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).
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
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. 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.