Nationalist Identities in Writing: Nations & Narration in Conrad's Works
Joseph Conrad's exploration of European national identities included relations between the English and the French. Culture.pl presents an academic paper by Fiona Tomkinson which analyses the ways in which Conrad approaches national stereotypes in The Rover and Suspense.
Spectral Nationalism in Conrad's Last Novels
No descriptive phenomenology of Europe would be complete without an account of its regional antagonisms and national rivalries. Indeed, one might argue that these conflicts have shaped and defined the essence of Europe just as significantly as the unifying (or quasi-unifying) forces of Greek philosophy, Roman imperialism, Christianity, the Enlightenment, or indeed any ideology which might be claimed to have created or, if you prefer, invented the West. There are plenty of national hatreds to choose from, and the antagonism of the French and the English is surely as resilient as any. I thought it might be an appropriate way of marking the 100th anniversary of the entente cordiale to celebrate this amour violent, this historical rivalry so intense that it comfortably survives being on the same side in two world wars – and to see how this rivalry is reflected in the work of the Polish writer who became an English novelist with a 'French face'.1
The title I originally submitted to this conference was ' 'Moi j'aime les Anglais': English-French antagonism in The Rover and Suspense'. The quotation is, of course, taken from the song Peyrol sings as he goes out to sacrifice his life in combat against the English.
Quoique leur chapeaux sont biens laid
God-dam! Moi, j'aime les Anglais
Ils ont un si bon caractère! (Rov 239)
(Although their hats are very ugly,
God-damn! I like the English
They have such a good character!)
It was chosen to capture the irony, reluctant admiration, and strange fellowship which reveals itself in the conflict between these two European nations:2 my original project was simply to analyse Joseph Conrad's presentation of this conflict and of the national stereotypes which arise therein, and to argue that in Conrad's last novels an opposition of English steadiness and French slipperiness is both asserted and, to an extent, subverted. My new title is the result of the wish to carry the argument one stage further by exploring the relations between what I would call Conrad's problematic, indeed aporetic, presentation of European national identities and the spectral atmosphere of these farewell novels.
The Rover and Suspense
The Rover and Suspense are both novels of the Napoleonic period, so one's initial expectations might well be for tales along the lines of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin novels, in which English-French antagonism generally takes its most basic form of deadly enmity. However, even on the level of plot, this is far from being the case: in both novels personal and political motivations lead to more complex entanglements.
In both novels French royalists support and are supported by the English. In Suspense, the Latham family shelters and forms close personal ties with the d'Armand refugees, and Cosmo is, it appears, drawn by chance into the Napoleonic cause. In The Rover, Peyrol finds himself drawn to protect an English former Brother of the Coast against a French 'wearer of epaulettes' (Sus 134) and identifies with the seamanship of the English Captain Vincent (Sus 266), who, in his turn, will show his admiration for his adversary by letting the tartane go down with its colours flying, and indeed providing the French flag for this purpose (Sus 280). Yet all this chivalry, humanism, and sheer confusion does not prevent national stereotypes from being very much with us, both in the comments of characters and in a less straightforward fashion in Conrad's narrative voice and choice of images.
Englishness, at least the kind of Englishness that is found abroad in Europe,3 is above all associated with independence, autonomy, resistance, non-conformity and steadiness of purpose. On his first meeting with the mysterious figure in the tasselled cap, Cosmo, the son of a man of 'unconventional individuality' (Sus 17), is himself characterised by Attilio as someone behaving as 'Nobody but an Englishman would behave' (Sus 3), as the member of an 'eccentric people' (Sus 3) and a 'lordly nation' (Sus 5). Strangely enough, it is his very Englishness which makes Cosmo seem trustworthy to Attilio, who says: ' 'to give the devil his due, men of your nation don't consort with spies or love tyranny either' (Sus 11). This seems to be the same view of the Englishman which Wordsworth, in The Prelude, claims to have found in revolutionary France,4 and it is an image which persists throughout the tale.
Towards the end of the narrative as we have it, the Italian sbirri who capture Cosmo comment: 'Look at his hat. That's an Englishman'. (This is presumably one of the really ugly hats mentioned in Peyrol's song, and there is, of course, a great deal of circumstantial irony in the fact that they look at the hat rather than under it, where they would have found secret documents concealed.) They then continue: 'So much the worse. They are very troublesome. Authority is nothing to them... An Inglese... Those foreigners have plenty of money and are impatient of restraint' (Sus 235).
