In what ways was Joseph Conrad involved in the politics of his day? Culture.pl presents an academic paper by Sylvère Monod which reviews the full scope of Conrad's work to present his perspective on European politics at the turn of the 20th-century.
Conrad and European Politics
Sylvère Monod, Sorbonne Nouvelle, Paris
After I had offered to deal with 'Conrad and Europe' and 'Conrad and European politics' at this conference, the first thing I discovered, when I began to get to grips with my theme, was that I could not treat it at all adequately without having re-read, or at least once again perused, all of Joseph Conrad's works and all of his known correspondence, lest I should inadvertently omit some significant statement. I went through that process, and that, for a few months, was a most exhilarating experience. At the end of this process, I found myself with a huge mass of material, better adapted to the writing of a book than to the composition of a paper. I shall in fact concentrate on what appears to me to be the essential points of this vast topic.
To compound my fault, I must add another preliminary, by confessing that my understanding of the word 'politics' is much broader than the field usually covered by that term. Politics, as I see it, being essentially concerned with the struggle for power, operates in many contexts, some of which are far less extensive than countries or continents. In any community of human beings where authority must or may be exerted, politics exists. That is fairly obviously the case with a university, with churches, or with ships, as Conrad well knew and showed more than once. Politics exists even, it seems to me, in families, and that is also often to be observed in Conrad's fiction; think of the Fyne ménage, or the Verloc couple, for instance.
My conviction that politics obtains within the home circle rests on the solid basis of reading Charles Dickens. In Great Expectations, the central figure and narrator, Pip, an orphan, lives with his sister and brother-in-law; the husband, Joe Gargery, is a blacksmith and a strong man, and a delightful person; his wife, Pip's sister, is far from being a delightful person, but there is no doubt as to who wields authority in that home, who has won the struggle for power. When Joe Gargery tries to explain that situation to little Pip, he uses the – to me, memorable – phrase: 'Your sister is given to government' (ch. VI). He later elucidates the meaning of that phrase: 'which I meant to say the government of you and myself'. In short, Mrs Gargery is addicted to having things her own way and imposing her will on others. The fact that some people are more 'given to government' than others plays its part in Conrad's fiction, as it does in ordinary life, and in nearly every novel, inevitably.
I must not forget that what I have committed myself to discussing is Conrad and European politics, a sufficiently large topic. Joseph Conrad, and before him Konrad Korzeniowski, was congenitally destined to feel concerned by the fate of Europe and to become keenly interested in European politics. The three countries that contributed most to the formation and development of his personality and of his ideas, Poland, France, and the United Kingdom, were part of Europe. Edward Said spoke of Conrad's 'passionate Europeanism' (qtd in Najder, 'Conrad's Europe' 217), and, as Najder says, 'if the European Union were to award literary prises, Joseph Conrad would be a perfect candidate' ('Conrad's Europe' 5).
Conrad and Europe
Conrad the writer used the name and the idea of Europe readily enough, though after the First World War, Najder tells us (9), he tended to replace 'Europe' by 'the West', meaning mainly England and France. Jacques Darras seems to attach great importance to this fact, since he entitles his book Joseph Conrad and the West, but he also mentions Conrad's attitudes to Europe and the Europeans repeatedly. A more systematic study on similar lines, but from a different standpoint, is Christopher GoGwilt's The Invention of the West: Joseph Conrad and the Double-Mapping of Europe and Empire (1995).
In this interesting book, GoGwilt aims at studying the ways in which Conrad's writings react to 'the invention of the term 'the West' used as an abbreviated rhetorical claim of coherence for a whole set of incommensurable ideas' (1). GoGwilt reminds us that at the beginning of The Rescue, Conrad had used the phrase 'the Western race' (72); I for one had forgotten it; yet it is striking, and even astounding. Of course, when 'Westerners' and 'Westernism' are mentioned in a Russian context, the meaning becomes different and the word concerns a political attitude opposed to 'Slavonism' (which could not be appreciated by Conrad, always eager to repudiate the notion that, as a Pole, he was a Slav). But his consciousness of the existence of a Western world and of his own belonging to it could not have been demonstrated more blatantly than by the title of his most politically European political novel, Under Western Eyes, a book defined by its author (in a letter to Pinker – see JCC 70) as 'a reading of the Russian character', which determines Russia's politics.
