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Title: The story as a creative medium in the work of Joseph Conrad
Author: Weiand, Hermann
Awarding Body: University of Edinburgh
Current Institution: University of Edinburgh
Date of Award: 1959
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The intrinsic coherence of method and vision is apparent throughout Conrad's work. The focus of his creative interest is the revelation of the substance of the human heart with all its bearing on the truth of human society and of the universe in which man lives. The human heart is seen in universal relations, -the strife in a heart goes on all through creation. Action is of secondary importance as it is but the outcome of this struggle and its value not fixed until the core of the struggle is resolved. Conrad is as much out to show something as to find something. What he wants to show is his radical doubt as to the substance of the human heart and of the world, as opposed to the current conventional notions. What he wants to find is a solution to this doubt. His books are as much studies as they are illustrations. With this aim Conrad tries to show'life in its true form and colour'. He consciously adapted the form of his fiction to the way life presented itself to him. In Conrad's time, Europe had come to a climax of a long development of thought and beliefs. Man lived in a world which he believed to be perfectly enlightened by reason, as to its substance, origin and aims. There was evil, but it was clearly defined as such. Demonic forces, beyond the bounds of reason, did no longer exist. Civilization had its institutions which provided a place for everybody in this world. There was no real problem about about the questions of wrong and right, good and evil, nor as to the destiny of man and his place in the next world. The laws of society and the commandments of religion saw to that. Mankind in general was making steady material progress which -was to go hand in hand with moral improvement. Its light was being carried to the dark continents by pioneers and missionaries, -trade in the wake of Christianity and humanity. All this, through a frightful moral shock, turned out to be a terrible illusion for Conrad. Civilization showed itself to be a monster preying for its existence on mankind with a cruelty and savagery surpassing that of the primitives. Taking the virtues of western civilization on the strength of their manifestation when bereft of the hold of convention, he saw them as hollow, -a pretence covering the same darkness which he found in the primitives. Life became for him a 'play with an obscure beginning and an unfathomable denouement' ( to Arthur Simons, Aug. 29, 19o8). The values of society, by their manifestations, having been proved as false, the question arose as to whether all morality was nothing but a convention built up in the course of centuries. He saw nature as a cruel play of blind forces which assert themselves with violence and savagery, -forces which are also in the human heart. In Stein's butterfly 'the balance of colossal forces' shows the 'perfect equilibrium of the mighty Kosmos' (Lord Jim, p.152), but man does not fit into it. The forces in him are not in harmony but in eternal conflict. Man cannot follow the forces of nature, because something in him is pitched against them. The conception of man as the incarnation of such a blind force is the reason for despair,- the suspicion that he is no more than a 'handful of dust'. The redeeming fact for this despair, -and the cause of his suffering at the same time-, is the existence of a force in the human heart which counter-acts chaos. It is not a mere convention but an inborn reality. The search for it is the permanent inspiration for Conrad.' creative effort through the medium of fiction, -all his writing revolves unceasingly around it. Despair itself is a proof that man does not fit into this order of things, -despair taken as the extremity of suffering in the human heart under its inhuman conditions. Those who suffer most from it are therefore proof of the existence of the spirit. The sorrow and grief in the clamour of prehistoric man expresses the revolt against the slavery of these blind forces. There is the drwam of light and order in the heart of man which is bound to stand in irreconcilable enmity with chaos,-its bearers are vessels of the spirit pitched against it, and therefore privileged victims of its forces. The human heart contains the past and the future, the savagery and the d dream, and it is always in the clash of these two that the spirit affirms itself, mostly at the cost of destruction. The birth of a true conscience, -the assertion of a strong knowledge and force set against chaos, through suffering-, is the central theme. Conrad's obscurity lies in the fact that the spirit never finds clear form of expression. He only affirms that it must resist evil and is incompatible with material ends, but it never matures to a definite rule of conduct, - except 'that we must live decently to go out easy'. The gates of the beyond are closed in his view. We only learn that it is the manner which counts, the 'honour'. One thing however is clear: The spirit cannot assert itself through violence and savagery, - they are against the spirit, and therefore it is of necessity weaker. But even so it cannot be wholly overcome. The spirit must not however tie itself down to matter, or it is in danger of being overcome. The Question where it belongs to if this world is too bad for it, is consciously shirked. It is only in the bond of the sea that it has found a definite expression. Therefore all Conrad's fiction dealing with that form of life is conclusive in vision and structure, as we have already pointed out. The rest of his fiction is ruled by the central question which remains open apart from the affirmation of the spirit, - inconclusive in action, and therefore in form. Conrad had no coherent view of reality, except for the certitude of this universal struggle going right through creation. Therefore the form of his fiction remains 'open'. It does not show a coherent and chronological action leading to a definite and meaningful end, because action is ultimately futile, as seen from its purpose. Since the spirit does only assert itself in conflict with darkness at the moment of its defeat, this always stands at the beginning. There is no doubt about the outcome. The truth turns out in the struggle of light and darkness in the heart of the central character. Therefore all other characters are grouped around him and light up this struggle. He is their touchy-stone, since they are all qualified by the moral stand they take in this struggle, each according to his own substance. Time and place do not matter. The outstanding quality of his fiction, as well as its flaws, is caused by his revolt and bewilderment in the face of existence. In the beginning, when his art of grouping was not sufficiently mastered, he was talkative about his truth and there was a layer of explanatory comment diluting its dramatic quality, - which was thin anyway because the strife displayed was of a merely spiritual and moral nature, not presented in terms of action. It was the revelation of the fall, the revolt, and the resistance of a soul. This comment, in the cause of his writing grew thin, but it never disappeared. His sarcasm, a cloak for his revolt, gradually shifted into the denominations used for visual details. Also, there was a thick layer of description with an abundance of denominations and adjectival qualifications which serve to establish universal relations for the strife displayed. With the progress of his art, Conrad succeeded in showing all he wanted to show exclusively through his grouping and lighting. Characters set beside each other in absolute ignorance as to the reality of those next to them, demonstrate the absolute loneliness and solitude of every human soul, - the fact that it has to fight its struggle alone, thrown on its own substance. There is no help from God or man. This is brought out strongest through the opposition of the blind trust of the primitive in the face of the treachery of the white man. It also serves as the strongest means of irony. The central situation then is the fall of the man in whose heart the birth of the spirit is to take place. It is there at the beginning, and the action leading up to it elucidates it, like all the characters involved. In the great novels there are several such characters throwing light upon each other.
Supervisor: Not available Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available