[Because of the Brett Stephens—NYT stuff, I put this post on back burner, so it is 4 days late. But here goes:]
Today in 1895 — no, yesterday, by the time you’ll read this, i.e. on 29 April — Joseph Conrad’s first novel, Almayer’s Folly, was published in London. As another continental European & nomad who decided to write in English rather than in his mother-tongue, Conrad has always been an important figure (& writer) for me. A couple years ago I gave a keynote address at the University of Glasgow (unpublished in English, though it is coming out in Chinese later this year) the opening section of which is a short meditation on the epigraph of Almayer’s Folly. Here’s an edited version of this intro:
A Nomad Poetics Revisited: Poetry and Translation in a Global Age
1. “Who among us has not had his promised land, his day of ecstasy and his end in exile?” — signed: Amiel … Thus begins or rather pre-begins Joseph Conrad’s novel Almayer’s Folly: A Story of an Eastern River (1895). The epigraph comes from Henri-Frédéric Amiel’s collection of poems & prose meditations Grains de Mil (Grains of Millet) (Paris 1854). This exergue stands at the head of, or, more accurately, stands before his first novel, thus before the vast oeuvre to come. Introïbo ad altarem Conradi.
The world-weary and wandering sailor from Poland whom I often confuse with my own grandfather, Joseph Joris, also a sailor, though in the early parts of his life & of the 20C when Conrad had already abandoned ship to take up the pen. Joseph Joris’ writings — mainly a large correspondence with major scientists & politicians of his era, or so my father told me, and some notations of which only one 3 by 4 scrap of astrological calculations remains — went up in flames during the Rundstedt offensive when his house in Ettelbruck, Luxembourg — living quarters plus confiserie fine plus the ineptly, for its time, named Cinéma de la Paix — was shelled & burned out by advancing US troops liberating us from the Germans. Joseph didn’t live to see this: he had died 2 years earlier from an infected throat — but that too is another story.
So why do I begin here? Because this epigraph I came across a few days ago as I sat down to redact this keynote came into my mind — maybe because as I was thinking about what to say today I was looking out of my window, idly, and through the red & falling autumn leaves saw the flowing waters of the Narrows, where Hudson river and East river (tho not Conrad’s “Eastern River” — & yet?) mingle with the encroaching ocean in a daily tug-of-war, ebb & flood, riverrun riverrun — if I wanted to link elsewhere in modernism, but I don’t want to right now.
So, Conrad’s epigraph was suddenly there & I saw it not as something that stands before one book, but as something that stands before, above, in front of a whole oeuvre, a life’s work. A door all of a sudden — a gate, as in Kafka’s story. (But Kafka, remember, couldn’t go to sea as my two Josephs did, but maybe he didn’t need to do so, for as he puts it in his Journals, he had the experience of being “seasick on firm land.”) This door or gate is not one to be waited in front of, as it is open & indeed meant for who is in front of it, & thus meant to be gone, strode through, though the going through is fierce & fearsome because as Amiel points out, the promised land is in the past. (“n’a pas eu…” in the original even if Ian Watt in his excellent comment on the novel translates — or uses someone’s version who translates this as — “who among us does not have a promised land…” present tense. Even Conrad in the 1895 first edition misquoted the lines from memory as “Le quel de nous n’a sa terre de promission, son jour d’extase et sa fin dans l’exil,” though he corrected it for the 1914 edition).
Thus: promised land in the past, while ecstasy may be back there too or in the present — let’s keep that ambiguity going & locate ecstasy also in the present day’s labor leading (after of the promised land has long vanished) into the exilic future — through the gate, the door, the pre-text, that is the text — yes, I’ll own up to it — through writing, the act thereof. Writing is this exile, h.j.r, hejr, hejira, Hagar, she, me, wandering in desert or city, that nomadicity. I am certainly staying with that concept, or better, that process.
And so I’m home again, in the present-future (thus not the future perfect or futur antérieur of the French), no, in the present-future that is the tense of writing, an ecstatic-exilic tense. I am formulating it this way now & wouldn’t mind leaving it at that, but this is a keynote, so let me go there now. (…)