Joseph Conrad, Prophet of a Global World

Seen from today, the novelist Joseph Conrad's early 20th century views on the world, particularly on race, can be offensive. Yet his observations were deeply prescient of modern times. V.S. Naipaul, who was also a harsh critic, once wrote how Conrad managed — 100 years ago — to "meditate on my world, a world I recognize today." Harvard historian Maya Jasanoff tackles that question in her acclaimed biography of Joseph Conrad.
Polish-born British author Joseph Conrad (1857 - 1929). (George C. Beresford/Beresford/Getty Images)

**This episode originally aired December 17, 2018.

Seen from today, the novelist Joseph Conrad's early 20th century views on the world, particularly on race, can be offensive. But at the same time, many have also argued his work remains vital and that the Polish-born English novelist was one of the early voices criticizing the cruelty and greed that often fuels globalization. 

His work also remains deeply prescient of modern times. V.S. Naipaul once wondered how Conrad managed, a hundred years ago, to "meditate on my world, a world I recognize today?"

Barack Obama wrote that when he was a young college student, he was challenged by his friends for reading Heart of Darkness. They called it a "racist tract" but Obama argued that it was worthy of his attention, "because the book teaches me things…"

In this episode, IDEAS producer Mary Lynk talks with Harvard historian Maya Jasanoff about her new biography: The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World, and about what Conrad teaches us all. The book just won the prestigious Cundill History Prize, administered by McGill University. John le Carré calls her book: "Enlightening, compassionate, superb."

Throughout the program, actor Gordon Pinsent reads excerpts from Conrad's works.

An excerpt from The Dawn Watch, Joseph Conrad in a Global World

When Heart of Darkness first appeared in Blackwood's Magazine in 1899, vanishingly few Europeans knew of "the horror" unfolding in central Africa. They saw only what King Leopold showed them, and he was busy setting his profits in stone: a palace to outdo Versailles, a triumphal arch to trump the Brandenburg Gate, a seaside promenade to make Ostend into the Cannes of the north.

For the Brussels Exposition in 1897, he spent £300,000 on an African pavilion in Tervuren. Inside, Belgium's finest designers fashioned an Art Nouveau jungle in wood, recalling the twist of rubber vines and elephant tusks and trunks. They called their new look "whiplash style," naively oblivious about the lacerating terror of the chicotte.

But by the time Heart of Darkness was published in the volume Youth-and Two Other Stories in 1902, a young Anglo-French shipping clerk named Edmund Dene Morel had almost single-handedly raised public awareness about what was going on in the Congo Free State. Puzzled by company account books that showed tons of imports from Congo yet virtually no exports, Morel had stumbled across the extent of forced labour in what he suddenly realized was the "Congo Slave State." He threw himself into a campaign to end Congo's regime of "red rubber," stained in African blood.

In May 1903, six months after the volume containing Heart of Darkness appeared in bookshops, the House of Commons passed a motion agreeing to strive "to abate the evils" in Congo. The Foreign Office dispatched its consul in Congo to gather evidence.

Historian Maya Jasanoff. "The Dawn Watch, Joseph Conrad in a Global World is published by Penguin Books, (2017).

The consul was none other than Roger Casement, the railroad surveyor Conrad had met in Matadi in 1890. Casement returned to Britain from his mission with notebooks ablaze with damning testimony, ready to write up his own report on the suppression of savage (European) customs. One of the first people he contacted to support the cause was his old acquaintance Joseph Conrad.

Because hadn't Heart of Darkness seen and said it all? As a reviewer had recently pointed out, "The 'going Fantee' of civilised man, has been treated often enough in fiction...but never has the 'why of it' been appreciated by any author as Mr. Conrad here appreciates it, and never…has any writer till now succeeded in all home to sheltered folk."

Here was Conrad calling out "the conquest of the earth" for what it was: "the taking of it from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves." He saw through hypocrisy of Africa's would-be civilizers, granting a pass only to British domains, "because one knows that some real work is being done in there." He even captured the Europeans' "unsound method" in sadistic detail – right down to the heads on posts around Kurtz's house, which Conrad may have based on a report of the Belgian station chief of Stanley Falls, who had placed "twenty-one heads" of African victims "as a decoration round a flower bed in front of his house!"


Maya Jasanoff is Coolidge Professor of History at Harvard University. The Dawn Watch, Joseph Conrad in a Global World is published by Penguin Books, (2017).

**This episode was produced by Mary Lynk.