Joseph Conrad, 3 December 1857 – 3 August 1924

Joseph Conrad was born nine years before Kipling, though he too lived well into the 20th century. Being Polish, with English only his third language, he began writing relatively late in life, and his publications parallel Kipling’s in date. There are also parallels as to subject matter, for both wrote about the colonial experience in early life, and then set their later writings in the West.

There are distinct differences too. Kipling wrote about India, and the relatively ordered system of the British, whereas Conrad dealt with South East Asia and Africa and the tremendous scope they offered to loners discovering themselves in the process of dealing at different levels with unfamiliar society and terrain. Then, while Kipling retreated at the end to the domestic joys of Sussex, Conrad explored the world of anarchists and spies in two compelling late novels, ‘The Secret Agent’ and ‘Under Western Eyes’.

In between, whereas Kipling wrote about Massachusetts cod fishermen in ‘Captains Courageous’, probably his weakest work, inspired by his association with his American future wife Carrie, and her brother Wolcott Ballestier, Conrad produced as his American adventure ‘Nostromo’, perhaps the most masterly of all political novels. Set in a fictional South American republic, developing from the remains of Iberian colonialism, it deals with the enthronement of a new form of colonialism that is concerned primarily with commercial interests. To ensure their perpetuation, possession can be abandoned, provided a government that is amenable to them is established and reinforced.

Conrad understood then the phenomenon of what were later termed banana republics, long before political analysts did, and decades before their most vivid exposition in Marquez’s ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’. Tellingly, and in particular for us, for the Palestinians who were thrust out of the area given to the British as a Mandate by the all white League of Nations, for the Indians dealing with Wavell and Mountbatten, for the Ethiopians before the Second World War and more recently too, for Czechoslovakia when faced with Hitler and for Yugoslavia when faced with the more sophisticated Western politicians of the nineties, Conrad shows how partition is the simplest tool for ensuring long term domination.

At the same time Conrad also points out how local politics can contribute to partition. Interest groups anxious for power, and willing to belittle the interests of those who seem weak, precipitate bitterness that turns elsewhere for assistance. Conrad shows how such assistance is generally self interested too, but can be presented as altruistic, to the extent too of taking in some of those providing it.

I should note that in some of the instances I have noted above the divisive interference was not in response to abuses, which suggests that where there is a will there will always be found a way to impose, as in the fable of the wolf and the lamb he was determined to eat. But that should not prevent us acknowledging the mistakes of those who provide excuses for interference. We should learn too to try and ensure that, by sympathetic attention to the problems of all those in our midst, we limit opportunities for external interference.  

 In ‘Nostromo’ certainly the heroism in presentation is all on the side of those striving to establish the independence of Costaguana. We are left in no doubt that that independence is preferable to continuing to suffer under a brutal dictatorship. However, by showing the gradual takeover by commercial interests of the original fervent idealists, Conrad also suggests the corrosive effect of commitment to forces that are without any emotional commitment themselves to the country they help to create.

Nostromo, Our Man, the adventurous hero, ends in ignominy, shot while stealing the gold which is all he has to cling to in a world that has no use for his talents. But sadder perhaps is the fate of Charles Gould, the brains behind the new state. He began the process of separation to protect his mine from the rapacity of the rulers of the larger entity, and in the end finds himself with no interests at all save the profits from the mine that is in thrall now to external domination. Symbolic of this is his alienation from his wife, Emilia, the touchstone of decency in the novel, who can only brood in spiritual solitude over the desiccation of her husband.

 Conrad’s relentless exploration of moral issues led to him being placed within the Great Tradition that F R Leavis, most influential of 20th century literary critics, identified, claiming initially that only five novelists fitted into it (though characteristically suggesting later that he had left out Dickens only because it was self evident that Dickens was perhaps the greatest exponent of the tradition). Though politics was not for Leavis an integral component of serious moral debate, he was certainly aware of the social and political context of moral decisions, and gives this aspect full value in his discussion of George Eliot and D H Lawrence, as well as Conrad. Understandably balance shifted when he came back to Dickens in later life, and there is even greater weight given to social context, even though as previously the importance of basic interpersonal relations remains a priority.

Understandably though it is only with regard to Conrad that, before the book on Dickens, Leavis stresses the significance of political power in interpersonal relations. This was an area Conrad found fascinating, in part perhaps because of his own history as an exile from the Russian colonization of Poland, and then as a foreigner finding his place in Britain. His most powerful account of the phenomenon was in ‘Heart of Darkness’, the story of Kurtz who initially went out to the Congo with high ideals of spreading the benefits of his own civilization, and ended up succumbing to the absolute and irresponsible nature of the power he exercised over the natives.

T S Eliot used the name of Kurtz as a symbol for the decline of values he diagnosed in ‘The Waste Land’, and Conrad certainly meant the title to resonate when he ended the story with the image of the river flowing through the heart of London. Nearly a century after the publication of the book, its story provided the inspiration for ‘Apocalypse Now’, Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film about the Vietnam War, with Marlon Brando turning in an inspired and horrifying performance as the Kurtz figure, prepared to ‘exterminate the brutes’ whom he had initially thought he was going out to save. Unfortunately a text that should be compulsory reading for all those who believe their own culture privileges them as potential saviours of others is now largely forgotten. Conrad is seen as an esoteric figure, not the central figure in the moral and political dimensions of literary achievement that Leavis so perceptively showed him to be.