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Joseph Conrad on Art and What Makes a Great Writer, in a Beautiful Tribute to Henry James

“All creative art is magic, is evocation of the unseen in forms persuasive, enlightening, familiar and surprising, for the edification of mankind.”

Joseph Conrad on Art and What Makes a Great Writer, in a Beautiful Tribute to Henry James

In 1905, six years after the release of Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad (December 3, 1857–August 3, 1924) penned a beautiful essay titled “Henry James: An Appreciation,” eventually included in Conrad’s thoroughly terrific collection Notes on Life and Letters (public library | free download). In addition to being one of the loveliest homages in literary history, on par with Thomas Mann’s tribute to Hermann Hesse, teenage James Joyce’s beautiful letter to Ibsen, and Dostoyevsky’s remembrance of George Sand, the essay — a celebration of James as a writer who “keeps a firm hold of the substance, of what is worth having, of what is worth holding” — is perhaps the most direct distillation of Conrad’s views on writing and what makes a great writer.


Conrad writes:

After some twenty years of attentive acquaintance with Mr. Henry James’s work, it grows into absolute conviction which, all personal feeling apart, brings a sense of happiness into one’s artistic existence. If gratitude, as someone defined it, is a lively sense of favours to come, it becomes very easy to be grateful to [Henry James]. The favours are sure to come; the spring of that benevolence will never run dry. The stream of inspiration flows brimful in a predetermined direction, unaffected by the periods of drought, untroubled in its clearness by the storms of the land of letters, without languor or violence in its force, never running back upon itself, opening new visions at every turn of its course through that richly inhabited country its fertility has created for our delectation, for our judgment, for our exploring. It is, in fact, a magic spring.

Conrad then corrects himself, noting that James’s body of work — as all great writing — is best compared to “a majestic river,” and contributes a magnificent definition of art:

All creative art is magic, is evocation of the unseen in forms persuasive, enlightening, familiar and surprising, for the edification of mankind, pinned down by the conditions of its existence to the earnest consideration of the most insignificant tides of reality.

Action in its essence, the creative art of a writer of fiction may be compared to rescue work carried out in darkness against cross gusts of wind swaying the action of a great multitude. It is rescue work, this snatching of vanishing phases of turbulence, disguised in fair words, out of the native obscurity into a light where the struggling forms may be seen, seized upon, endowed with the only possible form of permanence in this world of relative values — the permanence of memory. And the multitude feels it obscurely too; since the demand of the individual to the artist is, in effect, the cry, “Take me out of myself!” meaning really, out of my perishable activity into the light of imperishable consciousness. But everything is relative, and the light of consciousness is only enduring, merely the most enduring of the things of this earth, imperishable only as against the short-lived work of our industrious hands.

Art by Matt Kish for his illustrated edition of Heart of Darkness
Art by Matt Kish for his illustrated edition of Heart of Darkness

But however much the activity of the artist may elevate the multitude — however much it may, in the unforgettable words of William Faulkner, “help man endure by lifting his heart” — the artist, Conrad argues, doesn’t create out of selfless heroism but out of the sheer inevitability of the creative impulse:

The artist in his calling of interpreter creates (the clearest form of demonstration) because he must. He is so much of a voice that, for him, silence is like death; and the postulate was, that there is a group alive, clustered on his threshold to watch the last flicker of light on a black sky, to hear the last word uttered in the stilled workshop of the earth.

And yet whatever the interior stimulus of the artist, in its external effect art ultimately bolsters humanity’s heroism in the face of life’s perishableness:

It is safe to affirm that, if anybody, it will be the imaginative man who would be moved to speak on the eve of that day without to-morrow — whether in austere exhortation or in a phrase of sardonic comment, who can guess?

For my own part, from a short and cursory acquaintance with my kind, I am inclined to think that the last utterance will formulate, strange as it may appear, some hope now to us utterly inconceivable. For mankind is delightful in its pride, its assurance, and its indomitable tenacity. It will sleep on the battlefield among its own dead, in the manner of an army having won a barren victory. It will not know when it is beaten. And perhaps it is right in that quality. The victories are not, perhaps, so barren as it may appear from a purely strategical, utilitarian point of view.

The artist’s task, Conrad suggests, is to remind us of the larger plentitude as we stand amid the barren battlefield:

The earth itself has grown smaller in the course of ages. But in every sphere of human perplexities and emotions, there are more greatnesses than one — not counting here the greatness of the artist himself. Wherever he stands, at the beginning or the end of things, a man has to sacrifice his gods to his passions, or his passions to his gods. That is the problem, great enough, in all truth, if approached in the spirit of sincerity and knowledge.

He turns to the role of fiction, singular among the arts in how it orients us toward the truth of existence:

Fiction is history, human history, or it is nothing. But it is also more than that; it stands on firmer ground, being based on the reality of forms and the observation of social phenomena, whereas history is based on documents, and the reading of print and handwriting — on second-hand impression. Thus fiction is nearer truth. But let that pass. A historian may be an artist too, and a novelist is a historian, the preserver, the keeper, the expounder, of human experience.

Pointing to Henry James a a supreme “historian of fine consciences,” Conrad adds:

The range of a fine conscience covers more good and evil than the range of conscience which may be called, roughly, not fine; a conscience, less troubled by the nice discrimination of shades of conduct. A fine conscience is more concerned with essentials; its triumphs are more perfect, if less profitable, in a worldly sense. There is, in short, more truth in its working for a historian to detect and to show. It is a thing of infinite complication and suggestion.

Conrad observes of the great writer, that “historian of fine consciences”:

There are no secrets left within his range. He has disclosed them as they should be disclosed — that is, beautifully. And, indeed, ugliness has but little place in this world of his creation. Yet, it is always felt in the truthfulness of his art; it is there, it surrounds the scene, it presses close upon it. It is made visible, tangible, in the struggles, in the contacts of the fine consciences, in their perplexities, in the sophism of their mistakes. For a fine conscience is naturally a virtuous one. What is natural about it is just its fineness, an abiding sense of the intangible, ever-present, right. It is most visible in their ultimate triumph, in their emergence from miracle, through an energetic act of renunciation. Energetic, not violent: the distinction is wide, enormous, like that between substance and shadow.

Conrad’s wholly wonderful Notes on Life and Letters is available as a free download. Complement it with E.E. Cummings on what it really means to be an artist and Flannery O’Connor on art, integrity, and the artist’s responsibility to his or her talent, then revisit this growing collection of great writers’ advice on the craft.

Published December 3, 2015




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