! Even he, the prose
artist of fiction, which after all is but truth often dragged out of a
well and clothed in the painted robe of imagined phrases--even he has
his place among kings, demagogues, priests, charlatans, dukes, giraffes,
cabinet ministers, Fabians, bricklayers, apostles, ants, scientists,
Kafirs, soldiers, sailors, elephants, lawyers, dandies, microbes, and
constellations of a universe whose amazing spectacle is a moral end in
itself.

Here I perceive (without speaking offense) the reader assuming a subtle
expression, as if the cat were out of the bag. I take the novelist's
freedom to observe the reader's mind formulating the exclamation:
"That's it! The fellow talks pro domo."

Indeed it was not the intention! When I shouldered the bag I was not
aware of the cat inside. But, after all, why not? The fair courtyards of
the House of Art are thronged by many humble retainers. And there is
no retainer so devoted as he who is allowed to sit on the doorstep. The
fellows who have got inside are apt to think too much of themselves.
This last remark, I beg to state, is not malicious within the definition
of the law of libel. It's fair comment on a matter of public interest.
But never mind. _Pro domo_. So be it. For his house _tant que vous
voudrez_. And yet in truth I was by no means anxious to justify my
existence. The attempt would have been not only needless and absurd, but
almost inconceivable, in a purely spectacular universe, where no such
disagreeable necessity can possibly arise. It is sufficient for me to
say (and I am saying it at some length in these pages): _J'ai vecu_. I
have existed, obscure among the wonders and terrors of my time, as the
Abbe Sieyes, the original utterer of the quoted words, had managed to
exist through the violences, the crimes, and the enthusiasms of the
French Revolution. _J'ai vecu_, as I apprehend most of us manage to
exist, missing all along the varied forms of destruction by a
hair's-breadth, saving my body, that's clear, and perhaps my soul also,
but not without some damage here and there to the fine edge of my
conscience, that heirloom of the ages, of the race, of the group, of the
family, colourable and plastic, fashioned by the words, the looks, the
acts, and even by the silences and abstentions surrounding one's
childhood; tinged in a complete scheme of delicate shades
and crude colours by the inherited traditions, beliefs, or
prejudices--unaccountable, despotic, persuasive, and often,
in its texture, romantic.

And often romantic! . . . The matter in hand, however, is to keep these
reminiscences from turning into confessions, a form of literary
activity discredited by Jean Jacques Rousseau on account of the extreme
thoroughness he brought to the work of justifying his own existence;
for that such was his purpose is palpably, even grossly, visible to
an unprejudiced eye. But then, you see, the man was not a writer of
fiction. He was an artless moralist, as is clearly demonstrated by his
anniversaries being celebrated with marked emphasis by the heirs of
the French Revolution, which was not a political movement at all, but
a great outburst of morality. He had no imagination, as the most casual
perusal of "Emile" will prove. He was no novelist, whose first virtue is
the exact understanding of the limits traced by the reality of his time
to the play of his invention. Inspiration comes from the earth, which
has a past, a history, a future, not from the cold and immutable heaven.
A writer of imaginative prose (even more than any other sort of artist)
stands confessed in his works. His conscience, his deeper sense of
things, lawful and unlawful, gives him his attitude before the world.
Indeed, everyone who puts pen to paper for the reading of strangers
(unless a moralist, who, generally speaking, has no conscience except
the one he is at pains to produce for the use of others) can speak of
nothing else. It is M. Anatole France, the most eloquent and just of
French prose-writers, who says that we must recognize at last that,
"failing the resolution to hold our peace, we can only talk of
ourselves."

This remark, if I remember rightly, was made in the course of a sparring
match with the late Ferdinand Brunetiere over the principles and rules
of literary criticism. As was fitting for a man to whom we owe the
memorable saying, "The good critic is he who relates the adventures of
his soul among masterpieces," M. Anatole France maintained that there
were no rules and no principles. And that may be very true. Rules,
principles, and standards die and vanish every day. Perhaps they are all
dead and vanished by this time. These, if ever, are the brave, free days
of destroyed landmarks, while the ingenious minds are busy inventing the
forms of the new beacons which, it is consoling to think, will be set up
presently in the old places. But what is interesting to a writer is the
possession of an inward certitude that literary criticism will never
die, for man (so variously defined) is, before everything else, a
critical animal. And as long as distinguished minds are ready to treat
it in the spirit of high adventure literary criticism shall appeal to
us with all the charm and wisdom of a well-told tale of personal
experience.

