To what extent can we say that Joseph Conrad is read differently in his adopted Britain and his native Poland? Culture.pl presents an academic paper by Andrzej Busza which unpacks his own relationship to Conrad's works, Conrad's relationship to Flaubert and Dostoevsky, and how readerships can be framed across national boundaries.
Conrad's European Axis: Between Flaubert and Dostoevsky
Andrzej Busza,University of British Columbia, Vancouver
For a number of years I have taught a senior undergraduate course entitled: 'Conrad in a European Context'. When I first conceived this course my motives were quite ingenuous. I wanted to teach a class in which I would be able to discuss some of my favourite authors: Conrad, Flaubert, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Nietzsche, Thomas Mann. And, indeed, teaching the course has always turned out to be a thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding experience. My knowledge and appreciation of the European writers deepened and I acquired new perspectives on Conrad's work. Then, on reflection, I realised that the approach was not a novel departure but the consummation of a life-long project.
I began my serious study of Joseph Conrad by writing a thesis, which later became a monograph, on his Polish literary background. In effect, I proposed the reading of Conrad's work in relation to themes and motifs prevalent in nineteenth-century Polish literature and culture. The value and validity of this critical approach is now a commonplace of Conrad studies. It was not the case, however, forty or so years ago, when I first sought approval of my topic at University College London.
The notion of tracing the influence of Polish literature on Conrad was deemed not only quixotic but in effect pointless. The reigning professor expressed his supercilious scepticism laconically: 'And was there any?' Then, to bring home the error of my ways, he directed me to a University of London thesis on the influence of Turgenev on Flaubert, which had concluded sadly and unequivocally that there was none. So, the gauntlet had been thrown and I took up the challenge.
My inquiry was grounded not in some well thought out theory but had been set in motion by a rhetorical question; although of course it had theoretical ramifications and the theory to which I unconsciously subscribed ran counter to the then hegemonic New Critical orthodoxy. The latter claimed that 'the purest criticism attends only to the text, which it conceives as floating in a timeless vacuum: a text and meaning immutable, created by no flesh-and-blood writer and without flesh-and-blood readers in mind' (Guerard 1); whereas I have always favoured a less pure, more secular (in Edward Said's sense) approach, especially when dealing with writers so embroiled in historical reality as Conrad.
I had arrived at my topic by way of a real question: why was there a marked contrast between Conrad's popularity with the educated reading public in Britain and in Poland? (I am referring to the period preceding the Conrad revival in the sixties.) In Poland Conrad had been in the literary spotlight throughout the thirties; during the Second World War his popularity soared. It has been claimed that under the Nazi occupation Lord Jim was among the favourite works of the young men and women who belonged to the Resistance.
Indeed, in his recently published Rising '44: 'The Battle for Warsaw' Norman Davies writes, 'the 'Class of 1920', which formed the most typical cohort of the insurgents, has been called 'Conrad's children' '(523). And when in my English high school we read Conrad's last completed novel The Rover, I was enthralled by the book whereas my classmates found it tedious. All this pointed to a difference in the horizon of expectations of the contemporary Polish and English reader.
At University College London I had a friend who had been a fighter pilot during the Battle of Britain and who was taking a degree in philosophy. The UCL philosophy department at that time was dominated by A.J. Ayer, a leading proponent of logical positivism. I occasionally attended seminars in Gordon Square, where ideas were boxed like crabs in the rigid containers of logical propositions – and if they didn't quite fit, the pincers were cut off – while all metaphysical questions were contemptuously dismissed as meaningless.
I recognised a clear affinity between this philosophical purism and the hermetic aspirations of the New Critics, and later the pseudo-scientism of the Structuralists. I found support and a kind of rationale for my contextualist bias in the work of the English philosopher R.G. Collingwood, who developed out of his disagreement with 'logical atomism' his question and answer logic. In his philosophical autobiography Collingwood writes that
You cannot find out what a man means by simply studying his spoken or written statements, even though he has spoken or written with perfect command of language and perfectly truthful intention. In order to find out his meaning you must also know what the question was (a question in his own mind, and presumed by him to be in yours) to which the thing he has said or written was meant as an answer. (31)
Truth and intention in fictional narratives are highly complex issues, but they are not altogether irrelevant and meaningless. And one can argue that although Conrad wrote his texts in English, to a greater and more significant degree than most English writers, some of the 'answers' relating to the whole gamut of axiological questions are, as it were, responses to questions posed in various European languages: in particular, Polish, French, Russian (in translation), as well as, of course, English. And indeed, some of the more absurd readings of Conrad have been generated by critics who have missed or misheard the culturally specific inflections of his 'answers'.