Indeed, both Cosmo and Dr Martel, English wanderers who know their way around, have a talent for avoiding restraint, a savoir faire which allows them to extricate themselves from threats not only to their lives, but to their freedom or honour;5 and a talent for acquiring local knowledge without actually integrating. Cosmo has, we are told, 'an inborn faculty of orientation in strange surroundings' (Sus 17); Martel describes himself as 'an old Italian myself. Not that I love them, but I have acquired many of their tastes' (Sus 63).
However, these freewheeling capacities also seem to depend on a secure and solid background, on a sense of fixedness, whether it be Martel's faith in his medical skill and excellent constitution – he glories that he survived poisoning by a sausage which would certainly have finished off Napoleon! (Sus 179) – or Cosmo's position as an heir of the landed gentry. The Countess de Montevesso says to Cosmo: 'You were a young Latham, as rooted in your native soil as the old trees in your park' (Sus 130).
On the other hand, to be French is to stand on slippery ground, like that on the cliffs of Escampobar (Rov 67); it is to be the hapless victim of contingency. Sir Charles says of Adèle's marriage: 'Austerlitz has done it'.6 As he makes this observation, which is cryptic to his own children, he is reflecting that
This was the disadvantage of having been born French or indeed belonging to any other nation of the continent. There were forces there that pushed people to rash or unseemly actions; actions that seemed dictated by despair and therefore wore an immoral aspect. (Sus 36)
This is also true of the 'revolutionary' characters in The Rover, Scevola and Arlette. They differ not only from the English, but from the Russian revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries of Under Western Eyes, in having much less conscious control over their actions. It seems to me that Conrad's Russian characters have blood on their hands in the style of Shakespearean tragedy. Whether they resemble Brutus, Macbeth or Iago, that is, idealist, tortured victim of ambition or gleefully self-conscious villain (I am thinking of Haldin, Razumov, and Nikita respectively), their crimes are the results of considered decisions, however base some of the impulses these rationalise.
The French characters, however, have blood on their feet, they have slipped into violence. Arlette's 'little feet had run ankle-deep through the terrors of death' (Rov 260) and she has, in Catherine's words, 'death in the folds of her skirts and blood about her feet' (Rov 225). Guilty in an unspecified fashion, victim of contingency and of maenad frenzy, she is as if stained by a menstrual accident rather than a planned and executed crime. Scevola, though an ideologue and more deliberately guilty than Arlette, is so obviously controlled by his personal lusts and irrational resentments that his political life is no more than the analogue of his blundering around and slipping over with the pitchfork under the 'motive force of a fixed idea' (Rov 193). Slipping over, literally and metaphorically, is something the French do: even the stately Catherine ruined her life because, in Peyrol's words, she let herself be 'struck all of a heap' and was too hard on herself afterwards (Rov 236).
The French are also slippery in the sense of being slippery customers, and this manifests itself through the carefully executed deceptions of Peyrol and the low cunning of Scevola. Even as Lord Nelson concedes the existence of French courage and resolve, he confesses that what he fears most is the possibility of 'that Toulon fleet' giving him 'the slip' (Rov 275). However, slipperiness and steadiness are not simply opposites in the novels; they are always about to pass into each other, and the necessity of keeping steady arises out of the need to resist slippery conditions. One naturalistic detail which can be given symbolic significance is that Scevola, despite his abject cowardice on the tartane's final voyage, reveals himself to have 'good sea-legs' (Rov 253). Perhaps he acquired this steadiness from running through the slipperiness of blood.
In the same way, the opposition of French slipperiness and English steadiness is disturbed by characters being shown to have some qualities contrary to national stereotype. For example, there is a very real sense in which the supposedly rooted Cosmo is not only a wanderer, but a drifter. We are told: 'He had never made any real friends, he had nothing to do; and he did not seem to know what to think of anything in the world' (Sus 175-6). This lack of relations is something he shares with Lieutenant Réal (Rov 209), someone who had seemed 'a slippery customer' to Peyrol, but who 'on the contrary, ... looked rather immovably established' when Peyrol wishes to get rid of him (104). The world of The Rover is one where what seemed steady turns out to be slippery, and what seemed slippery may be steady after all. Peyrol says of the English:
Don't you know what an Englishman is? One day easy and casual, the next day ready to pounce on you like a tiger. Hard in the morning, careless in the afternoon, and only reliable in a fight, whether with or against you, but for the rest perfectly fantastic. You might think a little touched in the head, and there again it would not do to trust to that notion either. (110)
It is fitting that in the same paradoxical fashion, the real English razor-blade with which Peyrol shaves himself, an image of English firmness, symbol of his bond with and antagonism towards the English from whom it was looted, is both described as 'unwearable' (38) and by the end of the novel, as 'worn out' (233).
