Sunday, June 10, 2012

Joseph Conrad on war

Joseph Conrad has pulled me back from the brink of crime again, this time with his thoughts on the Russo-Japanese War:
"(T)he war in the Far East has been made known to us, so far, in a grey reflection of its terrible and monotonous phases of pain, death, sickness; a reflection seen in the perspective of thousands of miles, in the dim atmosphere of official reticence, through the veil of inadequate words. Inadequate, I say, because what had to be reproduced is beyond the common experience of war, and our imagination, luckily for our peace of mind, has remained a slumbering faculty, notwithstanding the din of humanitarian talk and the real progress of humanitarian ideas. Direct vision of the fact, or the stimulus of a great art, can alone make it turn and open its eyes heavy with blessed sleep; and even there, as against the testimony of the senses and the stirring up of emotion, that saving callousness which reconciles us to the conditions of our existence, will assert itself under the guise of assent to fatal necessity, or in the enthusiasm of a purely æsthetic admiration of the rendering. In this age of knowledge our sympathetic imagination, to which alone we can look for the ultimate triumph of concord and justice, remains strangely impervious to information, however correctly and even picturesquely conveyed."
— Joseph Conrad, “Autocracy and War” (1905)
The highlighted portion, especially, made me think of a tendency toward especially graphic violence in some crime writing in recent years, and of the justification of some boosters that "that sort of thing really happens."

What does Conrad have to say to Stieg Larsson lovers (and haters)? To we readers of crime fiction, almost all of which concerns an event (death) that can never be adequately comprehended? About the limits of the aesthetic imagination?

Conrad talks about "the stimulus of a great art." What's the difference between great art and voyeuristic exploitation? And do we want fiction to awaken our "slumbering" imagination?

(Read "Autocracy and War" online. )

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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16 Comments:

Blogger Dana King said...

Crime fiction is, almost of necessity, violent. How that violence is used, and how it is described, is not unlike sex. There's no ignoring it, and there should be no shying away from it, but the most effective descriptions leave quite a bit to the readers' imaginations, as each of them will fill in what affects them the ost once the author has sketched the outlines and shown the direction.

June 10, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It's an ethical question, isn't it, and a difficult, as I think Conrad would formulate the question: How does art depict horrific events faitfully? OK, that's the easy part. Conrad raises the question of whether we want it to.

I give Jo Nesbø credit for a prologue to one of his novels -- The Leopard. I think -- that's so far over the top that Nesbø appears to be poking fun at over-the-top ficitional violence.

June 11, 2012  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

I think if I was a Stieg Larsson type writer I'd be more worried about this Conrad quote: "A work of art should justify itself in every line."

June 11, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Geez, that's a lot of lines.

June 11, 2012  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Graphic violence is meaningless unless an emotional bond has been created between reader and characters. That's where the art comes into it.

Journalism can appeal to our morality and shock us, but the true personal involvement doesn't happen until we know the people who inflict the violence and also their victims.

June 11, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And nothing is so dull, dreary, cheap, calculated, and thoroughly pro forma as the the "personal" touch in news stories: the needless details of facial expression in courtroom stories, the use of first names in news accunts.

June 11, 2012  
Blogger Kevin McCarthy said...

i love the line 'that saving callousness which reconciles us to the conditions of our existence...' just read it aloud and i'm struck 'purely aestically' by the pure poetry of it.

too tired now but i'll consider your questions tomorrow, peter. again, fair play to you for breaking out the conrad. in honour of the euro 2012 tournament in poland/ukraine perhaps?

June 11, 2012  
Anonymous Liz said...

Did Conrad signal a turn from the "merely" awful (but normal) carnage of war to something methodically evil? If so, then he was another warning voice lost amongst the innocents/purposeful disbelievers, whatever.

Scarey to think Larsson etc. might be the same but then again I was raised RC and didn't have a clue.

June 11, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Blogger eats another comment, so let's try this one again.

Kevin, I too, liked "saving callousness." It's nice to be able to peer at the ugliness of reality, to penetrate to the heart of things -- and then to have the luxury to pull back.

My choice of Conrad had nothing to do with Euro 2012, but the Conrad who wrote "Autocracy and War" might not have been surprised by the racist outbursts of some Russian fans.

June 11, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Liz, I think Conrad meant that the Russo-Japanese War was longer and bloodier than wars had conventionally been to that time -- the sort of thing everyone said about World War I a few years later and which Goya said about the Peninsular War in the form of his prints "The Disasters of War."

Some readers complained of diosingenuousness in Larsson's depiction of violence against women. Conrad might have found such depictions cheap and easy.

