“This is the difference between H.G. Wells and me. Wells does not love humanity but thinks he can improve it; I love humanity but I know it is unimprovable” -Joseph Conrad to William Lyon Phelps, 1923
This sentiment is evident in all of Conrad’s works so far, first in Heart of Darkness and now in Lord Jim. Both narratives have a protagonist who is a member of the colonizing class, and both protagonists are incredibly flawed human beings who have committed “inhuman” crimes. The fact that these narratives were largely accepted to be based on real events shows us how far away the gap between “inhuman” and “human” are, and how the “human” can easily slip into the ranks of “inhuman”. Here lies a major issue that modernists were preoccupied with- the issue of humanity. What is humanity? Is there a universal recipe for humanity? What differentiates humans from each other and everybody else?
On another note, I have a huge problem with both Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim– they are both so intrinsically biased towards the colonializer that when I read them I do not know whether Conrad is trying to comment on colonialism or is he just trying to tell a story. It disturbs me that Conrad places colonizers in colonialized settings, then has him commit heinous crimes and expect us to feel sympathy for him. Most of all, I hate the monstrous silence that is attributed to the subaltern.
In my opinion, Conrad was right. What was considered humanity then was indeed unimprovable because of the “humans” inability to look beyond themselves and the idea that humanity is universal. Only until people began subscribing to the idea that humanity could be told from an individuals personal perspective, regardless of race, language or religion, could humans then move beyond themselves and not strive to improve, but to understand.
Thank God for revolution and progress.