Don DeLillo, “White Noise”

1985

DeLillo’s zeitgeisty “breakout” novel tells the story of Jack Gladney, a professor of Hitler studies (a department he invented) who can’t speak German. He works at The-College-on-the-Hill (perhaps a “city on the hill” reference to the Bible/Kennedy/Reagan) and is married for the fifth time to his fourth wife, Babette. They have a baby, Wilder, and a number of other children, including the prescient Steffie and the morose Heinrich. Both Babette and Jack are obsessed with death and with discussing who will die first. The bland 1980s and its “white noise” in the form of technology and advertising are recurrent subjects in the novel. (I would love to teach this with a John Hughes movie, like Sixteen Candles, and think about how trends, products, and cliches work in each).

When the “Airborne Toxic Event” arrives, Jack is exposed and later learns from testing that he has somehow been affected. The acronym is ironic, as the cloud is dispersed when microbes are released to eat it. SIMUVAC’s priority is to pretend the real event is simulated: “there is no substitute for a planned simulation” (a reality reversal like the most photographed barn bit. The barn’s aura is increased, rather than decreased, with each photograph in a “collective perception” that is different than Benjamin’s original theory: “we can’t get outside the aura” 13). Jack discovers Babette has slept with a man to get Dylarama, a drug to cure people of the fear of death. It is not working for her, but for a time Jack becomes obsessed with procuring some for himself. Jack and Murray talk, and Murray theorizes that “the more people you kill, the more power you gain over your own death… a secret precision at work in the most savage and indiscriminate killings” 291. Jack’s final confrontation with Willie Mink, the scientist who makes Dylar, is a sort of parody of the Marlow/Kurtz communication or the Humbert/Quilty conflict. It also seems to follow on the failed glory of Taxi Driver and the imagined horrors of American Psycho, both of which focus on sex and youth as well. The novel ends with Wilder miraculously surviving as he rides his tricycle across the freeway. Jack decides to stay away from the doctor and the “binary secrets” the information age seems to offer 326.

J.M. Coetzee, “Disgrace”

1999

In lieu of a proper post on Coetzee’s Disgrace, I’m posting an old essay comparing it to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I’m most interested in this novel in conversation with Conrad, especially the ethical space in which it recreates animal rights (the dogs at the shelter here) as the “brutes” to be “exterminated,” which are the human Congolese in Conrad’s novel. While I think this is a dubious equation, Coetzee also sets up a number of other interesting equivalences and valences: Lucy instead of the Intended (knowing and raped, paying a sort of debt for the land, rather than protected and pure), Petrus and Kurtz (stonelike, hard, and cruel), Marlow and Lurie’s misguided inability to “see” their surroundings (Lurie locked behind a door, Marlow’s obsession with the impenetrable flatness of the jungle), and the young woman of color able to speak where the African lover of Kurtz was silenced – so much so in Disgrace that her accusations cost Lurie his job. (Note that Melanie’s name means black, while Lucy’s means white and Petrus’ means stone.) In Coetzee, we see an anxiety about the ethics of representation play out, in which the text divides us from the subjectivity of the black characters and the female characters, leaving us only with Lurie. His divided novel (prideful downfall and twisted reconciliation) are also a sort of bizarre rewriting of Lord Jim. 

Like a church lit but without a congregation to distract you, with every light and line focused on the high altar. And on the altar, very reverently placed, intensely there, is a dead kitten, an egg-shell, a bit of string. . .

– H.G. Wells on Henry James, 1914

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace both explore the ability of language to represent a world of unspeakable profanity. The perverse altar of H. G. Wells’ analogy humorously satirizes the worship of what he saw as the ‘elaborate, copious emptiness’ of archetypal symbols in the Jamesian novel: the kitten, a violation of the vulnerable body; the shell, a fragility in human bonds; and the string, a senseless materialism.[1] Though intended as satire, the passage into Wells’ empty cathedral diagnoses a larger crisis in twentieth century literature, especially the literature of atrocity, in which silence and symbol are made to stand in for a language which can no longer signify by itself.

Severed from context, Wells’ simile depicts the very issues Heart of Darkness and Disgrace seek to confront: the exaltation of power and greed, the sacrifice of the vulnerable, and the loss of intimacy and connectivity, all of which constitute the unspeakable atrocities of colonized space. Language, however, cannot represent the unspeakable, and both narratives must rotate elliptically around absent centres.

In their fictive representations of the ongoing violence of colonialism, Conrad and Coetzee present a world in which symbolic silences and objects are made to carry the weight of a failed language, but any singular meaning of those symbols is simultaneously undermined by the very impassibility of the language they are meant to replace. In The Language of Silence, Leslie Kane describes the symbolism of silence as that ‘which directly, dramatically, and implicitly reflects doubt and disjunction.’[2] For Kane, the ‘freedom of silence’ lies in its tacit refusal to rigidly ‘define the ineffable’, which opens the text to a more variable reading.[3] Kane’s observation displays this symbolic ambiguity in itself; silence can be read bidirectionally as both a restriction and a liberation of expression.