For Englishmen especially, of all the races of the earth, a task, any
task, undertaken in an adventurous spirit acquires the merit of romance.
But the critics as a rule exhibit but little of an adventurous spirit.
They take risks, of course--one can hardly live with out that. The daily
bread is served out to us (however sparingly) with a pinch of salt.
Otherwise one would get sick of the diet one prays for, and that would
be not only improper, but impious. From impiety of that or any other
kind--save us! An ideal of reserved manner, adhered to from a sense
of proprieties, from shyness, perhaps, or caution, or simply from
weariness, induces, I suspect, some writers of criticism to conceal the
adventurous side of their calling, and then the criticism becomes a mere
"notice," as it were, the relation of a journey where nothing but the
distances and the geology of a new country should be set down; the
glimpses of strange beasts, the dangers of flood and field, the
hairbreadth escapes, and the sufferings (oh, the sufferings, too! I have
no doubt of the sufferings) of the traveller being carefully kept out;
no shady spot, no fruitful plant being ever mentioned either; so that
the whole performance looks like a mere feat of agility on the part of
a trained pen running in a desert. A cruel spectacle--a most deplorable
adventure! "Life," in the words of an immortal thinker of, I should
say, bucolic origin, but whose perishable name is lost to the worship of
posterity--"life is not all beer and skittles." Neither is the writing
of novels. It isn't, really. Je vous donne ma parole d'honneur that
it--is--not. Not _all_. I am thus emphatic because some years ago, I
remember, the daughter of a general. . . .

Sudden revelations of the profane world must have come now and then
to hermits in their cells, to the cloistered monks of middle ages, to
lonely sages, men of science, reformers; the revelations of the world's
superficial judgment, shocking to the souls concentrated upon their
own bitter labour in the cause of sanctity, or of knowledge, or of
temperance, let us say, or of art, if only the art of cracking jokes
or playing the flute. And thus this general's daughter came to me--or I
should say one of the general's daughters did. There were three of
these bachelor ladies, of nicely graduated ages, who held a neighbouring
farm-house in a united and more or less military occupation. The
eldest warred against the decay of manners in the village children, and
executed frontal attacks upon the village mothers for the conquest of
courtesies. It sounds futile, but it was really a war for an idea. The
second skirmished and scouted all over the country; and it was that one
who pushed a reconnaissance right to my very table--I mean the one who
wore stand-up collars.

She was really calling upon my wife in the soft spirit of afternoon
friendliness, but with her usual martial determination. She marched into
my room swinging her stick . . . but no--I mustn't exaggerate. It is not
my specialty. I am not a humoristic writer. In all soberness, then, all
I am certain of is that she had a stick to swing.

No ditch or wall encompassed my abode. The window was open; the door,
too, stood open to that best friend of my work, the warm, still sunshine
of the wide fields. They lay around me infinitely helpful, but, truth to
say, I had not known for weeks whether the sun shone upon the earth and
whether the stars above still moved on their appointed courses. I was
just then giving up some days of my allotted span to the last chapters
of the novel "Nostromo," a tale of an imaginary (but true) seaboard,
which is still mentioned now and again, and indeed kindly, sometimes in
connection with the word "failure" and sometimes in conjunction with the
word "astonishing." I have no opinion on this discrepancy. It's the sort
of difference that can never be settled. All I know is that, for twenty
months, neglecting the common joys of life that fall to the lot of the
humblest on this earth, I had, like the prophet of old, "wrestled with
the Lord" for my creation, for the headlands of the coast, for the
darkness of the Placid Gulf, the light on the snows, the clouds in the
sky, and for the breath of life that had to be blown into the shapes
of men and women, of Latin and Saxon, of Jew and Gentile. These are,
perhaps, strong words, but it is difficult to characterize other wise
the intimacy and the strain of a creative effort in which mind and will
and conscience are engaged to the full, hour after hour, day after day,
away from the world, and to the exclusion of all that makes life really
lovable and gentle--something for which a material parallel can only be
found in the everlasting sombre stress of the westward winter passage
round Cape Horn. For that, too, is the wrestling of men with the might
of their Creator, in a great isolation from the world, without the
amenities and consolations of life, a lonely struggle under a sense of
overmatched littleness, for no reward that could be adequate, but for
the mere winning of a longitude. Yet a certain longitude, once won,
cannot be disputed. The sun and the stars and the shape of your earth
are the witnesses of your gain; whereas a handful of pages, no matter
how much you have made them your own, are at best but an obscure and
questionable spoil. Here they are. "Failure"--"Astonishing": take your
choice; or perhaps both, or neither--a mere rustle and flutter of pieces
of paper settling down in the night, and undistinguishable, like the
snowflakes of a great drift destined to melt away in sunshine.

