Saturday, June 09, 2012

Joseph Conrad on the Titanic

I found this purely by accident while browsing last night. Conrad thought a fair amount about the sea, and his thoughts on it and other interesting subjects may be more pertinent this year than ever:
“It is with a certain bitterness that one must admit to oneself that the late S. S. Titanic had a `good press.' It is perhaps because I have no great practice of daily newspapers (I have never seen so many of them together lying about my room) that the white spaces and the big lettering of the headlines have an incongruous festive air to my eyes, a disagreeable effect of a feverish exploitation of a sensational God-send. And if ever a loss at sea fell under the definition in the terms of a bill of lading, of Act of God, this one does, in its magnitude, suddenness and severity; and in the chastening influence it should have on the self-confidence of mankind.
Joseph Conrad, “Some Reflections on the Loss of the Titanic” (1912)
Much in the 100-year-old essay may induce shivers or smiles of recognition today, Conrad's reflections on the fatuous ignorance of senators, for example, or on naive fascination with and faith in bigness. But perhaps none cuts more deeply than this:
“In reading the reports, the first reflection which occurs to one is that, if that luckless ship had been a couple of hundred feet shorter, she would have probably gone clear of the danger. But then, perhaps, she could not have had a swimming bath and a French café.”
© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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15 Comments:

Blogger J. Kingston Pierce said...

Hey, Peter:

Readers wishing to enjoy the entirety of Conrad's "Reflections" essay might like to know that it's available online:

http://gaslight.mtroyal.ca/contit01.htm

Cheers,
Jeff

June 09, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And here’s that link in handy, clickable form. Thanks.

June 09, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

I really had no idea that Conrad and the Titanic had any contemporaneous existence at all.

June 10, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

If pressed, I might have guessed he and the Titanic were around at the same time; he wrote most of the works for which he's remembered today in the fifteen or so years before the Titanic went down. But I had no idea he had commented on the disaster. Conrad's another guy who might have been a blogger if he were around today.

June 10, 2012  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Seana

You should see the poem Thomas Hardy wrote about the Titanic. Excellent stuff. Hardy and the Titanic seem even less congruous to me than Conrad and the Titanic.

http://www.melodylane.net/ianwhitcomb/twainpoem.html

June 10, 2012  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

But then, perhaps, she could not have had a swimming bath and a French café.”


Or "good press."

This example explains certain bestsellers.

June 10, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian: here’s the handy, one-click version of Hardy’s poem. Conrad might well have found the poem congenial, but his life offers additional clues to his angry response to the Titanic. According to biographical material in The Penguin Portable Conrad, Conrad’s sea-going career coincided with the rise of steamships at the expanse of sail vessels and with the growth in ships’ size: “Tonnage increased, as ever, but there were fewer ships afloat, fewer commands to be had ...”

There may thus be a tinge of wounded bitterness to Conrad’s Titanic essay. Conrad might naturally have reacted to the Titanic disaster the way, say, a newspaper copy editor in today’s America might react to a bad mistake’s making its way into print.

June 10, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J.: Certain bestsellers or certain mega-movies.

June 10, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I agree that the moody, land-locked Hardy seems even less congruous a match for the Titanic than does Conrad.

June 10, 2012  
Blogger Simona said...

That's an interesting perspective, Peter, about Conrad being a blogger. And thanks for the pointer: I also, didn't know he had commented on the Titanic disaster.

June 10, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Simona, after I remarked that Conrad would have made a good blogger, I read the statement in in my Conrad collection that he wrote a good deal less nonfiction than did such contemporaries and near-contemporaries as Virginia Woolf and Henry James. Apparently, though, he could be good at it when he tried.

June 10, 2012  
Anonymous aaron said...

I find it strange to think that Hardy actually saw the first film version of Tess of the D'urbervilles, although apparently he didn't like it very much. He did, however, aptly point out that it was a way to advertise the novel to different people. I 've no idea at all whether Conrad saw any of his novels filmed for the silent cinema. Tolstoy is another one of those grand masters of 19th-century fiction who lived long enough to possibly see his own works filmed. Again, I have no idea whether he actually saw any of them, or for that matter, how many of these very early films are extant except possibly in stills.

June 10, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

A list I just consulted suggests Hardy was alive for the first two filmed versions of Tess of the d'Urbervilles. should he have wanted to see them. (Perhaps he said, "What the hell; I made few pounds out of it.") Strange to think those guys could have seen movies, that a color photo exists of Tolstoy, that Conrad outlived the Titanic by a dozen years. That is mildly unsettling and awe-inspiring at the same time.

June 10, 2012  
Blogger Kevin McCarthy said...

Peter, thanks so much for for the post! Conrad is one of my absolute heroes--did my undergrad thesis on Heart of Darkness and have his Collected Works by Double Day which my mother picked up for 25 quid at an estate sale. I'm going to go read that essay now in musty print!

I think, as above, that having been a man of sailing ships who rued the day of steam, he had to write about the Titanic. As for his being a blogger, judging by his attitude to steam ships, he might not have been too hot on these new, fangled computer thingys.

June 11, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yes, Conrad's remarks on the Titanic certainly add a tinge of bitter personal frustration to the sympathy and tecno-hesitation tha tmust have been common at the time.

In the era of Tweets and text messages, Conrad might have regarded a blog as a welcome forum for setting down coherent thoughts in correctly spelled full sentences.

June 11, 2012  

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