Troubled thoughts from a stormy mind, venting itself in an 1894 letter to distant cousin, fellow writer and confidant Marguerite Poradowska:
But you are afraid of yourself; of the inseparable being forever at your side – master and slave, victim and executioner – who suffers and causes suffering. That’s how it is! One must drag the ball and chain of one’s selfhood to the end. It is the price one pays for the devilish and divine privilege of thought; so that in this life it is only the elect who are convicts – a glorious band which comprehends and groans but which treads the earth amidst a multitude of phantoms with maniacal gestures, with idiotic grimaces. Which would you be: idiot or convict?
Both Joseph Conrad and Upton Sinclair were preoccupied with “the price one pays” in society and life. The two men befriended socialists and radicals, but Conrad skewered them in The Secret Agent (while more quietly deriding the agencies of the British state itself).
Both suffered intermittently – Sinclair once characterized himself as a “penniless rat” – and both perceived in the wealthy an affliction to society at large.
Conrad declared to another correspondent, “By Jove! If I had the necessary talent I would like to go for the true anarchist – which is the millionaire. Then you would see the venom flow. But it’s too big a job.” Sinclair took on John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and championed prohibition long after it had been struck down.
Whatever the common threads in their fast-flowing currents of thought, Conrad and Sinclair diverged forcefully in their views on the source of human despair. For Conrad – the Pole who lived and wrote in English, the sea man who allegedly “detested” the sea – despair came from within and, thus, he advised a fellow writer to write from an “inward point of view, I mean from the depth of your inwardness.”
For Sinclair, whose family slid into poverty as his father descended into alcoholism, despair came from the man-made system that made convicts out of the downtrodden. In The Jungle, he observed that:
There is one kind of prison where the man is behind bars, and everything he desires is outside; and there is another kind where the things are behind the bars and the man is outside.
Image: Undated photograph from Biography.com.