Apr 262011

Herewith a gorgeous and protean reading of Joseph Conrad’s story “Youth” by the noted Dutch maritime historian and scholar J. N. F. M. à Campo. “Poiesis of the Past” is a special paper, prepared and delivered as a farewell address, which thus contains personal as well as scholarly and critical perspectives, which, yes, accumulates critical vectors not always available to the pure literary critic and thus reaches beyond the conventional approach. Joep à Campo teaches World History and Historical Research Methods at the Faculty of History and Arts of the Erasmus Universiteit, Rotterdam. He received his PhD degree cum laude in 1992 (Rijksuniversiteit Leiden). His dissertation has been published in English as Engines of Empire, Steamshipping and State Formation in Colonial Indonesia (Hilversum 2002). He has published widely on research methods, historical consciousness, economic, maritime and cultural history. His current research topics are Maritime History of Indonesia, Memo-history, Conradian studies, and Tango studies. NC has the great privilege of publishing this paper due to the good offices of our mutual friend, Haijo Westra, of the University of Calgary (see his essay on dg’s novel Elle here).




A historian’s reading of the short story ‘Youth, a narrative’ by Joseph Conrad

By J.N.F.M. à Campo



Farewell paper for the Center for Historical Culture

Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication

18 January 2011

Foreword: a personal note

… and I remember my youth and the feeling
that will never come back any more …

Joseph Conrad, Youth: a narrative

The closing of my academic duties is an appropriate opportunity for looking back on my lifelong engagement with history. As a mirror of my reflections I have chosen the short story Youth: a narrative written by Joseph Conrad, pseudonym of Joseph Korzeniowski, in 1898. It offers an opportunity to overlook some central themes in my work, and also to hark back to some formative experiences in my own childhood.

I was born and raised in the roman-catholic countryside of Southern Limburg in the after war years amidst deserted weapons and recurrent stories of the war, the content and flavour however varying according to the temperament of the narrators.[1] There was a stark contrast between the rural and industrial sectors in the region, where natural hills contrasted with mine deposits, and where the traditional countryside was interspersed with modern mining villages, called colonies, inhabited by migrants from all Europe. At the age of six I migrated to the IJsselmeer polder, and the change from the luxuriant hillside to the chilly plain below sea level was felt as a real break. For days on end I roamed the reclaimed bottom of the sea and stuffed my trousers-pockets with clay pipe bowls lost by former Zuiderzee fishermen, daydreaming of the flat bottomed vessels that once had sailed above my head, over the past as a bygone yet nearby world. The sense of loss was as captivating as the sense of innovation. Memorable were the frequent trips to the encapsulated former islet of Schokland, nearby ultra-orthodox fishing-villages like Urk, with their old houses and inhabitants in traditional costume, or to Staphorst where children were literally tightened on leashes against the dangers of the modern world.

As a showcase of post war economic innovation, the polder was set up as a social project for national integration based on planned denominational segregation (verzuiling) of settlers from all over the country. It accentuated the contrast between old and new land, tradition and modernity, historical growth and social malleability. Just like the native surroundings, the new setting provided many incentives for social diversities and historical consciousness. History also intruded from the outside. The most exiting images were exotic glimpses from Indonesia, which were gleaned from disparate sources ranging from visiting missionaries to picture books with wonderful colour-plates. At the local gymnasium I became acquainted with mythic, narrating and analytic history as exemplified by Homeros, Herodotus and Thucydides respectively. From the interest in the canonized history in school, however, I was much detracted by Sam Cooke’s 1960 hit ‘Don’t know much about history … But I do know that I love you …’

Gradually the relevance of history for contemporary problems dawned upon me. History popped up in discussions about the cold war and its fire-blazes overseas, decolonization and deconfessionalisation. It became clear that historical imagery is not just carefree musing, but is involved in mental maps, social attitudes and political choices, – that history does matter indeed. The present was experienced as history. That background became the motivation for studying political science and modern history and the moving spirit of my academic activities.

My research focused on the maritime history of Indonesia, as a meeting ground of eastern and western history. While I was dedicated to an academic attitude and writing format of solidly fact-based history, I intermittently turned towards the fiction of Joseph Conrad, in particular his stories set in the Eastern seas. It proved inspirational because of its critical stance towards common contemporary historiography, and it helped balancing fact and fiction, romance and reality, documentation and imagination. As an academic historian, however, I felt puzzled, challenged, even provoked by his assertion that artful fiction is ‘nearer truth’ than academic historiography. Before addressing this statement, I want to summarize and discuss a historical reading of one of his short stories, Youth: a narrative, first published in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1898. It was included as the first story in the 1902 volume Youth, a Narrative; and Two Other Stories, the other stories being Heart of Darkness and The End of the Tether, featuring maturity and old age, respectively.[2]


Youth: a narrative, summary

The short story opens with specifying the setting of the telling. It is located in England as the centre of a maritime empire. Five people are socializing at a drinking table. Three are described by their professional status: a company director, a lawyer and an accountant. They share a maritime background, an upper middle class status and a conservative outlook. Together with the also anonymous frame narrator they listen to the story of forty years old Marlow, relating his story of his first voyage to ‘the East’ at the age of twenty.

Marlow told it was his first voyage as a second mate on a decrepit sailing ship of 400 tons loaden with coal destined for Bangkok. On its stern was painted its name JudeaLondon and its motto ‘Do or Die’.[3] Before he had been third mate on a crack clipper in the Australian wool trade, but he accepted the berth eagerly because it gave him the responsibility of a real officer, and because he was thrilled by its destination, reminiscent of the ancient discoverers and aroused by the lure of the East. As the captain and the first mate were quite old he felt like a small boy between two grandfathers overseeing him. Whereas Marlow was inspired by romance, they were simply materially motivated.

The voyage proved difficult enough. They left London for loading coal in a northern port. The North Sea pilot Jermyn mistrusted Marlow’s seamanship. A gale made the ballast shift and all men had to join in ‘the gravedigger’s work’ of shoveling it back. At the Tyneside they had to wait a month for their loading turn. While the captain’s wife repaired his clothes, Marlow read Ride to Khiva by Burnaby and Sartor Resartus by Carlyle. Leaving the port the ship was bumped and damaged by a steamer. The captain tried to save his wife but both were swept overboard and had to be rescued. The repair delayed three weeks. Near the Lizards another heavy winter gale struck, and the crew had to work at the pumps for days. The leaky ship needed another overhaul at Falmouth. The crew deserted and had to be replaced by a Liverpool gang. After the ship was repaired, reloaded and finally prepared to leave, scores of rats were seen leaving the ship.

After an uneventful passage round the Cape the Judea passed West Australia and steered for Java Head. Marlow perceived the sooty smell and smoke of heating coal. Fighting the combustion the crew pumped water in, and pumped out to save from being drowned. The life-boats were put into the water. After days the fire seemed extinguished, but then the ship exploded, hurting all crewmen, destroying the upper deck and the mast and setting the ship ablaze. A steamer was sighted and asked assistance. When the steamer came along Marlow got his first sight of Malay seamen, and was struck by their unconcern. While the crew kept struggling, the steamer Sommerville towed the sailing ship. However, the towage fanned the fire, and because of its mail, the steamer could no longer provide assistance. Three lifeboats were lowered. Out of his duty the captain insisted on saving as much of the ship’s gear as possible for the underwriters. After a last supper aboard the burning ship, the men took to the lifeboats, just in time to see the foundering of the Judea with its charred emblem ‘Do or Die’.

Marlow understood that he ‘would see the East first as a commander of a small boat’, thus realizing his ambition. It was even roused as he wanted his first command all by himself rather than sailing in a squadron. Leaving his fellows behind, he steered for the coast for many days. Outdistancing the other boats, he felt his youth and his strength.

When he reached Java, the mysterious East, he was exulted ‘like a conqueror’. Entering a port at night they met a steamer with a captain cursing in English the supposed negligence of the harbour lights. Next day Marlow woke up, and saw on the jetty an Eastern crowd looking down upon him and the boats with sleeping Westerners, without any sound. For Marlow it was a defining memory, of youth, the sea, the East. He finally asks his fellows whether it wasn’t the best time of life. And his party fellows at the drinking table nodded at him, with weary eyes but still looking ‘for something out of life’, which had passed ‘with the youth, with the strength, with the romance of illusions.’

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Joseph Conrad, 1883, age 25 Joseph Conrad, 1904, age 46

Fact: a referential reading

This outline of the basic facts of the story (what E.M. Forster and Gérard Genette would call its ‘history’[4]) cannot do any justice to the fine literary qualities and the manifold meanings of the tale. From the outset Marlow makes it clear that his story purports to be more than purely personal anecdote.

You fellows know there are those voyages that seem ordered for the illustration of life, that might stand for a symbol of existence. (Y, 9).

Although the story evidently is not an allegory, it invites various allegoresies that indeed have been attempted.[5] Most interpretations of the story have focused on the aspect of individual growth from youth into maturity, the voyage as a personal quest, or as a rite de passage.[6] My primary concern, however, is to read the story as an historian. This reading covers the layers of fact, value, process, context and method.