"How do you do?"

It was the greeting of the general's daughter. I had heard nothing--no
rustle, no footsteps. I had felt only a moment before a sort of
premonition of evil; I had the sense of an inauspicious presence--just
that much warning and no more; and then came the sound of the voice and
the jar as of a terrible fall from a great height--a fall, let us say,
from the highest of the clouds floating in gentle procession over the
fields in the faint westerly air of that July afternoon. I picked myself
up quickly, of course; in other words, I jumped up from my chair stunned
and dazed, every nerve quivering with the pain of being uprooted out of
one world and flung down into another--perfectly civil.

"Oh! How do you do? Won't you sit down?"

That's what I said. This horrible but, I assure you, perfectly true
reminiscence tells you more than a whole volume of confessions a la Jean
Jacques Rousseau would do. Observe! I didn't howl at her, or start
up setting furniture, or throw myself on the floor and kick, or allow
myself to hint in any other way at the appalling magnitude of the
disaster. The whole world of Costaguana (the country, you may remember,
of my seaboard tale), men, women, headlands, houses, mountains, town,
campo (there was not a single brick, stone, or grain of sand of its
soil I had not placed in position with my own hands); all the history,
geography, politics, finance; the wealth of Charles Gould's silver-mine,
and the splendour of the magnificent Capataz de Cargadores, whose name,
cried out in the night (Dr. Monygham heard it pass over his head--in
Linda Viola's voice), dominated even after death the dark gulf
containing his conquests of treasure and love--all that had come down
crashing about my ears.

I felt I could never pick up the pieces--and in that very moment I was
saying, "Won't you sit down?"

The sea is strong medicine. Behold what the quarter-deck training even
in a merchant ship will do! This episode should give you a new view of
the English and Scots seamen (a much-caricatured folk) who had the last
say in the formation of my character. One is nothing if not modest,
but in this disaster I think I have done some honour to their simple
teaching. "Won't you sit down?" Very fair; very fair, indeed. She sat
down. Her amused glance strayed all over the room.

There were pages of MS. on the table and under the table, a batch of
typed copy on a chair, single leaves had fluttered away into distant
corners; there were there living pages, pages scored and wounded, dead
pages that would be burned at the end of the day--the litter of a cruel
battle-field, of a long, long, and desperate fray. Long! I suppose
I went to bed sometimes, and got up the same number of times. Yes, I
suppose I slept, and ate the food put before me, and talked connectedly
to my household on suitable occasions. But I had never been aware of
the even flow of daily life, made easy and noiseless for me by a silent,
watchful, tireless affection. Indeed, it seemed to me that I had been
sitting at that table surrounded by the litter of a desperate fray for
days and nights on end. It seemed so, because of the intense weariness
of which that interruption had made me aware--the awful disenchantment
of a mind realizing suddenly the futility of an enormous task, joined
to a bodily fatigue such as no ordinary amount of fairly heavy physical
labour could ever account for. I have carried bags of wheat on my back,
bent almost double under a ship's deck-beams, from six in the morning
till six in the evening (with an hour and a half off for meals), so I
ought to know.

And I love letters. I am jealous of their honour and concerned for the
dignity and comeliness of their service. I was, most likely, the only
writer that neat lady had ever caught in the exercise of his craft, and
it distressed me not to be able to remember when it was that I dressed
myself last, and how. No doubt that would be all right in essentials.
The fortune of the house included a pair of gray-blue watchful eyes that
would see to that. But I felt, somehow, as grimy as a Costaguana lepero
after a day's fighting in the streets, rumpled all over and dishevelled
down to my very heels. And I am afraid I blinked stupidly. All this was
bad for the honour of letters and the dignity of their service. Seen
indistinctly through the dust of my collapsed universe, the good lady
glanced about the room with a slightly amused serenity. And she was
smiling. What on earth was she smiling at? She remarked casually:

"I am afraid I interrupted you."

"Not at all."

She accepted the denial in perfect good faith. And it was strictly true.
Interrupted--indeed! She had robbed me of at least twenty lives, each
infinitely more poignant and real than her own, because informed with
passion, possessed of convictions, involved in great affairs created out
of my own substance for an anxiously meditated end.

She remained silent for a while, then said, with a last glance all round
at the litter of the fray:

"And you sit like this here writing your--your . . ."

"I--what? Oh, yes! I sit here all day."

"It must be perfectly delightful."