There is hardly one of Conrad's narratives that does not stage representatives of at least two European nations: the fact is obvious in cases like Under Western Eyes, The Arrow of Gold, The Rover, Suspense, but it is true also of The Nigger of the 'Narcissus', Lord Jim, and many others. Heart of Darkness is extremely significant: it criticises Belgian and French colonialism. Conrad presents striking and even terrible images of chained 'criminals' and of the 'grove of death', and there can be no doubt of his utter contempt for the European colonisers, yet he still glibly speaks of the Africans as 'savages'.
The passage I find most embarrassing occurs when Marlow speaks in one breath of 'the white men and... the black fellows' (102). But that does not involve any kind of judgement; just a manner of speaking, a little thoughtlessly, perhaps. Conrad's view of the politics of colonisation and colonialism is clearer when he deals with Africa than, for instance, in 'Karain', where after an interesting study of conflicts for power and of betrayal, a certain sense creeps in by the end that Karain belongs to 'the lesser breed', whose naïveté makes him an obvious butt of slightly contemptuous pity and trickery. Conrad's real Tale of Two Cities is undoubtedly Under Western Eyes, which begins in Petersburg and ends in Geneva. It displays an international network of revolutionists. The cause for which Victor Haldin works and kills (and compromises Razumov) is a national one, but no large-scale political ideal and action can remain purely national.
Fiction and politics
Through his fiction Conrad appears to have paid only limited and intermittent attention to politics, with the exception of the events and trends that affected the shaping of Europe and the place in it of his native country. In the bulk of his correspondence, politics is spectacularly absent from his letters to most of his epistolary relations; he seldom or never discussed politics with Pinker, for instance, or with John Galsworthy or Edward Garnett. The few correspondents who elicited political comments from him did so for specific reasons.
His fellowcountrymen from Poland appealed to his patriotism and his anxiety about the fate of their motherland. Cunninghame Graham, probably because of his very left-wing attitudes, led him to coin statements that concern politics. Later, John Quinn, because of his keen concern with Ireland, extracted from Conrad opinions of some value on this theme. I think Conrad's letters demonstrate that, in spite of his impressive intelligence and forceful personality, he behaved on the whole as a chameleon-like letter-writer; I mean that he adapted himself to each specific correspondent, and took some different colouring from each of them.
The Secret Agent is a political novel in two ways; in the usual sense, by dealing with the workings of government in Britain, but also because of its treatment of anarchism, which has to be international. What The Secret Agent tells us about European politics is, under its marvellously ironical surface, something serious enough: that the various European countries do not really join their forces to fight against anarchism and terrorism; diplomatic rivalries and egoisms interfere with efficient collaboration between nations. In the field of family politics, there is no place for doubt as to who wields power in the Verloc couple: Winnie does, and like Mrs Gargery is 'given to government'. As in national and international politics, much depends on who trusts whom or, who is justified in trusting whom. Winnie trusted Verloc, and she was wrong. Verloc defers to Winnie's authority to the point of letting her keep all his money... and the fatal knife.
The Arrow of Gold is directly concerned with European politics, since it stages a conspiracy organised in France (by a motley international group) to help the Carlist attempt in Spain; the conspiracy and the attempt fail. In The Rescue Mr Travers is a politician (interested in three subjects: 'commerce, administration, and politics' 123) and a European, though he does not travel for political purposes but for pleasure (of which he gets mighty little). His philosophy is summed up in the memorable sentence: 'if the inferior race must perish it is a gain, a step towards the perfecting of society which is the aim of progress' (148); which sounds like a polite version of Kurtz's postscript: 'Exterminate all the brutes'. Travers, as a proud Briton, sweepingly dismisses foreign things, as congenitally inferior. There is a good deal of Dickens's Mr Podsnap in the man who says to his wife 'You can't expect from me all those foreign affectations' (271).
The main body of Conrad's political writing consists of a few essays, and among those, 'Autocracy and War' must have pride of place. Conrad intended at first to call it 'The Concord of Europe' and described it to Pinker as 'a sort of historical survey of international politics from 1815 (the Vienna Congress) – with remarks and conclusions tending to demonstrate the present precarious state of that concord and bringing the guilt of that precariousness to the door of Germany or rather of Prussia' (CL3 218-219). The essay will have to be analysed and discussed at some length later.
