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Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Conrad and Wojtyla

The first novel of Joseph Conrad (Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski) I read in 1998, by recommendation of a priest—himself a navyman/sailor, was …of the Narcissus.  Even then, I was impressed by how well a Pole could write in English as a second language.  Turns out, Conrad (the Author’s) father Apollo was quite a linguist and translator: French, German, and English.  Apollo’s father, Teodor Korzeniowski, was a captain of the Polish army during the 1830 Insurrection against Russian rule.  Much like Captain Wojtyla, Karol’s father, the military influence of the family brought a sense of honor and belonging to the Polish cause for independence (from Russia, etc.)—not to mention the fact that the Konrad Korzeniowskis were devoutly Catholic[1]. 

Unlike Wojtyla, however, Joseph Conrad has been accused of ex-patriotism, as though his exile were chosen and voluntary.  In reality, Conrad’s father was imprisoned by occupying Russian officials in Warsaw and then his entire family was sent to Vologda in Northern Russia in 1862.  In 1863, the family was allowed to move to Chernihiv in the Ukraine, but Joseph lost his mother there to tuberculosis.  Six years later, Joseph would also lose his father even though they had returned to Poland—specifically Krakow. 

So, Joseph Conrad and Karol Wojtyla held a number of things in common, the most severe of which was being orphaned—though Conrad at a much earlier age than Wojtyla.  This, and not ex-patriotism, was the reason for Conrad’s British citizenship after more than 20 years as a seaman.  And, it’s interesting to note that Conrad appealed to the British government on behalf of Poland, acting as a kind of ambassador to his homeland for the sake of freeing her from the clutches of Soviet Russia. 

Accompanied by his wife and two sons, Joseph Conrad visited Poland only once and was subsequently detained there by the First World War in 1914.  Concerning his popularity in Poland: During World War II, his Lord Jim, “became one of the leading moral authorities for the young members of the Polish underground army and civil resistance.”[2]


“The first ever full edition of Conrad's works (27 volumes) was published in Poland in 1972-74, with one supplementary volume containing material confiscated by the Communist censors, and published by Polish émigrés in London.”[3]

Therefore, Conrad’s physical absence from Poland allowed him to be much more influential the world over.  Secondly, it put him in touch with a more lucrative English-reading audience which in the wake of the British Empire still fed on stories of the sea and colonies. 

My favorite of his works has become his largely auto-biographical Mirror of the Sea which details his prosaic and poetic account of nearly every nautical circumstance imaginable to a pre-iron ship sailor.  He personifies all the winds and their characteristics, and boasts of his recognition of them in contrast to other “deaf” sailors who subsequently risked the lives of the crew on account of their deafness.  He also specifically mentions rosary beads when trying to describe his perception of business on the river Thames:

Such as the beads of a rosary told by business-like shipowners for the greater profit of the world they slip one by one into the open: while in the offing the inward-bound ships come up singly and in bunches from under the sea horizon closing the mouth of the river between Orfordness and North Foreland[4].

His imagination is thoroughly Catholic on many accounts, and I admire his recognition of devotional prayer in such things as ships. 

I had the good fortune recently to travel with my nuclear family on an iron Steam Ship, much like the Patna of Conrad’s Lord Jim, across Lake Michigan from Manitowac Wisconsin to Ludingtion.  The original ship owners name was Conrad too.  While on board, I envisioned the predicament of Jim--although in my case with two children—as the 900 foot depth of waters surrounded us on every side.  I showed my oldest son the lifeboats and the waves, knowing with conviction that he, my wife, and youngest son would all take my place in the event of an emergency.  I would see to it that they survived or else I would be left with the same shame as Lord Jim.

 That’s the type of circumstantial courage-testing that Joseph Conrad is able to evoke in his works.  It brings out a kind of magnanimity akin to Karol Wojtyla’s.  When I looked at the open water onboard the SS Badger, I could almost breathe in the strength of soul necessary to lay down my life for my family.  The very passage inspired me to greatness and memories of the same.          
Wojtyla's way of laying down his life was celibacy.  Conrad's was marriage and family, although in those days much of that vocation was spent on the ocean.  Nevertheless, he loved his wife and sons amidst tremendous danger and hardship caused by World War--and for that, in addition to his written works, he should be commended.

[1] http://culture.pl/en/artist/joseph-conrad-jozef-teodor-konrad-korzeniowski
[2] Ibid
[3] Ibid
[4] Conrad, Joseph. Mirror of the Sea.  Chapter 31, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1058/1058-h/1058-h.htm

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