Rather than try to chart the entire map of Conrad's Europe of the mind, I shall limit my discussion to two poles of nineteenth-century European literary consciousness. Like Geneva and St. Petersburg in Under Western Eyes, Flaubert and Dostoevsky stand at the opposite ends of the literary and axiological space within which Conrad elaborates his fictional world. What objective validity my two markers hold may, and probably will, emerge as a by-product of this discussion; I have chosen them, however, first and foremost for their explanatory value as manifoldly differentiating coordinates.
Pound writes of Mauberley and himself that 'His true Penelope was Flaubert' (173). The same could be said of Conrad. He begins A Personal Record, whose 'aim' is to present 'the feelings and sensations connected with the writing of my first book and with my first contact with the sea'(xxi), with a tribute to the old Norman Master:
Since saints are supposed to look benignantly on humble believers, I indulge in the pleasant fancy that the shade of old Flaubert — who imagined himself to be (amongst other things) a descendent of Vikings — might have hovered with amused interest over the decks of a 2,000-ton steamer called the Adowa, on board of which, gripped by the inclement winter alongside a quay in Rouen, the tenth chapter of 'Almayer's Folly' was begun. With interest, I say, for was not the kind Norman giant with enormous moustaches and a thundering voice the last of the Romantics? Was he not, in his unwordly, almost ascetic, devotion to his art a sort of literary, saint-like hermit? (3)
It is interesting to note how in addition to canonising Flaubert, Conrad 'indulges in the fancy' of vesting him with a sea-connection. Flaubert's main and most important role was to provide Conrad with a model of the novelist as artist and the artist as supreme craftsman. 'A work that aspires, however humbly, to the condition of art should carry its justification in every line' begins Conrad's famous Preface to The Nigger of the 'Narcissus' (xxxix).
This insistence on total accountability, which more or less always has been a given in poetry, was now being applied to prose fiction. Flaubert demanded of the novelist the same kind of attention to detail at every level of the structure as well as to the interrelationship between the elements making up the text that Gautier or Baudelaire were striving for in their poems. This was, of course, an ideal to aspire to rather than, at present at least, an attainable goal. In his famous letter to Louise Colet, written when he was working on Madame Bovary, Flaubert said:
What seems beautiful to me, what I should like to write, is a book about nothing, a book dependent on nothing external, which would be held together by the internal strength of its style, just as the earth, suspended in the void, depends on nothing external for its support; a book which would almost have no subject, or at least in which the subject would be almost invisible, if such a thing is possible. The finest works are those that contain the least matter; the closer expression comes to thought, the closer language comes to coinciding and merging with it, the finer the result. I believe the future of Art lies in this direction. (The Letters 154)
Early on in Madame Bovary we come across a passage where language becomes almost opaque and the mimetic thrust of the writing is at a minimum. It is, of course, the description of Charles Bovary's grotesque hat:
His was one of those composite pieces of headgear in which you may trace features of bearskin, lancer-cap and bowler, night-cap and otterskin: one of those pathetic objects that are deeply expressive in their dumb ugliness, like an idiot's face. An oval splayed out with whale-bone, it started off with three pompons; these were followed by lozenges of velvet and rabbit's fur alternately, separated by a red band, and after that came a kind of bag ending in a polygon of card-board with intricate braiding on it; and from this there hung down like a tassel, at the end of a long, too slender cord, a little sheaf of gold threads. It was a new cap, with a shiny peak. (16)
If not quite a text about nothing, it is writing in which the signified approaches the condition of abstraction. What strikes the reader above all, is the sheer virtuosity of the performance: diction as well as syntax. Moreover, the passage demonstrates that Flaubert's texts are not only meticulously composed, but that they are quintessentially written texts.
The underlying paradigm is written not orally-based discourse. Flaubert was showing the way to such writers as: Proust, Mann, Joyce, Woolf, Nabokov, Beckett, the Barneses – Djuna and Julian. Although Conrad took many technical lessons in the Flaubertian studio, he would not, indeed, probably could not follow the Grande Corniche of Modernism. By temperament, background and in view of his life-experience his artistic orientation was essentially – to use Said's terms – 'secular' rather than 'hermetic'.1
There is a world of difference between Conrad's contention that 'art itself may be defined as a single-minded attempt to render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe, by bringing to light the truth, manifold and one, underlying its every aspect'(Preface to NN xxxix) and Joyce's definition of art as the pursuit of the aesthetic image 'luminously apprehended as selfbounded and selfcontained upon the immeasurable background of space and time which is not it' (230). For Conrad the world remained 'an enigmatical spectacle'(Preface to NN xxxix): 'a spectacle for awe, love, adoration, or hate'(PR 92) , while the more radical followers of Flaubert – late Joyce, Robbe-Grillet, Claude Simon, Jean Ricardou – have turned reality into a text to be analysed, processed and reconfigured.
