Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Polish dilemmas in Conrad's Nostromo

Image result for dabrowski marching from italy"He also had his aspirations, he aspired to carry her away out of these deadly futilities of pronunciamientos and reforms."

- The Isabels, Chapter 5
Conrad's Nostromo




At the risk of repeating myself, I cannot help but spy the Polish dilemma in Conrad's fiction. I cannot but wonder whether all of Conrad's fame in the West is not simply a product of the very simple fact that here we have a Polish mind laid bare in English? What appears to be an amazing sense of imaginative fantasy is, to the reader familiar with Polish affairs, merely a transplantation of Polish dilemmas onto the grounds of a hypothetical world, an archetype safely South American.

It is not only the content of the political debate constantly hovering over the landscape of the story, but the very approach of the characters to politics. "They leaned side by side on the rail of the little balcony, very friendly, having exhausted politics" - this having exhausted politics is the very antithesis of the Anglo-American common-parlance 'never discuss religion or politics in polite society.' For the Pole, there is nothing more natural than a discussion of politics, and in that discussion there is likewise nothing more natural than to understand politics as "saving some of your convictions". All of this is so very contrary to Western habits. The intelligence, the emotion, the high-mindedness and the desperate futility of political philosophy are very much rooted in the Polish approach to things. As is the sense of practical failure hanging over the whole endeavor.

To read of the "endlessness of civil strife, whose folly seemed even harder to bear than its ignominy...the lawlessness of a populace of all colours and races, barbarism, remediable tyranny", to read it said of this fictional southern America that "America is ungovernable" - is this not, has this not all been said countless times about Poland? How many rationalists and enlightened men have made of Poland their own heart of darkness? How many Westerners have discovered their own barbarism in that conquest? How many Kurtzs have died there? Why all of Austro-Hungary, all of Prussia, the entire Russian Empire - they were all made Kurtzs there. They are all dead.

Whose citizens could fathom to consider that patriotism "had no sense for cultured minds, to whom the narrowness of every belief is odious"? And where else could patriotism not be considered "in connection with the everlasting troubles of this unhappy country...besmirched; it had been the cry of dark barbarism, the cloak of lawlessness, of crimes, of rapacity, of simple thieving" Does this not describe Poland, where men are either repulsed by the duties of patriotism and renounce their own heritage as provincial or make of it a cloak for their pedestrian criminality?

It may of course be a simple case of nineteenth century romanticism, but there is little doubt in my mind that the dynamics of Conrad's novel are not merely influenced by his Polish experience, but reflective of it. I would venture to say that Nostromo is simply about Poland and nothing else - and it is considered otherwise for no reason than because so few Europeans care to know about Poland. One has to know it well to see it in Conrad's prose.

One factor which may blind us to this possibility is Conrad himself. His Author's Notes offer no such indication that the Polish situation had anything to do with the plot of the novel. Yet it would be ridiculous in the extreme to conclude that simply because Conrad did not explicitly tie the novel to Poland and the Polish question that this is not the implicit theme of the entire book. Conrad, after all, masks his Polish origins very consciously, beginning with his name. His entire persona - great English writer - hah! - is one grand joke upon the entire Anglo-American race. As befits a Pole, Conrad not only sees the English for what they are, but is more than capable of being perfectly English. This talent is specific to his nature and has no complementary form in the English soul.

Why even the fact that Conrad makes such a point of underscoring the importance of the Italian in his tale is no doubt invisible as a benchmark for my theory. After all, Poles know just how similar the Italian and the Polish character is. Poles can see one of their compatriots in Conrad's confession:

"I did not hesitate to make that central figure an Italian. First of all the thing is perfectly credible: Italians were swarming into the Occidental Province at the time, as anybody who will read further can see; and secondly, there was no one who could stand so well by the side of Giorgio Viola the Garbaldino, the Idealist of the old humanitarian revolutions. For myself I needed there a Man of the People as free as possible from his class-conventions and all settled modes of thinking. This is not a side snarl at conventions. My reasons were not moral but artistic. Had he been an Anglo-Saxon he would have tried to get into local politics. But Nostromo does not aspire to be a leader in a personal game. He does not want to raise himself above the mass. He is content to feel himself a power - within the People." 
One could add that had he been a Pole, Nostromo would fit this description almost impeccably. It should not be necessary to have to reduce oneself to the pedestrian mention of the fact that Polish liberty marches "from the Italian Land to Poland" just as it should not be necessary to recall that Bonaparte "has given us the example." The hymn, like the man, like the book - all of it reflects the people. Little wonder that Conrad prefers fiction to fact - yet in this fiction he cannot conceal the fact of the great Polish dilemma which he carried within him. It was the dilemma of a Catholic people whose character was ancient, orderly and noble, yet whose political misfortunes bound up the fabric of their national being with all of the most radical, destructive revolutionary forces alive in Europe at the time - from the revolutions of 1848 to the proclamation of Polish independence by the Soviets, through the cries of Marx for a free and independent Poland - the strange contradictions of history - those forces which, to Marx, forebode the doom of the Old Order - all of them are to be found in Polish history and Polish literature - no where better, no where more subtle than in Nostromo.

Has anyone read Conrad this way? Has anyone attempted to? Could anyone? I imagine that I may be abusing the dead now. Perhaps if Conrad were with us, he would say "rubbish!" to my theory, pointing to his Author's Notes, to the text of the book, to the real history of South American colonialism as opposed to the very different history of the partitions and say - I had none of what you impute to me in mind. And so what if he didn't? Conrad is a Slav - he has therefore the perfect right to have in mind the exact opposite of what he actually wrote and what we can actually read in his book. Conrad's writing, like all excellent literature, may have initially been directed at some aim, may indeed have some inspiration that is merely exoteric - hard as that is to believe of a writer of this caliber - and yet none of it matters, for great literature, though born of the minds of great men, breathes its own life. Nostromo breathes the convulsions of the Polish dilemma through and through.

Then of course, there is Antonia: I might just as well write her name as proof, alone, of the validity of my presumptions.
 

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