The Dawn Watch: A book review by Bob Morris

The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World
Maya Jasanoff
Penguin Press (November 2017)

“The horror! The horror!… is not so far under the surface as we think.”

As I began to read Maya Jasanoff’s journey of personal discovery within the framework of Joseph Conrad’s own extended journey in the late-19th century, I was again reminded of this passage from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” While retracing Conrad’s life and work, Jasanoff sees her own experiences anew.

She observes, “In this book I set out to explore Conrad’s world with the compass of a historian, the chart of a biographer, and the navigational sextant of a fiction reader.”

Conrad was born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski on December 3, 1857, to Polish parents in Berdichev (now Berdychiv), Ukraine, and was raised and educated primarily in Poland. Of special interest to Jasanoff (and to me) is the four-and-a-half-month period when Korzeniowski served as first mate aboard the Vidar (1887-1888). His experiences inspired more of what he later wrote than any other period of his life.

“I settled into a small cabin for the one-thousand-mile trip. I batted away tsetse flies as I reread Heart of Darkness. The silhouette of forest scrolled past, interrupted now and then by villages of thatched huts on poles…But the jungle wasn’t closing in, there was no sense of menace, and rather than feeling alienated from my surroundings, I was embraced into a veritable floating village…I had come to Congo to find Conrad, yet he had never felt further away. It was a reminder that, for all the analogies, the early twenty-first century [begin italics] isn’t [end italics] the late nineteenth.”

All of what Konrad Korzeniowski had experienced provided the material for most (not all) of what Joseph Conrad later wrote. Jasanoff suggests that his “Congo story had always been about more than one specific place. His insistence on the universal potential for savagery, and the hollowness of civilization, explains why Heart of Darkness lends itself so well to transposition.”

Each dawn suggests a transition from the darkness of night to the light of a new day. Perhaps moreso today than when Korzeniowski embarked on his first voyage and retired from his last, our world is vulnerable to “the awful attribute of our nature…[one that] is not so far under the surface as we think.”

In this context, I am again reminded of an observation by Joan Didion: ” “I suppose I am talking about just that: the ambiguity of belonging to a generation distrustful of political highs, the historical irrelevancy of growing up convinced that the heart of darkness lay not in some error of social organization but in man’s own blood.”

I plan to re-read once again Maya Jasanoff’s brilliant book as well as Heart of Darkness and probably Lord Jim. There is still so much more for me to hear, to feel, and — especially — to see. My own journey of personal discovery continues.

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