At the factual level, we may point to biographical and historical data. Conrad called his story ‘a record of experience’ and ‘a feat of memory’.[7] Maybe the most important correspondence between Korzeniowski and Marlow was that both were in their formative age. When he set out for the East, the adolescent orphan Korzeniowski was admonished by his uncle and guardian Tadeusz Bobrowski to set out ‘a clear course of life and career’. Many facts are derived from Conrad’s own experience as a seaman. In 1881-1882 he was second mate on the Palestine, a sailing ship transporting coal from Northern England and destined for East-Asia. The ship was heavily damaged by gales in the North Sea and the Channel Sea, and the repair at Falmouth caused eight month delay.[8] After the long passage of the Indian Ocean the moisted coal combusted and an explosion set the ship on fire. The crew went into life-boats and had to row ashore. In the tale of course no precise dates are given, but by and large they match the entries in port registrations and shipping logs.

The historical context of the story is real enough, and it had to appear as realistic to be credible enough to the audience of practical minded former seamen, as well as to its readership. The combustion of coal and the burning of ships was a recurring and widely discussed problem.[9] Indeed, Youth turned out as Conrad’s most ‘autobiographical story’.[10] However, the narrative was intended to be not history but fiction. Thus, there are remarkable changes as well. Some of these seem arbitrary. For example, the historical Elijah Beard became the fictional John Beard, and the Somerset was renamed Sommerville. The renaming of the Palestine into Judea cannot have been accidental, as Conrad explicitly drew attention to the name Judea (‘Queer name, isn’t it?’). Some critics have taken it as the starting point of a – rather awkward – interpretation of the story as an allegory of the demise of the Judeo-Christian tradition.[11]

Other adjustments support the literary function of embellishment or enhancing the impact of the narrative. In fact, Conrad was at that time not twenty but twenty-four years old, and he wrote it sixteen, not twenty years later. Conversely, Beard actually was 57, not 60. The Judea was depicted as very old, resembling ‘a ruined cottage’, but being built in 1857 she was twenty-five, the middle-age in a ship’s life, and still deemed worthy of a costly overhaul.[12] The tale slightly underrates her tonnage (427) as 400 and slightly overrates her cargo (557) as 600 tons, thus somewhat exaggerating the overload.[13] The episode of rescue is dramatized. The burning and sinking of the Palestine must have been visible from the coast, and the coast must have been in sight of the crew. Korzeniowski had three rowers in his boat, whereas Marlow had only two, and the rowing towards the coast took nearly fourteen hours rather than several days.[14] Whereas in the story the arrival was on the coast of ‘magic’ Java, Conrad had arrived near Muntok on Bangka, a rather dull place.

The seemingly slight translocation proved significant as it touches on Conrad’s conception of fiction, as became clear in Conrad’s quite strong reaction against an article[15] by his friend Richard Curle which revealed the actual location. Conrad stressed that it would be detrimental to be too explicit on background materials.

It is a strange fate that everything that I have, of set artistic purpose, laboured to leave indefinite, suggestive, in the penumbra of initial inspiration, should have that light turned on to it and its insignificance (as compared with I might say without megalomania the ampleness of my conception) exposed for any fool to comment upon or even for average minds to be disappointed with. (…) Explicitness, my dear fellow, is fatal to the glamour of all artistic work, robbing it of all artistic work, robbing it of all suggestiveness, destroying all illusion. You seem to believe in literalness and explicitness, in facts and also in expression. Yet nothing is more clear than the utter insignificance of explicit statement and also its power to call attention away from things that matter in the region of art.[16]

Muntok, meant Conrad, was ‘a damned hole without any beach and without any glamour’ and thus was not in tone with the story.

Therefore the par[agraph] when pinned down to a particular spot, must appear diminished – a fake. And yet it is true![17]

This kind of transposition is an act of imagination, and as Conrad believed,

Only in men’s imagination does every truth find an effective and undeniable existence.[18]

In Conrad’s view, truth transcends the accuracy of plain facts, which may be omitted, highlighted, downplayed or changed for the sake of its revelation.

Another set of transpositions regards the social setting of the narrative in the centre of the world’s greatest empire at that time. The small party of friends, bonded by the sea, drinking and listening to each other yarns was a familiar feature of the oral culture of maritime life. As is testified by many witnesses Conrad seems to have been an entertaining narrator, but he refrained from the indulging in drinking which he attributed to Marlow. The frame narrator remains silent about himself, which suggests he is close to the author. He distances himself from the narrator by introducing Marlow with the passing proviso “at least I think that is how he spelt his name”, which suggests that the narrator was a rather casual acquaintance. Marlow’s audience was not specified by names, but generalized by occupational and ideological backgrounds. It was composed of a director of companies, an accountant, a lawyer and the unspecified frame narrator.

The director had been a Conway boy, the accountant had served four years at sea, the lawyer – a fine crusted Tory, High Churchman, the best of old fellows, the soul of honour – had been chief officer in the P. & O. service in the good old days (…). (Y, 9)

It has been noted that this fictive company was devised as “a more consistent brotherhood of ‘gentlemanly’ professions higher up the social ladder” than actually appears to have been the case with Conrad’s friends.[19] The social upgrading of the company as well as his rhetoric brought Marlow, and indirectly the author, in closer circle with the readership of Blackwood’s Magazine.[20]

Values: an axiological reading

Highly relevant are those transpositions from fact into fiction that have been motivated by the intent of the story, to partake in discussions about social and individual values. The most important one concerned the materialist versus idealist motivation and thought. The motto of the volume, quoted from Grimm’s tales, reads:

. . . But the Dwarf answered: No; something human is dearer to me than the wealth of all the world.

According to Karl (539, note 1) this referred to the dedication to Conrad’s wife Jessie. However, the motto also points towards one of the themes of the narrative. Marlow’s ambitions are presented as transcending material interests, and this attitude contrasts with the material motivation of the ship owner, the captain and the first mate. Marlow is quite amazed that the captain aboard the burning and sinking ship dwelled considerable time to rescuing valuable ship goods from the scorched vessel – ‘even tins of paint’ – , thus endangering the lives of crew members.[21] From the disaster, Marlow, however, saved his life and retained an invaluable, memorable experience.

The foregrounding of an idealistic motivation again demanded some deviation from factual data. The main incentive for Marlow from stepping down from a ‘crack clipper’ to the decrepit barque is presented as romance, appealing to his youth:

I remember it took my fancy immensely. There was a touch of romance in it, something that made me love the old thing – something that appealed to my youth! (Y, 11)

Korzeniowski, in fact, after disembarking the Loch Etive in April 1881, found great difficulty in finding employment as a second mate on a deepsea vessel, which offered the experience of a full year of continuous service he needed for his certificate. He required the berth below his status and at the low pay of £ 4/- out of material necessity.[22] This also explains why he did not leave the ill-fated vessel, like other crew-members did (“and our pay went on…”). Conrad also refers to his musings of the ‘magic’ of the East during his long stays in Sidney, but does not mention his explorations of business opportunities in the Sunda Islands.[23] The thoughts about the material means and romantic meanings of living may have been inspired by the epistolary admonitions of his uncle Tadeusz Bobrowski about money as the nervus rerum, ‘the basis of both the external and inner independence of both an individual and a whole society’.[24] For Conrad, idealism seemed a means, as it were by pulling oneself up by one’s hair, to raise one’s life above dreary and awkward human existence. Marlow insisted that he enlisted for the Judea out of idealism:

I wouldn’t have thrown up my new billet for a fortune. (Y, 10)

He extended the higher motives to the crew:

Was it the two pounds ten a month that sent them there? They didn’t think their pay half good enough. No; it was something in them, something inborn and subtle and everlasting. (Y, 28)

Conrad’s criticism of materialism harks back to the central theme of Sartor Resartus by Thomas Carlyle: the material world as subordinated to and symbolic for the spiritual world and the need to ‘retailor’ the prevailing materialistic and utilitarian thought to an idealistic mode of thinking.

In Youth, Conrad mentions explicitly Carlyle, one of the ‘Victorian sages’ whose ideas were widely circulated and appreciated, as is witnessed by his impact and by the flush of biographies in the 1880s.[25] While the captain’s wife overhauled (‘retailored’) his outfit, Marlow had the time for reading books like Sartus Resartus. Youth implicitly responds to several other Victorian values, as proposed most emphatically (if not most clearly) by this Romantic philosopher and historian. Some of his ideas spilled over into Conrad’s narrative, for example on manliness, work, heroism, and empire.

