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Notes on Life and Letters

I don't know whether I ought to offer an apology for this collection
which has more to do with life than with letters. Its appeal is made to
orderly minds. This, to be frank about it, is a process of tidying up,
which, from the nature of things, can not be regarded as premature. The
fact is that I wanted to do it myself because of a feeling that had
nothing to do with the considerations of worthiness or unworthiness of
the small (but unbroken) pieces collected within the covers of this
volume. Of course it may be said that I might have taken up a broom and
used it without saying anything about it. That certainly is one way of
tidying up.

But it would have been too much to have expected me to treat all this
matter as removable rubbish. All those things had a place in my life.
Whether any of them deserve to have been picked up and ranged on the
shelf--this shelf--I cannot say, and, frankly, I have not allowed my
mind to dwell on the question. I was afraid of thinking myself into a
mood that would hurt my feelings; for those pieces of writing, whatever
may be the comment on their display, appertain to the character of the

And so here they are, dusted, which was but a decent thing to do, but in
no way polished, extending from the year '98 to the year '20, a thin
array (for such a stretch of time) of really innocent attitudes: Conrad
literary, Conrad political, Conrad reminiscent, Conrad controversial.
Well, yes! A one-man show--or is it merely the show of one man?

The only thing that will not be found amongst those Figures and Things
that have passed away will be Conrad "_en pantoufles_." It is a
constitutional inability. _Schlafrock und pantoffeln!_ Not that! Never!
I don't know whether I dare boast like a certain South American general
who used to say that no emergency of war or peace had ever found him
"with his boots off"; but I may say that whenever the various
periodicals mentioned in this book called on me to come out and blow the
trumpet of personal opinions or strike the pensive lute that speaks of
the past, I always tried to pull on my boots first. I didn't want to do
it, God knows! Their Editors, to whom I beg to offer my thanks here,
made me perform mainly by kindness but partly by bribery. Well, yes!
Bribery. What can you expect? I never pretended to be better than the
people in the next street and even in the same street.

This volume (including these embarrassed introductory remarks) is as
near as I shall ever come to déshabillé in public; and perhaps it will
do something to help towards a better vision of the man, if it gives no
more than a partial view of a piece of his back, a little dusty (after
the process of tidying up), a little bowed, and receding from the world
not because of weariness or misanthropy but for other reasons that
cannot be helped: because the leaves fall, the water flows, the clock
ticks with that horrid pitiless solemnity which you must have observed
in the ticking of the hall clock at home. For reasons like that. Yes! It
recedes. And this was the chance to afford one more view of it--even to
my own eyes.

The section within this volume called Letters explains itself though I
do not pretend to say that it justifies its own existence. It claims
nothing in its defence except the right of speech which I believe
belongs to everybody outside a Trappist monastery. The part I have
ventured, for shortness' sake, to call Life, may perhaps justify itself
by the emotional sincerity of the feelings to which the various papers
included under that head owe their origin. And as they relate to events
of which everyone has a date, they are in the nature of sign-posts
pointing out the direction my thoughts were compelled to take at the
various crossroads. If anybody detects any sort of consistency in the
choice, this will be only proof positive that wisdom had nothing to do
with it. Whether right or wrong, instinct alone is invariable; a fact
which only adds a deeper shade to its inherent mystery. The appearance
of intellectuality these pieces may present at first sight is merely the
result of the arrangement of words. The logic that may be found there is
only the logic of the language. But I need not labour the point. There
will be plenty of people sagacious enough to perceive the absence of all
wisdom from these pages. But I believe sufficiently in human sympathies
to imagine that very few will question their sincerity. Whatever
delusions I may have suffered from I have had no delusions as to the
nature of the facts commented on here. I may have misjudged their
import: but that is the sort of error for which one may expect a certain
amount of toleration.

The only paper of this collection which has never been published before
is the Note on the Polish problem. It was written at the request of a
friend to be shown privately, and its "Protectorate" idea, sprung from a
strong sense of the critical nature of the situation, was shaped by the
actual circumstances of the time. The time was about a month before the
entrance of Roumania into the war, and though, honestly, I had seen
already the shadow of coming events I could not permit my misgivings to
enter into and destroy the structure of my plan. I still believe that
there was some sense in it. It may certainly be charged with the
appearance of lack of faith and it lays itself open to the throwing of
many stones; but my object was practical and I had to consider warily
the preconceived notions of the people to whom it was implicitly
addressed and also their unjustifiable hopes. They were unjustifiable,
but who was to tell them that? I mean who was wise enough and
convincing enough to show them the inanity of their mental attitude? The
whole atmosphere was poisoned with visions that were not so much false
as simply impossible. They were also the result of vague and unconfessed
fears, and that made their strength. For myself, with a very definite
dread in my heart, I was careful not to allude to their character
because I did not want the Note to be thrown away unread. And then I had
to remember that the impossible has sometimes the trick of coming to
pass to the confusion of minds and often to the crushing of hearts.

Of the other papers I have nothing special to say. They are what they
are, and I am by now too hardened a sinner to feel ashamed of
insignificant indiscretions. And as to their appearance in this form I
claim that indulgence to which all sinners against themselves are

J. C.


Joseph Conrad

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