Thursday, December 6, 2007

Brackets Within Brackets

[Joseph Conrad to R. B. Cunningham Graham]

6th Dec. 1897

My Dear Sir,
I am horribly ashamed of myself. I ought to have written last week to thank you for the Stevenson. My inadequate excuse is I've been strangely seedy--nothing very tangible, but for nearly a week I have thought not at all and eaten very little,--and didn't see the use of doing anything. This may seem to you an impertinent excuse but I assure you it is a very sad and fiendish,--well, indisposition, and too real for words. I throw myself on your mercy. I shook myself at the sight of your letter and now what between shame and pleasure I am able to sit here like a galvanized corpse to write this flat and miserable apology.

The Xmas at Sea is all that you said. I was glad of the book and still more of your thought. I was glad to know I haven't been seen,--and forgotten. Only,--parce que c'est vous! There are people from whom I would beg on my knees the favour of an eternal oblivion. Would I get it? Croyez-vous qu'on se retrouve, la-bas? To me "la-bas" appears sometimes as a big hole,--a kind of malefactors' cavern--very crowded (think how long mankind has been in the habit of dying!) with perspiring shades,--a moral perspiration of squeezed spirits exhaling the unspeakable meanness, the bareness, the lies, the rapacity, the cowardice of souls that on earth have been objects of barter and valued themselves at about two-and-six. But this is morbid,--and I sat down intending to produce a good impression! I take it all back and declare my belief in lilies, gold harps,--and brimstone, like my Podmore in the "Narcissus."

. . . No man can escape his fate! You shall come here and suffer hardships, boredom and despair. It is written! It is written! You,--as a matter of fact,--have written it yourself (at my instigation.--very rash of you) and I shall be inexorable like destiny and shall look upon your sufferings with the idiotic serenity of a benevolent Creator (I don't know that the ben: Crea: is serene:--but if he is (as they say) then he must be idiotic) looking at the precious mess he as made of his only job. This letter reminds me of something I used to know years ago: Algebra,--I think. Brackets within brackets and imbecility raised to the nth power.

I heard of the H. & S. play through G. B. S. in the S. R. More Algebra. Do you understand? I allude in this luminous way to Admiral Guinea. I haven't seen a play for years, but I have read this one. And that's all I can say about it. I have no notion of a play. No play grips me on the stage or off. Each of them seems to me an amazing freak of folly. They are all unbelievable and as disillusioning as a bang on the head. I greatly desire to write a play myself. It is my dark and secret ambition. And yet I can't conceive how a sane man can sit down deliberately to write a play and not go mad before he has done. The actors appear to me like a lot of wrong-headed lunatics pretending to be sane. Their malice is stitched with white threads. They are disguised and ugly. To look at them breeds in my melancholy soul thoughts of murder and suicide,--such is my anger and my loathing of their transparent pretences. There is a taint of subtle corruption in their blank voices, in their blinking eyes, in the grimacing faces, in the false light, in the false passion, in the words that have been learned by heart. But I love a marionette-show. Marionettes are beautiful,--especially those of the old kind with wires, thick as my little finger, coming out of the top of the head. Their impassibility in love, in crime, in mirth, in sorrow,--is heroic, superhuman, fascinating. Their rigid violence when they fall upon one another to embrace or to fight is simply a joy to behold. I never listen to the text mouthed somewhere out of sight by invisible men who are here to-day and rotten to-morrow. I love the marionettes that are without life, that come so near to being immortal!

Here's the end of paper. It is to-morrow already and high time for me to go to bed,--to dream, perchance to sleep. You must forgive the writer, the letter, the mistakes of spelling, the obscurity of the grammar,--the imbecility of the nth power. Forgive! Forgiveness has been invented to prevent massacres.

P. S. I haven't yet had St. Therese.* Expect it next week. I have looked lately again at the scenery article,--and am confirmed in my opinion that your wife has said what is really fundamental, essentially true in the matter, and said it charmingly. Sorry to hear of Hudson's illness. A lovable man, a most lovable man.

*Santa Teresa: Her Life and Times by Gabriela Cunninghame Graham (London: Black, 1897) 2 vols. [Gabriela de la Balmondiere, Chilean poet and wife to R. B. Cunninghame Graham.]

-from Joseph Conrad: Life and Letters edited G. Jean-Aubry (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Page, 1927) p. 212-214.

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