Let us now list what appear to have been Conrad's main ideas in the field we are trying to explore. In the political field as elsewhere, one inevitably encounters Conrad's general tendency toward scepticism and pessimism, or to what Eloise Hay called his 'unmitigated fatalism' (179). There can be no doubt that Conrad was on the whole hostile to democracy and socialism. He was not the first writer to use the word 'democracy' mainly as a term of disparagement. The most unambiguous statement on this theme occursin a letter to Graham, in 1899.
I am not a peace man, not a democrat (I don't know what the word means really) ... L'idée démocratique est un très beau phantôme, and to run after it may be fine sport, but I confess I do not see what evils it is destined to remedy. (CL2 158-159)
As for socialism, in spite of his friendship with Cunninghame Graham and his enthusiastic admiration for Anatole France, both of whom advocated socialist ideas, Conrad's animosity was often expressed, usually in the form of ironical comments. Irony came later, but his most extravagantly violent tirade came as early as December 1885, after a General Election in Great Britain, in a long letter to Spiridion Kliszczewski.
where's the man to stop the rush of social-democratic ideas?... Socialism must inevitably end in Caesarism... the whole herd of idiotic humanity are moving in that direction at the bidding of unscrupulous rascals and a few sincere, but dangerous lunatics. These things must be. It is fatality. (CL1 15-17)
Conrad had the born aristocrat's instinctive distrust of the mobs, especially as thinkers and perhaps as voters. Democracy was to him at best a lesser evil. There is one exception to his apparent indifference to protesters against the established order. He appears to have been fascinated by one kind of violent political action against people in power: he deals with anarchism in The Secret Agent and Under Western Eyes and in at least one story.
While he did not approve of terrorist acts or other deeds inspired by anarchist ideals, Conrad was not blind to the contemptible weaknesses of the decadent bourgeois society the anarchists aimed at combating. In any case, Conrad did not blindly advocate the exertion of power by the powerful. In the colonial field, for instance, he showed more than once that he disliked oppression and exploitation. He hated colonialism; mostly when it was practised by the Dutch and the Belgians, while he seemed to consider British colonial power as less tyrannical and thus less objectionable.
The case of Belgian, or Leopoldian, colonialism in the Congo is presented by Conrad with unmitigated hostility. His letters to Roger Casement in December 1903 are full of unambiguous statements; Casement was launching a campaign against King Leopold II: Conrad criticises the apathy of Europe – and especially Britain – before the horrors of colonisation in the Congo, which he defines with remarkable accuracy (CL3 97). He writes: 'In the old days England had in her keeping the conscience of Europe. The initiative came from here. But now I suppose we are busy with other things; too much involved in great affairs to take up cudgels for humanity, decency and justice' (CL3 96).
In the sequel of that correspondence, however, Conrad seems to shift the burden of helping Casement from his own shoulders on to those of Cunninghame Graham. Conrad's own part in the fight consists in writing Heart of Darkness and depicting Kurtz as an extremist who goes so far as to encourage and reinforce the worst habits and tendencies of the local people in order to gain their love and their support in the conquest of unprecedented quantities of ivory. Kurtz emancipates himself from the European ideals of conduct that ought to keep the whites respectable and efficient. Conrad appears to have felt more sympathy for Rajah Brooke, who in Sarawak sided more or less with the natives against the Dutch and thus practised an acceptable form of colonisation. Lingard and Jim are supposed to belong to the same type as Brooke.
Conrad did not idealise the native populations which the European colonists attempted to colonise or conquer. Almayer's wife, being Malay, sells her daughter to Dain Maroola. Elsewhere in the same novel, the narrator blandly asserts that 'There are some situations where the barbarian and the, so-called, civilised man meet upon the same ground' (AF 91). The 'civilised man' is prudentially dubbed 'so-called', but the barbarian is not, and it is made clear that Mrs. Almayer is a barbarian. Even Lakamba, a great man, 'the ruler of Sambir', makes no bones about ordering Babalatchi to kill Almayer (118). Lingard boasts repeatedly of his power, but he is wrong and lives under illusions and delusions. He will be defeated by Lakamba and his henchman Babalatchi, 'Malay adventurers, ambitious men of that place and time; the Bohemians of their race' (50).
