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Within the Tides

The tales collected in this book have elicited on their appearance two
utterances in the shape of comment and one distinctly critical charge. A
reviewer observed that I liked to write of men who go to sea or live on
lonely islands untrammeled by the pressure of worldly circumstances
because such characters allowed freer play to my imagination which in
their case was only bounded by natural laws and the universal human
conventions. There is a certain truth in this remark no doubt. It is
only the suggestion of deliberate choice that misses its mark. I have
not sought for special imaginative freedom or a larger play of fancy in
my choice of characters and subjects. The nature of the knowledge,
suggestions or hints used in my imaginative work has depended directly
on the conditions of my active life. It depended more on contacts, and
very slight contacts at that, than on actual experience; because my life
as a matter of fact was far from being adventurous in itself. Even now
when I look back on it with a certain regret (who would not regret his
youth?) and positive affection, its colouring wears the sober hue of
hard work and exacting calls of duty, things which in themselves are not
much charged with a feeling of romance. If these things appeal strongly
to me even in retrospect it is, I suppose, because the romantic feeling
of reality was in me an inborn faculty, that in itself may be a curse
but when disciplined by a sense of personal responsibility and a
recognition of the hard facts of existence shared with the rest of
mankind becomes but a point of view from which the very shadows of life
appear endowed with an internal glow. And such romanticism is not a sin.
It is none the worse for the knowledge of truth. It only tries to make
the best of it, hard as it may be; and in this hardness discovers a
certain aspect of beauty.

I am speaking here of romanticism in relation to life, not of
romanticism in relation to imaginative literature, which, in its early
days, was associated simply with mediŠval subjects, or, at any rate,
with subjects sought for in a remote past. My subjects are not mediŠval
and I have a natural right to them because my past is very much my own.
If their course lie out of the beaten path of organized social life, it
is, perhaps, because I myself did in a sort break away from it early in
obedience to an impulse which must have been very genuine since it has
sustained me through all the dangers of disillusion. But that origin of
my literary work was very far from giving a larger scope to my
imagination. On the contrary, the mere fact of dealing with matters
outside the general run of everyday experience laid me under the
obligation of a more scrupulous fidelity to the truth of my own
sensations. The problem was to make unfamiliar things credible. To do
that I had to create for them, to reproduce for them, to envelop them in
their proper atmosphere of actuality. This was the hardest task of all
and the most important, in view of that conscientious rendering of truth
in thought and fact which has been always my aim.

The other utterance of the two I have alluded to above consisted in the
observation that in this volume of mine the whole was greater than its
parts. I pass it on to my readers merely remarking that if this is
really so then I must take it as a tribute to my personality since those
stories which by implication seem to hold so well together as to be
surveyed en bloc and judged as the product of a single mood, were
written at different times, under various influences and with the
deliberate intention of trying several ways of telling a tale. The hints
and suggestions for all of them had been received at various times and
in distant parts of the globe. The book received a good deal of varied
criticism, mainly quite justifiable, but in a couple of instances quite
surprising in its objections. Amongst them was the critical charge of
false realism brought against the opening story: The Planter of Malata.
I would have regarded it as serious enough if I had not discovered on
reading further that the distinguished critic was accusing me simply of
having sought to evade a happy ending out of a sort of moral cowardice,
lest I should be condemned as a superficially sentimental person. Where
(and of what sort) there are to be found in The Planter of Malata any
germs of happiness that could have fructified at the end I am at a loss
to see. Such criticism seems to miss the whole purpose and significance
of a piece of writing the primary intention of which was mainly
aesthetic; an essay in description and narrative around a given
psychological situation. Of more seriousness was the spoken criticism of
an old and valued friend who thought that in the scene near the rock,
which from the point of view of psychology is crucial, neither Felicia
Moorsom nor Geoffrey Renouard find the right things to say to each
other. I didn't argue the point at the time, for, to be candid, I didn't
feel quite satisfied with the scene myself. On re-reading it lately for
the purpose of this edition I have come to the conclusion that there is
that much truth in my friend's criticism that I have made those people a
little too explicit in their emotion and thus have destroyed to a
certain extent the characteristic illusory glamour of their
personalities. I regret this defect very much for I regard The Planter
of Malata as a nearly successful attempt at doing a very difficult thing
which I would have liked to have made as perfect as it lay in my power.
Yet considering the pitch and the tonality of the whole tale it is very
difficult to imagine what else those two people could have found to say
at that time and on that particular spot of the earth's surface. In the
mood in which they both were, and given the exceptional state of their
feelings, anything might have been said.

The eminent critic who charged me with false realism, the outcome of
timidity, was quite wrong. I should like to ask him what he imagines
the, so to speak, lifelong embrace of Felicia Moorsom and Geoffrey
Renouard could have been like? Could it have been at all? Would it have
been credible? No! I did not shirk anything, either from timidity or
laziness. Perhaps a little mistrust of my own powers would not have been
altogether out of place in this connection. But it failed me; and I
resemble Geoffrey Renouard in so far that when once engaged in an
adventure I cannot bear the idea of turning back. The moment had
arrived for these people to disclose themselves. They had to do it. To
render a crucial point of feelings in terms of human speech is really an
impossible task. Written words can only form a sort of translation. And
if that translation happens, from want of skill or from over-anxiety, to
be too literal, the people caught in the toils of passion, instead of
disclosing themselves, which would be art, are made to give themselves
away, which is neither art nor life. Nor yet truth! At any rate not the
whole truth; for it is truth robbed of all its necessary and sympathetic
reservations and qualifications which give it its fair form, its just
proportions, its semblance of human fellowship.

Indeed the task of the translator of passions into speech may be
pronounced "too difficult." However, with my customary impenitence I am
glad I have attempted the story with all its implications and
difficulties, including the scene by the side of the gray rock crowning
the height of Malata. But I am not so inordinately pleased with the
result as not to be able to forgive a patient reader who may find it
somewhat disappointing.

I have left myself no space to talk about the other three stories
because I do not think that they call for detailed comment. Each of them
has its special mood and I have tried purposely to give each its special
tone and a different construction of phrase. A reviewer asked in
reference to the Inn of the Two Witches whether I ever came across a
tale called A Very Strange Bed published in _Household Words_ in 1852 or
54. I never saw a number of _Household Words_ of that decade. A bed of
the sort was discovered in an inn on the road between Rome and Naples at
the end of the 18th century. Where I picked up the information I cannot
say now but I am certain it was not in a tale. This bed is the only
"fact" of the Witches' Inn. The other two stories have considerably more
"fact" in them, derived from my own personal knowledge.

J. C.

1920

Joseph Conrad

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