The Grotesque World of Political Evolution in Joseph Conrad's Writing
What does the form of Conrad's writing say about the content of his novels? Culture.pl presents Anne Luyat's analysis of Joseph Conrad's language use and portrayal of political evolution.
The Wretched Gang: Conrad's Grotesques as a Mirror of European Political Evolution
Anne Luyat, Université d'Avignon
In a letter to Cunninghame Graham Sunday, January 23, 1898, Joseph Conrad wrote:
No, I belong to the wretched gang. We all belong to it. We are born initiated, and succeeding generations clutch the inheritance of fear and brutality without a thought, without a doubt, without compunction-in the name of God.
Conrad's epistle to R.B. Cunninghame Graham assessed the human condition in a world which pretended to make a virtue of progress; he portrayed instead a warped universe inhabited by succeeding generations who repeated the senseless mistakes of the past. In this letter and in others to Cunninghame Graham, for whom the expression 'the white man's mission' signified 'the stock exchange militant' (Watts 20).
Conrad noted the brutality and hypocrisy of the world's marred civilisations, marred languages, and marred imagination. Conrad's concept of belonging to a wretched gang was an attempt to define the implications of evil and to create an aesthetic for it, very much as Baudelaire had done before him in Les fleurs du mal (1857) and as Wallace Stevens did after him in Esthétique du Mal (1944). Like the incisive metaphor of the wretched gang, the grotesque forms Conrad conceived used a series of rapid sketches, incomplete and unfinished in nature, but which became all the more personal and all the more terrifying when completed by the reader's imagination.
Because Conrad did not consider himself to be the horrified spectator of evil perpetrated by others, his aesthetic vision changed: 'But will you persuade humanity to throw away sword and shield? Can you persuade even me – No, I belong to the wretched gang. We all belong to it' (CL2 25). The foundations of the narrative gave rise to new forms in Conrad's fiction because the fictional centre of gravity had changed. He began to chart a new course for political fiction at the century's end. For a writer to extract himself from the maelstrom of good and evil was an impossible feat, for evil was not without but within, not only within oneself but within one's language.
Conrad's extreme lucidity with regard to the role he played as a writer is the source of the compelling tragic force of his political œuvre, which was not structured on the standard literary dichotomy pitting good against evil, black against white. Such an artificial construction suited neither his conception of civilisation, nor of language nor of the imagination. As Conrad explained his conception of the wretched gang to Cunninghame Graham, 'Fraternity means nothing unless the Cain-Abel business' (Watts 36).
The privileged form Conrad's realisation of his brotherhood not only with Abel but with Cain took in his fiction was the grotesque, a deformation of the human form, soul and spirit as ancient as the world itself. The wilful and often comic deformation of human forms allows an author to ridicule the inevitable horrors of existence by giving them an unexpected shape and often new meanings as well. What reaction other than the grotesque could have been more suitable to hold up to the destruction of life, to the inexorable 'knitting machine' another metaphor for human social organisation which Conrad described in a letter to Cunninghame Graham (December 20, 1897) as mindlessly disposing of mankind with its indestructible, ruthless, energy: 'It knits us in and it knits us out. It has knitted time, space, pain, death, corruption, despair and all the illusions-and nothing matters. I'll admit however that to look at the remorseless process is sometimes amusing' (CL1 425).
In our discussion of European political grotesques, we will begin with Conrad's attitude, unusual in its time, toward language. Edward Said felt that it was not possible to consider Conrad's 'peculiar genius in narrative', his different technical innovations, without taking into consideration his conception of language, which he believed was cyclical. That is to say, one that had no reference to a definite origin. Edward Said saw one 'utterance in Conrad as leading inevitably to another, without recourse to a single originating or privileged first fact' (75).
In his attempt to define an esthéthique du mal during the exchange of letters with R.B. Cunninghame Graham, Conrad questioned the essential validity of language: 'Half the words we use have no meaning whatever'. He disclaimed belief in any priviledged or originating first fact insofar as language was concerned.
