Friday, February 15, 2008

From: Snook (The Elder) at Home

Of the Apparent Emptiness of Open Minds

A young friend of mine discovered last week that he is to be a father in eight or so months. I saw him Monday night, congratulated him, and pressed him as to names. He said that he and his wife had decided on (I think it was) Anna, if a girl, and Conrad if a boy. (Conrad after Joseph Conrad--because he is my friend's favourite author.)

"You approve?" he asked.

"I do," I replied, nodding sagely.

"You recognize," he continued, "that if the man's name was Ichabod you should find me cooing paternally over the little baby Ichabod in eight months' time ... Conrad, as a name, I can take or leave, but the man who wrote Heart of Darkness I cannot."

"I quite understand," I said. "Even if his name were Zedekiah, you mean."

"Yes. Hell, I almost prefer Zedekiah."

"Wojtek then."

"Exactly! So you see how fond I am of the man?"

"Clear as the lime in your gin and acid rain!"

"Well then wrap your noodle around this one, fella."

I braced myself with a sip of beer.

"A friend of the wife's came over the other day and, having heard the good news, asked us what we'd name the little squirt if it turned out to be a boy. We told her Conrad, and a long, rather uncomfortable pause followed. What? we asked finally. Well, she said, Conrad is a lovely name, but it's a shame that it is associated with that racist Joseph Conrad."

Here my friend paused so that I could goggle at him, my eyes protruding in the manner popularized by snails. "What on earth does she have against Joseph Conrad?" I asked.

"Well, that's the best part!" said my friend, gleefully rubbing his hands together. "It turns out that she has never read a word of him! Indeed, she swears blind that nothing on Dog's green earth could ever compel her to do so."

"She what?!"

"Not one jot or one tittle has she seen of his work!"

"Then how could she have formed so strong an opinion of the man? I suppose she heard that he wrote a book called The Nigger of the Narcissus and that was that."

"Well, no doubt that factored into it, but it's rather better than that."

Here he paused again, grinning.

"What, man! What!" I cried.

"Her thesis adviser told her not to."


"Her thesis adviser, having read someone called Chinua Achebe, told her that Joseph Conrad was a racist, and that she shouldn't read him--"

"No, but-- What do you mean thesis adviser?"

"I mean thesis adviser. As in: the person who advises you on your thesis."

"She's a student?! A Ph.D student?! In what?"

"Why, in English lit of course. My wife's friend is a student of literature. Soon to be an authority."

I gave him the snail look again. "And she refuses to read Joseph Conrad--widely considered to be one of the greatest writers of the last two centuries--because a third party called him the magic word."

"Racist. Correct."

"And she can't be persuaded to make that judgement for herself."

"Apparently not."