Wednesday, June 4, 2008

tragic with your courage

Joseph Conrad to R. B. Cunninghame Graham

Sunday Feb. 1898.

Cher Ami,
I've got a bad wrist: that's why I did not write sooner. I gave it complete rest. Much better now.

The "Impenitent Thief" has been read more than once. I've read it several times alone and I've read it aloud to my wife. Every word has found a home. You and your ideals of sincerity and courage and truth are strangely out of place in this epoch of material preoccupations. What does it bring? What's the profit? What do we get by it? These questions are the root of every moral, intellectual or political movement. Into the noblest cause, men manage to put something of their baseness: and sometimes when I think of you here, quietly, you seem to me tragic with your courage, with your beliefs and your hopes. Every cause is tainted: and you reject this one, espouse that other one as if one were evil and the other good, while the same evil you hate is in both, but disguised in different words. I am more in sympathy with you than words can express, yet if I had a grain of belief left in me I would believe you misguided. Your are misguided by the desire of the Impossible,--and I envy you. Alas! what you want to reform are not institutions,--it is human nature. Your faith will never move that mountain. Not that I think mankind intrinsically bad. It is only silly and cowardly. Now you know that in cowardice is every evil,--especially, that cruelty so characteristic of our civilization. But, without it, mankind would vanish. No great matter truly. But will you persuade humanity to throw away sword and shield? Can you persuade even me,--who write these words in the fulness of an irresistible conviction? No, I belong to the wretched gang. We all belong to it. We are born initiated, and succeeding generations clutch the inheritance of fear and brutality without a thought, without a doubt, without compunction, in the name of God.

These are the thoughts suggested by the man who wrote an essay on the "Impenitent Thief." Forgive their disconnected impertinence. You'll have to forgive me many things, if you continue to know me on the basis of sincerity and friendship.

I wanted to say a word of so about the technique of the essay but I can't. A la prochaine, donc!

-from Joseph Conrad: Life and Letters edited by G. Jean-Aubry (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Page, 1927) p. 229-30.

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