The silence of the land speaks immediately and disarmingly to the protagonists of both novels. In Heart of Darkness, Marlow feels alienated from the ‘high stillness of primeval forest’, which seems like a “God-forsaken wilderness’ to him.[4] The land’s silence enacts both a passive openness to imperialist rape and, in its meanacing, encroaching density, an indictment of that violation. For Disgrace’s David Lurie, too, though his daughter’s farm should constitute a ‘refuge’ from the city, it ‘does not feel like his earth…it feels like a foreign land’, and he can hear every sound ‘lingering on the still air’.[5] If the land disarms the white interloper, it silently integrates the autochthonous African. To Marlow, the natives have ‘bone, muscle, [and] a wild vitality…that [are] as natural and true as the surf along their coast’, and unlike Marlow himself, they ‘wan[t] no excuse for being there’.[6] In Disgrace, too, Petrus’ name, meaning ‘stone’, makes him one with the land’s ‘dust and gravel’,[7] and reflects Coetzee’s assertion elsewhere that ‘the true South African landscape is of rock’.[8]

In depicting the contested spaces of colonialism as sites of violence, both novels confirm Marlow’s observation that ‘The conquest of the earth…is not a pretty thing when you look at it too much’.[9] While Disgrace and Heart of Darkness closely examine violence, they do so through intimation, denying narrative access to very events around which they purportedly centre. Though Marlow has a ‘propensity to spin yarns’ and Lurie is a professor of Communications and Romantic poetry, the narrators’ inability to articulate the atrocity of their surroundings also renders their tales, paradoxically, the absences of tales.[10]

Marlow knows that Kurtz has conducted ‘inconceivable ceremonies of some devilish initiation’ and that his unsurpassable collection of ivory is ‘paid for …by abominable terrors, by abominable satisfactions’, yet words do not allow him to fully represent these horrors.[11] Divorced from his interiority, even Kurtz’s own exclamation of ‘The horror! The horror!’ offers the reader only an ambivalent echoing of his own unspeakable acts, and even Marlow is not privy to the actual moment of his death.[12] To accommodate the unspeakable, Marlow’s narrative is punctuated by pregnant pauses; he tells his listeners: ‘You can’t understand. How could you?’[13] These ‘dislocations in the narrator’s language’ are, according to Edward Said, ‘Conrad’s way of demonstrating [the] discrepancy between the orthodox and his own views of empire’.[14]

Similarly, in Disgrace, Lucy’s rape occurs while Lurie is locked in a separate room of the house, and in the moment, he can only articulate the vague fear that ‘In a minute…whatever is happening to her will be set in stone’.[15] In ‘Into the Dark Chamber’, Coetzee refers to the space of torture as

the bedchamber of the pornographer’s fantasy where, insulated from moral or physical restraint, one human being is free to exercise his imagination to the limits in the performance of vileness upon the body of another.[16]

Like the isolated station at the heart of the Congo, fenced in by heads on stakes, the interior space of Lucy’s bedroom becomes available for unspeakable acts. Conrad and Coetzee thus destabilize interior space by questioning it as a site of safety and intimacy, the torture chamber of Lucy’s bedroom further echoed in the object rape of Lurie’s car and his home in the city. Afterwards, Lurie can only think to himself, ‘War, atrocity: every word with which one tries to wrap up this day, the day swallows down its black throat’.[17] Cut off from the space of the rape and the details of what Lucy experiences, though, Lurie still concretely associates it with ‘stone’, managing to link the event to the rocky landscape of the farm and to Petrus as well. Lurie ‘has his own suspicions’ that Petrus, who covets his daughter’s land, has ‘engaged three strange men to teach Lucy a lesson’.[18]

In maintaining silence around the unspeakable, Marlow and Lurie inhabit a fearful proximity to the profane. Marlow says that ‘it was ordered I should never betray [Kurtz]’,[19] and Lucy tells Lurie, ‘You tell what happened to you, I tell what happened to me’.[20] Marlow is aware that in entering the Congo and in protecting Kurtz, he, too, is implicated in the project of imperialism, but Kurtz ‘had stepped over the edge, while [he] had been permitted to draw back [his] hesitating foot’.[21] Likewise, Lurie occupies an adjacent space to the men who violate his daughter, for as he struggles to describe his lecherous involvement with Melanie, he says it is ‘Not rape, not quite that, but undesired nonetheless’.[22]

Female characters in the texts signify variously as well. Marlow encounters Kurtz’s Intended ‘all in black, floating towards [him] in the dusk’ as the ‘dark gleams’ of the furniture ‘sh[ine] in indistinct curves’ like ‘a somber and polished sarcophagus’.[23]  The Intended’s ghostly movements link her to the eerie portrait Kurtz paints in the wilderness, and as she stretches out her arms in grief, Marlow conflates her with Kurtz’s black mistress, seeing ‘in this gesture another one, tragic also…stretching bare brown arms over the glitter of the infernal stream’.[24]

In Disgrace, too, Lucy is doubled in Melanie, although in a symbolic reversal, it is not the raped white woman, but the violated ‘dark one’ who is empowered to voice her indignation.[25] Though her name means ‘light’, Lucy’s tacit acceptance of the rape as historical reparation, ‘the price one has to pay for staying on’, seems benighted.[26] Without access to her interior thoughts, however, Lucy remains ambiguously both the victim of rape and the criminal who symbolically cuts out her own tongue.