Faith is a myth and beliefs shift like mists on the shore; yesterday is as shadowy as the hope of to-morrow-only the string of my platitudes seems to have no end. As our peasants say: 'Pray brother, forgive me for the love of God'. And we don't know what forgiveness is, nor what is love, nor where God is. Assez. (January 14, 1898; CL2 17)
In essence, Conrad's conception of language formed a parallel with his conception of political evolution, for both envisioned a seemingly endless cycle of repetitions. The unknowable present is an endless repetition of the unknowable past for which our discourse is inadequate.
Life knows us not and we know not life-we don't know even our own thoughts. Half of the words we use have no meaning whatever and of the other half each man understands each word after the fashion of his own folly and conceit. (CL2 17)
Edward Said believed that Conrad's contemporary Frederich Nietzsche also believed that language was not inherently creative but rather 'the interpretation of a prior utterance, an interpretation of an interpretation which no longer serves' (71). Said felt that both Conrad and Nietzsche accepted the 'difficult paradox that language was both excess and poverty' (74). Conrad's attitude toward language as both exceeding the limits of significant discourse and revealing the depth of linguistic deprivation is essential to an understanding of the role he contributed to grotesques in his portrayal of political decline in Western civilisation.
The Secret Agent is marked by the poverty of its language as well as by the covert silences which divide the members of the wretched gang in the political drama, Verloc, the anarchists, the police officials, who recycle without thinking the clichés of their age in what seems to be a society secure from upheaval. The grotesque mirror of European civilisation shatters horrendously, however, when Winnie Verloc attempts to imagine the death of her mentally handicapped brother Stevie. The identity of the person who had been blown up with the bomb at the Greenwich Observatory had been kept from her by her husband, who knew the depth of her attachment to Stevie. When Chief Inspector Heath finally breaks the truth to her, she remembers what she had heard, that they had to gather up the dead terrorist with a shovel. In her mind's eye, she imagines a fireworks display with Stevie's body parts strewn throughout and his decapitated head suspended above:
Mrs. Verloc closed her eyes desperately throwing upon the vision of the night her eyelids, where after a rainlike fall of mangled limbs the decapitated head of Stevie lingered suspended alone, and fading out slowly like the last star of a pyrotechnic display. Mrs. Verloc opened her eyes. (SA 260)
The monstruous and yet compelling grotesque form of the brightest moment of a fireworks display streaked with bits of face and flesh slowly fading away seems to indicate in a moment of measured eloquence and supreme terror, the ultimate dislocation of the society of progress. The political grotesque seems to reach its zenith in Stevie's dismemberment, but Conrad has only begun to embroider his terrible vision of the cataclysmic downward spiral of political organisation with its inevitable return to a barbaric past.
The moment Mrs. Verloc silently takes a knife in hand in order to carve up her husband rather than the dinner roast, she carries out an attack against a patriarch, against the supposed protector of women and children, against the consecrated pillar of the family on which the English nation had built its civilisation of progress: 'Into that plunging blow, delivered over the side of the couch, Mrs. Verloc had put all the inheritance of her immemorial and obscure descent, the simple ferocity of the age of caverns and the unbalanced nervous fury of the age of bar-rooms' (SA 263).
The unexpected but fitting grotesque of a 20th-century woman unexpectedly returned to the age of the caverns, of a stone age woman quietly murdering her husband at dinner, images from which the age of progress thought they had been delivered long ago, is blended with another even more terrible one, that of the bar-rooms. Alcoholism, the brawls of bar-rooms and broken families were the bane of the industrial age. Both images are underlaid by Winnie's flawed inheritance, by her 'immemorial and obscure descent' from past generations. Conrad reiterates in his twisted figures the conception he had described in his letter to Cunninghame Graham in 1898: '...succeeding generations clutch the inheritance of fear and brutality without a thought, without a doubt, without compunction'... (CL2 25).