But even when Conrad is following Flaubert's lessons, he admires and does otherwise. In a literal sense Conrad's denial of the formative influence of Madame Bovary in a letter to Hugh Walpole is a little disingenuous but his overall assessment of the nature of his debt to Flaubert seems accurate enough. He emphasises Flaubert's skill at 'rendering ...concrete things and visual impressions' – a skill he shared and used most effectively. He then continues:
I thought him marvellous in that respect. I don't think I learned anything from him. What he did for me was to open my eyes and arouse my emulation. One can learn something from Balzac, but what could one learn from Flaubert? He compels admiration – about the greatest service one artist can render to another. (7 June 1918; CL6 228)
I shall now try to demonstrate the difference between Conrad's and Flaubert's narrative style by referring to some specific passages. My first example comes from the story 'Prince Roman'. Here in two short paragraphs we have a description of a convoy of Russian soldiers moving through the Polish countryside:
'One afternoon, it happened that the Prince after turning his horse's head for home remarked a low dense cloud of dark dust cutting slantwise a part of the view. He reined in on a knoll and peered. There were slender gleams of steel here and there in that cloud, and it contained moving forms which revealed themselves at last as a long line of peasant carts full of soldiers, moving slowly in double file under the escort of mounted Cossacks.
'It was like an immense reptile creeping over the fields; its head dipped out of sight in a slight hollow and its tail went on writhing and growing shorter as thought the monster were eating its way slowly into the very heart of the land. (TH 38)
The rhetorical composition of the two paragraphs is significantly different. The first offers a vividly visualised concrete scene; the images are graphic, precise, entirely devoid of figurative language. The second paragraph like an epic simile develops a metaphoric momentum of its own and shifts to a symbolic mode. The paragraphs embody and display the two contrary sides of Conrad's temperament and imagination – for lack of better terms – the realistic and the romantic. He shares this duality with Flaubert.
But, whereas Flaubert worked very hard to separate the two (eventually producing works where either one tendency or the other predominates), Conrad chose to integrate, indeed often to render problematic the distinctions that have been used to discriminate between the two contraries. Obvious instances are the dialectic between Marlow and Kurtz, on the one hand; and Marlow and Jim, on the other. The interaction between the contrasting perspectives produces all kinds of ironic effects and ambiguities.
'You should have heard him say, 'My ivory'. O yes, I heard him. 'My Intended, my ivory, my station, my river, my – ' Everything belonged to him. It made me hold my breath in expectation of hearing the wilderness burst into prodigious laughter that would shake the fixed stars in their places'. (HD 206)
Here, Kurtz's delusional hyperbole is countered and undercut by Marlow's even more hyperbolic irony. By contrast, in Flaubert irony is as a rule more obvious and univocal. Witness the following exchange between Emma and her cooling lover Rodolphe:
'When midnight chimes', she said, 'you are to think of me!' And if he confessed that he had not thought of her, there was a torrent of reproaches, ending always with the eternal question: 'Do you love me?' 'Of course I do!' 'A lot?' ' Certainly!' 'You've never loved anyone else?' 'Did you think I was a virgin?' he exclaimed with a laugh.
Emma continues with rising passion and agitation:
'I am your slave, your concubine. You are my king, my idol – you are good, handsome, intelligent, strong!' He had listened to so many speeches of this kind that they no longer made any impression on him. Emma was like any other mistress; and the charm of novelty, gradually slipping away like a garment, laid bare the eternal monotony of passion, whose forms and phrases are for ever the same. (Madame Bovary 202-3)
The transition from dialogue to authorial commentary is seamless. A hint of style indirect libre conveying Rodolphe's thoughts in response to Emma's outburst leads to the extradiegetic reflection which, translated into imagistic terms, continues to express the sense of ennui that underlies his cynicism. There is no ambiguity here whatsoever. The reader's responses are carefully directed and controlled at every turn of the narrative. The reader is in effect compelled to recognise the ironic coding of the text.
