Friday, April 28, 2017

A Curse of Futility upon our Character

"Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, chivalry and materialism, high sounding sentiments and a supine morality, violent efforts for an idea and a sullen acquiescence in every form of corruption.
We convulsed a continent for our independence only to become the passive prey of a democratic parody, the helpless victims of scoundrels and cutthroats, our institutions a mockery, our laws a farce..."

The second part of Joseph Conrad's Nostromo gives rise to a mystery: to what extent was Conrad's thought influenced by the failed Polish uprisings and politics of his time, to what extent by his observations of English colonial life, to what extent by his familiarity with Spanish culture?

There are subtle hints throughout his text of allusions to Polish affairs: a character remarks of something "You know, it's one of their so-called national things" and "ran on, wrinkling up his nose as if the word had a suspicious flavour to his profound experience of South American affairs." How typically Western, how English - this presumption that foreign nationalism is suspicious and likely unreasonable while Western nationalism is subconscious, lurking in the dark recesses of the advanced enlightenment mind. How typically rationalist.

It all reminds me so much of the very different views of Metternich one spies in the Anglo-American literature as opposed to the national literature. The liberalism of the Austrian Empire, its' rational division of powers, it's Galician parliamentarism, its' independent Hungarian monarchy, its' entire architecture built on firm conservative principles honoring subsidiarity.

And yet this great rational construct tumbled quickly into oblivion in confrontation with the "so-called national things." The fate of Austro-Hungary puts the lie to Western conservatism with a force not unequal to that with which the present religion puts the lie to Western Christianity. Metternich was an extreme rationalist, just as the minds who built Roman Catholic edifices which accounted for everything except man as he is.

Conrad's epic tale likewise brings to mind the question of the extent to which the Polish and Spanish mind are kin. The Pole and the Italian share a temperament not unlike the Spaniard. Ethnically these three nations are rather distinct. Why then do Conrad's Spanish Americans read like Poles? Surely it is not because the author is a Pole who fails to craft convincing South Americans. More likely Conrad - as a Pole - is the finest mixture of the southern  heart and northern mind. The Pole understands the Englishman and empathizes with the Spaniard. He has both in himself.

Do any of the post-colonial nations have the capacity for self government at a tolerable level similar to their great writers' capacity for self-reflection? Conrad's contention of the curse of futility upon our characters is a serious one.

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