In the turmoil of the clash of the brig Judea and the steamer Miranda (or Melissa) in the Tyneside port the captain went overboard in an – ironically dubbed ‘heroic’ – attempt to save his wife. After both found themselves drifting in the cold water, the captain growled:

“A sailor has no business with a wife – I say. There I was, out of the ship.” (Y, 14)

A seaman’s manly responsibility does not allow for divided loyalties. Similarly, the effeminate behaviour of the lamenting and snivelling North Sea pilot Jermyn and his jeremiads was contrasted by Marlow to the manliness of the crew of Liverpool ‘hard cases’. While the latter were praised, the former was deprecated: “I cherish a hate for that Jermyn to this day.” (Y, 11) This contempt for unmanly attitudes was resounding Carlyle’s repudiation of jeremiads.[26]

Both Carlyle and Conrad stressed the value of work. As Carlyle wrote:

“Work is of a religious nature: – work is of a brave nature; which it is the aim of all religion to be. All work of man is as the swimmer’s: a waste ocean threatens to devour him; if he front it not bravely, it will keep its word. By incessant wise defiance of it, lusty rebuke and buffet of it, behold how it loyally supports him, bears him as its conqueror along. ‘It is so,’ says Goethe, ‘with all things that man undertakes in this world.”[27]

In the same vein, Marlow’s story may be understood as a panegyric on work (as against paid labour), and the ship’s motto ‘Do or Die’ may be taken as a shorthand expression of the swimmer-and-sea metaphor.[28] In the beginning of the story his working spirit was doubted by the captain and the pilot, but along the voyage Marlow found ‘how good a man he was’, and like the ‘Liverpool gang’ he valued his work beyond its material reward.[29] When he, after his exhausting struggle under the vast sky with the elements water and fire, reaches the land, he is indeed ‘exulting like a conqueror’ (i.e. of the sea). However, whereas for Carlyle the almost metaphysically conceived ‘Work’ was divine, sacred and sanctifying[30], Conrad’s view of physical work was depicted more humanistic and realistic. In the beginning of the story Marlow characterises his ‘romantic’ experience as:

“You fight, work, sweat, nearly kill yourself, sometimes do kill yourself, trying to accomplish something–and you can’t. Not from any fault of yours. You simply can do nothing, neither great nor little–not a thing in the world – not even marry an old maid, or get a wretched 600-ton cargo of coal to its port of destination.” (Y, 9)

The shoveling of the shifting ballast on the North Sea had proleptically been damned as ‘grave-diggers work’. The reward of the work had been the sinking of the ship and the destination, the ‘mysterious East’, had revealed itself as human destiny, ‘silent like death, dark like a grave’. Conrad’s worker resembles Sisyphus, his conqueror reminds of Pyrrhus.

This view shed another light on the Victorian value of individualistic heroism, which was predominant especially in Carlyle’s conception of history. In his view history was almost reduced to heroism: “The History of the World … was the Biography of Great Men.”[31] Marlow also purports to attain that status. As soon as the combustion is detected, he jumps recklessly into the hull, but has to be saved from the heated coal by his comrades. This episode is a prolepsis of his outdistancing his fellows while rowing ashore. He succeeds in arriving earlier, but at his arrival he is not hailed as a hero, but gazed at from the jetty as an anti-hero.

Broadly speaking, both Scottish Carlyle and Polish Conrad held a rather romantic and organicist view of nationalism. Their views of both on English nationalism are complex and elusive. According to several critics[32], the attunement to the outlook of the implied readership resulted in some nationalist overtones of the story. The main reason given regards the nationality of the crew members. At Falmouth, the crew members of the Judea refused to continue to work on an unsafe ship, which in the story went without comment. Because of the delay no work was to be done anyway. After the overhaul, the replacement of the crew proved difficult.

“The story of the ship was known, by this, all up the Channel from Land’s End to the Forelands, and we could get no crew on the south coast. They sent us one all complete from Liverpool, and we left once more–for Bankok.” (Y, 20)

Wondering at their efforts after the explosion, Marlow skipped to the present and effused praise on the sailors.

But they all worked. That crew of Liverpool hard cases had in them the right stuff. It’s my experience they always have. It is the sea that gives it – the vastness, the loneliness surrounding their dark stolid souls. (Y, 26)

And after relating the towing episode, Marlow elaborated the point.

And, mind, these were men without the drilled-in habit of obedience. To an onlooker they would be a lot of profane scallywags without a redeeming point. What made them do it – what made them obey me when I, thinking consciously how fine it was, made them drop the bunt of the foresail twice to try and do it better? What? They had no professional reputation—no examples, no praise. It wasn’t a sense of duty; they all knew well enough how to shirk, and laze, and dodge – when they had a mind to it – and mostly they had. (…) I don’t say positively that the crew of a French or German merchantman wouldn’t have done it, but I doubt whether it would have been done in the same way. There was a completeness in it, something solid like a principle, and masterful like an instinct – a disclosure of something secret—of that hidden something, that gift, of good or evil that makes racial difference, that shapes the fate of nations. (Y, 28)

Several points should be made about the representation of the crew. The description of sailors as seemingly ‘profane scallywags’ with no professional reputation was historically not unrealistic, as the poor quality of sailors was a generally recognised problem in those years.[33] Zdzisław Najder has noted that the ‘Liverpool gang’ of the Palestine did not consist of sailors from Liverpool; half of them came from Cornwall and the other half from other countries. He regards this as a deliberate deviation from historical fact. However, the crew sent from Liverpool was likely to be multinational.[34] Even when this should be a fictional transposition, it is not evidently motivated by nationalism. The text suggests some special quality of the British merchant marine the French or German may lack. The Red Ensign might inspire some special dedication to work, to discipline, and solidarity.[35] Marlow is evidently fascinated by the supposed national differences, although he is also hesitant about it, and is in doubt about the explanation for the ‘hidden something’. Race is not biologically or ethnically but circumstantially conceived (‘it is the sea that gives it’, to a ship’s crew and to an insular nation), and racial difference is not simply conceived as a natural but as a cultural trait. If, however, the paragraph should be understood as an expression of nationalist sentiment, it must be attributed to Marlow rather than Conrad. Any imputation[36] of Conrad yielding to the taste of an editor or his implied readers is contradicted by Conrad’s aesthetic sincerity, the purport of his art, and the tendency of his work in general and this story in particular.

To the set of Victorian values also belonged imperialism, and strong emotive appeals were put forward by Carlyle.[37] He may be dubbed as an evangelist of imperial expansion, in which work and heroism cooperate to fulfil England’s special vocation.[38] Conrad wrote Youth a half century later, on the eve of the Boer war in the high tide of British imperialism, with proponents like David Livingstone, Charles George Gordon and Cecil Rhodes, who was adamantly pursuing his plan ‘to make the world English’. This is one of the reasons why Conrad makes the frame narrator say: “This could have occurred nowhere but in England” (Y, 9) and makes the Judea located in its imperial centre London. He toiled aboard the ship and conquered the sea, but arrived as a castaway, mutely gazed at by eastern crowd. Thus, Conrad made Marlow strive for Victorian values only to make him fail to meet them, and tell it to an audience that embodied those values[39].

Process: a metahistorical reading

Conrad’s scepticism on Victorian values was replicated in his representation of the ‘course of history’. Thus the directionality, rationality and linearity of historical processes are questioned implicitly.[40]

The unprecedented losses of sailing-ships caused by combustion mark the transition from sail to steam, which is also at stake in the tale. Steamships were not suitable for economic reasons to take the fuel aboard for longer voyages. For that reason all along the shipping routes into the East coaling stations were established, and the coal was transported from Europe to their destination by the much cheaper sailing ships. Sailing was increasingly relegated to subservience to steamshipping. Yet, a steamer caused the clash in the Tyneside port, and the rescue operation by the steamer Celestial was to no avail because of the different time regime. The dim prospects of sailing accounted for the difficulties in finding jobs, for the lack of the professional qualities of the sailors and also for the deterioration of the working conditions.

The plain historical facts of maritime history are at the background of Marlow’s narrative, but they are not the central points in Conrad’s story. Rather they are used as a metaphor expressing his vision of history as a paradoxical process, in which the corsi e ricorsi occur simultaneously. On the one hand, steamshipping prolonged the existence of sailing, on the other sailing ships helped promoting their demise. If in serious trouble, like the combustion of coal of the Judea, a steamer, like the passing Sommerville, could not really help, as the towage fanned the fire.[41] The progress of history is presented as a paradoxical problem. It is generalised into a metaphor of human predicament by the contradictory effort demanded from the crew facing the combustion: they had to pump water into the hull in order to quell the fire, and to pump the water out to prevent sinking. Although the scene is related in a humorous tone, its meaning has a sober view of human efforts for sheer survival as a Sisyphus-like toil.

The limitedness of human rationality is demonstrated by the underrating of the wisdom of animal behaviour.

Then on a fine moonlight night, all the rats left the ship. We had been infested with them. They had destroyed our sails, consumed more stores than the crew, affably shared our beds and our dangers, and now, when the ship was made seaworthy, concluded to clear out. I called Mahon to enjoy the spectacle. Rat after rat appeared on our rail, took a last look over his shoulder, and leaped with a hollow thud into the empty hulk. We tried to count them, but soon lost the tale. Mahon said: ‘Well, well! don’t talk to me about the intelligence of rats. They ought to have left before, when we had that narrow squeak from foundering. There you have the proof how silly is the superstition about them. They leave a good ship for an old rotten hulk, where there is nothing to eat, too, the fools! . . . I don’t believe they know what is safe or what is good for them, any more than you or I. (Y, 19)

When months later the crew was fighting the fire, the first mate joked that a little leak would be helpful now. Marlow retorted:

“Do you remember the rats?” (Y, 22)

Apparently the rats had already sensed from the outset that the wetted coal would get combusted, but for the crew their early warning went unheeded. Human rationality was exposed as being fallible and very limited. By implication, the Hegelian view of ‘History’ as progressive rationality or realisation of reason was debunked.