And here we encounter perhaps the key characteristic and major paradox of Flaubert's novelistic practice: the conjunction of his insistence on impersonality with his ideal of total accountability. Although he eliminates almost completely the obtrusive narrator, so characteristic of earlier fiction, the authoritative function of the extradiegetic narrator is taken over by the various self-interpretative elements embodied in the narrative. Thus in spite of the illusion that in Flaubert's fiction the author is, in Joyce's phrase, 'refined out of existence' (233) in fact authorial intention as embodied in the narrative is as constraining as ever. A supreme example of monologic fiction, Flaubert's writing is the literary corollary of nineteenth-century deterministic monism.
Flaubert's positivistic straight-jacket was clearly inadequate, ill-suited to represent Conrad's complex, fragmented, uncertain, and disordered view of reality. For a multiplicity of reasons both individual and historical, Conrad's world was anything but seamless, nor could his writing be. This is how Frank Kermode describes in his Sense of an Ending the philosophical significance of the year 1900, when Conrad was completing Lord Jim:
In 1900 Nietzsche died; Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams; 1900 was the date of Husserl's Logic, and of Russell's Critical Exposition of the Philosophy of Leibnitz. With an exquisite sense of timing Planck published his quantum hypothesis in the very last days of the century, December 1900. Thus, within a few months, were published works which transformed or transvalued spirituality, the relation of language to knowing, and the very locus of human uncertainty, henceforth to be thought of not as an imperfection of the human apparatus but part of the nature of things, a condition of what we may know. (97)
In Chapter 20 of Lord Jim Conrad gives us with poetic concentration and suggestiveness this new view of the world:
'He [Stein] lit a two-branched candlestick and led the way. We passed through empty dark rooms, escorted by gleams from the lights Stein carried. They glided along the waxed floors, sweeping here and there over the polished surface of the table, leaped upon a fragmentary curve of a piece of furniture, or flashed perpendicularly in and out of distant mirrors, while the forms of two men and the flicker of two flames could be seen for a moment stealing silently across the depths of crystalline void. (215-6)
It is a world of fleeting impressions, of shadows, of distorting perspectives, of incertitude, where, in Marx's celebrated metaphor, 'All that is solid melts into air' (Communist Manifesto 83).
Although Conrad would chafe at the idea, this is a sense of reality that appears closer to that of my other pole of the axis of nineteenth-century European consciousness: Dostoevsky. In discursive prose (he is writing in a literary journal) rather than imaged language, Dostoevsky offers us an analogous vision of axiological chaos: 'In our times all is confusion... everywhere people are quarrelling over foundations, principles... Scepticism and the sceptical view are killing everything, even the very view itself in the final analysis...Who among us in all honesty knows what is evil and what is good?' (Jackson 3). And his novel-tragedies are in essence a dramatisation and elaboration of these harrowing, artless sentences, as well as an attempt to counter the 'spirit of nihilism' which they reflect.
But while Conrad admired and emulated Flaubert, he abhorred Dostoevsky with passion: 'I don't know what D stands for or reveals, but I know that he is too Russian for me. It sounds to me like some fierce mouthings from prehistoric ages' (27 May 1912 CL5 70). He called Dostoevsky a 'grimacing terror haunted creature'(CL6 78) and caricatured his fictional world as one inhabited by 'strange beasts in a menagerie or damned souls knocking themselves to pieces in the stuffy darkness of mystical contradictions'(NLL 41).
And yet, as usual with Conrad, things are never as straightforward as they appear. There are hints that, as it were in spite of himself, he recognised Dostoevsky's power. He praised the French actor, theatre director and playwright Jacques Copeau, who had dramatised The Brothers Karamazov, for finding appropriate means to express 'the tangled depths of all that psychology' (26 December 1911 CL4 526); and in the letter to Garnett, from which I have already quoted, he described The Brothers Karamazov as 'terrifically bad and impressive and exasperating' (CL5 70). To my mind, Richard Curle comes as close as anyone to capturing the essence of Conrad's attitude to Dostoevsky:
I have an idea [writes Curle] that his real hatred for Dostoievsky was due to an appreciation of his power. It is on record that he once told Galsworthy that Dostoievsky was 'as deep as the sea', and for Conrad it was the depth of an evil influence. Dostoievsky represented to him the ultimate forces of confusion and insanity arrayed against all that he valued in civilisation. He did not despise him as one despises a nonentity, he hated him as one might hate Lucifer and the forces of darkness. (26)
When one reads this comment, one thinks of Marlow's feelings towards Kurtz.