There is not much to choose between Babalatchi, 'a vagabond of the sea' (51-52) or Aïssa, called by Lingard 'a damned savage woman' (91), and Lingard's pitiful European protégés, of whom the narrator writes that 'Those two specimens of the superior race glared at each other savagely for a minute' (63). The Malays depicted in those early novels are Muslims. Aïssa exasperates Willems by veiling herself against his commands; she may exasperate Conrad also, since we are told that 'she looked like an animated package of cheap cotton goods!' (128). And Babalatchi, usually termed 'the statesman of Sambir', can be called 'the savage statesman' (137, 213, 215). Outside Europe, savagery is everywhere.
In great part, no doubt, because of the circumstances of his childhood, Conrad detested Russia throughout his life; he found other, more rational reasons to justify such an attitude later, as we shall see, but it never varied and was deeply ingrained in him. When Salisbury was trying to improve Britain's relations with Russia in April 1898, Conrad's comment ran thus:
I am simply sick to see the blind and timorous bungling at the head of affairs. This is this country's very last chance to assert itself in the face of Russia and indeed of the whole Europe. I am convinced that at this moment all the chances would be in favour of England and after a first success there would be no lack of friends and allies. But there! What's the use of talking; I am not Foreign Minister. (CL2 54)
I am tempted to exclaim: 'Thank God!' for he seems to be blandly suggesting that Britain should go to war against Russia and score some initial success in order to enlist allies in her crusade. Yet Conrad did not like war in general; he disapproved of the Boer war, and wrote about it to Graham, speaking of 'this idiotic war' (CL2 206-207).
Conrad sings another tune when writing to Cunninghame Graham in May 1898 about the war between Spain and the United States: 'By all means viva l'Espana!!!! [sic!] I would be the first to throw up my old hat at the news of the slightest success' (CL2 60). Yet a month later he writes to Cora Crane after the Spanish fleets have been defeated by the American naval forces: 'My congratulation... on the success of American arms... Magnificent' (CL2 73). Graham undoubtedly is the correspondent who elicits from Conrad the most amazing outbursts, down to the sweeping statement: 'tout se tient. Voilà pourquoi je respecte les extrêmes anarchistes. – Je souhaite l'extermination générale ' (CL2 159); not wholly unlike Kurtz.
Expressions of hostility to Russia occur in letters to The Times, Marguerite Poradowska and Garnett: 'As to discussing Russia it's the most chimeric of enterprises since it is there for anyone to look at. La Russie, c'est le néant ... Anybody can see it' (CL4 489). As late as March 1917, in the first stages of the Revolution that was to put an end to tsarism though not to autocracy, Conrad wrote to John Quinn.
I must be excused from joining in the ecstasies about the Russian Revolution... Russia was an untrustworthy ally before – and it remains so still. The immediate result is to eliminate it as an active factor from the war. It counted for little – and now it counts for nothing. (CL6 86)
Again, in short, le néant. Of course, from a man who hated both Russia and revolutions, a Russian revolution was bound to get short shrift.
He appears to have felt an almost equal dislike of Germany, based on the share taken by that country in the partition of Poland; that position came to be reinforced by his newborn British patriotism. If the past of Poland commanded Conrad's views of several European countries, the future of Poland was one of his major preoccupations. He wholeheartedly aspired to the restoration of an independent Polish nation.
Apollo Korzeniowski asserted that he wished to bring up his son 'not as a democrat, aristocrat, demagogue, republican, monarchist ... but only as a Pole' (JCC 3). So, Conrad had every reason in the world for feeling Polish. In the political field, I think his Polishness determined his thinking throughout his life: he viewed European politics largely from the standpoint of a Pole, even after he had become a British citizen and the head of a British family. His nationalism was strongly expressed in a letter to Cunninghame Graham in 1899, together with its hopelessness: 'Moi je regarde l'avenir du fond d'un passé très noir et je trouve que rien ne m'est permis hors la fidélité à une cause absolument perdue' (CL2 159-160).