In White Writing, Coetzee notes that in South African ‘farm novel, we find women… imprisoned in the farm house…cut off from the outdoors’.[27] Through violation, Lucy is made more intimate with the land, as her body comes to echo the ‘landscape…inscribed by hand and plough’, and, invaded and planted with seed, she enters Petrus’ family in a perverse rewriting of the ‘myth in which the earth becomes wife to the husband-man’.[28] Adding to the layered meaning of the novel is Petrus’ ‘relative’ Pollux, a participant in the rape. In mythology, only one of Leda’s twin sons is the result of Zeus’ rape. In bearing this name, Pollux, without ever speaking, becomes both child of the symbolically raped land and the potential father of Lucy’s ‘child of this earth’: the product and the perpetrator of rape.[29]

The image of the silent African vacillates throughout Heart of Darkness. While Marlow pities the ‘black shadows of disease and starvation’ he finds dying under in the forest at the start of his journey, he still objectifies the vulnerable black bodies by describing them synecdochically: ‘the black bones reclined…the sunken eyes looked up…the fingers closed slowly’.[30] In a moment of unvarnished dehumanization, Marlow also describes the black fireman as ‘a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat, walking on his hind-legs’.[31]

In Disgrace, Petrus’ uses and omissions of language speak to the weight of racialized language in colonized space. When Lurie asks him if he is ‘the dog man’, Petrus, with a ‘broad smile’, echoes Lurie twice in assent: ‘“Yes…the dog-man…The dog-man,” he repeats, savouring the phrase’.[32]  Petrus’ ironic iteration of the term carries both its savage racist inheritance and an accurate description of his place as labourer.  In The Location of Culture, Homi Bhaba maintains that

the discourse of mimicry is constructed around an ambivalence; in order to be effective, mimicry must continually produce its slippage, its excess, its difference.[33]

Petrus’ inversion of colonial language demonstrates a positive reclamation of language from the realm of the subaltern, but, in its doublings (‘very bad, very bad’; ‘Lucy is safe here, she is safe’), it also bears a sinister resemblance to Kurtz’s final utterance.[34] Thus Petrus intimates a dual enactment of the rightful return of colonized land and the horrific interiority of the violent colonizer.

Marlow’s problematic interpretation of the ‘savages’ as both human and beastly has a crude resonance in Disgrace in the voiceless dogs of Bev’s clinic. The euthanasia of the silent, neglected animals is a disturbing evocation of Kurtz’s barbaric footnote: ‘Exterminate all the brutes!’[35] Still, this reading is countered in the novel by Bev’s pure effort ‘to lighten the load of Africa’s suffering beasts’ and in Lucy’s worldview, which recognizes that ‘There is only the life there is. Which we share with animals’.[36]

Indeed, despite their troubling equivocation, it is ultimately Marlow’s and Lurie’s tenuous and tacit intimacy with the vulnerable that fills the empty silences of the texts with the greatest promise for redemption. When Marlow’s helmsman dies, ‘his lustrous and inquiring glance envelop[s]’ Marlow, ‘but he die[s] without uttering a sound’.[37] Marlow knows that to his audience, it might seem ‘strange, this regret for a savage who was no more account than a grain of sand in a black Sahara,’ but he and the helmsman have ‘a subtle bond’, and in his senseless death, Marlow feels ‘robbed of a belief’.[38] Facing his listeners, Marlow takes a ‘pause of profound stillness’ and finally concedes, ‘This is the worst of trying to tell’.[39] Marlow’s inexpressible sadness at the death of the helmsman reveals a faint hope for the reparation human connectivity in colonized space. Lurie, too, in a symbolic reversal of the dehumanization of imperialism, develops a bond with a dog at the clinic, anthropomorphizing him as ‘the young dog, the one who likes music’, though he agrees to ‘giv[e] him up’ in the novel’s final line.[40] As he holds the animal during its last moments of life, Lurie realizes he that he has become capable of ‘giving it what he no longer has difficulty in calling by its proper name: love’.[41] Rita Barnard reads this gesture as Lurie

accepting, perhaps helplessly, perhaps resolutely, the claims of an infinite number of other creatures with whom he has no special connection – who are neither his ‘own kind’ or nor his historical victims.[42]

To read Lurie’s final interaction with the dog in this way is to open the space of Disgrace to a positive form of reparation, in which humans are still capable of attending, carefully and lovingly, to the fragility of relationships.

At the end of Disgrace, Lucy agrees to sign the land over to Petrus and to ‘become part of his establishment’, but, she asserts, ‘the house remains mine. No one enters this house without my permission. Including [Petrus]. And I keep the kennels.’[43] Though the house has been a site of violence, it is also the sanctuary to which ultimately Lucy retreats. In reclaiming her house and taking up a continued responsibility for the vulnerable, Lucy may offer a means of approaching the novel of atrocity.

As both Disgrace and Heart of Darkness suggest, the space of the novel and the potency of its language to signify have been violated by the horrors of a world it now struggles to represent. The reader, robbed of the interiority and disclosure of traditional novelistic space, is forced to interpret the manifold intimations of silence and symbol, an act that places him or her in an uncomfortable proximity to the profanity of imagination.

Still, the uncomfortable silences and nebulous symbols of Heart of Darkness and Disgrace speak volumes about the place of greed, vulnerability, and intimacy in colonial space. In The Art of Failure, Suresh Raval contends that it is in fleshing out the omissions of Marlow’s incomplete narrative that ‘his listeners understand what Marlow, as the novitiate in his venture, could not.’[44] Heart of Darkness and Disgrace ask us to enter the profaned cathedral, to turn over the symbolic artifacts of its altar, and to struggle with their interpretation. Perhaps listening patiently to the unfolding meanings of their silences is itself a prayer against the darkness.

