Category Archives: Conrad, Joseph

Willy Maugham’s kind of hotel

screen-shot-2016-09-12-at-07-32-47On a flight to Bangkok, Dalrymple falls into conversation with the passenger next to him, a washing-machine salesman. By coincidence, Dalrymple and the salesman are staying at the same hotel, the Oriental.

DALRYMPLE: Joseph Conrad and W. Somerset Maugham stayed there too.

SALESMAN: Who?

DALRYMPLE: Just some writers.

SALESMAN: Oh. The only trouble with the Oriental is they don’t allow women — hookers — in there.

DALRYMPLE: I don’t think that would have troubled Somerset Maugham much.

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Postcards from Brussels

A bourgeois city gone to seed

A Sint-Jans-Molenbeek street, Brussels:

The Sint-Jans-Molenbeek district: Brussels, the ‘sepulchral city’, as Conrad called it in Heart of Darkness, is, says Dalrymple, ‘dirty and unswept’; the houses, once all ‘bourgeois pride and prosperity’, are neglected

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The degeneration Brussels: 'Despite the fact that the public sector accounts for 50 per cent of GDP, it remains dirty and uncared for, and is architecturally ever more a hideous mish-mash. Many of the buildings were defaced by graffiti, the architectural equivalent of tattoos and just as idiotically egotistic'

Degeneration: ‘despite the fact that the public sector accounts for 50% of GDP, Brussels remains dirty and uncared for’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cretinism: 'Many of the buildings were defaced by graffiti, the architectural equivalent of tattoos and just as idiotically egotistic'

Cretinism: ‘many of the buildings were defaced by graffiti, the architectural equivalent of tattoos and as idiotically egotistic’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An architectural 'mishmash', says Dalrymple, but he would surely acknowledge that this is part of the city's charm

An architectural ‘mishmash’, says Dalrymple, but he would surely acknowledge that this is part of the charm of Brussels

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Palais des Beaux-Arts (Paleis voor Schone Kunsten), Victor Horta, 1928: the ugliest of all the major art galleries of the world, a building in the fascist style but without the courage of its megalomania, designed as if by a pocket Albert Speer

Palais des Beaux-Arts (Paleis voor Schone Kunsten), Victor Horta, 1928: ‘the ugliest of all the world’s major art galleries, a building in the fascist style but without the courage of its megalomania, designed as if by a pocket Albert Speer’

Mission civilisatrice

Léopoldville, 1928

Léopoldville, 1928

It ends with heads impaled on poles

In Conrad, writes Dalrymple, there is not just linguistic mastery but

a cognitive and a moral quality.

Art, entertainment, and moral purpose are indivisible.

Probity was perhaps the highest good, the moral quality Conrad admired most; for him, very distant goals diluted probity and finally dissolved it. The good that resulted from doing something with all one’s might had to be tangible or immediate, and not so far removed that it entailed or permitted the doing of evil in the name of the eventual good that it would supposedly produce.

Forced labour, Anglo-Belgian India Rubber Company, Belgian Congo 1907

Forced labour, Anglo-Belgian India Rubber Company, Belgian Congo 1907

The risks of distance are shown by the colonialists in Heart of Darkness.

Kurtz has grand plans for a mission civilisatrice in the depths of the primeval forest that end with decapitated heads impaled on poles.

Conrad allowed no transcendent meaning, purpose, or design to the universe:

There were no ultimate consolations for our earthly travails, except such as we can find for ourselves, and that are inevitably modest. Attempts to transgress those dimensions are intellectually absurd and practically disastrous.

All that Conrad admired in England is defeated, all that he detested is victorious

Screen Shot 2014-03-10 at 03.00.59Conrad was drawn to England, Dalrymple writes,

precisely because he saw the English national character as lacking in moral grandiosity and metaphysical flamboyance. The English people did their duty without the apparent need, or desire, to found it on any philosophical first principles.

His mistaken belief was that in England,

the Singletons would always prevail over the Donkins [a reference to two characters in the 1897 novella The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’: A Tale of the Sea]. History has proved him wrong: all that he admired has been defeated, and all that he detested has emerged victorious.

Marxist doctrine: a précis

Screen Shot 2014-03-10 at 00.38.34Dalrymple draws attention to a useful summary provided by the character Michaelis, ‘the ticket-of-leave apostle‘ (‘It was said that for three seasons running a very wealthy old lady had sent him for a cure to Marienbad‘), in Conrad’s 1907 novel The Secret Agent:

All idealisation makes life poorer. To beautify it is to take away its character of complexity — it is to destroy it. Leave that to the moralists, my boy. History is made by men, but they do not make it in their heads. The ideas that are born in their consciousness play an insignificant part in the march of events. History is dominated and determined by the tool and the production — by the force of economic conditions. Capitalism has made socialism, and the laws made by the capitalist for the protection of property are responsible for anarchism.

Screen Shot 2014-03-10 at 00.40.29As for the future, says Michaelis,

no one can tell what form the social organisation may take….Then why indulge in prophetic phantasies? At best they can only interpret the mind of the prophet, and can have no objective value. Leave that pastime to the moralists, my boy….The future is as certain as the past—slavery, feudalism, individualism, collectivism. This is the statement of a law, not an empty prophecy.

Britain the soft spot, the place of decay

Screen Shot 2013-04-14 at 01.39.33…where the people, no longer anything like their ancestors (whom they deride and even contemn), are determined to ‘lounge safely through existence’.

There is this passage in Lord Jim:

The majority were men who, like himself, thrown there by some accident, had remained as officers of country ships. They had now a horror of the home service, with its harder conditions, severer view of duty, and the hazard of stormy oceans. They were attuned to the eternal peace of Eastern sky and sea. They loved short passages, good deck-chairs, large native crews, and the distinction of being white. They shuddered at the thought of hard work, and led precariously easy lives, always on the verge of dismissal, always on the verge of engagement, serving Chinamen, Arabs, half-castes—would have served the devil himself had he made it easy enough. They talked everlastingly of turns of luck: how So-and-so got charge of a boat on the coast of China—a soft thing; how this one had an easy billet in Japan somewhere, and that one was doing well in the Siamese navy; and in all they said—in their actions, in their looks, in their persons—could be detected the soft spot, the place of decay, the determination to lounge safely through existence.

This is what the British have become. They have gone soft; they inhabit a place of decay; and the sillier among them are even proud of it. Margaret Thatcher failed to understand this. Dalrymple writes:

Her error…was to have failed to recognise the change in the character of the British people. She imagined them as they were in pre-war Grantham, the small Lincolnshire town where she was born: honest, prudent, modest, striving, thrifty, virtuous, duty-bound and patriotic. The intervening years, however, had changed their character; they, or many of them, had become very nearly the opposite of all those things.

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The alliance between leniency and authoritarianism

It is a matter of para-detection and para-deterrence, says Dalrymple, who notes that CCTV cameras have no effect on the number of crimes solved.

Common sense suggests that they should deter, but common sense might be wrong. For if the punishment of detected crime is insufficient to deter, there is no reason why the presence of cameras should deter. The CCTV cameras in Britain—perhaps as many as a third of all such cameras in the world—is an official response to the increased lawlessness of the population. But as with so much official activity in Britain, it achieves nothing.

As the official of the Embassy in Conrad’s The Secret Agent put it,

The general leniency of the judicial procedure here, and the utter absence of all repressive measures, are a scandal to Europe.