Context: a historiographical reading

Comparing the straight facts of Korzeniowski’s voyage and Conrad’s story, the gap between biography and fictionality may not seem to loom very large. Yet, to Youth fully applies Conrad’s statement on his work:

I do not write history, but fiction, and I am therefore entitled to choose as I please what is most suitable in regard to characters and particulars to help me in the general impression I wish to produce.[42]

In this simple binary view, history merely records facts, whereas fiction goes beyond by creating meaning.[43]

And what is a novel if not a conviction of our fellow-men’s existen­ce strong enough to take upon itself a form of imagi­ned life clearer than reality and whose accumu­lated verisimi­litude of selected episo­des puts to shame the pride of docu­mentary histo­ry.[44]

Nine years later, the stated subordination of history to fiction is repeated, but also more differentiated. The dividing line becomes somewhat blurred.

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.[45]

This concurs with Conrad’s artistic credo as he elaborated in his ‘Preface’ to The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’, in which he makes a distinction between three kinds of truth: the scientific, the philosophic, and the artistic.[46] Whereas the thinker plunges into ideas and the scientist into facts, the artist descends within himself to search an inner truth and convey it through the senses. The artist’s task is to grapple with history and memory and, ‘from the remorseless rush of time’, capture an evanescent moment in its passing from the past into the future, to reveal the substance of its truth, and to awaken ‘that feeling of unavoidable solidarity (…) which binds men to each other and all mankind to the visible world’.

Conrad’s statements on the subordination of historiography to literary fiction do not derive from any systematic treatment. They are passing remarks that refer to ongoing discussions. In England, the 1890s were marked by a debate between proponents of a literary-romanticist (Walter Scott, Thomas Carlyle[47], Thomas Babington Macaulay, George M. Trevelyan) versus an academic-scientific, or positivist-professional approach to historiography (J.B. Bury, Hyppolite Taine), a debate which recurred in different forms throughout the 20th century. The ‘romanticist’ historians, like Macaulay and Carlyle, urged that history should be imaginative and appealing to a large non-professional audience, as in the long tradition from Herodotus to Walter Scott.[48] Clearly, Conrad located himself firmly on the former side. Yet, his position has to be qualified on two points.

First, Conrad did not disregard established facts. In the Author’s Note to ‘Tales of Unrest’ Conrad maintained, writing about An Outpost of Progress: “As for the story itself it is true enough in its essentials. The sustained invention of a really telling lie demands a talent which I do not possess”. Even in stories or novels which were not grounded in his personal experience, like Nostromo for example, he took pains to document the details in his fiction, and for this purpose he drew extensively on ‘documentary history’ as well.

Secondly, the story Youth amounts to a qualification if not rejection of Carlyle as a proponent of Victorian values. This is corroborated by the text. While stuck in the Tyneside port:

I read for the first time [Carlyle’s] Sartor Resartus and [Burnaby's] Ride to Khiva. I didn’t understand much of the first then; but I remember I preferred the soldier to the philosopher at the time; a preference which life has only confirmed. One was a man, and the other was either more–or less. (Y, 12)

The last sentence we make take as a sneer at Carlyle. In Sartor Resartor the latter derided people craving for happiness or suffering from Weltschmerz, like the life-weary Byron, and proclaims: “Close thy Byron; open thy Goethe!”.[49] Conrad made Marlow brush aside Carlyle’s advice, and buy in London ‘a complete set of Byron’s work’.

Carlyle was unequivocal about the didactic value of history:

The past is the true fountain of knowledge, we do nothing but enact history, we say little but recite it: (…) our whole spiritual life is built thereon. (…) Let us search more and more into the Past; let all men explore it, as the true fountain of knowledge; by whose light alone, consciously or unconsciously employed, can the Present and the Future be interpreted and guessed at.[50]

However, in the beginning of his tale Marlow states:

It seems to me I knew very little then, and I know not much more now (…)”. (Y, 12)

This modesty about his ability to learn may be taken as characteristic of his sceptical view of history as ‘fountain of knowledge’.

We may summarize the historical relationship between Carlyle and Conrad as both continuity and change. Conrad did focus on Carlyle’s concerns, but recycled his views on the ‘substance’ of history quite critically. At a metahistorical level, his appreciation of imaginative fiction over documentary history seems a leftover from Carlyle’s conceptions. However, whereas Carlyle – and the romanticist historians in general – freely mixed and mingled documented fact and romanticising fiction, Conrad clearly distinguished between them.

Conrad’s frame story: a constructivist reading

As the title Youth: a narrative explicitly indicates: it is a story about the narrative Marlow delivers to his companions, and also that is it a narrative, just one alternative out of many possible versions.[51] Therefore it is proper to pay attention to some narratological features, and to Conrad’s use of the anonymous frame narrator and the narrator Marlow. Their methods of narration have to be distinguished.[52]

As is evident from the summary of the story, it is presented as ‘narrative’, told in the setting of yarning sea stories. The frame narrator relates how the narrator performs from memory. This framing of the narrative, because of the metalepsis between the two levels, has two important functions. First, it draws as it were the reader into the scene. Although Marlow’s narration is largely diegetic, by the device of framing, the storytelling is mimetically rendered as a performance. Secondly, it creates a distance between the author and the narrator, as the frame narrator observes and comments on the narration.

How does Marlow relate to his own story? One the one hand, as a sailor he is ‘one of us’. On the other, he quite often delivers judgments on the nautical and other qualities of his fellows. Moreover, he distinguishes himself from the crew as a literate man. He tells that he read books (by Thomas Carlyle, Frederick Burnaby, George Byron) implicating that others did not, and mentions that even captain Beard was semiliterate:

He could just write a kind of sketchy hand, and didn’t care for writing at all. (Y, 10)

By presenting himself as literary minded, Marlow tried to dissociate from his fellows and identify more closely with his educated audience.

As Marlow is telling from memory, he is able to reflect and comment on his experience. At these moments he jumps from the events of the fateful voyage to the present and back again. The act of memorizing is testified in the story in several ways. Marlow forgets, or blurs several names, or must put effort in remembering.[53] This creates a distance between Marlow the former sailor and Marlow the present narrator. The duration of memorizing is inversely commensurate to the experiential duration and proportional to its intensity. Thus, the story focuses on the short, but intensely experienced episodes, and passes over the boring and uneventful stretches of time. The voyage is also presented as a ‘first experience’, which counts in psychology as having the strongest impact, especially on youngsters on the verge of adulthood. Later voyages and travels in the East simply have been skipped. Thus the indulging in his youth at his later age may also be an instance of the memory bulb (which happened to be corroborated scientifically by Francis Galton few years before).[54] Most importantly, this memory bulb displays the tendency of rose-colouring memories.[55] Indeed, the high expectations in England and the exulting feelings at the arrival in the East are fore grounded, whereas the boredom of the seemingly endless delays and the disappointments of the East are downplayed or ironised.

The frame narrator, however sparse his interventions may have been, critically comments on the story in two ways. First, he notes how Marlow interspersed his narrating, with increasing frequency as the narrating goes on, by asking: “Pass the bottle.” The drinking and talking of Marlow mirror the toil of putting water in and out of the ship. The drinking quells the thirst and at the same time fuels the memorizing and the narrating spirit. The considerable amount of drinking, however, must have detracted from the credibility of the eulogies on youth and romance. Secondly, at the end of the story the audience reacts in a rather sober way, by nodding numbedly. The story learns how youth is being constructed in older age, interpreting the formative years and its key experiences from the hindsight of one’s life story. This conforms to recent insights in the functioning of memory at older age. It also illustrates how history is constructed, if not fabricated, retrospectively. We realize what happened after it has passed.[56] Thus we may apply the term ‘delayed decoding’ (coined by Ian Watt). not only to a feature of Conrad’s innovative narrative technique to passages where the impact of sensory impressions is unfolded only gradually. It applies to his sense of history as well.

Whereas Marlow delivers his oral testimony, and tries to bring the distant time and place back home, the frame narrator acts not unlike an oral historian. In the tradition of positivist historiography academic history used to be seen as an antidote to the subjectively coloured individual and social memory. The romanticist tradition held the other way around, and considered ‘counter’ memory as a valuable corrective to official history, and held that even ‘false memory’ should be studied seriously.[57] In recent decades in academic history both approaches have been integrated.[58]

Marlow’s memorizing: a narrativist reading

Marlow’s narration (within the frame narrative) may be analysed along three narrative approaches: the structuralist, the functional, and the figurative approach.