WORKS CITED:

Barnard, Rita, Apartheid and Beyond: South African Writers and the Politics of Place            (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007)

Bhaba, Homi, The Location of Culture (New York, NY: Routledge, 1994)

Coetzee, J. M. Disgrace (London: Vintage, 2000)

— ‘Into the Dark Chamber: The Novelist and South Africa’, New York Times Book            Review, 12 January 1986: 13, 35.

White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa (New Haven, CT: Yale            University Press, 1988)

Conrad, Joseph, Heart of Darkness and Other Tales, ed. Cedric Watts (Oxford: Oxford            University Press, 2002)

Kane, Leslie, The Language of Silence: On the Unspoken and the Unspeakable in            Modern Drama (London: Associated University Press, 1984)

Otten, Thomas J., A Superficial Reading of Henry James: Preoccupations with the            Material World (Columbus, OH: Ohio State            University Press, 2006)

Raval, Suresh, The Art of Failure: Conrad’s Fiction (Boston: Allen & Unwin, 1986)

Said, Edward, Culture and Imperialism (London: Vintage, 1994)

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Attwell, David, J. M. Coetzee: South Africa and the Politics of Writing (Berkeley, CA:            University of California Press, 1993)

Caminero-Santangelo, Byron, African Fiction and Joseph Conrad: Reading Postcolonial            Intertextuality (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2005)

Chrisman, Laura and Patrick Williams (eds.), Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial            Theory (London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993)

Huggan, Graham and Stephen Watson (eds.), Critical Perspectives on J.M. Coetzee            (London: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1996)

Jolly, Rosemary Jane, Colonization, Violence, and Narration in White South African            Writing: Andre Brink, Breyten Breytenbrach, and J. M. Coetzee (Athens, OH:            Ohio University Press, 1996)

Levine, George (ed.), Aesthetics and Ideology (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University            Press, 1994)

Loomba, Ania, Colonialism/Postcolonialism (London: Routledge, 1998)

Moore, Gene M. (ed.), Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: A Casebook (Oxford: Oxford            University Press, 2004)

Penner, Dick, Countries of the Mind: The Fiction of J. M. Coetzee (New York:            Greenwood Press, 1989)


[1] Wells qtd. in Thomas J. Otten, A Superficial Reading of Henry James: Preoccupations with the Material World (Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 2006) p.xv (Otten’s interpretation is paraphrased.)

[2] Leslie Kane, The Language of Silence: On the Unspoken and the Unspeakable in Modern Drama (London: Associated University Press, 1984), p.15

[3] Ibid., pp.14-15

[4] Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness and Other Tales, ed. Cedric Watts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), pp.128,114

[5] J.M.Coetzee, Disgrace (London: Vintage, 2000), pp.65,197,68

[6] Conrad, p.114

[7] Coetzee, Disgrace, p.59

[8] J.M.Coetzee, White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988), p.167

[9] Conrad, p.107

[10] Ibid., p.105

[11] Ibid., pp.153,179

[12] Ibid., pp.179,178

[13] Ibid., p.154

[14] Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (London: Vintage, 1994), p.29

[15] Coetzee, Disgrace, p.94

[16] J.M.Coetzee, ‘Into the Dark Chamber: The Novelist and South Africa’, New York Times Book Review,12 January 1986, p.13

[17] Coetzee, Disgrace, p.102

[18] Coetzee, Disgrace, pp.117-18

[19] Conrad, p.172

[20] Coetzee, Disgrace, p.99

[21] Conrad, p.179

[22] Coetzee, Disgrace, p.25

[23] Conrad, pp.182-3

[24] Ibid., p.185

[25] Coetzee, Disgrace, p.18

[26] Coetzee, Disgrace, p.158

[27] Coetzee, White Writing, p.9

[28] Ibid., p.7

[29] Coetzee, Disgrace, p.216

[30] Conrad, p.119

[31] Ibid., p.140

[32] Coetzee, Disgrace, p.64

[33] Homi Bhaba, The Location of Culture (New York, NY: Routledge, 1994), p.122

[34] Coetzee, Disgrace, pp.114,138

[35] Conrad, p.155

[36] Coetzee, Disgrace, pp.84,74

[37] Conrad, p.151

[38] Ibid., pp.156,152

[39] Ibid., p.152

[40] Coetzee, Disgrace, p.219-220

[41] Ibid., p.219

[42] Rita Barnard, Apartheid and Beyond: South African Writers and the Politics of Place (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), p.40

[43] Coetzee, Disgrace, p.204

[44] Suresh Raval, The Art of Failure: Conrad’s Fiction (Boston: Allen & Unwin, 1986), p.38

Joseph Conrad, “Lord Jim”

1900

Originally published as a serial in Blackwood’s between 1899 and 1900, the first half of Lord Jim lingers over the title character’s abandonment of a ship in distress along with the rest of the crew (he is first mate of the Patna). The passengers are saved separately and report the crimes of the crew, but Jim takes all the brunt of the punishment. He is stripped of his command certificate and plagued by guilt over missing his chance to be a hero. The trial is where Marlow meets Jim. At first he considers his character unsound, but reiterates to us that “he is one of us.” Marlow finds Jim a job, but Jim keeps moving further east to escape opprobrium. Finally, Marlow’s friend Stein finds him a place on the remote island of Patusan. There, Jim earns the title ‘Tuan’ (lord), protecting locals from Sharif Ali, a bandit, and a corrupt local chief. He also falls in love with the mixed-race Jewel and is ‘almost happy.’ When the marauder “Gentleman Brown” arrives, Jim stages a response. In the battle, Dain Waris, the son of the local leader, is killed. Jim allows his father to shoot him as retribution for the loss of his son as he sends “right and left at all those faces a proud and unflinching glance,” finally becoming a hero.