Conrad, once he had become a British citizen and an English writer, still aspired to Polish independence, though until the war revived his hopes, he apparently refused to work on its behalf, and even to appear in public as one of its supporters. At the beginning of the war, however, because he had revisited Poland, the novelist pronounced himself in favour of 'the Austrian solution to the Polish question and called for the reconstruction of Poland as a semi-autonomous state of the Austro-Hungarian Empire' (Fleishman 16). And that restored state would have been monarchical, not democratic. But, of course, that position could not be adhered to when the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Germany's ally, collapsed.
Meanwhile, Russia on the one hand, and the German-Austrian alliance on the other, proclaimed their intention of reconstituting a semi-autonomous Poland under their respective protection in the event of victory. Then Conrad made a proposal to the Foreign Office, urged by Józef Retinger, that England and France might guarantee a Polish state with semi-colonial status; that was far from satisfactory (and the events of 1939 were to show how impractical it was to rely on French and British guarantees to protect Poland from Germany), but at any rate, it was a step towards democracy in Poland.
Conrad's final position about Poland at the end of WWI is expressed in 'The Crime of Partition'. In that essay, he becomes more intransigently nationalist, and rejects the idea that Poland owes anything to England and France. Later, he expressed concern about the war of 1920 between Soviet Russia and the Polish forces under Piłsudski. His comments on this event (in a letter to John Quinn) are for once enthusiastic, almost grandiloquent: 'I confess to some little gratification at the thought that the unbroken Polish front keeps Bolshevism off and that apparently the reborn state has one heart and one soul, one indomitable will' (GJA2 237). That was when he defined Poland as 'that outpost of Western civilisation, once overwhelmed by but never surrendered to the forces representing what they themselves most detest: inhumanity, tyranny, and moral lawlessness' (see Najder ed., Congo Diary 94).
His Polishness, however, did not prevent him from acquiring a sense of also belonging to the British nation; he displayed spectacular loyalty to England during WWI. The few letters of 1903 to a Polish correspondent (Kazimierz Waliszewski) analyze his position interestingly: 'Both at sea and on land my point of view is English, from which the conclusion should not be drawn that I have become an Englishman. That is not the case. Homo duplex has in my case more than one meaning' (CL3 89). One of the most surprising attitudes voiced by Conrad during the war was his hostility to any United States share in it.
After claiming that there was no need for American forces to help win the war, he recognised that their coming in was 'an enormous piece of luck for the Western Powers' (to Quinn, CL6 86). His distrust concerned the right it would give the United States to interfere with the problems of peace 'extremely complicated, purely European, involving deep-seated feelings, aspirations and convictions absolutely foreign to American mentality and even to American emotions' (to Eugene Saxton, CL5 568-569).
He claimed that he expressed such views 'as a true friend of the United States', but his friendship did not prevent him from cautioning his son Borys against the superficiality of 'hearty' American speeches, 'saying (what I do believe) that five words from an Englishman are worth five thousand from an American, any time' (CL6 103). Conrad, a recognised master of language, obviously distrusted words spoken by politicians, and especially by American statesmen.
On the basis of the general ideas and attitudes I have just listed, what are we to think of Conrad's pronouncements concerning the past, the present, and the future of the European countries? As regards the present, or the period in which Conrad was writing, a close look at 'Autocracy and War' provides the essential data of the answer; but that essay is also about the past and the future. And what we find is that in Conrad (as in most people) there was a mixture, or an alternation, of foresight and partial blindness, due in part to prejudice.
The events of the European past that Conrad discussed more often and more willingly than any others were the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era that followed upon it. Napoleon himself elicited from Conrad a curious mixture of attraction and repulsion. He was fully aware of Napoleon's excessive ambition, of his desire to rule over the whole of Europe, of the destruction and innumerable casualties that resulted from his campaigning all over the European continent, all of which Conrad could not intellectually approve. Certainly Conrad realised that, to return to the Dickensian phrase, if ever a human being was, even more than Mrs Gargery, 'given to government', that human being was Napoleon Bonaparte.
Yet Conrad also unquestionably felt the fascination of that powerful, in part mysterious personality; he was struck by the intelligence of the man, the genius of the general, the way he elicited respect from the citizens of France (and not of France only) and the love of his soldiers, however implacably he treated them. But that fascination, which turned into an obsession, had other causes and effects. From a relatively early point in his literary career, his great ambition was to write the 'Napoleonic' novel that would crown his work, put the finishing touch to it, and make him sure of leaving his mark in the history of literature, and in the literature of history.