Ralph E. Matlaw claims that 'The patent similarity of two great novels, Crime and Punishment and Under Western Eyes, is unique in literature' (218). Although this may be an exaggeration, what is certain is that there is no other Conrad text that invites to be read, at least in part, as a polemical response to the work of another writer. The links between Crime and Punishment and Under Western Eyes have been thoroughly explored, most recently with both insight and circumspection by Zdzisław Najder in his Conrad in Perspective. As there seems little of significance to add to that topic, I shall conclude my discussion by relating Crime and Punishment to Conrad's earlier treatment of the theme of transgression and expiation, Lord Jim.
What perhaps justifies most discussing the two novels in relation to each other is their common concern with fundamental axiological – above all, ethical – issues. In the final analysis, both confront and seek to resist the undermining of moral absolutes. For Raskolnikov the great challenge is the contextual morality of utilitarianism:
'In my opinion, if, as the result of certain combinations, Kepler's or Newton's discoveries could become known to people in no other way than by sacrificing the lives of one, or ten, or a hundred or more people who were hindering the discovery, or standing as an obstacle in its path, then Newton would have the right, and it would even be his duty ... to remove those ten or a hundred people, in order to make his discoveries known to all mankind'. (Crime and Punishment 259; pt.3, ch.5)
Marlow is beset by even more radical axiological anxiety, which involves epistemological problems as well as ethical ones:
'I see well enough now that I hoped for the impossible – for the laying of what is the most obstinate ghost of man's creation, of the uneasy doubt uprising like a mist, secret and gnawing like a worm, and more chilling than the certitude of death – the doubt of the sovereign power enthroned in a fixed standard of conduct'. (LJ 50)
At the heart of Crime and Punishment is a premeditated murder: a gratuitous transgression of the traditional moral code.2
Dostoevsky thus puts into question the very basis of traditional morality. Raskolnikov conducts an ethical experiment, the outcome of which is by no means clear at the outset. Moreover, the context of his action (motives, psychological factors, external circumstances, as well as consequences), most of which is presented after the murder, constitutes the bulk of the book.
In the end, Dostoevsky demonstrates that the new morality is at odds with human nature. Porfiry, the police investigator, seeks to undermine the viability of the new ethic by rational means during his lengthy conversations with Raskolnikov; while Sonia guides Raskolnikov to the threshold of spiritual recovery through love and religion. She is ultimately more successful since perverted reason has led him into ultimate folly.
In Lord Jim moral categories as such are never in question; what is at issue is the degree of Jim's responsibility for his conduct on the Patna. Conrad arranges circumstances in such a way that Jim is almost not guilty. And Jim tries desperately not to see the unvarnished truth of his conduct: 'There was not the thickness of a sheet of paper between the right and the wrong of this affair', he protests. To which Marlow replies: 'How much more did you want?'(130). Marlow then proceeds to guide Jim to recovery following his moral disaster through the exercise of reason and sympathetic understanding.
Perhaps even more revealing about the differences between Conrad's and Dostoevsky's value systems are the expiatory phases of each story. Jim errs through being excessively absorbed with himself, and fails to live up to a code that is communal in its essence. Having eventually recognised his failure under the tutelage of a member of the community, he must try to regain his position of trust and responsibility and thus to re-establish his bond with society.
Insofar as this involves fidelity to his idealised conception of himself (a form of altruism) he succeeds. Raskolnikov cuts himself off from humanity through his sin against nature, mankind, God. In order to achieve re-integration he must submit his wilful ego to natural law: 'Instead of dialectics there was life – and something completely different had to work itself out in his consciousness' (550). Through love, through total commitment to an individual human being – Raskolnikov is being re-united with mankind, nature, the All. In Dostoevsky redemption entails the loss of self; in Conrad's Lord Jim, the tragic hero asserts individuality by sublimating the self. Although in neither text do we have full closure.
Conrad's attitude to Flaubert and Dostoevsky – my two poles on the European literary axis – is riddled with contradictions and paradoxes, mirroring his complex relationship to the West and the East, and beyond that perhaps reflecting also Polish cultural and historical dualities. Conrad admired Flaubert, learned from his stylistic and technical innovations, yet must have found his myopic worldview constricting; Dostoevsky he resented and rejected, but sharing many of his concerns, found the Russian novelist sufficiently absorbing to engage him in an ideological and artistic polemic. The relationship of a writer to the great near contemporaries (both Flaubert and Dostoevsky were born in 1821, a year after Conrad's father) can be much more complex than the Oedipal 'Anxiety of Influence' postulated by Harold Bloom.