Marlow narrates most of the story to us, though the ending is revealed in a letter written to Marlow by Stein. Like Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim’s center is a psychological portrait in slow motion, more than a true adventure novel. It turns around waiting, and is bookended by Jim’s two acts of jumping – out of the ship and in front of a bullet. In the novel’s last section, Marlow says, ” And that’s the end. He passes away under a cloud, inscrutable at heart, forgotten, unforgiven, and excessively romantic… He is gone, inscrutable at heart, and the poor girl is leading a sort of soundless, inert life in Stein’s house.” Stein himself is waving at the butterflies, waiting to die.

T. S. Eliot: Poems

T.S. Eliot was born in St. Louis Missouri. He moved to London in and became an Anglican and a British citizen.

“THE LOVE SONG OF J. ALFRED PRUFROCK,” 1915

“If I thought that my response were/ to a person that would ever return to the world/ This flame would never flicker more./ But because no one who leaves this depth/ has ever yet returned alive, if what I hear is true,/ Then without fear of infamy I answer you.”

This epigraph, from Dante’s Inferno, is a conversation between Guido de Montefeltro and Dante in the 8th circle of hell – the penultimate one. It is interesting that although the first stanza invites the reader to consider the speaker as Virgil, giving the reader a tour of hell, here we consider Prufrock instead as near the bottom of hell, trapped there, believing even if he tells his tale that it will never escape the bounds of his delimited world – perhaps even the limits of his lonely self.

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question. . .                               10
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

The rambling, long, slow, and sapping first stanza of this poem reflects the mood of exhaustion, resignation, and uncertainty. The speaker leads us through a neighborhood of cheap restaurants and brothels which mimic the linguistic inefficacy of argument and conversation (reinforced by the first refrain of the women’s superficial conversation). Though we are led to “an overwhelming question,” Prufrock begs that we not ask it, but go and see for ourselves in “our visit.”

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,                               20
And seeing that it was a soft October night
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

The repetition of the catlike, material body of the oppressive smog of London is both sluggish and quick here, both fearful and tranquilizing.

And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;                                30
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions
And for a hundred visions and revisions
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

The speaker feels that time is almost endless, that it is layered into phases of preparation and performance – the time “To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.” The insignificance of the repetition of his decisions makes time seem endless, almost painfully so, even as we know that time is of course not endless at all, but limited.

And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair—                               40
[They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”]
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin—
[They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”]
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

Here we see Prufrock angsting about how others will see him – worrying whether he dares to effect any real interaction, or whether his endless concatenations of decisions and revisions will reverse his will.

For I have known them all already, known them all;
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,                       50
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?

And I have known the eyes already, known them all—
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?                    60
And how should I presume?

Here we have the exhausted tone of “having known them all,” touching in its ability to capture the repetition of routine, but also patently ironic, coming from a man who has “measured out [his] life with coffee spoons,” and who is so anxious in each interaction that he cannot have “known” much of anything, or anyone, nor does he feel himself understood.

And I have known the arms already, known them all—
Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
[But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!]
Is it perfume from a dress
That makes me so digress?
Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.
And should I then presume?
And how should I begin?

Here Prufrock disassembles the women into synecdoche – the braceleted arms, the swish of a dress – he looks at them alienated and seems to long for touch, but has no idea where to begin.
 .     .     .     .     .

Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets              70
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows? . . .

I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

Prufrock can only think of things to say that would alienate him further. He transforms himself into synecdoche here – claws rather than arms – making of himself an alien being, “scuttling across the floors of silent seas.” He imagines the sea as a peaceful, redemptive place – the imagery of water here seems connected to the strong suicidal/peaceful/lonely ideas of water for Clarissa and Septimus in Mrs. Dalloway. 
 .     .     .     .     .

And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!
Smoothed by long fingers,
Asleep . . . tired . . . or it malingers,
Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?                  80
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet–and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.

Prufrock envies time itself for its peaceful slumbering, even as he recognizes Death laughing and showing him that life is passing him by.

And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,                                             90
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
Should say, “That is not what I meant at all.
That is not it, at all.”

And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,                                           100
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor—
And this, and so much more?—
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
“That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all.”                                          110

Prufrock wonders if it would have been worth the effort to love, given that it would inevitably end in some kind of miscommunication; nevertheless, he likens his imagined attempt to throwing “the nerves in patterns on a screen” – here language is a poor copy of meaning, like the Platonic shadows on the wall in a cave, but updated technologically for the modern moment.
 .     .     .     .     .

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.

Prufrock recognizes himself as a Shakespearean character – a Rosencrantz or Guildenstern, a small player who might serve the drama of another’s life, but never truly his own. Sometimes his language breaks the bounds of such tact and sounds more like “the Fool,” an injunction to us, perhaps, to read the more hysterical portions of the poem (about the sea, etc.) as some kind of sensical prophecy in the line of Shakespeare’s “mad” but truth-uttering Fools.

I grow old . . . I grow old . . .                                              120
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think they will sing to me.