Composed of fearless connections of truths, the overwhelming impact of Conrad's grotesques often takes readers unaware. In their creation, Conrad finds the truest and most lasting expression of his pessimistic political vision. In order to overcome the crushing power of the past, Conrad sets the grotesque images of the marred civilisation within English borders and within English minds. And yet, he was not alone in thinking that the age of progress was a myth. He echoed the French poet Arthur Rimbaud's fine grotesques in Une Saison en enfer (1873) and Illuminations (1886), who had written that 'Humanity was fitting a shoe for that vast child Progress' ('L'Humanité chaussait le vaste enfant Progrès') (77)
Nowhere is the language paradox of excess and poverty more evident than in Under Western Eyes in which perverted language becomes the mirror of political decline in both Eastern and Western Europe. Language is not only an imperfect and marred political tool. In Under Western Eyes, the well of language itself has been poisoned. The political tragedy springs from the mistrust generated by the effusion of deceit, double entendre and double dealing. Lured into a verbal duel with Sophia Antonovna which could cost him his life, Razumov finally breaks into laughter on the grounds of the somber Château Borel when he happens to remember with a certain desperate grimness 'the epigrammatic saying that speech has been given to us for the purpose of concealing our thoughts' (UWE 261).
As a setting for a tragedy of deceit, the dilapidated, cobwebbed and uncurtained Château Borel is itself a magnificent grotesque, a Tower of Babel in proudly multilingual and politically neutral Geneva, which is sadly in need of refurbishing and repairs. The tenants of the rented château are two middle aged Russian writers who hope to persuade naive newcomers to participate in their games of revolution roulette. Garrulous political diatribes allow them to rank with some of Conrad's darkest comic figures.
Although the presence of black comedy may come as a surprise, we should remember Conrad's remark to Cunninghame Graham about the knitting machine: 'I'll admit, however that to look at the remorseless process is sometimes amusing' (CL1 425) Charles Baudelaire also believed that the comic or 'comique absolu' as he termed it, was infinitely painful, depending as it did on human imperfections (254), an assertion echoed by Marlow in Chance while describing the upstanding civil servant, the solemn Mr. Fyne: '...the comic when it is human becomes quickly painful' (206).
The painful part of the story in Under Western Eyes is that, as Razumov tells Peter Ivanovitch, 'There are starving young men in Russia who believe in you so much that it seems the only thing that keeps them alive in their misery' (227). Unfortunately for the young man, however, the supposedly true accounts of the advocate of progress and humanitarianism, are fictions. In his wandering tales, parodied by Conrad, artless repetition has been deprived of meaning; the codes of language can no longer be deciphered and no longer have any bearing upon the conduct of the well-known feminist.
Aware of the Peter Ivanovitch's reputation as a defender of women, Miss Haldin is shocked to discover him berating Tekla aggressively for assumed misdemeanours (166). As both unpaid servant and unpaid secretary to 'the heroic fugitive' (125-126), Tekla is forced to take hours of dictation daily. She is the witness to the officious outpourings of the revered author 'the civilised man, the enthusiast of humanitarian ideals thirsting for the triumph of spiritual love and political liberty' (122). She tells Razumov that the great humanitarian is a despot and warns him to keep Miss Haldin away from the Château Borel: 'I know Peter Ivanovitch sufficiently well. He is a great man. Great men are horrible... this life here is worse than starving' (232-233).
The fact that such a deeply flawed figure in the European political drama should have control over Razumov's destiny revolts him 'with its fantastic absurdity' (220). In Razumov's eyes, the tenants of the rented château appear to be characters out of 'a tale from Hoffman' (215). Wearing a black silk top hat and dark glasses, Peter Ivanovitch resembles nothing so much at first in the eyes of Razumov as an obliging magician. When asked by Madame de S__ for 'les gâteaux' during Razumov's visit to the Château Borel, Peter Ivanovitch seems to 'extract them from the interior his hat' (217).
During what turns out to be a kind of Mad Hatter's Tea Party, Tekla nearly drops 'her hissing burden, a samovar obviously too heavy for her', which 'she manages, however, to land on the table' (217). The comic grotesque quickly takes on sombre overtones, however. Although Peter Ivanovitch's dark glasses seem to be simply incongruous at first – Geneva is not known for its bright sunlight – they soon come to represent the monstrous aspects of his personality and of the political game that is being played out in the chateau.
As for Madame de S__, the 'witch in Parisian clothes' (215), she is perfectly serious when she assures Razumov that 'in matters of politics, I am a supernaturalist' (222), but when she attempts to give Razumov the demonstration of her political powers, she reveals her demonic fury at being cheated out of a large inheritance, which may be the real reason for her revolutionary fervor: '...her rigidity was frightful; like the rigour of a corpse galvanised into harsh speech and glittering stare by the force of murderous hatred' (222).
