Academic journal article The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.)

Clenched Fists and Open Hands: Conrad's Unruliness

Academic journal article The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.)

Clenched Fists and Open Hands: Conrad's Unruliness

Article excerpt

CONRAD ALMOST NEVER spoke in public, and that, at first, surprises. Did he not come from a culture given to oratory? Had he not been a ship's officer, tasked with inspiring his crew? Was he not enchanted by the power of words, spoken as well as written? Yet these are not rhetorical questions, for any answer must be hemmed with doubts and qualifications. Even in the most innocuous of settings, speaking one's mind in the Poland, Lithuania, or Ukraine of Conrad's day was a dangerous business; one of the charges against Conrad's father, leading to his internment in the Warsaw Citadel and exile to Vologda, was that he had made subversive remarks in a Warsaw sweetshop (Najder 1984: 16). Officers and masters in the British Merchant Navy led by example and authority, by laconic phrase rather than rhetorical flourish. Conrad, in any case, knew more than enough about language as seduction, intoxication, or pure slipperiness to distrust those who manipulate such charms, whether as politicians, journalists, litterateurs, or speculators in the world around him, or even as characters from the world of his fiction such as Citizen Scevola, Señores Gamacho and Fuentes, Carleon Anthony, the Great de Barrai, and Mr Kurtz.

After his physical and mental collapse in 1910, Conrad could also plead that his illness had put any public speaking out of the question: "Some five years ago after an attack of gouty throat I lost my voice. All its resonnance [sic] is gone" (CL5 567). There is a familiar (and reasonable) presumption, moreover, that although he had a marvellous ear for the English language, his pronunciation and his worries about idiom, grammar, and syntax, made public speech a desperate project. Even many native speakers know such hesitations, especially when mocked by the demons of inequality and privilege, or haunted, as Joyce was, by the ghost of another, inadmissible language.

Nevertheless, in 1923, the last full year of his life, Conrad spoke in public three times: once to the annual meeting of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution in London; once at the Country Life Press in Garden City, Long Island; and once at the Curtiss James house, an Anglo-Gothic mansion on Manhattan's Upper East Side. He was not the principal speaker at the RNLI meeting, and the heavily revised MS draft of not much more than 300 words indicates that his speech was appropriate yet brief, expressing his admiration of the Lowestoft men being honoured that night and recalling his own connection with the port, its sailors, and ships. A note added to the MS reads: "(The first speech of my life)" (Najder, ed., 1978: 110-11).

A draft of the American speech has also survived. No one knows how much of it Conrad delivered at Arthur Curtiss James's mansion prior to a reading of passages from Victory that evoked "Laughs at proper places and snuffles at the last when I read the whole chapter of Lena's death" (CL8 94). As it stands, the draft is evidently meant for an audience of Doubleday's staff in Garden City: "You must have in the course of your humane tasks read my works - some no doubt under the strain of compulsion. If any bored or displeased, I am sorry. I trust no breast in this audience nurses ill-feeling towards me on that account" (Schwab 1965: 345). The entire draft abounds in Conradian interest and deserves to be better known - as one example, for its comparison between literature and cinema. For the present purpose, though, it is the opening paragraphs that are suggestive. Conrad starts by saying that "the force of the spoken and even written word is not everything":

There is the accent - which must be right. The force of the vocal chords [sic] too - thundering - or tender - for effect.

You need not fear thundering from me. The thundering way of stimulating your interest (or your anger) is not for me. All I can hope for is to make myself audible. Remains then only the tender accent for me to make the best of. But to be markedly tender like this suddenly, at first sight as it were! …

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