A Writer Who Grappled with Moral Values in His Novels

Article excerpt

Byline: James E. Person Jr, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Iconoclastic literary critic H. L. Mencken admired the Polish-born English novelist Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) for both his immense skill as a storyteller and his allegedly amoral worldview. While the Sage of Baltimore believed "Conrad at his feeblest is still vastly ahead of most other story-tellers at their best," he also wrote that the hallmark of Conrad's better-known works is "a wholesale negation of all morals." But for all his brilliance in so much, Mencken was wrong about Conrad's vision of morals and their importance.

The author of such classics of English literature as "Lord Jim" (1900), "Nostromo" (1904) and "Victory" (1915), Conrad had a pessimistic view of humanity, but his fiction also reflects an intense fascination with, and concern for, man as a moral agent. A Roman Catholic by birth and a pronounced humanist all his life, Conrad recurrently examines how people cope with guilt and the searing knowledge of their own ethical failings.

Mr. Panichas, a distinguished literary scholar and an authority on the works of Conrad, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Simone Weil and D. H. Lawrence, ably tackles this aspect of a true literary master's fiction in "Joseph Conrad: His Moral Vision."

He demonstrates convincingly that Conrad's body of fiction is permeated by "the moral imagination." This is not a form of imagination that turns every work of fiction into "a story with a lesson." Rather, the moral imagination is a term Mr. Panichas has borrowed from a man he deeply admires, the late conservative man of letters Russell Kirk, who had in turn borrowed it from British statesman Edmund Burke. In his book "Enemies of the Permanent Things" (1969), Kirk defined the moral imagination as "man's power to perceive ethical truth, abiding law, in the seeming chaos of many events. Without the moral imagination, man would live merely day to day, or rather moment to moment, as dogs do. It is the strange faculty - inexplicable if men are assumed to have an animal nature only - of discerning greatness, justice, and order, beyond the bars of appetite and self-interest."

Delving with sure critical discernment into Conrad's better-known works of fiction, Mr. Panichas demonstrates that Conrad was far from disdainful of moral issues. For example, the author skillfully shows that transcendent life principles and values are strongly evident in "Nostromo" and wield discriminatory power in the unfolding plot of the novel. A work centering upon the dire effects of avarice at a South America silver mine, "Nostromo" shows Conrad at the peak of his powers, scrutinizing a question articulated by Mr. …