I suppose that, being no longer very young, I might have been on the
verge of having a stroke; but she had left her dog in the porch, and my
boy's dog, patrolling the field in front, had espied him from afar.
He came on straight and swift like a cannon-ball, and the noise of the
fight, which burst suddenly upon our ears, was more than enough to scare
away a fit of apoplexy. We went out hastily and separated the gallant
animals. Afterward I told the lady where she would find my wife--just
round the corner, under the trees. She nodded and went off with her dog,
leaving me appalled before the death and devastation she had lightly
made--and with the awfully instructive sound of the word "delightful"
lingering in my ears.

Nevertheless, later on, I duly escorted her to the field gate. I wanted
to be civil, of course (what are twenty lives in a mere novel that one
should be rude to a lady on their account?), but mainly, to adopt the
good, sound Ollendorffian style, because I did not want the dog of the
general's daughter to fight again (encore) with the faithful dog of
my infant son (mon petit garcon).--Was I afraid that the dog of the
general's daughter would be able to overcome (_vaincre_) the dog of my
child?--No, I was not afraid. . . . But away with the Ollendorff
method. How ever appropriate and seemingly unavoidable when I touch upon
anything appertaining to the lady, it is most unsuitable to the origin,
character, and history of the dog; for the dog was the gift to the child
from a man for whom words had anything but an Ollendorffian value, a man
almost childlike in the impulsive movements of his untutored genius, the
most single-minded of verbal impressionists, using his great gifts of
straight feeling and right expression with a fine sincerity and a strong
if, perhaps, not fully conscious conviction. His art did not obtain,
I fear, all the credit its unsophisticated inspiration deserved. I am
alluding to the late Stephen Crane, the author of "The Red Badge
of Courage," a work of imagination which found its short moment of
celebrity in the last decade of the departed century. Other books
followed. Not many. He had not the time. It was an individual and
complete talent which obtained but a grudging, somewhat supercilious
recognition from the world at large. For himself one hesitates to regret
his early death. Like one of the men in his "Open Boat," one felt that
he was of those whom fate seldom allows to make a safe landing after
much toil and bitterness at the oar. I confess to an abiding affection
for that energetic, slight, fragile, intensely living and transient
figure. He liked me, even before we met, on the strength of a page or
two of my writing, and after we had met I am glad to think he liked me
still. He used to point out to me with great earnestness, and even with
some severity, that "a boy _ought_ to have a dog." I suspect that he was
shocked at my neglect of parental duties.

Ultimately it was he who provided the dog. Shortly afterward, one day,
after playing with the child on the rug for an hour or so with the most
intense absorption, he raised his head and declared firmly, "I shall
teach your boy to ride." That was not to be. He was not given the time.

But here is the dog--an old dog now. Broad and low on his bandy paws,
with a black head on a white body and a ridiculous black spot at
the other end of him, he provokes, when he walks abroad, smiles
not altogether unkind. Grotesque and engaging in the whole of his
appearance, his usual attitudes are meek, but his temperament discloses
itself unexpectedly pugnacious in the presence of his kind. As he lies
in the firelight, his head well up, and a fixed, far away gaze directed
at the shadows of the room, he achieves a striking nobility of pose in
the calm consciousness of an unstained life. He has brought up one baby,
and now, after seeing his first charge off to school, he is bringing up
another with the same conscientious devotion, but with a more deliberate
gravity of manner, the sign of greater wisdom and riper experience,
but also of rheumatism, I fear. From the morning bath to the evening
ceremonies of the cot, you attend the little two-legged creature of your
adoption, being yourself treated in the exercise of your duties with
every possible regard, with infinite consideration, by every person in
the house--even as I myself am treated; only you deserve it more.

The general's daughter would tell you that it must be "perfectly
delightful."

Aha! old dog. She never heard you yelp with acute pain (it's that poor
left ear) the while, with incredible self-command, you preserve a rigid
immobility for fear of overturning the little two-legged creature. She
has never seen your resigned smile when the little two-legged creature,
interrogated, sternly, "What are you doing to the good dog?" answers,
with a wide, innocent stare: "Nothing. Only loving him, mamma dear!"

The general's daughter does not know the secret terms of self-imposed
tasks, good dog, the pain that may lurk in the very rewards of rigid
self-command. But we have lived together many years. We have grown
older, too; and though our work is not quite done yet we may indulge now
and then in a little introspection before the fire--meditate on the art
of bringing up babies and on the perfect delight of writing tales where
so many lives come and go at the cost of one which slips imperceptibly
away.


Joseph Conrad

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