The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 20 No. 1 (Spring 2018)

The Last Universalist

The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World

Maya Jasanoff

New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2017.

Reviewed by Sunil Khilnani

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Spring 2018

(Volume 20 | Issue 1)

Joseph Conrad died in 1924, but in her bold and winning book Maya Jasanoff portrays him as a prophetic “embodiment” of today’s globalized world. Through his characters, she claims, he whispers “in the ears of new generations of antiglobalization protesters and champions of free trade, liberal interventionists and radical terrorists, social justice activists and xenophobic nativists.” Conrad, Jasanoff says, “was one of us: a citizen of a global world.” He didn’t just see through the pieties of his own imperial age; he espied the contours of our own.

Jasanoff is one of the smartest and coolest-headed of a new generation of historians of empire: sensitive to complexities, skeptical of brute and overly ideological assessments, and given to exploring what empire enabled as much as what it pulverized. Her previous books have examined India and the histories of loyalists who fought on the king’s side in the American Revolution. The Dawn Watch is given over to one of the more curious and profound figures of the age of empire, one who has always been hard to place: He reveled in slipping free of contexts, and labored to hide his traces.

Whereas literary scholars have mainly relied on Conrad’s words to explain him and his life, Jasanoff aims to reconstruct the worlds in which he lived. She interweaves her account of Conrad’s life with readings of four of his major works: The Secret Agent, Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness, and Nostromo. (She has clearly learned a narrative trick or two from the intricacies of Conrad’s own storytelling shufflings.) She shows brilliantly how Conrad transformed his experience into strings of stories: the long days on the still ocean; slow passage through the dank, straggly mist hanging over Borneo’s rivers; the meetings with broken white men who imagined themselves grandees.

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Sunil Khilnani is Avantha Professor and Director of the India Institute at King’s College, London. Among his publications are Incarnations: A History of India in Fifty Lives and The Idea of India. He is currently a visiting professor at Princeton University.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 20.1 (Spring 2018). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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