The Teacher of Languages describes the failed attempt of Madame de S__ to transform her supernaturalist vision into a satisfactory piece of political prose as 'a little book from the pen of Madame de S__ published in Paris, a mystically bad-tempered, declamatory and frightfully disconnected piece of writing' (163). In her mystical disrespect for the truth and her abuse of human discourse, Madame de S__ is the most gothic grotesque in the novel. Conrad deforms her face, her mouth and the speech organs which give her the 'rattling laugh... and hoarse, wailing, croaking voice with more than a suspicion of hysteria' in it (216). Yet she, too, provokes laughter in her failed attempt to attain the ethereal regions of the politically supernatural: '...even her eyes, whose unwinking stare plunged into his own, though shining, were lifeless, as though they were as artificial as her teeth' (225).
The ironic demasking of the double language of the political figures in Under Western Eyes takes on the unexpected forms and shapes which Conrad's pessimistic political vision inspired. They have the aptness, the finesse, the succinctness, and the unfinished quality which John Ruskin defined in Modern Painters as the essence of the grotesque.
A fine grotesque is the expression, in a moment, by a series of symbols thrown together, in bold and fearless connection of truths which it would have taken a long time to express in any verbal way and of which the connection is left for the beholder to work out for himself. The gaps left or overleaped by the haste of the imagination, forming the grotesque character. (II, 91)
The unfinished quality of the grotesques does not mean that the political figures are minor characters. Their twisted tongues and pens pour out the disreputable political discourse which Conrad intended to put at the centre of his novel. Even more important is the failure of their discourse to transcend human experience and thus renew human utterance.
Language is both the target and the source of the grotesque in Under Western Eyes, for the poisoning of the well is to continue. Both Razumov and Nathalie Haldin are to be recruited to write about revolutionary justice: 'We must educate, educate everybody, develop the great thought of absolute liberty and of revolutionary justice... Write in Russian. We'll have it translated. There can be no difficulty. Why, without seeking further, there is Miss Haldin' (287). A genteel form of outdated verbosity is the defining trait of the Teacher of Languages, while the notable exception to the overwhelming torrent of verbal ennui is the impoverished discourse of the exiled student Razumov.
The constant effort he makes to subvert language in order to stay alive has deprived him of coherent speech and made his voice almost inaudible. Razumov is systematically portrayed by Conrad as being lost for words. His state of nervous apprehension has made his voice almost inaudible just as if he were being strangled and were choking on his words: '...if his voice had not been practically extinct, dried up in his throat, the rustling effort of his speech too painful to give real offence. ...his voice had no more resonance than a dry rag or a piece of tinder' (184-185). The dry rag and the piece of tinder are two inert but highly inflammable substances.
Even though Razumov has been reduced by the grotesque to minute shreds, the inevitable ignition takes place. He follows the injunction of Julius Laspara to write about political justice, appears with his confession at the Haldins' apartment and later confronts the revolutionaries. At the moment of confrontation his barely audible discourse of deceit is transformed into tongues of fire: '... to-day I made myself free from falsehood, from remorse-independent of every single human being on this earth' (368). Razumov's punishment is immediate and irrevocable. Deafened by the double agent Nikita, broken and bruised by the tramway in the pitch darkness, he is a grotesque remnant of truth and revolutionary justice, forever deprived of language.
The creation of political grotesques in Under Western Eyes allowed Conrad to go beyond a language which he had told Cunninghame Graham had lost its meaning. The gaps in the grotesque images forced readers to use their imaginations as John Ruskin had insisted they must do and created a perception of political reality so alarming that readers were unprepared for it. And yet, a predictable political reality was portrayed in the pages of the novel, a prophecy of political evolution which would be fulfilled within less than a decade of its publication. All the signs had been pointing to it. Edward Said's comment on what originality meant for Nietzsche in Le Gai Savoir is appropriate with regard to Conrad's conception of the political grotesque: it 'constituted the artist's rendering of that for which there is as yet no name although its existence stares you in the face' (75).
The most far-reaching and terrible effects of marred civilisations and languages are on the mind. The polyglot Teacher of Languages in Under Western Eyes, is the failed representative of the modern imagination in both Eastern and Western Europe. When he translates Razumov's Russian journal into English for western readers, he insists that he is unable to imagine a transition for Razumov's transfer of location from Russia to Geneva. Moreover, he explains that he has no wish to create a work of the imagination.
