Sunday, June 11, 2017

What Kind of Man is Nostromo?

What do we make of a man like Nostromo at the end of Book II of Conrad's epic South American novel? Above all we must recognize that he is the necessary associate of all revolutions. Pride cometh before the Fall: Nostromo appears always just prior to the revolution devouring its children.

Nostromo is the manly impetuousity of Machiavelli's dreams combined with all of the Christian predispositions of Machiavelli's nightmares. His political engagement is akin to the engagement with which good men undertake marriage. This is probably why, like most revolutionary servants of Humanity, Nostromo cannot make himself the husband of any good woman. It is likewise for this reason that Nostromo's Christian predispositions find expression in his willingness to risk his life for political causes but unwilling to attend Mass every Sunday.

Yet Nostromo is not a monster. He stops short of falling into all of the vices associated with the latter stages of political tumult. He is driven by Thymos and seeks nothing but praise. He serves the "Material Interests" of the Gould concession as though it were coequal with the idealism of modern technological progress and the civilizational mission of European colonialism. Yet he does not partake in this progress.

Neither a materialist nor under any delusions of capturing political office, Nostromo builds his own legend. It is almost as though heroism were beneath him - he must be a superhero. Nostromo confounds all principles of human nature and sometimes behaves almost as though he were less human and more a force of nature itself.

No violent political tumult is ever catastrophic in the immediate sense. Revolution always brings a semblance of hope and, more often than not encourages manly virtue by way of danger. But danger is not humanity's desired state. Civilizational progress is by definition a movement away from the Hobbesian state of Nature. As such, violent revolution cannot be progress and the virtues it displays are usually the virtues of men under great duress. Yet all men have their limits and to strain them with a cross that no man can bear is to ask them to be gods and discover painfully that they are not.

Nostromo is the rash Polish revolutionary dressed up as an Italian. His insistence on saving European civilization - even when the core of that civilization is nothing but material interest - and asking nothing for himself is Conrad's reflection of the terrible Polish national adage: "For your freedom and ours!" - in that order. He is Rejtan's last gesture of manly despair flung into the face of the universe.


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