Saturday, May 13, 2017

Conrad, politics, Dostoyevsky

"Mr. Kurtz, he dead."
- Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

"Smerdyakov hanged himself an hour ago"
-Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov XI/9 The Devil Ivan Fyodorovich's Nightmare


Having now read Autocracy and War, Prince Roman and Poland Revisited I can safely say that Conrad's political sensibilities as a Pole are more or less my own. I am of course more positively predisposed to Russia than he was, but in that I perhaps remain unique amongst Poles.

Conrad cannot help but pronounce the entirety of Russian Tsarism uniquely barbaric and his criticism of the Western view of Russia is the typical Polish perspective of the time, by which I mean to say it is unoriginal and predictable. I think, in this regard the great Belgian Sarolea has a healthier view. He very sensibly wrote that Poland was representative of liberty, Russia of order. Thus Polish faults tend towards anarchy while Russian faults tend towards despotism. Conrad senses this (so much is clear from the portrayal of Russia in Prince Roman ),but he does not see it. He sees only Russian despotism as judged by the extremes of Polish liberty and the harshness of Russian order.

In typical Polish fashion, he excuses Western despotism as a phase in the development of European civilization, while spying only dark tyranny in Russian autocracy. He is a victim of the romantization of the rational mind characteristic of educated Polish aristocracy. He equates Western Kings with the personification of the Rule of Law. The majesty of Western Kings dimmed, but the standard of the Rule of Law remained - or so it goes. In Russia, Conrad finds only the rule of whim, the absolutism of personality. Tsarism is merely the total rule of a singular ego. Only Conrad's conservative instincts rescue him from the grave consequences of following this line of thinking through to the end. He sees nothing of what Karamzin saw, though both men saw with very similar eyes. But then Karamzin was likewise blind to Polish virtues. How typical of the Pole and the Russian; two men quarreling in the desert while above the vultures hover.

I read a Polish professor's opinion on Conrad's disliking Dostoyevsky. The professor summarized Dostoyevsky as the idea that one can get very drunk, rape a virgin and then fall on their knees before God and find redemption. Apparently this morality was foreign to Conrad who was far too much of a rationalist to find anything appreciable in it.

This may explain why Conrad could not conceive of how the assassination of the archduke Ferdidand would lead Europe to war. It defied intellectual sense to wage apocalyptic war over such a thing. In most Polish fashion, Conrad was absolutely right in the moral sense and absolutely wrong in the practical sense. His trip to Poland in 1915 must have been a grand irony; he wanted (amongst other things) to show his son this mythical land that was always at the center of tumult, and indeed he did: they were forced to flee as another war broke out all around them.

Conrad was absolutely correct about the nature of war, about the connection between Europe's inflated sense of scientific progress and the coming of a world where war would be elevated to the pinnacle of technological civilization, not vanquished by it - until becoming total and annihilating the European world that made war its god. One can even spy in Conrad a hope that this annihilation would come quickly.

Certainly Conrad reserved his harshest criticisms for Germany. He noted that Germans were a race capable of being at once fat and ugly yet convinced of their biological superiority. He very correctly perceived that the Germans considered themselves truly European and thus regarded German racial superiority as a European sensibility. He noted that the Germans considered all of the other nations of Europe to be niggers and Asian barbarians. Finally, in his most excellent rhetorical assault on Germany, Conrad wrote of those who are fascinated by the German organization and efficiency that it signified a defect for one to marvel at the efficient organization of a nation of mediocrities. He did not, however, neglect to recognize certain political virtues present in Bismarck.

Conrad's views on Germans and Russians was understandable given that he perceived Poles as a "nationality not so much alive as surviving, which persists in thinking, breathing, speaking, hoping, and suffering in its grave, railed in by a million of bayonets and triple-sealed with the seals of three great empires." His air of cultural superiority towards Russians and deep antipathy towards Germans was in proportion to the necessary content of the best education of a Polish nobleman of his times. What made Conrad stand out was not the extent to which he was like the typical Pole of his day, only how unlike them he was.

Just as Karamzin acknowledged the moral superiority of Kieven Rus, but ultimately advocated for a strong Muscovite Rus because moral superiority does not win wars against Western Napoleons, so Conrad acknowledged the moral superiority of Mickiewicz and SÅ‚owacki, but turned his back on the vision of Poland which demands of Poles that they give up their lives for something that does not exist. In both cases, Karamzin and Conrad are conservatives because the remnants of the lost cultural splendor they love exist under concrete imperfect political forms which, if swept away by murderous tides will take those cultures with them. Tyranny is sufferable because in it the seeds of cultural renewal may yet survive. Revolutions, like floods, wash away not only imperfections but all of civilization. It is a dilemma faced by both Russians and Poles and a common interest often neglected by these two nations who share also a capacity for not looking to their interests only to their honor or their spirit.

Ultimately, Conrad is a dreamer, a man born too early. He was a citizen of the world, both in body and mind. He looks upon the affairs of man like a Greek god looking down from the clouds upon the drama of the rabble. Conrad is of course far more polite about it than Greek gods were apt to be, but his writing on the imminent unification of Europe and the world remain both prescient and Utopian. There is no doubt that many events Conrad alleged were visible in the tides of the times have come to pass. Yet the vices Conrad observed amongst Europeans persist.

One wonders then, whether Dostoyevsky was not closer to Conrad than the Polish aristocrat presumed? After all, the depths of depravity and singular irredeemability of mankind without the simplest acts of Divine grace that Dostoyevsky's literature presents us are the depths of depravity and singular irredeemability of mankind without the simplest acts of Divine grace that Conrad presents us. What difference, beyond the superficial, is there between the moral philosophy of these two men? Smerdyakov and Kurtz are not different men - we can fool ourselves of course that the one is a civilized European and the other a base degenerate, but really who are they if not prideful sinners? Kurtz is the fall from the heights of classical European civilization, Smerdyakov is the ascent to modern European civilization understood as "all things are permitted." 

Could it be that I do not see the distinction between the writers because in my life, I read first Conrad, then Dostoyevsky and only last the muses telling me that the Pole must hate the Russian and vice-versa?

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