Maya Jasanoff’s The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World is part biography, part analysis of one of the English language’s greatest writers. She shows that understanding the technological, political, and cultural upheavals that marked Conrad’s life is essential if readers hope to appreciate his reflections on honor, integrity, and fate.

Jasanoff focuses on four novels: Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, The Secret Agent, and Nostromo, books she calls “ethical injunctions” that “meditate on how to behave in a globalizing world, where old rulebooks are becoming obsolete, but nobody’s yet written new ones.” She shows—more through Conrad’s life than textual analysis—that he had a greater understanding of non-European cultures than some critics recognize, and that many of his writings have an activist element, particularly those relating to colonialism. Conrad witnessed the brutishness of European imperialism as a sailor, years before he began writing, and works such as Heart of Darkness depict it with haunting vividness. Conrad didn’t hold “that ‘savages’ were inhuman,” Jasanoff concludes, but rather “that any human could be a savage.”

This effort at rehabilitation wouldn’t be necessary but for one of the milestones of academic “postcolonialism”: Chinua Achebe’s 1975 attack on Conrad, which portrayed him as politically incorrect. Calling Heart of Darkness “offensive and deplorable,” Achebe complained that Conrad used Africa as “a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity,” whereon to depict “the break-up of one petty European mind”—that is, the malevolent Mr. Kurtz. This, to Achebe, meant that “Conrad was a thoroughgoing racist.”

Although Achebe’s assault has itself become canonical, it’s among the most egregious misreadings in the history of literary criticism. Yes, Conrad used Africa as a backdrop for his characters’ psychological crises, but Shakespeare used Denmark and Scotland the same way. Conrad chose Africa because he’d been there, and he did not demean Africans but condemned the inhuman ways Europeans were enslaving, maiming, and murdering them. Kurtz’s mind is not “petty”—quite the opposite—and his “break-up” is not the irrelevant experience of a solitary character, but a dramatization of the way people (or nations) can use “humanitarianism” as an excuse for violating the rights of others—and even for blinding themselves to their own cruelty.

Consider the passage in which the novel’s narrator, Marlow, finds a manuscript Kurtz has written on philanthropy. It’s “a beautiful piece of writing,” he thinks, until he discovers that Kurtz has decided there’s only one way to civilize the savages:

a kind of note at the foot of the last page, scrawled evidently much later, in an unsteady hand, may be regarded as the exposition of a method. It was very simple, and . . . it blazed at you, luminous and terrifying, like a flash of lightning in a serene sky: “Exterminate all the brutes!”

It takes a dull reader, indeed, to miss that this is among the most powerful indictments of oppression ever composed. Conrad did not deny but rather highlighted the humanity of Africans and warned against supposed apostles of progress who became oppressors by depriving people of freedom for “their own good.”

He did this with a linguistic splendor no writer has matched. Conrad’s rich, reverberating sentences and complex, multilayered flashbacks place Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, and Nostromo among the most technically innovative novels ever written. They envelop the reader in the suspense of grand tragedy, or the intoxication of wholehearted love—and transport him to a realm where people, though denied triumph, can still achieve greatness.

Steeped in an often disconcerting pessimism, Conrad’s tales are populated by characters who strive against forces destined to defeat them—who are vindicated only by the grace with which they confront their fate. His bittersweet stories are a gloomy sort of romanticism that simultaneously celebrates heroes and bemoans them as doomed. And it’s all conveyed in some of the most exquisite prose ever attempted.

Consider the famous passage in Lord Jim in which Marlow, now older and wiser, converses with his friend Stein. “To follow the dream” of integrity, says Stein, is the only right path in life—and Marlow thinks:

The whisper of his conviction seemed to open before me a vast and uncertain expanse, as of a crepuscular horizon on a plain at dawn. . . . [Stein’s] life had begun . . . in enthusiasm for generous ideas; he had travelled very far, on various ways, on strange paths, and whatever he followed it had been without faltering, and therefore without shame and without regret. In so far he was right.

As a defense of Conrad’s own integrity, Jasanoff’s book is welcome—but it tells only half the tale. For all his pessimism, Conrad held that a life of unfaltering conviction is a meaningful one, even if the odds are stacked against it. In so far, he was right.

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