This is an excerpt from an interesting Guardian article on Joseph Conrad, another author I’d like to explore more, especially The Secret Agent.
For Conrad, none of the big stories, from Christianity to communism to psychoanalysis (he met a disciple of Freud’s in 1921 and was extremely scornful of the books lent to him), provided adequate explanations of selfhood. He had seen the decline and fall of too many men who put their certitude in equality or justice or liberty tout court. His fundamental position is revealed in a letter to his friend, the socialist Robert Cunninghame Graham:
Life knows us not and we do not know life – we don’t even know our own thoughts. Half the words we use have no meaning whatever and of the other half each man understands each word after the fashion of his own folly and conceit. Faith is a myth, and beliefs shift like mists on the shore; thoughts vanish; words, once pronounced, die; and the memory of yesterday is as shadowy as the hope of tomorrow.
But behind the modernist sentiments and fabulous sentence-making, there is something else going on: an idea of moral and cultural dialectic, a sense of virtue as relative rather than fixed and static. By its nature, such a conception of virtue is likely to appear in negative form. As Conrad put it in his 1905 essay “Books”: “To be hopeful in an artistic sense it is not necessary to think that the world is good. It is enough to believe that there is no impossibility of it being made so.”