Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Conradic Ethos

As one nears the conclusion of Joseph Conrad's masterpiece, Nostromo, one is struck by the author's sweeping summaries of important political themes, advanced throughout the novel by way of character studies. These summaries tell us more about the Polish mind than we might at first imagine and give us a glimpse of what we might call the Conradic ethos.


In Decoud and Gould we find a surface that portends the French sarcasm and English nobility, but is at heart the Polish sense of imponderabilia:

"The cruel futility of things stood unveiled in the levity and sufferings of that incorrigible people; the cruel futility of lives and of deaths thrown away in the vain endeavor to attain an enduring solution of the problem. Unlike Decoud, Charles Gould could not play lightly a part in a tragic farce. It was tragic enough for him in all conscience, but he could see no farcical element...He was too severely practical and too idealistic to look upon its terrible humours with amusement, as Martin Decoud, the imaginative materialist, was able to do in the dry light of his skepticism. To him, as to all of us, the compromises with his conscience appeared uglier than ever in the light of failure...After all, with his English parentage and English upbringing, he perceived that he was an adventurer in Costaguana...had sought fortune in a revolutionary war...planned revolutions...believed in revolutions. For all the uprightness of his character, he had something of an adventurer's easy morality which takes count of personal risk in the ethical appraising of his action."

Conrad's description here hearkens to the ethos of the Polish insurgent as presented in Prince Roman. It is characterized by an ultimate failure to take life lightly. It is the Polish failure to live up to the Western ethos popularized by Nietzsche's concept of the "pathos of distance." The pathos of distance is the luxury of being moral without having to face difficult moral choices in a world where all moral questions have been settled long ago and morality is reduced to the common exchange of pleasant courtesies and ritual rites. Gould the adventurer is the means by which Gould the Englishman is torn from this convenient pacific theatre of conventional European morality and thrust into the political life of a nation whose people cannot afford such luxuries and must make real moral choices. In this sense, Gould is ennobled: he is made a Polish character by way of confronting the English conscience with South American tumult.

This tumult serves as the backdrop to one of Conrad's most vivid themes: the breaking of human psyche by torture. Reading Conrad's reflections on the subject, one gets the sense that Conrad anticipated the totalitarianism of the twentieth century on the basis of a very keen appraisal of human sadism throughout history, particularly in the hidden vices of clergy to pass judgment and sit in inquisition of mankind. Conrad's very subtle anti clericalism is not typical of a Pole, although it may be the result of experience with elements of the Church outside of Poland. The weakness of the Western clergy as opposed to the Polish clergy is a theme little appreciated and less explored. Conrad's priests are all by and large worthless and in that sense reflective of Western Catholicism to a large degree. Their participation in the cycles of accelerated torture and belittlement of the human spirit casts a shadow over any hope that XXth century totalitarianism was avoidable and lends itself to the opinion that it was not the Church as such, but the Polish Church in particular which embodied an authentic Christian resistance to this menace.

The effects of torture on Dr. Monygham are cathartic insofar as they cure him of certain European delusions. He is in a sense a prelude of sorts to Ivan Denisovich:

"In such conditions of manner and attire did Dr. Monygham go forth to take his liberty. And these conditions seemed to bind him indissolubly to the land of Costaguana like an awful procedure of naturalization, involving him deep in the national life, far deeper than any amount of success and honour could have done. They did away with his Europeanism..."

Finally we have the insidious element of "Europeanism" which Western man always fails to account for in his longing to civilize the world by making it more European - namely the failure to imagine that the barbarians may just adopt the worst vices of the European character. For European vices are always seen in the past tense, always examined as aberrations, accidents of history that sprang ex nihilo on noble Frenchmen, Germans and Englishmen and have nothing in common with the national cultures of those peoples:

"It could never have entered his head that Pedrito Montero, lackey or inferior scribe, lodged in the garrets of the various Parisian  hotels where the Costaguana Legation used to shelter its diplomatic dignity, had been devouring the lighter sort of historical works in the French language...upon the Second Empire. But Pedrito had been struck by the splendor of a brilliant court, and had conceived the idea of an existence for himself where...he would associate the command of every pleasure with the conduct of political affairs and enjoy power supremely in every way."

The fact that the tyrants at the heart of the tumult in Conrad's novel, the men who upset the civilizing efforts of the "Good Europeans" are themselves motivated by European examples is perhaps not as ironic as it may seem. Indeed it may be the most penetrating perspective of Conrad's ethos and the key to understanding the heart of darkness upon which misguided Europeans wish to shine the lights of their civilizations. The peroration inciting the people of the South American colony to war against the United States, England, France and Germany is not a rebellion against European civilization: it is the culmination of European efforts to civilize the barbarians.

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