But this is not a work of the imagination. I have no talent; my excuse for this undertaking lies not in its art but in its artlessness. Aware of my limitations and strong in the sincerity of my purpose, I would not try (were I able) to invent anything. I push my scruples so far that I would not even invent a transition. (100)
As a grotesque icon of a truncated literary and political imagination, the Teacher of Languages had a parallel in Marlow's audience in Lord Jim, who with one possible exception, refused to see beyond the level of a documentary just as The Teacher of Languages refused to write beyond that level.
Conrad was writing Lord Jim at the time of his correspondence with Cunninghame Graham about the inherently non-creative function of language. Before beginning the narration of Jim's life in Patusan, Marlow felt obliged to address an eloquent exhortation to his after dinner listeners in their comfortable chairs on the veranda of the Malibar Hotel urging them to hone their imaginations in order to forget their fear of being deluded, to drown out the deafening cycle of political stereotypes and hackneyed phrases in order to apprehend the intensity of life.
Frankly, it is not my words that I mistrust, but your minds. I could be eloquent were I not afraid that you fellows had starved your imaginations to feed your bodies. I do not mean to be offensive. It is respectable to have no illusions-and safe-and profitable-and dull. Yet, you, too, in your time must have known the intensity of life...as amazing as the glow of sparks struck from a cold stone-and as short lived. Alas. (LJ 125)
Conrad had good reason to worry about the fact that his political fiction, which was skeptical of the ultimate goals of the empire of progress, might be misunderstood. Lord Jim ends with Marlow's letter to the privileged reader-the only one to whom Marlow entrusts the final details of the story with its injunction to reconsider Jim's case. The complex narrative structure indicates Conrad's degree of doubt as to the reception of the novel as well as his conviction that imaginations needed to be rekindled. One of Lord Jim's most successful grotesques, with its alternating intonations of certitude and questioning and alternating use of present and past tenses, the leitmotif 'one of us' is also to be found in Under Western Eyes.
In Victory, Axel Heyst believes that the imagination must be silenced because of the illusions and desires it creates. He had been told by his father, seemingly a disciple of Schopenhauer, to eliminate the imagination, which was a cause of action and suffering.
His son buried the silenced destroyer of systems, of hopes, of beliefs. He observed that the death of that bitter condemner of life did not trouble the flow of life's stream where men and women go by as thick as dust, revolving and jostling one another like figures cut out of cork and weighted with lead just sufficiently to keep their proudly upright posture. (175)
The jostling and bobbing cork figures in the stream of life, like some of the humorous grotesques to be found in the margins of medieval manuscripts, are foils to the rigidly unimaginative Heyst: 'And now Heyst felt acutely that he was alone on the bank of the stream. In his pride he determined not to enter it' (175-176). Because he was obedient to the paternal injunction to close his imagination to the outside world, Heyst became a poor player in the game of the empire. He did not have enough imagination to possess the typical European faith in what Edward Said defined as the 'trajectory of westerning [which] customarily saw the Orient as ceding its historical pre-eminence to the world spirit moving westward away from Asia and toward Europe' ('Orientalism Reconsidered' 203).
Axel Heyst, the man of no illusions and no desires, lacks vision: 'he had not the gift of intuition which is fostered in the days of youth by dreams and visions, exercises of the heart fitting it for the encounters of a world' (222). The fact that the man of no substance has inherited furniture is the first sign of human aspirations, but one which provokes laughter among his contemporaries: 'We had all known Heyst flitting from tree to tree in a wilderness... It was like a bird owning real property' (31).
The figure of the homeless bird unable to settle is not only a caricature of the detached Heyst but of the waning political vision of many aimless wanderers who like Heyst had failed in their enterprise and had remained behind without purpose. Heyst's refusal to use his imagination creates a form of mental paralysis which makes him unable to cope with crisis. He cannot imagine the possibility of being loved, nor the degree of evil of which his enemies are capable – nor even the fact that he may have enemies – all of the elements which set the tragedy of Samburan in motion. Lacking real subtance, a man without roots or passions, Heyst is terrifying dehumanised creature, a modern monster of scepticism and doubt.