Prufrock considers that there is not actually as much time as one might think. He imagines himself as an old man, adjusting his appearance again in the eyes of others. The line “Do I dare to eat a peach?” is often interpreted as his hesitation to seize the opportunity to love and sensually experience women.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown               130
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

In the penultimate stanza, we see the image of the ragged claws connect to a larger vision of the world of the sea, in which the mermaid-sirens, though they may not sing to Prufrock himself, represent a kind of wild freedom and abandon, a separate watery world of redemption from the banality of his life. He shifts to “we” in the final stanza, insisting that somehow our dream-world is one in which we “linger” in “the chambers” of the sea, reminiscent of the chambers of the heart, bringing us back to the etherized patient on the surgery table, perhaps. The poem also “surfaces” at the end, when it “submerges” us at the start.  It is when human voices wake us that we drown – thus, Prufrock is a sort of amphibious creature (like the crab), moving between water and land, but more ‘drowned’ by waking life than by his visions of death and water. These images are interesting in comparison with the drowned Phoenician sailor of The Waste Land. Unlike the Victorian dramatic monologue on which it is based, the siren call to suicide seems almost a viable option here – to be able to survive or handle the modern world unscathed is perhaps already to condemn oneself in a way.

“HYSTERIA”

As she laughed I was aware of becoming involved in her laughter and being part of it, until her teeth were only accidental stars with a talent for squad-drill. I was drawn in by short gasps, inhaled at each momentary recovery, lost finally in the dark caverns of her throat, bruised by the ripple of unseen muscles. An elderly waiter with trembling hands was hurriedly spreading a pink and white checked cloth over the rusty green iron table, saying: “If the lady and gentleman wish to take their tea in the garden, if the lady and gentleman wish to take their tea in the garden …” I decided that if the shaking of her breasts could be stopped, some of the fragments of the afternoon might be collected, and I concentrated my attention with careful subtlety to this end.

In this short prose poem, Eliot becomes obsessed with the absorptive (yonic) power of the hysterical woman, who makes the speaker “involved,” “drawn in,” “inhaled,” “lost,” and “bruised.” The social awkwardness of the waiter recall the Edwardian manners of Prufrock, and the fragments to be collected somehow foreshadow the “fragments I have shored against my ruin” in The Waste Land. 

“LA FIGLIA CHE PIANGE”

O quam te memorem virgo

“O how should I call/remember you, virgin?” – Virgil

Stand on the highest pavement of the stair—	
Lean on a garden urn—	
Weave, weave the sunlight in your hair—	
Clasp your flowers to you with a pained surprise—	
Fling them to the ground and turn	     
With a fugitive resentment in your eyes:	
But weave, weave the sunlight in your hair.	

So I would have had him leave,	
So I would have had her stand and grieve,	
So he would have left	        
As the soul leaves the body torn and bruised,	
As the mind deserts the body it has used.	
I should find	
Some way incomparably light and deft,	
Some way we both should understand,	        
Simple and faithless as a smile and shake of the hand.	

She turned away, but with the autumn weather	
Compelled my imagination many days,	
Many days and many hours:	
Her hair over her arms and her arms full of flowers.
And I wonder how they should have been together!	
I should have lost a gesture and a pose.	
Sometimes these cogitations still amaze	
The troubled midnight and the noon's repose.

This poem demonstrates a slow turning inwards to the self. It begins with the speaker commanding the girl to “stand, ” “lean,” “weave,” “clasp,” “fling,” and again “weave.” It moves to his own acknowledgment of the subjunctive fantasy of what he “would have had her” do – the woman as an aesthetic object gives way to the idea of her as a former lover. The poet then determines he would find a form of communication with her somehow – a parallel, perhaps, to aesthetic communion. In the final stanza, the girl becomes what the daffodils become for Wordsworth – memories that “still amaze/ The troubled midnight and the noon’s repose.” It also suggests a split within the speaker’s self.

POEMS (1920)

“GERONTION”

Thou hast nor youth nor age
But as it were an after dinner sleep
Dreaming of both. (Measure for Measure)