There are two moments in The Rover in which the dialectic between steadiness and slipperiness is especially foregrounded, both moments which are, albeit in very different ways, collisions of the French and the English. The first and most obvious is the climax of the novel, the death of Peyrol at the moment of the near collision between the English corvette Amelia and the tartane. This is a moment of great instability.
His plaything was knocking about terribly under him, with her tiller flying madly to and fro just clear of his head, and solid lumps of water coming on board over his prostrate body ... Peyrol, sinking back on the deck in another heavy lurch of his craft, saw for an instant the whole of the English corvette swing up into the clouds as if she meant to fling herself upon his breast. (269)
Yet within this upheaval, there is 'a smooth interval, a silence of the waters', during which Peyrol, who had previously given up hope of hearing any human voice again, dies smilingly with the sound of the familiar English word 'Steady!' ringing in his ears (Sus 269).
The second moment is the lovers' meeting of the previous night between Arlette and Réal, in which 'they stood like a pair of enchanted lovers bewitched into immobility' (Sus 223). The English-French meeting here, I contend, takes place on the level of intertextuality. Given the novel's epigraph from Spenser, it is not fanciful to suggest that Conrad possibly had in mind the cancelled ending to Book III of The Faerie Queene, in which the reunited lovers Scudamour and Amoret, characters with quasi-French names wandering through an English national epic, are as if turned to stone in the ecstasy of reunion.7 Amoret's story is, of course, also Arlette's – we can say both have been liberated from imprisonment by vile enchanters to whom they refused to yield the pleasure of their bodies.8 But the moment in Spenser also gives extra resonance to that in Conrad because of the way it brings together extreme steadiness and slipperiness: the immobility of the frozen lovers is cancelled by a revised version in which Scudamour slips by and misses Amoret,9 leaving their union perpetually deferred since, sadly, Spenser never lived to finish his epic. In the same way, the union of Arlette and Réal is compromised by Réal's knowledge that he is to slip away on the morrow. When Arlette laughs, thinking of 'all the days to come', stability passes into slipperiness: 'Réal faltered, like a man stabbed to the heart,10 holding the door half open. And he was glad to have something to hold on to' (Rov 223). Arlette then 'slipped out with a rustle of her silk skirt' (Rov 224).
In a short while, this slipperiness passes into the spectral, and also into an uncanny steadiness: Réal finds at the foot of his bed 'a figure in dark garments with a dark shawl over its head, with a fleshless predatory face and dark hollows for its eyes, silent, expectant, implacable.... 'Is this death?' he asked himself, staring at it terrified. It resembled Catherine... He would not look at that thing, whatever it was, spectre or old woman '... (Rov 225).
This movement from slipperiness to spectrality is very characteristic of The Rover, where the figure of Arlette in particular slips in and out as a ghostly presence, but I think it can also be seen as an attribute of Conrad's writing in general: an attribute which is also steady and implacable even as it focuses on the slippery and elusive. For an author who emphatically declared his disbelief in supernatural ghosts, (Author's Note to SL, xxxvii-xl) Conrad is excessively attached to the language of ghostliness, an attachment which brings to mind the 'concepts' of 'hauntology' and 'spectrographic tone' made fashionable by Derrida. There is a sense, however, in which Conrad's spectrography is more penetrating than that of Derrida, at least that of Derrida in his late period. Derrida in Specters of Marx asserts that a ghost or revenant should be the ghost of a 'dead human' (Derrida) or at least of an animal, a who not a what, a persona not a brute empirical fact.11
Conrad, however, is more generous in the scope of his spectrography. He gives us not only the shade of Flaubert or the ghost of a blonde, but the ghosts of abstract and material things. Jim is haunted by the 'ghost of a fact' (LJ 142) as well as by 'all the extravagant ghosts and austere shades that were the disastrous familiars of his youth' (LJ 113). The lack of a standard of conduct is, in Lord Jim, a ghost which should be laid, Stein's corpses of butterflies are ghostly, and the Patna is sunk by the ghost of a boat, 'a kind of maritime ghoul on the prowl to kill ships in the dark' (LJ 115).
