Saturday, April 15, 2017

Thoughts on Nostromo, Part I

The first part of Joseph Conrad's Nostromo is a window into the mind of a first rate political thinker. We could say that Conrad is a genius in his ability to observe the characters of men and regimes, except that these are not observations, but rather imaginations. Yet despite the fiction playing out before our eyes, it is hard to concieve of a more realistic history of a drama which has only crystalized with the passage of time: the evil of colonial imperialism.

The spirit of Conrad's prose is the liberal spirit of the educated European of the nineteenth century - a spirit which failed to achieve its aims and came apart, with one portion diluting into radical conservative Catholic fatalism and the other hardening into a determined radical revolutionary socialism.

Twentieth century history has demonstrated the futility of such radicalism and the persistence of the dynamics Conrad's book describes. It may be advisable then to attempt to return to Conrad's optic because of and not despite its limits. These are not so much liberal optics in the strictly political sense of nineteenth century liberalism as they are the optics of a liberal arts education.

The clash of cultures, classes, characters and contexts reveals a very deep understanding of the human condition. Yet hanging over the classical elements of political dynamics in Nostromo is the modern  convention of historical inevitability. The latter absolves the citizens and subjects of technological commercial societies of the sins of conquest. It transforms their inferior victims from slaves to developing nations.

This absolution takes place in casual collusion with English idealism financed by American enterprise. The suffering of the native peoples is immediately sanctified as patient and seen not alone and of itself, but always as historical development (in Conrad's fable the people are moving from the civilizing effect of the colonization of the spirit to the modernizing effect of industrial progress).

History has assigned roles in this drama to all of the nations: some to rule, others - to develop. Yet there is no final act. The one virtue that the colony will never "develop" seems to be self-government. Nostromo, observed by many as the only one capable of ruling the native people, is the exception to this rule.

And yet, we must not forget that after a time, the colonial masters become natives themselves. As young Charles will remind his wife (and us), we mustn't forget that he was born there. This adds an additional layer to an already complex literary landscape.

Under these conditions, healthy political institutions do not develop. The colony oscilates between tyranny and anarchy. A general corruption takes hold. Rule for the corporate good overcomes rule for the common good. Rule for the common good is, in fact, impossible. There is no common good for lower life forms, only the patient suffering of development.

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