Napoleon, who had been for a time the Master of Europe, remained a domineering figure in Conrad's life and writings, to the very end. His work often concerns itself with a sense that the traditional European aristocracy of the old régimes underwent a decline which began with the French Revolution and Napoleon's Empire, but went on and became accelerated by the end of the 19th-century.
Aristocrats, however personally likeable in Conrad's fiction, always appear more or less as anachronisms. The aristocratic ideal is exhaled, one might say, with the last breath of the warrior's soul. Nevertheless Conrad's rejection of the Revolution was at least as whole-hearted as his contempt for the decadent aristocracies.
Apart from the fiction, as we saw, Conrad's most spectacular and most systematic treatment of European politics is to be found in the longish essay 'Autocracy and War'. Some of his other essays are of unquestionable relevance. For instance, the piece called 'The Future of Constantinople', which I have no time to summarise, puts forward mostly unrealistic suggestions. 'Autocracy and War' remains his most serious contribution to the understanding of European politics. Not that its purport is at all clear, or even quite coherent.
But it is interesting in several ways. The bulk of it was written while the Conrads were staying in Capri: so we have here an English writer born in Poland writing in Italy about Russia and Prussia. What could be more broadly and genuinely European? Oddly enough, the impetus to compose this essay originated in an event which concerned Europe only marginally, and whose consequences Conrad to a certain extent misread: the defeat of the Russian army by the Japanese at an early stage of a conflict that came to an end only in September 1905, long after Conrad's essay had been published.
He foresaw the inevitability of revolution in Russia, where, because of the lack of any rational political tradition, no revolution can establish peace and order (and in any case he believed that revolutions everywhere are bound to degenerate). But in the body of the essay the writer does concentrate on European problems, such as the future of the Russian autocracy and the evolution of Germany. In 'Autocracy and War' Conrad advocates solidarity instead of nationalities. He goes so far as to contemplate a time when there will be no frontiers (NLL 86). His main purpose in 'Autocracy and War' is to warn his readers against the perils of expansionist nationalisms on the European Continent, and particularly that of Prussia.
Conrad thinks there will be no more wars based on ideas like nationalism, though conflicts will arise from commercial rivalries. He seems to distrust democracy because it serves the interests of capitalism and industrialism. Conrad expresses greater esteem for the Japanese than for the Russians; he praises the former for having destroyed the hateful Russian autocracy and for 'the innate gentleness of their character' (74). His belief being that Russia must not influence Europe, the Japanese victory, which makes such a thing unthinkable, is to him a good thing. He approves of Bismarck's assertion that 'La Russie, c'est le néant' without introducing any reservations as to the simplifying and excessive nature of that statement; he even adds to it his certainty that Russia 'can do nothing because it does not exist. It has vanished for ever at last' (76).
Apart from the Russo-Japanese War and the annihilation of Russia, 'Autocracy and War' contains a large number of memorable pronouncements. For instance, he declares the French Revolution was 'in essentials a mediocre phenomenon' (73), and that the wars of the19th-century resulted from 'a corrupted revolution'. It also appears that Conrad does not like Germany much better than Russia. He evinces some readiness to defend 'the old monarchical principle'. Conrad reverts to what he now describes as Russian despotism, which he regards as particularly hateful, and which has existed from the very first moment in the life of that benighted country. He, clear-sightedly enough, says that this despotism clamours for revolution. He goes on to correct Bismarck. Russia, to him, is not exactly nothingness, le néant, it is so to speak positively negative, it is 'the negation of everything worth living for' (96). But because of the German victory over France in 1870, he concludes, surprisingly, that there no longer exists such a thing as Europe: 'Il n'y a plus d'Europe'.
One incidental statement in 'Autocracy and War' may provide amusement for a few seconds; Conrad refers to 'the amiable Busch' (87), with a c between the s and the h, who was, he tells us, 'the Chancellor's pet 'reptile' of the Press'. Conrad, then, again with some shrewdness, mentions Africa as a convenient outlet for the enmities between European countries. He concludes his essay by quoting with approval Gambetta's statement to the effect that 'Le prussianisme, voilà l'ennemi!' Prussia, not Russia, has become the foe to be combated energetically.