The idea of the ghost-boat is taken up again at the beginning of Suspense, in a passage which reads like a meditation on Derrida's definition of a ghost as a 'dead human'. Here Cosmo remarks that the boat which collected the secret message from Attilio 'might have been the ghost of a boat', but adds: 'Ghosts are of no account. Could there be anything more futile than the ghost of a boat?' To this the old man replies:
You are one of the strong-minded, signore. Ghosts are the concern of the ignorant – yet, who knows? But it does sound funny to talk of the ghost of a boat, a thing of brute matter. For wouldn't a ghost be a thing of spirit, a man's soul itself made restless by grief or love, or remorse, or anger? Such are the stories that one hears. (Sus 14)
For Conrad it is a short step from the concept of the ship to the concept of the nation. Though at the beginning of Heart of Darkness, the seamen's country is said to be the sea and his ship his home (HD 8), the ties of allegiance and morality which bind shipmates to one another can be taken as a model for the ties which bind fellow-countrymen. Therefore, we should not be too surprised if, alongside spectral ships, Conrad confronts us with spectral nationalism. Indeed, in Lord Jim, the call of nationality or race has already been presented as spectral. Jewel wonders what it is that makes white men leave their lovers, as her father abandoned her mother, and comes close to imagining it as something ghostly suspended between life and death, presence and absence:
You all remember something. You all go back to it. What is it? You tell me! What is this thing? Is it alive? – is it dead? I hate it. It is cruel. Has it got a face and a voice – this calamity? Will he see it – will he hear it? In his sleep perhaps when he cannot see me – and then arise and go. ...Will it be a sign – a call ... (LJ 229)
Marlow's comment makes explicit the equation of the call of nationality with the spectral:
Thus a poor mortal seduced by the charm of an apparition might have tried to wring from another ghost the tremendous secret of the claim the other world holds over a disembodied soul astray among the passions of this earth. (230)
And he wonders: 'How do you shoot a spectre through the heart, slash off its spectral head, take it by its spectral throat?' (230).
In Conrad's last novels we can say that this spectral nationalism returns with a vengeance, as an unlaid ghost. Nationalist sentiment is repeatedly associated with the ghostly. The opening scene of Suspense moves from a description of mysterious national ensigns shrouded in the dusk to raise the possibility, however humorously touched upon, that Atillio has, like Byron's Manfred, gone to the top of a tower for the purpose of conjuring the spirits of the dead. At the beginning of The Rover, Arlette, during her first encounter with Peyrol, not only slips in and out like a ghost herself, but looks about the room as though Peyrol 'had come in attended by a mob of Shades' before abruptly asking him 'Are you a patriot?' (Sus 21).
Peyrol is, of course, a patriot in his own fashion, not in the fashion of Scevola and the sans culottes. But it is not only the patriotism of the drinker of blood which carries shades in its train. A note to the World's Classics edition of The Rover points out that Peyrol first appears in the colours of the tricolour, that is, as a national hero in the making (Rov 288). It does not, however, mention that, along with his red, white and blue, Peyrol is wearing a black hat. It is as if the colour of death, absence and mourning has quietly taken up its place alongside the insignia of the patriot.
There is more to this than the truism that nationalism frequently leads to war and death; it is also the case that Peyrol's is a spectral nationalism which, like a ghost, is both steady and slippery at the same time; it has the uncanny persistence of an unlaid ghost, but it does not know quite where it comes from or where it is going.
To return to Derrida: in Derridean spectrality the spectre is a revenant, a returnee. But as Nicholas Royle points out, chez Derrida it is never possible to distinguish between the revenant and the arrivant - the arrivant, as presented in Aporias (34-5), being etymologically the figure who comes to shore as in the old French a-river - and also the herald of a future which can only be monstrous because unknown, also the figure which makes possible all things to which we would reduce it, including all forms of belonging, including nationalisms (Royle 111).
The endings of Conrad's last novels can be read in terms of this uncanny conflation of revenant and arrivant. Both Cosmo and the rover are in different ways revenants. Cosmo, although on his first trip to Italy, is a spectral returnee in the sense that he is following in the footsteps of his father, retracing his Italian journey and falling in love with the daughter of the woman he loved.
The rover, on the other hand, is returning in his own person, but returning to a homeland he scarcely knows and a fatherland in which he was fatherless – his case is even more extreme than that of Razumov in that he does not even know his father's name. Both are also arrivants, who reach the shore only to leave it again, at a sign from history, to play a role in bringing the future into being: like the future they themselves never arrive – Peyrol dies at sea, as does the old oarsman in Suspense - Cosmo never returns because Conrad's own death leaves the text unfinished.
But what are the consequences of their answering this call? Marlow remarked, in an attempt to cut spectrality down to sise, that the world Jewel fears will call Jim back is actually too big to miss him. Likewise, the world of the Napoleonic wars can swallow up acts of individual heroism, rendering them futile. Dr Martel remarks in Suspense: 'Yes, no end of history ... And yet, tell me, what does it all amount to?' (62). We may ask with Southey's little Peterkin, what good came of it at last? Or with Conrad's Karain: 'What for?' (Selected Short Stories 60). Napoleon is going to be defeated and exiled to St Helena for all the sacrifice of the old oarsmen of Suspense; Peyrol's final act of heroism will not alter the outcome of Trafalgar.