The structure of the story as discourse is built on the twin dimensions of semiosis and syntagma. The semiosis directs the focus towards the interplay of the interlocking oppositions which render the story its tension. Man and nature, young and old, romance and reality, materialism and idealism, equality and hierarchy, individualism and solidarity, life and death, agency and passivity, literacy and intuition, sail and steam, land and sea, seriousness and irony, work and leisure, West and East, Carlyle and Burnaby, speech and text. These are presented in a normative framing and persuasive setting. The syntagma is the epic story of the voyage in both space (to the far East) and time (to a distant past). It may be added that the narrative builds on a pair of contrasts, first between static chronotopes (the drinking table, the eastern port) and a dynamic chronotope (the ship on its dangerous passage), and secondly between homotopic England as location of sameness and the heterotopic East as place of otherness and physical representation of idealism.

The function of crucial story elements reminds of several dramatic devices which Aristoteles ascribed to the tragedy. Marlow was the hero (‘how good a man I was’) and atè was the hybris (e.g. his reckless leap into the combusted coal); his ethos his valuation of work and achievement; his anagnorisis was his belated understanding of the rats behaviour; his peripateia was the insight in the temporality of human existence; his hamartia the disregard and non-response from the ‘other’, the non-Western people; his dianoia the voyage as metaphor for one’s path of life; the katharsis is in the revaluation of Victorian values, the pathos is the hardship of the long voyage and the painful feeling caused by the disastrous explosion; and, finally, his mythos was the emplotment of his narrative as a tragic view of history.[59]

The labelling of the structural and functional elements shows the formal construction of the text and the intended affect of its elements. The figurative approach shows the processing of Marlow’s experience and narration through prefiguration, configuration, and refiguration.[60]

Marlow’s prefiguration was a merger of his fancies about the ship, the command, and the destination. A major aspect of the story is the enthrallment about Bankok as the destination. In fact, especially after the opening of the Suez Canal, steamshipping towards the Indian Ocean and the Eastern seas beyond had been multiplied. It had become quite common, and for many sailors must have lost much of its ‘magic’. For Marlow, however, the lure of the East became stronger as the voyage was protracted and became more arduous. Dwelling upon the hardship of the passage, Marlow recalls:

I loved the ship more than ever, and wanted awfully to get to Bankok. To Bankok! Magic name, blessed name. Mesopotamia[61] wasn’t a patch on it. Remember I was twenty, and it was my first second mate’s billet, and the East was waiting for me. (Y, 18)

His romantic aspirations were inspired by his awareness of the historical tradition which percolated the contemporary imperialistic mood. His vision of the future – the East before him – was a prefiguration based on a pre-existing image of Western exploration and conquest of the Orient.

There was all the East before me, and all life, and the thought that I had been tried in that ship and had come out pretty well. And I thought of men of old who, centuries ago, went that road in ships that sailed no better, to the land of palms, and spices, and yellow sands, and of brown nations ruled by kings more cruel than Nero the Roman and more splendid than Solomon the Jew. (Y, 20)

A prefiguration acts as a baseline for the ensuing configuration. His disillusion grew out of the ensuing confrontations with colonial realities. After stepping down from the sinking Judea into the life-boat, he realised: “that I would see the East first as commander of a small boat”. Bankok had turned into ‘the East’, the sailing ship into a rowing boat, and the command was only achieved by deserting the two other life-boats. Objectively, he had been failing in all his fancies. While having turned into an anti-hero for the reader, Marlow kept professing his own heroism. At the outset of the voyage captain Beard and pilot Jermyn had been sceptical about his seaworthiness. After stepping down into the lifeboat Marlow thought he had proved himself:

I did not know how good a man I was till then. I remember the drawn faces, the dejected figures of my two men, and I remember my youth and the feeling that will never come back any more – the feeling that I could last for ever, outlast the sea, the earth, and all men; (…) (Y, 34)

For him it appears as his moment of triumph, the moment of truth, of realising his identity. Yet, at that very instance he suddenly senses a peripeteia of his feeling, and becomes aware that this is a media vita experience. The red hot sense of eternity cooled down to the chilling awareness of temporality, in accordance with his catastrophic sense of human existence. The feeling of the strength of youth – from hindsight – appears as:

(…) the deceitful feeling that lures us on to joys, to perils, to love, to vain effort – to death; the triumphant conviction of strength, the heat of life in the handful of dust, the glow in the heart that with every year grows dim, grows cold, grows small, and expires – and expires, too soon – before life itself. (Y, 35)

The actual confrontation with the people of the East gradually muffled his exuberance. The meaning of the East dawned upon him as if by delayed decoding.

This was my first sight of Malay seamen. I’ve known them since, but what struck me then was their unconcern: they came alongside, and even the bowman standing up and holding to our main-chains with the boat-hook did not deign to lift his head for a glance. I thought people who had been blown up deserved more attention. (Y, 27)

His heroism was unappreciated. By rowing for days Marlow’s cockle-shell arrived at ‘some small coasting port’ late at night. He still felt triumphant, yet had misgivings that the triumph may be pyrrhic.

(…) the semicircle of a beach gleamed faintly, like an illusion. There was not a light, not a stir, not a sound. The mysterious East faced me, perfumed like a flower, silent like death, dark like a grave. And I sat weary beyond expression, exulting like a conqueror, sleepless and entranced as if before a profound, a fateful enigma. (Y, 35)

The triumphant feeling of being a conqueror and the musings about the dark enigma were spoiled by the reality of colonialism. A passing steamer (the Celestial) came in, its captain swearing that he had seen no port light piloting his ‘valuable steamer’.

And then, before I could open my lips, the East spoke to me, but it was in a Western voice. A torrent of words was poured into the enigmatical, the fateful silence; outlandish, angry words, mixed with words and even whole sentences of good English, less strange but even more surprising. The voice swore and cursed violently; it riddled the solemn peace of the bay by a volley of abuse. It began by calling me Pig, and from that went crescendo into unmentionable adjectives – in English. The man up there raged aloud in two languages, and with a sincerity in his fury that almost convinced me I had, in some way, sinned against the harmony of the universe. (Y, 36)

Apparently Marlow’s British identity was mistaken for an Eastern one, for whom the swearword ‘pig’ would have been particularly abusive. The imputed harmony was the colonial order, of which Marlow was part of.[62] The western, colonial, shrill voice contrasted sharply with the muted voice of the East. The Malay seamen near the sinking Judea had not deigned to lift their head for a glance, but the people ashore did look down upon the white castaways.

And then I saw the men of the East – they were looking at me. The whole length of the jetty was full of people. I saw brown, bronze, yellow faces, the black eyes, the glitter, the colour of an Eastern crowd. And all these beings stared without a murmur, without a sigh, without a movement. They stared down at the boats, at the sleeping men who at night had come to them from the sea. Nothing moved. (…) This was the East of the ancient navigators, so old, so mysterious, resplendent and somber, living and unchanged, full of danger and promise. And these were the men. (Y, 37-38)

For Marlow, the voyage of the Judea had been, next to its obvious spatial dimension, a journey back into time.[63] The East is represented as ancient and unchanging, an orientalist essence without history. His meeting the East with a Western voice brought him back into the present reality and to its historical context. Thus the orientalist attitude in Marlow’s narrating is criticised by Conrad’s storytelling.

In Marlow’s mind the prefiguration of the encounter with the East had been romantic and idealistic.[64] His high strung expectations resulted in a sublime liminal experience, both wonderful and awesome. His configuration of the actual confrontation was a composite of triumph and defeat, of youthful expectation and mature insight, strength of life and ineluctable death. Destination turned into destiny. Alternating the focalisations from his youth and from his maturity, Marlow dwelled upon the futility of life, while clinging to the vibrancy of youth. This individual experience is generalised to the wider historical encounter of the conquering West and the slumbering East.

I have known its fascination since: I have seen the mysterious shores, the still water, the lands of brown nations, where a stealthy Nemesis lies in wait, pursues, overtakes so many of the conquering race, who are proud of their wisdom, of their knowledge, of their strength. But for me all the East is contained in that vision of my youth. It is all in that moment when I opened my young eyes on it. I came upon it from a tussle with the sea – and I was young – and I saw it looking at me. And this is all that is left of it! Only a moment; a moment of strength, of romance, of glamour – of youth! (Y, 38-39)

Thus, Marlow’s configuration amounted to three encounters: with his ‘self’, with the ‘other’, and with the temporality of human existence.

The refiguration, started with Marlow and continued by his audience, is integrated in Conrad’s frame narrative. Not unlike nations imagining some golden age in times of downfall or uncertainty, Marlow, in an apparent need for reassurance, turns to his audience for confirmation. He asks his fellows in a maudlin voice: “wasn’t that the best time, that time when we were young at sea?” It is a question out of uncertainty about what else life may have in store for the aging.

