Joseph Conrad, “Preface to the Nigger of Narcissus”

1897

“A work that aspires, however humbly, to the condition of art should carry its justification in every line. And art itself may be defined as a single-minded attempt to render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe, by bringing to light the truth, manifold and one, underlying its every aspect” 1887.

Conrad clearly lays out problems of surface and depth here, akin to Forster’s interest in flat and round characters – these are some of the many origins of the denigration of attention to surface culture. Like Woolf, Conrad is interested in discovering what “is fundamental, what is enduring and essential… the artist, then, like the thinker or the scientist, seeks the truth and makes his appeal” 1887. But while the thinker “plunges into ideas, the scientist into facts,” and they speak to us in “common sense” and “always to our credulity… it is otherwise with the artist” 1887.

“Confronted by the same enigmatical spectacle the artist descends within himself, and in that lonely region of stress and strife, if he be deserving and fortunate, he finds the terms of his appeal… to our less obvious capacities: to that part of our nature which, because of the warlike conditions of existence, is necessarily kept out of sight within the more resisting and hard qualities – like the vulnerable body within a steel armour” 1887.

“His appeal is less loud, more profound, less distinct, more stirring – and sooner forgotten. Yet its effect endures forever. The changing wisdom of successive generations discards ideas, questions facts, demolishes theories. But the artist appeals to that part of our being which is not dependent on wisdom; to that in us which is a gift and not an acquisition… to our capacity for delight and wonder… solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts, to the solidarity in dreams, in joy, in sorrow, in aspirations, in illusions, in hope, in fear, which binds men to each other, which binds together all humanity – the dead to the living and the living to the unborn” 1887.

Why is the effort made “to present an unrestful episode in the obscure lives of a few individuals out of all the disregarded multitude of the bewildered, the simple, and the voiceless”? 1888. “There is not a place of splendour or a dark corner of the earth that does not deserve, if only a passing glance of wonder and pity” 1888.

“Fiction – if it at all aspires to be art – appeals to temperament. And in truth it must be, like painting, like music, like all art, the appeal of one temperament to all the other innumerable temperaments whose subtle and resistless power endows passing events with their true meaning, and creates the moral, the emotional atmosphere of the place and time… appeals primarily to the senses… it must strenuously aspire to the plasticity of sculpture, to the colour of painting, and to the magic suggestiveness of music – which is the art of arts” 1888.

“And it is only through complete, unswerving devotion to the perfect blending of form and substance; it is only through an unremitting never-discouraged care for the shape and ring of sentences that an approach can be made to plasticity, to colour, and that the light of magic suggestiveness may be brought to play for an evanescent instant over the commonplace surface of words: of the old, old words, worn thin, defaced by ages of careless usage” 1888.

It’s interesting that for Conrad, words are materials – surfaces worn thin that need to be… refaceted?

“My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel – it is, before all, to make you see… it is everything… also, that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask” 1888.

“To snatch in a moment of courage, from the remorseless rush of time, a passing phase of life, is only the beginning of the task… to hold up unquestioningly, without choice and without fear, the rescued fragment before all eyes in the light of a sincere mode… to show its vibration, its colour, its form… reveal the substance of its truth… [to] attain to such clearness of sincerity that at last the presented vision… shall awaken in the hearts of beholders that feeling of unavoidable solidarity… which binds men to each other and all mankind to the visible world” 1889.

The writer who holds to these ideals “cannot be faithful to any one of the temporary formulas of his craft… the supreme cry of Art for Art itself, loses the exciting ring of its apparent immortality. It sounds far off. It has ceased to be a cry, and is heard only as a whisper, often incomprehensible” 1889. Art is more like witnessing the attempt of a laborer. “Art is long and life is short” (Hippocrates), and its goal is veiled in mists – it is not to unveil a secret or law, but something rarer.

“To arrest, for the space of a breath, the hands busy about the work of the earth, and compel men entranced by the sight of distant goals to glance for a moment at the surrounding vision of form and colour… to make them pause for a look… reserved for only a very few to achieve… behold! – all the truth of life is there: a moment of vision, a sigh, a smile – and the return to an eternal rest” 1889.

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