When desires, illusions, transcendence and the sublime are erased from fiction, when the human essence becomes a neutral, passionless one, the grotesque becomes essential. For the critic Bernard McElroy, the grotesque genre, if it is to succeed, must remain human: 'For Ruskin, the source of the terror of the grotesque is not a specific situation but the human condition itself' (3).
As a child in exile, Conrad had read his father's translation of Victor Hugo's long prose poem Les Travailleurs de la Mer. The French master of the grotesque felt that 'deformity predominates in life, for all the lines are broken, in the waves, in the leaves, upon the rocks, so that we can only guess what parodies are enacted there' (65).
Like Victor Hugo, Conrad understood that the surprising shapes and shadows of grotesque allow the imagination to confront the chaos of a warped universe and to perceive what is hidden by it: 'The grotesque touches upon the celestial' (Hugo 65) and thus constitutes an opening toward the sublime. The gaps in the grotesque, its deepest fractures and its gravest dislocations, permit a glimpse of the first origins of both life and language, for 'there is a remainder of chaos in creation' (Hugo 65). Fully aware of the necessity of creating an esthétique du mal Conrad's attitude toward the grotesque was in harmony with that of contemporary European artists who believed that an understanding of the grotesque made bearable the loss of first origins and gave the modern its last possible access to the sublime.
The novel's grotesques are marked by 'a blatant openness and new forms of expression' as well as by 'a carnavalesque spirit of freedom and 20th-century familiarity', terms which Mikhail Bakhtin used to the describe spirit of carnival in modern literature.1
In his attempt cross the barriers of skepticism and to open the minds of his readers to the possibility of transcendence beyond the documentary, Conrad conceived a triumph of the grotesque imagination in Victory which has long been misunderstood and is, sadly enough, often considered to be the failure of his own imagination. A trio of roaming bandits, each one a dark parody of a prevailing stereotype – one pretends to be a dandy after the manner of Oscar Wilde, the second to be a gentleman's gentleman, while the third does not have to pretend to be a degenerate noble savage – makes its way across the East, discrediting the last remnants of the gospel of progress as well as the ideal of the responsible gentleman colonist. Their arrival announces a political tragedy, the deformation of a gentlemanly code which until then had been the cornerstone of colonial empires: 'A gentleman ain't accountable to nobody, any more than a tramp on the roads. He ain't got to keep time' (150-151). The popular imagination had effectively replaced the old ideal of responsibility with one of unlimited leisure – the epoch of westerning had ended, trampled in the dust of uncertain grammar.
- Bakhtin, Mikhaïl, Art and Answerability: Early Philosphical Essays, transl. by Michael Holquist and Vadim Liapunov. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990.
- Baudelaire, Charles, Les Curiosités Esthétiques: L'Art Romantique, Paris: Garnier, 1962.
- Conrad, Joseph, Lord Jim, London: OUP. Oxford World Classics Edition, 1989.
- Hugo, Victor, Les Travailleurs de la Mer, Paris, Flammarion, 1980.
- McElroy, Bernard, Fiction of the Modern Grotesque, London, Palgrave Macmillan, 1989.
- Ruskin, John, Modern Painters: The Works of John Ruskin, ed. E.T. Cook and Alexander Wedderbaum. London: George Allen, 1903-1912.
- Rimbaud, Arthur, Poésies: Une Saion en enfer, Illuminations et autres textes, Paris: Gallimard, Folio, 1960.
- Said, Edward. 'Conrad and Nietzsche' and 'Orientalism Reconsidered'. Reflexions on Exile and Other Essays. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2000.
- Stevens, Wallace, 'Esthétique du Mal'. Collected Poems. 1954 New York: Knopf, 1982.
- Watts, C.T. Joseph Conrad's Letters to Cunninghame Graham. Cambridge: CUP, 1969.
- 1 Bakhtin believed that carnavalesque figures were also the harbingers of tragedy because they were intimately associated with the wish for both death and life: '...that same atmosphere elicits a wish for death and the wish for life... the ancient ambivalence of the death wish which also sounds like a wish for renewal and rebirth: die and live again' (244-249).
Originally published 22 April 2008, updated Nov 2017