The clearest impression that emerges from all this, on the whole, is that Conrad's political thinking about Europe was decisively influenced by his Polish past, and by the latent conflict within himself between his different nationalities, or national loyalties. It was during the later years of the First World War that by becoming an all-out British patriot, Conrad went through the least European phase of his political thinking. Thinking of any kind, in fact, was in abeyance during that period, when his single wish was to serve, to help, to belong.
Hence his attitude to Ireland, explained at some length in a letter to John Quinn, one month before the Armistice; Quinn was a sympathiser with the Irish nationalist cause; Conrad was not, but he alluded to some resemblances between Ireland and Poland. The cause of Poland itself, however, could not be forgotten. So, Conrad did react unfavourably, or at any rate sceptically, to the 1917 Russian Revolution. One of his most elaborate statements, in a letter of February 1918 to John Quinn, shows Conrad sticking to his old guns and expressing genuine anguish.
Whatever happens Russia is out of the war now. The great thing is to keep the Russian infection, its decomposing power, from the social organism of the rest of the world. In this Poland will have to play its part on whatever lines her future may have to be laid... Fine words have been given to [Poland] before. And the finer the words the greater was always the deception.1 (CL6 180-181)
On November 11, 1918, Conrad was by no means ecstatic; he wrote to Hugh Walpole: 'I can not confess to an easy mind. Great and very blind forces are set free catastrophically all over the world' (CL6 302). A couple of months later, in a letter to another Hugh (Clifford), he returns to his familiar themes and gives as one of the reasons for his anxiety his distrust of Americans.
The intervention of the United States was a great piece of luck for the Western Powers, but... American influence on European affairs cannot possibly be good on account of these people's crudeness and ignorance backed by great material strength and an awakened sense of their power. Luckily there is a sort of futility about them which will probably make them less dangerous than they might be. (CL6 348)
After the 'true friend of the United States' has voiced such global criticisms, Conrad reverts to the two nations dearest to him.
Of course my concern is for England, which engages all my affection and all my thoughts. I look at all the problems and incertitudes of the day from that point of view and no other. As to Poland, I have never had any illusions and I must render the Poles the justice to say that they too had very few. (CL6 348-349)
Both Poland's history and her geography made her profoundly European, made her almost the European nation par excellence. One thing it is possible to assert nowadays, with the a posteriori wisdom of the living when they discuss the dead, is that Conrad's situation and his experiences, both national and personal, made him attentive to European politics, and made him what would be called nowadays a good European, a staunch supporter of the European union, a man who advocated 'the solidarity of Europeanism which must be the next step towards the advent of Concord and Justice' (NLL 97).
Probably, as Najder has shown, he might have advocated the views of the people dubbed souverainistes, those who aim at creating and reinforcing a union of independent nations, as against those who long for a federation of European states. To quote Najder once more, Conrad 'saw the European tradition as consisting of a chorus of national traditions' ('Conrad's Europe' 225).
In 1924, in a letter to St. Loe Strachey, Conrad refused to yield to pessimism about Europe: 'Europe collectively may be dead but the nations composing it don't give me that impression' (GJA2 343). Perhaps, in 2004, now that it has become felicitously, and I hope definitively impossible to claim that il n'y a plus d'Europe, that Europe no longer exists, Conrad appears to us as a great European rather because of his Polish roots than of his adopted British nationality. Yet, by saying that, I may be simply betraying my own preferences, whereas, as a Conrad scholar, my duty is to look at Conrad objectively. And I would like to close with a quotation from A Personal Record, where Conrad speaks of 'human affairs' in general, but that is a field so wide that it inevitably includes the politics of Europe: 'The sight of human affairs deserves admiration and pity. They are worthy of respect, too. And he is not insensible who pays them the undemonstrative tribute of a sigh which is not a sob, and of a smile which is not a grin' (XIX).
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- _____. 'Joseph Conrad's Europe'. The Polish Foreign Affair Digest. Vol. 1 No.1 (1) (2001): 213-225.
- _____. ed., Congo Diary and Other Uncollected Pieces, New York:, Doubleday, 1978.
- 1 By 'deception' Conrad obviously means déception; that is, 'disappointment'.