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Characters at Sea

“We live, as we dream – alone.”
-Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad

I am an admirer of Joseph Conrad - the man, the writer. Born of the Polish upper class, Conrad’s youth was spent interred between the changing fortunes of warring, landlocked European nations - politics whispered over sherry, restricted travel, a youth devoted to long mountainous rambles with his Oxford tutor. By contrast, as if eschewing limits, his early adult years were spent sailing the east-west trades in the British merchant marine. Not surprisingly, the exotic, surprising way of the world salts his work with a peculiar roughness. For although stylistically Conrad is long in words, his meaning is short to the point. I greatly miss the language of this part of the early Twentieth Century. When writing offered both meaning and melody, a careful layering of intention and nuance: the kind of sentence that rolls the tongue like cognac. The quote “We live, as we dream – alone,” speaks of Conrad’s years at sea. Holed up in an officer’s cabin on a heavy sea, lamp swinging over the port hole, his journal and pen at hand, writing of distant lands and characters encountered. Somewhere on those ocean crossings he began to write about the darkness that is the human heart. The essential alone.

Although Conrad ended life in the rural hills at a decent old age, comfortably ensconced with his devoted wife, children, and hunting dogs, his concept of the lonely heart was one he took with him even into marriage. I think about this curious dissonance - the impulse to love even while pulled apart, unbreakably solitary in our human ways. Why seek to bind ourselves to others if our restless dreams drive us onward alone?

Perhaps it is a question of balance. Love stokes the same fire that fuels our ambitions, and vice versa. The twining of what we dream for our lives, and what we nurture, inevitably welds powerful ties, links that bind us to what we have made. Dreams accompanied by characters at sea.
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