The French Wikipedia article about Les dieux ont soif (The Gods Are Athirst), a novel by Anatole France, contains the following quote attributed to Joseph Conrad:

« C’est un grand analyste d’illusions. Il en pénètre et en sonde les plus secrets replis comme s’il s’agissait de réalités faites de substances éternelles. Et c’est en quoi consiste son humanité : elle est l’expression de sa profonde et inaltérable compassion. »

— Joseph Conrad [réf. nécessaire]

Since I couldn't find Conrad's original words, which were presumably in English, here is my own translation:

He is a great analyst of illusions. He pierces and probes their most secret recesses as if they were realities made out of eternal substances. And this is what his humanity consists in: the expression of his deep and unalterable compassion.

The quote has been reproduced on countless websites, but, as far as I can tell, always without a source. Some sites, e.g. online-litterature.com add La Révolte des anges, but that is a different novel by Anatole France and not one of Joseph Conrad's works. Based on this, it is possible that the Wikipedia article about Les dieux ont soif actually uses a quote about a different novel.

I have tried to find comments by Conrad on Anatole France on Google Books and I found something in The Complete Works of Joseph Conrad and in Joseph Conrad: The Complete Collection. The context is a discussion of Anatole France's novella Putois:

All this is told with the wit and the art and the philosophy which is familiar to M. Anatole France's readers and admirers. For it is difficult to read M. Anatole France without admiring him. He has the princely gift of arousing a spontaneous loyalty, but with this difference, that the consent of our reason has its place by the side of our enthusiasm. He is an artist. As an artist he awakens emotion. The quality of his art remains, as an inspiration, fascinating and inscrutable; but the proceedings of his thought compel our intellectual admiration. (...) The vision of M. Anatole France, the Prince of Prose, ranges over all the extent of his realm, indulgent and penetrating, disillusioned and curious, finding treasures of truth and beauty concealed from less gifted magicians. (...)

It would be possible to quote more passages about Anatole France, but none of those I have access to come close to the wording quoted in Wikipedia. What is the actual source of that quote and which of Anatole France's works is Conrad discussing in that context?

1 Answer 1


The source is Joseph Conrad's Notes on Life and Letters.

The full text of this work, published in 1921 a few years before Conrad's death, is available on Project Gutenberg and also at Online-Literature.com; the relevant section is entitled "Anatole France—1904", the 5th section of "Letters", the first half of the book. I quote the full paragraph here for context, with the relevant part bolded:

The dignity will suffer no diminution in M. Anatole France’s hands. He is worthy of a great tradition, learned in the lessons of the past, concerned with the present, and as earnest as to the future as a good prince should be in his public action. It is a Republican dignity. And M. Anatole France, with his sceptical insight into an forms of government, is a good Republican. He is indulgent to the weaknesses of the people, and perceives that political institutions, whether contrived by the wisdom of the few or the ignorance of the many, are incapable of securing the happiness of mankind. He perceives this truth in the serenity of his soul and in the elevation of his mind. He expresses his convictions with measure, restraint and harmony, which are indeed princely qualities. He is a great analyst of illusions. He searches and probes their innermost recesses as if they were realities made of an eternal substance. And therein consists his humanity; this is the expression of his profound and unalterable compassion. He will flatter no tribe no section in the forum or in the market-place. His lucid thought is not beguiled into false pity or into the common weakness of affection. He feels that men born in ignorance as in the house of an enemy, and condemned to struggle with error and passions through endless centuries, should be spared the supreme cruelty of a hope for ever deferred. He knows that our best hopes are irrealisable; that it is the almost incredible misfortune of mankind, but also its highest privilege, to aspire towards the impossible; that men have never failed to defeat their highest aims by the very strength of their humanity which can conceive the most gigantic tasks but leaves them disarmed before their irremediable littleness. He knows this well because he is an artist and a master; but he knows, too, that only in the continuity of effort there is a refuge from despair for minds less clear-seeing and philosophic than his own. Therefore he wishes us to believe and to hope, preserving in our activity the consoling illusion of power and intelligent purpose. He is a good and politic prince.

I found this by searching Google for joseph conrad "analyst of illusions". The top result was this question on Literature SE; the second result was this article about Conrad and France citing the quote to "NLL, 33"; the fourth result was the above Online-Literature.com link with the sourced quote and context.

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