Marlow’s emplotment of his voyage is refigured by his audience. It had not spoken a word during the narration, and responded in an indeterminate, inconclusive way.[65]

And we all nodded at him: the man of finance, the man of accounts, the man of law, we all nodded at him over the polished table that like a still sheet of brown water reflected our faces, lined, wrinkled; our faces marked by toil, by deceptions, by success, by love; our weary eyes looking still, looking always, looking anxiously for something out of life, that while it is expected is already gone – has passed unseen, in a sigh, in a flash–together with the youth, with the strength, with the romance of illusions. (Y, 39)

Conrad created the narrating Marlow as a fictional device. He was introduced as an almost impersonal voice who gains identity by his very narration. The meaning of his life journey is not conveyed by the straight and cold outward facts as given in the summary.[66] Rather, the meaning of his existence is ascribed by narrating his life, and his identity is gaining substance because his narration is listened to and responded to by his audience, physically marked by the progress of time. The reflection of the polished table is congruous with the self-reflection of the listeners. Is youth but a narrative? The end of Marlow’s tale and the mute response from the audience (which mirrors the mute Asians and the grave-like silence of the East) is marked by equivocation. Like the crew who wanted ‘to see the last of it’, they all seem clinging to ‘fidelity to an absolute lost cause’[67] and that is what makes the ensuing refiguration by the readers challenging.


Joseph Conrad, with five apprentices on the deck of the Torrens, 1892-1892.


In this essay I have ventured a historian’s reading of Conrad’s poiesis of the past in his autobiographical, yet fictional story Youth, with the objective of understanding his claim of superiority of fiction writing over documentary historiography. I have focused on the aspects of fact, value, process, context, and method. The referential reading made clear that Conrad deliberately deviated from documentary fact in order to convey his symbolic message. The axiological reading pointed out his position on central values like manliness, work, heroism and imperialism. Reading the story metahistorically, it appeared that his paradoxical and ironic view of historical processes ran counter to the prevailing belief in progress. Both aspects can be understood by reading the story contextually, as in dialogue with and criticism of values and views held in awe in contemporary culture. Thus, his story may be read as a late Victorian reaction to early Victorian values. As the methodological reading bore out, Conrad superimposed various narrative methods, in order to make clear how the drama could have its impact on the growth of the self-consciousness of the protagonist.

This may serve as a basis for highlighting the similarities and the differences between documentary history and imaginative fiction. Academic or documentary history writing narrates about past events, but the imaginatively constructed facts and narratives must be checked and weighted against all available and relevant primary sources, and account for relevant facts, concepts, theories and narratives pertaining to the field. Fiction must inevitably have some basis in some shared sense of reality, yet its facts may be highlighted or downplayed, invented or inverted in order to model whatever message the author may wish to convey. Testing against sources is obligatory in history but would be nonsensical in fiction. Both historiography and literature need imagination in the emplotment of narratives, but the first aims at communicating about some claims about past realities[68], and the latter aims at proffering symbolic meanings.

Historians do study values or value aspects of past human behaviour, and even in their most reserved stance in the best Weberian tradition, evaluate historical acts and thoughts, events and processes, explicitly or implicitly. Therefore historiography participates in the axiological discourses of its time, – just as fiction does. But they do so in a different way. A historian has to try to understand values in their historical context, and evaluate them against the historical circumstances and consequences. In his evaluation the historian’s vantage point is circumscribed by his or her academic status, its rules and its responsibilities. A writer of fiction operates from a private position, which allows for the free expression, negation or (r)evaluation of any social or personal values that may deem relevant to the author. Again, any checking against external values or taking into accountability would not make sense (although the fictional text may be discussed in a public debate). As a consequence, a historian may be prosecuted where a fiction writer may enjoy immunity.

Academic history produces narratives that refer to or represent more or less coherent processes and cling to the common culture of time. In fiction historical processes may be represented as paradoxical or contradictory, thus challenging prevalent views. The historical process is bound to chronological time, conventionally conceived as unilinear, unidirectional, and metric (or quasi-logarithmic) time. In fiction, time may be ordered differently, for example cyclical, or non-directional or chaotic, or making whatever ‘imaginative variations on time’.[69] In historiographical practice the representation of patterns and processes is being grinded and gradually adapted. Yet, fiction is a more flexible and often a more effective means to challenge prevailing views, as it may put forward fictive yet ‘possible’ or ‘conceivable’, worlds in some fictionalized ‘quasi-past’.[70] Fiction may suggest alternative processes, or even present an alternative vision of how history does or does not evolve.[71] Fiction may be provoking, proposing or suggesting new visions, but documentary history must meticulously research, establish and debate its findings in a conventional time frame.[72] History is a discipline to be learned in an academic setting. Creative writing – although such courses do exist – is a gift which has to be developed by one’s own efforts.

As for contextual reading it has become obligatory in historiography and, as fiction materializes, in the analysis of fiction as well. A text is not only a product of its social setting, it is also informed by other texts in numerous traceable and covert ways. In the story Youth some contributions have been mentioned, but for Conrad’s fiction in general one might hold, – alluding to Kurz -, that ‘All Europe went into Conrad.” Thus our appreciation of a particular story may be enhanced by intertextual tracing, which involves a good deal of historical research. In the creation of fiction the simultaneous inscription may or may not be a conscious process, but does not analyse this process or its product explicitly.

A fiction writer has a wide and ever widening range of narrative methods and techniques at his disposal, and is prepared to invent new ones. Many philosophers and practitioners of history writing have emphasized the basically narrative nature of history, that historiography is informed by tropology and that historical knowledge is basically metaphorical, even to the point of reducing history writing to a branch of literature.[73] Yet again the historian is much more restricted in his narration. Academic publishers and journals cling to a strict format of organization and style. Many literary figures of speech (like repetition, or free indirect speech) and suggestive ambiguity are in history writing as a rule undesirable or even inadmissible. Similarly, the specific emplotment of a history along the lines of Aristotelian tragedy may be chosen in literature, but hardly in history writing.

Is Conrad’s claim of superiority of fiction over faction substantiated in Youth? On the one hand, the short story has much to tell about history, as history became inscribed into fiction. Its prismatic qualities give insight into the époque. It shows how imperialism could be motivated both materialistically and idealistically (showing its utter consequences in Heart of Darkness). It shows history from a personal perspective, thus mitigating the ‘grand narrative’ of British empire and expansion, and subjectively manipulating socio-cosmological time. It illustrates the limited extent of our understanding of the historical processes we are living through, and the ambiguous authority of accounting of one’s past. It enhances our sensitivity of our understanding of the past as a narrative construction, in terms of pre- con-, and refiguration, which ends up in making the past a palimpsest written over and over again. It shows the articulation of causality and contingency, the heterogeneity of historical progression and the paradoxality of progress. Finally, the story, if it is read as an axiological discourse, illuminates how culturally encoded values are experienced, doubted, and re-evaluated.[74] So, Conrad’s claim may have had substance as it antedated methods and insights of late 20th century historiography.

On the other hand, (academic) history renders insight into the fiction, and indeed is essential to its understanding. Basically, it helps to gauge the differences between the factual foundation and the fictional superstructure. It makes it clear that the surplus value of the narrative is located in its meaning, or rather the many meanings it may harbour, or may be assigned to it by its readers. The literary effect rests on the very distinction of fact and fiction. The meanings as counter-history are only comprehensible against the notion of a ‘real’ historical background, if only as a claim. Thus, we may not fully understand history without fiction, and we can only partly understand the fiction of an era without considering the interrelations with its historical contexts. A subject, while reading, does not ‘forget’ his existence[75] but rather learns to understand more about its reality. Just as in human life actions are embedded in imaginatively calculating or dreaming alternative possibilities, in which reality and imagination interact, so both history and fiction are needed for better understanding each other.

What is or what should be the proper relationship of documentary history and imaginative fiction, of course, varies throughout the ages. In the recent past the preponderance of the modernist fact-based socio-economic history was superseded by a postmodern culture-oriented historiography which in some cases declared it self to be a kind of literature rather than ‘scientific’ history. Meanwhile the pendulum has swung backwards., and several intermediate genres have sprung up in the zone between fact and fiction, like ‘historiographical metafiction’ (Hutcheon) or ‘literary non-fiction’. Rather than obfuscating or obliterating the borderline, they flourish on the essential difference between fact-based and fiction-oriented historiography. The clay pipe bowls, still jumbling in my trouser pockets, may elicit my fictionalising, but they also testify of the real existence of the fishermen, formerly plying the sea above land that later was reclaimed. Both history and fiction are complementary forms of the imaginative representations that fuse into the poiesis of the past.

—J.N.F.M. à Campo


Note: All texts by Joseph Conrad and by Thomas Carlyle are online available as free ebooks in the Project Gutenberg, in the website http://www.gutenberg.org.

Citations from Youth are marked as (Y, page number).

Ambrosini, Richard. Conrad’s fiction as critical discourse. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991.

Ankersmit, Frank. History and tropology: The Rise and Fall of Metaphor. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

Bhabha, Homi. The location of culture. London: Routledge, 1994

Baines, Jocelyn. Joseph Conrad. A Critical Biography (1960). London: Weidenfeld, 1993.

Blackmore, Edward. The British Mercantile Marine. A short historical review. London: Griffin, 1897.

Budd, Adam (ed.). The Modern Historiography. Western Sources. London: Routledge, 2009.