Here I am, an old man in a dry month,
Being read to by a boy, waiting for rain.
I was neither at the hot gates
Nor fought in the warm rain
Nor knee deep in the salt marsh, heaving a cutlass,
Bitten by flies, fought.
My house is a decayed house,
And the Jew squats on the window sill, the owner,
Spawned in some estaminet of Antwerp,
Blistered in Brussels, patched and peeled in London.
The goat coughs at night in the field overhead;
Rocks, moss, stonecrop, iron, merds.
The woman keeps the kitchen, makes tea,
Sneezes at evening, poking the peevish gutter.
                                              I an old man,
A dull head among windy spaces.
Signs are taken for wonders.  ‘We would see a sign!’
The word within a word, unable to speak a word,
Swaddled with darkness.  In the juvescence of the year
Came Christ the tiger
In depraved May, dogwood and chestnut, flowering judas,
To be eaten, to be divided, to be drunk
Among whispers; by Mr. Silvero
With caressing hands, at Limoges
Who walked all night in the next room;
By Hakagawa, bowing among the Titians;
By Madame de Tornquist, in the dark room
Shifting the candles; Fräulein von Kulp
Who turned in the hall, one hand on the door.
      Vacant shuttles
Weave the wind.  I have no ghosts,
An old man in a draughty house
Under a windy knob.
After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Think now
History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors
And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,
Guides us by vanities.  Think now
She gives when our attention is distracted
And what she gives, gives with such supple confusions
That the giving famishes the craving.  Gives too late
What’s not believed in, or is still believed,
In memory only, reconsidered passion.  Gives too soon
Into weak hands, what’s thought can be dispensed with
Till the refusal propagates a fear.  Think
Neither fear nor courage saves us.  Unnatural vices
Are fathered by our heroism.  Virtues
Are forced upon us by our impudent crimes.
These tears are shaken from the wrath-bearing tree.
The tiger springs in the new year.  Us he devours.  Think at last
We have not reached conclusion, when I
Stiffen in a rented house.  Think at last
I have not made this show purposelessly
And it is not by any concitation
Of the backward devils.
I would meet you upon this honestly.
I that was near your heart was removed therefrom
To lose beauty in terror, terror in inquisition.
I have lost my passion: why should I need to keep it
Since what is kept must be adulterated?
I have lost my sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch:
How should I use it for your closer contact?
These with a thousand small deliberations
Protract the profit of their chilled delirium,
Excite the membrane, when the sense has cooled,
With pungent sauces, multiply variety
In a wilderness of mirrors.  What will the spider do
Suspend its operations, will the weevil
Delay?  De Bailhache, Fresca, Mrs. Cammel, whirled
Beyond the circuit of the shuddering Bear
In fractured atoms. Gull against the wind, in the windy straits
Of Belle Isle, or running on the Horn,
White feathers in the snow, the Gulf claims,
And an old man driven by the Trades
To a sleepy corner.
                            Tenants of the house,
Thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season.
The speaker of the poem is an old man describing the new century and WWI – his eyes are those of a Victorian estranged from the modern world.  Eliot considered using it as a prologue to The Waste Land (note the reference to the “dry month… waiting for rain”), but kept it separate instead. He was not in the war, his house is “decayed” (presumably metaphorically/aristocratically speaking as well), he does not recognize the foreign Jews inhabiting England. “The word within a word, unable to speak a word,” reminds me of both Yeats and Thomas in its play of the double meaning but also meaninglessness of linguistic signs, another commonality with The Waste Land. The man himself sees signs everywhere – Christ the tiger, flowering judas. As opposed to the haunted Victorian monologue, the eerie thing here is “I have no ghosts,” as if to suggest no history, no sacred connection with the dead. “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?” seems relevant to “The Second Coming,” published just one year earlier. The tiger who devours us and who is time reminds me of James’ “Beast in the Jungle,” too – the fear of something all along that was the loss of life and time itself. Like Prufrock (some think this is an older version), “These with a thousand small deliberations/ Protract the profit of their chilled delirium,/ Excite the membrane, when the sense has cooled… in a wilderness of mirrors… fractured atoms.” The poem ends with the slow fading of the mind: “Thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season.”

THE WASTE LAND,” 1922 

“THE HOLLOW MEN,” 1925

Mistah Kurtz-he dead
A penny for the Old Guy

The first epigraph is a reference to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The second is the phrase English children call out when asking for money for fireworks on November 5, Guy Fawkes day. The fireworks are used in part to burn the straw effigies of the traitor (this is how the word “guy” entered English parlance – as something in disguise, or a fright…)

I

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;

Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
Remember us-if at all-not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.

II

Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
In death’s dream kingdom
These do not appear:
There, the eyes are
Sunlight on a broken column
There, is a tree swinging
And voices are
In the wind’s singing
More distant and more solemn
Than a fading star.

Let me be no nearer
In death’s dream kingdom
Let me also wear
Such deliberate disguises
Rat’s coat, crowskin, crossed staves
In a field
Behaving as the wind behaves
No nearer-

Not that final meeting
In the twilight kingdom

III

This is the dead land
This is cactus land
Here the stone images
Are raised, here they receive
The supplication of a dead man’s hand
Under the twinkle of a fading star.

Is it like this
In death’s other kingdom
Waking alone
At the hour when we are
Trembling with tenderness
Lips that would kiss
Form prayers to broken stone.

IV

The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms

In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river

Sightless, unless
The eyes reappear
As the perpetual star
Multifoliate rose
Of death’s twilight kingdom
The hope only
Of empty men.

V

Here we go round the prickly pear
Prickly pear prickly pear
Here we go round the prickly pear
At five o’clock in the morning.

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow
Life is very long

Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

For Thine is
Life is
For Thine is the

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
Most famous for its last section – and in fact, last stanza – this poem stages action as but a “shadow” intervening between an idea and an outcome. It seems to sap the world of motion and change, enacting a fatidic tone. It reminds me a lot of Hughes “Crow” at the beginning (so much for Hughes not raising dead voices), and of Yeats in its repetition and prophetic tone. The genius of the last stanza is to sound a development from childhood nursery rhyme to mad death knell. Kurtz is also called “hollow sham” and “hollow at the core” in Heart of Darkness. 