June 11, 2012  
Anonymous solo said...

Conrad is not exactly a model of clarity and pithiness, is he? The fog of war has nothing of the fog of his prose.

In preferring 'the stimulus of great art' in representing a war to the mere reportage of journalists, it should be remembered that Conrad considerd himself a great artist, and is only banging his own drum and the drum of his own kind: artists.

And what about this passage from later on in his essay:

the large page, the
columns of words, the leaded headings, exalt the mind into a state of
feverish credulity. The printed page of the Press makes a sort of still
uproar, taking from men both the power to reflect and the faculty of
genuine feeling; leaving them only the artificially created need of
having something exciting to talk about.

I'm used to hearing 'intellectuals' talk about the 'passive consumption' of 'the masses' but usually they're talking about television or more recently the internet, but here's the idiiot Conrad a hundred and seven years ago saying almost precisely the same thing about newspapers.

You're a newspaper man, Peter. Did you realize the size of the page, the fact that the words are divided into columns and most sinister of all have 'leaded headings' results in 'feverish credulity' in the reader. I hope you're properly ashamed of yourself for working in such a diabolical industry, Peter.

June 11, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solo, I realized vey quickly that Conrad's comment about newspapers are very nearly identical to what others would say about television and the Intenet years later. To my mind, that marked him as perceptive rather than as a Chicken Little. True he was an intellectual and an artist, but he had also been a wordly and practical man, which probably ought to lend him some credibility. And I don't think pithy prose had yet come into fashion in 1905.

My industry sadly lacks the clout these days to be considered properly diabolical.

June 11, 2012  
Blogger Philip Amos said...

Fine post, Peter, as ever. I was taken by delight yesterday when I wrote a rather long comment on this, only to find after entering the capcha that Blogger ended there -- the 'submit' box had not downloaded. So I'll not try to reconstruct the whole, lest it happen again. But here is the gist.

I thought your mention of Larsson very well chosen. He was a journalist and he knew whereof he wrote in his novels as it derived from his research -- nothing disingenuous in it. And I know whereof I write as well. A criminologist friend asked me if I would, for three summer semesters, examine the dossiers and in some cases interview Federal sex offenders (of all varieties), and compose profiles. Let me be adamant: not until you have slogged through those huge dossiers do you know the true nature of these crimes. People think they know from reading newspapers? It is to laugh! I sometimes found what I was reading induced incredulity, bearing in mind that much of the background reports are based on self-reporting. An offender was himself at age four stuffed in a fish tank by his mother, and then stuck with pins all over his accessible parts? Really? But then I turned the page and found a great rarity in these dossiers: the original police and social worker reports on the incident and, yes, it happened. Put that in a novel and it would be deemed gratuitous and scarcely believable. A father raped his own six month-old daughter? Yup. And then is sexual trafficking and slavery, but I'm not allowing myself space to go into that one.

I think here only of the best of crime writers who tackle these and related issues, and I aver that they serve a noble purpose, for, outside of academic research and the labours of a few independent journalists such as Larsson, I know of no other medium which may bring home the full, utter horror of these matters, no matter how repulsive and repugnant some readers and critics may find them. My criminologist friend warned me that no one who undertakes this sort of project is quite the same again, and I wasn't. Nor might readers be. Good. The populace at large needs to be woken up to the extent and horrendous details of these ghastly and global issues. If some afficionados don't like reading it, don't. But there is no cause to criticize it -- very much the opposite. The three monkeys syndrome is why we seem to get nowhere in dealing with it.

June 12, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the note. I always quote what Henning Mankell told a reader who complained about the goriness of the killings in his novels. (To be fair, she was apologetic; she appeared to feel bad that these bloody aftermaths came close to making her put the books down.)

"These things really happen," Mankell replied, with a shrug.

A propos of Mankell and Larsson, I don't remember Mankell ever being accused of exploitation. This could be because he would never take us through the killing or torture, but rather just show its result or, in one chilling case. just a still-warm pan of water on a stove in a hastily abandoned house, the water tinged red ...

June 12, 2012  
Anonymous solo said...

Solo, I realized vey quickly that Conrad's comment about newspapers are very nearly identical to what others would say about television and the Intenet years later. To my mind, that marked him as perceptive rather than as a Chicken Little

Do you mean you agree with him? You think reading newspapers makes people credulous, unreflective and lacking in genuine feeling? I'm astonished, Peter.

June 12, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

No, I mean that I agree with his sentiment that there can be something unsavory and ghoulishly celebratory about saturation coverage of disasters. Conrad was writing about a media circus years before anyone used the term.

June 12, 2012  

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