Campo, J.N.F.M. à. ‘A Profound Debt to the Eastern Seas. Documentary History and Liter­ary Represen­tation of Maritime Trade in Joseph Con­rad’s Malay Novels.’ In: International Journal of Maritime History 12 (2000) 2; 85-125.

Campo, J.N.F.M. à. ‘Besef, denkstijl, beeldvorming. Een conceptueel model voor empirisch onderzoek.’ In: De Nieuwste Tijd 10 (2000) p. 87-114.

Campo, J.N.F.M. à, ‘Sea and sadness. Porteño Identity and Maritime Imagery in Tango Lyrics.’ In: International Journal of Maritime History 22 (2010) 1; 41-62. ISSN 0843-8714

Campo, J.N.F.M. à. ‘Amarrado al recuerdo. The memory dimension in classical tango lyrics.’ In: Studies in Latin American Popular Music (2011) 1; (forthcoming).

Carlyle, Thomas. ‘On History’ (1830). In: Critical and Miscellaneous Essays, Volume II. Boston: James Munroe and Company, 1839.

Carlyle, Thomas. Past and Present. Collected Works, Vol. XIII. (1843). In: Project Gutenberg.

Carlyle, Thomas. Sartor Resartus: the life and opinions of Herr Teufelsdrocke (1833-1834). In: Project Gutenberg.

Carlyle, Thomas. On Heroes And Hero Worship And The Heroic In History (1841). In: Project Gutenberg.

Collits, Terry. Postcolonial Conrad. Paradoxes of Empire. London: Routledge, 2005.

Conrad, Joseph, The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ (1897). Edited by Cedric Watts. London: Peguin Books, 1989.

Conrad, Joseph, ‘Youth: a narrative’. (1898). In: Youth, a Narrative; and Two Other Stories, London: Penguin Books, 1975.

Joseph Conrad, ‘Juventud’. In: Juventud – La última carta. Traducción Francisco Martínez Hoyos. Barcelona: Edicomunicación, 1999.

Conrad, Joseph. Jeunesse. Traduit par G. Jean Aubry, Paris: Edition Gallimard, 1993.

Conrad, Joseph. ‘An Outpost of Progress’ In: Tales of Unrest. London: Penguin Books, 1981.

Conrad, Joseph. Nostromo. (1904). London: Penguin Books, 1994.

Conrad, Joseph. The secret agent. (1907). Oxford: Oxford UP, 1983.

Conrad, Joseph. ‘A Personal Record; some Reminiscences’. (1912) In: The Mirror of the Sea and A Personal Record. Edited by Zdzisław Najder. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1988.

Conrad, Joseph. ‘Tradition’ (1918), in Notes on Life and Letters. Doubleday & Page: New York, 1923. (194-208).

Conrad, Joseph. The Collected Letters of -.Edited by Laurence Davies. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1983-2008.

Curle, Richard. ‘Joseph Conrad in the East’, The Blue Peter (September-October 1922).

Curtoys, Ann and John Docker. Is History Fiction? Ann Arbor: Michigan UP, 2005.

Darras, Jacques. Conrad and the West. Signs of Empire. London: Macmillan, 1982.

DiSanto, Michael John. Under Conrad’s Eyes. The Novel as Criticism. Montréal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2009.

Eloy Martínez, Tomás. Myth, History and Fiction in Latin America. Encuentros 32. Washington D.C., 1999.

Epstein, Hugh. ‘The Duality of ‘Youth’: some literary contexts.’ In: The Conradian 16 (1996) 1-14.

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Poiesis of the Past is a farewell paper by Dr. J.N.F.M. à Campo, discussed at the Seminar of the Center for Historical Culture, at the Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication, on Tuesday 18 January 2011. Dr. E.B. Locher-Scholten acted as co-referent. The Center for Historical Culture and the Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication financed the publication. ISBN  978-90-77232-06-4  © J. à Campo, Rotterdam.