“JOURNEY OF THE MAGI,” 1927

“A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The was deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.”
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires gong out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty, and charging high prices.:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we lead all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

A dramatic monologue that once again thwarts Victorian traditions of the genre, “Journey of the Magi” saps the Nativitiy story of collectivity and joy and makes it a journey of one perspective. Like Yeats, Eliot’s vision of history  marks Christ’s birth (unsurprisingly) as a new era, but here the end of an era of magic and pure symbolism is also tellingly lost. The first stanza tells of the cold and difficult journey, and gives visceral details to the world that gives way to the Christian one – a life they “regretted” as they left it. They see a scope of Christ’s life foreshadowed in reverse: “three trees on the low sky” signify the crucifixion, the “hands at the door dicing for pieces of silver” the Roman soldiers casting lots for his clothes, and the “feet kicking the empty wine-skins” the Marriage at Cana. The illegibility of these signs to the men – “but there was no information” – details the impossible task of imagining backwards into history for Eliot – we cannot but see it from where we are now. The speaker says he “would do it again,” but wants to “set down” that the Birth was like a Death – not only in the moment of agony, but the way it returned him to his former world – “an alien people clutching their gods.” The last line, “I should be glad of another death,” is ambiguous in meaning. Does the speaker hold to pagan reincarnation here? Does he look already to the next spiritual age?

“FOUR QUARTETS,” 1943

Eliot conceived of this poem as being structured similarly to The Waste Land and wrote it in four parts (The Waste Land has 5 parts) between 1935 and 1942. The poem’s epigraphs are from Heraclitus: “Though wisdom is common, the many live as if they have wisdom of their own”; “the way upward and the way downward is one and the same.” Each of the four sections has 5 sections within it, which may correspond to the parts of The Waste Land. According to C.K. Stead, these 5 parts are:

1.The movement of time, catching brief moments of eternity.
2. Worldly experience, leading to dissatisfaction.
3. Purgation in the world, divesting the soul of the love of created things.
4. A lyric prayer for, or affirmation of the need of, Intercession.
5. The problems of attaining artistic wholeness  – this becomes analogue for (and merges into) the problems of achieving spiritual health.

By this point, Eliot was an avowed Anglican, and many take issue with the far more religious tone of the poem than his earlier work. As in “Tradition & the Individual Talent,” we see Eliot here as the poet who looks back and forward at the same time, and as in “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time,” we see him “rendering” or “alchemizing,” boiling down and removing the self out of the ideas, as through a crucible. The poem seems to attempt to re-mystify Christianity and to restore its incantatory language. Eliot expresses the inconceivable state of grace or oneness with God through a series of paradoxes and double negatives. It is possible to think about each part as corresponding to an element, a region of England, and to a gospel (the first three are synoptic):

1. BURNT NORTON: Matthew (drawn from Mark, focused on law and history) = air (speculation, poetry, imagination, connections between life and death). All times are the same (past, present, future – like the Trinity.) “The still point of the turning world” is repeated. “To be conscious is not to be in time.” “Only by the form, the pattern/ Can words or music reach/ The stillness.” “The Word in the desert/ Is most attacked by voices of temptation,/ The crying shadow in the funeral dance,/ The loud lament of the disconsolate chimera.” (This seems Yeatsian – recall “the dancer from the dance” and the “lion body with the head of a man.”) “The detail of the pattern is movement.”

2. EAST COKER: Mark (plain-spoken, earliest source, heroism and death ) = Earth (wonder of creation, body, science and technology should be forsaken for faith). “In my beginning is my end” is repeated. “There is a time for building/ and a time for living and for generation/… and to shake the tattered arras woven with a silent motto.” “The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies,/ For the pattern is enw in every moment.” “There is only the fight to recover what has been lost/ And found and lost again and again.”

3. THE DRY SALVAGES: Luke (longest, evangelical, lyrical, poetic) = Water (redemption, how we sail vs drift – the straight and narrow path, etc.). “I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river/ Is a strong brown god – sullen, untamed and intractable.” “The sea has many voices,/ Many gods and many voices.” “I have said before/ That the past experience revived in the meaning/ Is not the experience of one life only/ But of many generations – not forgetting/ Something that is probably quite ineffable:/ The backward half-look/ Over the shoulder, towards the primitive terror.” (This makes the speaker both Lott’s wife and Eurydice – a feminizing gesture.) “O voyagers, O seamen,/ You who come to port, and you whose bodies/ Will suffer the trial and judgment of the sea,/ Or whatever event, this is your real destination.” Eliot dismisses “fiddling” with cards, tea leaves, science, the press – “These are only hings and guesses,/… the rest/ Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.”

4. LITTLE GIDDING: John (purgation, vision) = Fire  (the holy spirit incarnate as dove, Pentecostal, redeemed from the fires of hell by the fires of purgation, unification of Western history & culture). “Midwinter spring is its own season” (vs. “April is the cruellest month”). “The brief sun flames the ice… in windless cold that is the heart’s heat,/ Reflecting in a watery mirror/ A glare that is blindness in the early afternoon.” “You are not here to verify,/ Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity… You are here to kneel/ Where prayer has been valid.” “Prayer is more/ Than an order of words” – is poetry? “This is the death of air… This is the death of earth… This is the death of water and fire.” “There are three conditions which often look alike/ Yet differ completely, flourish in the same hedgerow:/ Attachment to self and to things and to persons, detachment/ From self and from things and from persons; and, growing between them, indifference/ Which resembles the others as death resembles life,/ Being between two lives… This is the use of memory:/ For liberation… expanding/ Of love beyond desire.” “We only live, only suspire/ Consumed by either fire or fire.” “What we call the beginning is often the end/ And to make an end is to make a beginning./ The end is where we start from.” “Every poem an epitaph.”  “All manner of thing shall be well. When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one.”

 

 

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.