Archive for March 22nd, 2023

Beyond the Title

GC Myers -Saints and Sinners, 2019

Saints and Sinners, 2019

“But the artist appeals to that part of our being which is not dependent on wisdom; to that in us which is a gift and not an acquisition— and, therefore, more permanently enduring. He speaks to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives; to our sense of pity, and beauty, and pain; to the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation— and to the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts, to the solidarity in dreams, in joy, in sorrow, in aspirations, in illusions, in hope, in fear, which binds men to each other, which binds together all humanity— the dead to the living and the living to the unborn.”

― Joseph Conrad, Preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus

I was a bit unsure about sharing the excerpt above from Joseph Conrad‘s preface to his 1897 novel. The title made me uneasy about endorsing anything about the book, especially on the hyper- reactive internet. It’s a title that creates reaction.

I have to admit that the title has kept me from reading the book though it has been on my shelves for forty-plus years as part of an old set of Conrad novels I have that was printed in 1919. Back when having sets of similarly bound books by one author was a thing. I read and enjoyed Heart of Darkness, Suspense, and Lord Jim but could never bring myself to start reading this title. I pulled it off the shelf this morning and found that the pages were still pristine inside, 104 years after it was printed. The previous owner or owners might have been made equally uneasy by that title.

Interestingly, when the book was first published here in the states in 1897, the title was changed to The Children of the Sea. This came after its original title had caused a controversy in Britain where one reviewer called it “the ugliest conceivable title.” The novel was reprinted again in 2006 with awkward title The N-Word of the Narcissus. They also excised any use of the n-word in the book.

I am not crazy about either the altered title or the inner revisions. I would like to think that most readers can differentiate between their own beliefs and historically based usage of language in fiction, such as was the case in Huckleberry Finn. I can read that word in the context of history and literature without endorsing its meaning now.

By 1919, when my set of Conrad books was printed, they had obviously decided that the original title, as ugly as it was, was integral to the artful nature of the story. Which brings us to the preface to this book.

In its preface, Conrad lays out a manifesto for artistic aspiration. He doesn’t limit his words to the aims of solely the writer but includes artists in all creative fields. I was surprised at how closely my beliefs on this subject echoed Conrad’s thoughts in this short essay, including his succinct summing up: Art is long and life is short, and success is very far off.

I will be reading it again. And probably again after that. Not what I was expecting from a book with that title or from a book that has laid idle and unopened on my shelves for decades. I might have to read the whole book sometime soon.

There is something worthwhile beyond that title.

If you would, like to read this preface from Joseph Conrad, click here. It will take you to a Wikisource page that contains it.

Here’s a classic that was written and originally recorded by Willie Dixon but popularized by the inimitable Bo Diddley. It’s a song that might well apply to Conrad’s book. I’ve played a couple of different covers of the song here over the years. This is You Can’t Judge a Book By Its Cover.

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