—J.N.F.M. à Campo

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. This experience has been elaborated in my research report on historical consciousness in: De Nieuwste Tijd 10 (2000) p. 87-114.
  2. Ian Watt (1979, 133-34) maintains that the ‘relatively slight’ story – relative to Heart of Darkness - owes its success to the ‘relative simplicity of its story, characters, and theme’. While appreciating its charm, he regards Marlow’s romantisation of ‘youth’ and its confirmation by the audience just trite rhetoric. Jocelyn Baines (1993, 73) called the story ‘a gorgeously romantic evocation of the impact of the East’. Richard Ambrosini (1991, 80) regarded the tale just a ‘nostalgic song of lost youth, a wistful regret for the passing of time’ and thus they have skipped its significance as critical discourse.
  3. In those days it was not unusual for ships to bear a motto. Wiggershaus (2007, 89).
  4. E.M. Forster (1990, 87). Gérard Genette (1972, 72). Luc Herman and Bart Vervaeck (2005, 19, 51).
  5. Conrad emphasized the symbolic nature of his work, and hence its openness for many interpretations. “And this for the reason that the nearer it approaches art, the more it acquires a symbolic character. (…) All the great creations of literature have been symbolic, and in that way have gained in complexity, in power, in depth, and in beauty.” Conrad to Barrett H. Clark 04-05-1918 in: Wright (1964, 37). See also J.J.A. Mooij (1993, 149).
  6. Terry Collits (2005, 55).Hugh Epstein (1996, 1-14) surveyed the romantic and the skeptical approaches, and added his esthetic interpretation.
  7. Conrad, Author’s Note to Youth (1916); Jocelyn Baines (1993, 70); Najder (2007, 90).
  8. The passage took three to five month under normal circumstances. Peter Villiers (2006, 50). The Palestine left Falmouth on 17-09-1882, exploded on 14 March 1883 at 11 p.m., and the next day the crew rowed to the shore, and arrived at 10 p.m. Karl (1979, 212). The story suggests overall a similar time span for the voyage of the Judea.
  9. Stape (2007, 42-44). Najder (2007, 95) mentions 2019 casualties in 1883, about 1% of the active seafarers. According to Robert Foulke (2009, 249), on average 25 ships were lost by combustion each year in the closing decades of the 19th century. “During 1883-1884, 121 ships were lost at sea, including his Palestine, and 2245 men perished.”
  10. Hervouet (1990, 217). On the fictionality of Conrad’s autobiography, see Said (1966).
  11. GogWilt (1995, 22), Darras (1982, ch. 2).
  12. Villiers (2006, 45).
  13. The overload is not quite clear, as the ship’s tonnage may regard either the volume or the cargo’s tonnage as its weight.
  14. Najder (2007, 93); Karl (1979, 212).
  15. Curle offered to withdraw the article, but Conrad suggested some corrections and added: ‘if you could work into it (since it is written for the man in the street) something about my work having the quality of interest – as the m-in-the-s understands it – the interest of surprise, of story etc you will be rendering me a great service. I still suffer from the reputation of being a gloomy depressing author’ (Collected Letters 7; 461). The article titled ‘Joseph Conrad in the East’ was published in the popular magazine of maritime interest The Blue Peter (September-October 1922).
  16. Conrad to Richard Curle, 24 April 1922. Quoted in Najder (2007, 93-94).
  17. Conrad to Richard Curle, 24 April 1922. Quoted in Najder (2007, 93-94).
  18. Conrad, A Personal Record, 25.
  19. Stape and Knowles (2006, 114).
  20. The party drinking at the mahagony table and the ship’s crew represent two different layers of English society. Implicitly Marlow showed that one could progress from a lower to a higher class by effort and merit, whereas Mahon never really got on, although he was ‘well connected’.
  21. “The old man warned us in his gentle and inflexible way that it was part of our duty to save for the under-writers as much as we could of the ship’s gear. According we went to work aft, while she blazed forward to give us plenty of light. We lugged out a lot of rubbish. What didn’t we save? An old barometer fixed with an absurd quantity of screws nearly cost me my life: a sudden rush of smoke came upon me, and I just got away in time.”
  22. Bobrowski to Korzeniowski, 23 September 1881; Baines (1993, 70); Karl (1979, 207). Stape (2007, xix-xx) indicates an increase of GDP-pc amounts to 400% over the years 1910-2005, so todays equivalent of £ 4 might be about £ 1600 – £ 1800.
  23. Stape (2007, 22). However, here Korzeniowski may have been writing what his uncle-guardian would have liked to hear.
  24. Bobrowski to Korzeniowski, 26 May 1882; Najder (2007, 92), (Karl 1979, 210).
  25. E.P. Hood (1875); R.H. Shepherd (1881); J.A. Froude, (1882, 2 volumes); D. Masson, (1885).
  26. Carlyle, Sartor Resartus, chapter 9, The Everlasting Yea.
  27. Carlyle, Past and Present, book 3, chapter 11.
  28. Its significance is stressed by its multiple recurrence in Lord Jim, especially Stein’s idea about ‘how to live’. Conrad, Lord Jim 130, 216. See also Hopwood, (1972, 162-163).
  29. Conrad’s praise of the crew of ‘hard cases’ reminds of Carlyle, book 3, chapter 12 on Reward.
  30. Carlyle’s ideas about work as ethical obligation and liberative force hark back to the German tradition ranging from Kant, to Herder, Hegel and Fichte, which would later in the 19th century find expression in the moralizing motto Arbeit macht frei, which would be misused and disgraced by the Nazi era.
  31. Carlyle, ‘On Heroes And Hero Worship And The Heroic In History’, 15-17.
  32. For example Watts, (1993, 58), Fraser (1996, 33 ), GogWilt (1995, 16).
  33. Najder (2007, 75) labeled them as ‘riffraff, castaways, vagabonds, and waifs’.
  34. The story is reticent about the nationalities of the members of either the first or the second crew, so it remains unclear whether they were entirely British or not.
  35. This locks in with the Victorian idea of both Carlyle and Conrad that human value is revealed not in self-reflexion but in work (see below).[35] This interpretation is corroborated by Conrad’s ‘Tradition’ (1918), in Notes on Life and Letters, 194-208. In this piece he testifies to the traditions of the Merchant Service, and mentions the spirit of the crew of a British ship, the Palestine – ‘ages ago’. (198). “From the hard work of men are born the sympathetic consciousness of a common destiny, the fidelity to right practice which makes great craftsmen, the sense of right conduct we may call honor, the devotion to our calling and the idealism (…) with its feet resting firmly on the earth on which it was born.” (194). As Ian Watt (1981, 23) remarks: “Conrad’s England, however, was primarily the England of the merchant navy.” His esteem for England regarded its ideal of liberty and its liberal-conservative culture. Bhabha (1994, 151).
  36. GogWilt (1995, 18-19) regards the story ‘popular rhetoric’ and suggests a deliberate adjustment to the dominant taste on the colonial and imperial market.
  37. In his essay on Chartism, he held that “the Irish population must either be improved a little, or else exterminated.” This presages Kurtz’ ominous exclamation in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: ‘Exterminate the brutes!’
  38. Carlyle, Past and Present, book 1, chapter 6 on Hero-Worship.
  39. The story is not legitimizing imperialism, as Darras maintains, but rather delegitimizing.
  40. Victorian optimism had been preponderant, but was not really general. For the ambiguities in British culture see John W. Griffith (1995) and in European culture see Jan Romein (1967).
  41. Najder (2007, 93) points out that the parting of the steamer had a different reason.
  42. Jean-Aubry, (1927, I, 77).
  43. As Yves Hervouet (1990, 226) stated, Conrad “created a new functional reality of a higher order out of bits and pieces of the reality of everyday life.” Conrad’s skepticism towards ‘facts’ was extended to realism in art. “You stop just short of being absolutely real because you are faithful to your dogmas of realism. Now realism in art will never approach reality. And your art, your gift, should be put to the service of a larger and freer faith.” Conrad to Arnold Bennett 10-03-1902, in: Wright (1964, 28). Conrad would have subscribed to Unamuno’s dictum Cuánto mejor nos revelan un siglo sus obras de ficción que sus historias.” The notion that fiction holds at least equal truth has a long dissident tradition in Hispanic culture, from Unamuno to Eloy Martínez as a counter-claim against than triumphalist official ‘historias’.
  44. Conrad, A Personal Record (1912, 15). This reminds of Aristotle’s argument in his Poetica that literature is more interesting as a means of learning than history, because history deals with particulars, specific facts that have happened, and which are contingent, whereas literature, although sometimes based on history, deals with universals, events that could have taken place or ought to have taken place.
  45. Conrad, Notes on Life and Letters (1921, 19). This is not a reversal of common opinion as Reilly (1993, 134) would have it. Conrad’s argument amounts to a reshuffling of the three beds of Plato’s parable in his Republic, book 10.
  46. Conrad, ‘Preface to The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ (1897) in: Conrad (1997).
  47. “History, as it lies at the root of all science, is also the first distinct product of man’s spiritual nature ; his earliest expression of what can be called Thought.” Thomas Carlyle, Critical and Miscellaneous Essays, volume II. Boston: James Munroe and Company. 1839.
  48. Macaulay: ‘His essay was an articulate argument for history whose truth is conveyed by its imaginative effects on readers, rather than on factual content alone. (…) “Facts are the mere dross of history.” Quoted in Budd (2009, 123, 131). See also the debate assessing the difference between Herodotus and Thucydides in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
  49. Carlyle, Sartor Resartus, chapter 9, The Everlasting Yea.
  50. Carlyle, ‘On History’, 1830.
  51. Marlow dubs the story ‘rather the chronicle’ as it adheres to chronological sequence and selects and emphasizes events deemed significant.
  52. The difference between Conrad and his literary device Marlow has been emphasized by Conrad in his Author’s Note of 1916.
  53. The shipowner was called “Wilmer, Wilcox, – some name like that.” In the Tyneside incident “They shouted at us some name–a woman’s name, Miranda or Melissa–or some such thing.”
  54. Memory was a topical theme with contemporary authors, for example Henri Bergson, Sigmund Freud, and Marcel Proust.
  55. Rubin (ed.) (1995); Rubin and Berntsen, (2003).
  56. “Men often act first and reflect afterwards.” Conrad to Mrs. Sanderson, 17-3-1900, In: Last Letters (I, 294). This reminds of Kierkegaard’s famous dictum “It is quite true what Philosophy says: that Life must be understood backwards. But that makes one forget the other saying: that it must be lived forwards.” Kierkegaard (1843, part 5, section 4, no. 136).
  57. Paserini, 1984.
  58. Southgate (2009, 75).
  59. “… as man is born to trouble. To leaky ships, and to ships that burn”. However, the comical and ironic elements in the story should not be overlooked.
  60. Ricoeur (1983, I, 162) proposed the figurative approach to the analysis of both history and fiction.
  61. Around 1900, Mesopotamia as centre of ancient Eastern civilizations was much in vogue with archeologists and the general public.
  62. As has been mentioned by Najder (2007, 115), Conrad was a passenger on the ss Celestial in 1887. The name of this steamer contrasted with its shady dealings, see J. à Campo (2000, 114). The story does not mention that the ss Sissie took the castaways to Singapore.
  63. This applies as well to the voyage into the Heart of Darkness.
  64. The conceived gap between West and east is dramatized by the gap in the story between the experiences in both hemispheres.
  65. Though generally ‘nodding’ tends to be affirmative, its meaning in this context bears considerable ambivalence. It may also refer to an evasive or compassionate mood of the listeners, pensive of their own youth and life course. This nuance has been lost in many translations. For example the French translation by G. Jean Aubry reads “Et nous inclinâmes la tête pour acquiescer (…) and the Spanish translation by Francisco Martínez Hoyos reads “Y todos asentimos”.
  66. The relationship between facts and their meaning was a recurrent problem in 19th century British historiography as well in Conrad’s works, for example in Victory and Lord Jim. “They wanted facts. Facts! They demanded facts from him, as if facts could explain anything!” Conrad, Lord Jim ch. 4.
  67. Conrad to Cunningham Graham, Collected Letters, 2; 161.
  68. Historians are just as well in need of imagination in developing new concepts for describing, interpreting and explaining historical phenomena, for example by Weberian ‘gedankliche Übersteigerung’ in the formulation of concepts.
  69. Ricoeur (1983, III, 127). In Youth, time has been conventionally represented according to chronological order, although there is a gap between the western and eastern leg of the voyage, and experiential time is stretched or condensed. In other novels, for example The Secret Agent or Nostromo, Conrad does not adhere to linearity or directionality of time.
  70. Ricoeur (1983, III, 192).
  71. The story Youth, for example, questioned the prevailing notions of progress and expansion long before academic historiography problematised these visions.
  72. In Ankersmit (1994, 34) the proposition 1.5.1. “Historiography develops narrative interpretations of sociohistorical reality; literature applies them” may well be reversed.
  73. This applies especially to the early studies by Hayden White.
  74. “I have been called a writer of the sea, of the tropics, a descriptive writer – and also a realist. But as a matter of fact all my concern has been with the ‘ideal’ value of things, events, and people. That and nothing else. The humorous, the pathetic, the passionate, the sentimental aspects came in of themselves- mais en verité c’est les valeurs idéales des faits et gestes humains qui se sont imposés à mon activité artistique. Whatever dramatic and narrative gifts I may have are always, instinctively, used with that object – to get at, to bring forth les valeurs idéales.” To Sir Sidney Colvin, 18-03-1917, quoted in Baines (1993, 439).
  75. Groot, (2010, 18 – 22).

  One Response to “POIESIS OF THE PAST: A historian’s reading of the short story ‘Youth, a narrative’ by Joseph Conrad, By J.N.F.M. à Campo”

  1. Joep,

    A marvelous study. “Youth” has gone on my reading list, after which I will return to your essay. I am especially intrigued with your analysis of the telling of the story and want to see how it works.

    Next I will charge back into Heart of Darkness, a longtime favorite, to see what Youth and your essay shake loose.

    “But the Dwarf answered: No; something human is dearer to me than the wealth of all the world.”

    That it was Rumpelstiltskin who said these words gives them a twist–and another angle on the story?

    Life in the polder sounds fascinating as well. I hope we get some stories.

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