Yet futility does not lay spectrality. The arrivant/revenant figures continue to exercise their ghostly dominion over the last pages of the final novels. In doing so, they combine the characteristics of Frenchness and Englishness in that they are both steady and slippery at the moment of ultimate commitment: steady in their tenacity of purpose; slippery in terms of the elusive significance of their acts.
Significance is elusive both in terms of the consequences of action and its original source and motivation. Suspense ends with the spectral consequentialism of the arrivant in the person of 'the old man whose last bit of work was to steer a boat, and strange to think perhaps it had been done for Italy' (Sus 274). The spectrographic tone might indeed be defined as the voice of the 'strange-to-think-perhaps' – a voice which also sounds at the end of The Rover, though what is here in question is the spectral origin of the revenant Peyrol. Réal says, in answer to his wife's enquiry, 'What sort of man was he really, Eugène?', that 'the only certain thing we can say of him was that he was not a bad Frenchman', and the case is closed with the cripple's statement, more aporetic than ironic: 'Everything's in that' (Rov 286).
- Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. London: Penguin, 1994.
- Conrad, Joseph. Lord Jim. Ed. Jacques Berthoud. Oxford: OUP, 2002
- Conrad, Joseph. Selected Short Stories. Ed. Keith Carabine. Ware: Wordsworth Classics, 1997.
- Conrad, Joseph. Suspense: A Napoleonic Novel. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1925. Replica Books edition, Bridgewater: Replica Books, 2000.
- Conrad, Joseph. The Rover. Ed. Andrzej Busza and J.H.Stape. Oxford: OUP, 1992.
- Conrad, Joseph. The Shadow Line. Oxford: OUP, 2000.
- Derrida, Jacques. Aporias: Dying – Awaiting (One Another at) the 'Limits of Truth'. Trans. Thomas Dutoit. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1999.
- Derrida, Jacques. Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International. Transl. Peggy Kamuf. London and New York: Routledge, 1994.
- Hervouet, Yves. The French Face of Joseph Conrad. Cambridge: CUP, 1990.
- Lawlor, Leonard. Derrida and Husserl. Bloomington, London and New York: Routledge, 2002.Royle, Nicholas. Jacques Derrida. London and New York: Routledge, 2003.Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queene. Ed. Thomas Roche, jr. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978, 1984.Wordsworth, William. The Major Works. Ed. Stephen Gill. Oxford: OUP, 2000.
- 1 Cf. Yves Hervouet, The French Face of Joseph Conrad (Cambridge: CUP, 1990).
- 2 One might even argue that the language is a kind of franglais, given the insertion of English words and the anglicised grammar of 'sont' rather than 'soient'.
- 3 Dr. Cairney's paper in this volume develops this point through a discussion of the 'Byronic' wanderer of Europe.
- 4 Wordsworth claims that he and his companions on his Continental walking tour of 1790 'bore a name/Honoured in France, the name of Englishmen, /And hospitably did they give us Hail/As their forerunners in a glorious course' (Book VI, ll. 409-412, Gill, 460) and that even French royalists tolerated him as 'An Englishman,/Born in a Land, the name of which appeared/To license some unruliness of mind' (Book IX, ll. 191-3, Gill 513).
- 5 This is, of course, presuming that we accept Martel's account of himself; anyone disposed to doubt Stein's tales might doubt Martel's account of an attempted ambush, which is very close to Stein's.
- 6 Prof. Lothe's paper in this volume convinces me that Sebold must have had this quote in mind!
- 7 'No word they spake, nor earthly thing they felt,/But like two senceles stocks in long embracement dwelt'. (The Faerie Queene, Book III, 1590 version, Canto XII, 45, ll. 8-9; Roche, 562).
- 8 Cf. Spenser's 'A Letter of the Authors', Roche, 17-18. Scevola's incompetence with the pitchfork is also paralleled by Busirane's incompetent attempt to stab Britomart (The Faerie Queene, Book III, Canto XII, stanzas 32-34; Roche, 558).
- 9 The Faerie Queene, Book III, 1596 version, Canto XII, stanzas 44-45; Roche, 561.
- 10 Possibly another reference to Spenser's Scudamour/Amoret episode, where it is, however, Amoret's heart which is transfixed by Busirane. (The Faerie Queene, Book III, Canto XII, stanzas 21, 31; Roche, 555, 557).
- 11 This distinguishes the spectre from the earlier concept of the trace or the supplement, and it is this assertion which Leonard Lawlor in his 2002 book Derrida and Husserl sees as marking the 'turn' in Derrida's work.