As we saw in our research of politics in the first paper, Conrad’s The Secret Agent has lots to deal with politics, so now we are going to compare it with “Under Western Eyes”      (1911) and “Nostromo” (1904) both written by Conrad.

Under Western Eyes is one of the most political of all Conrad’s novels, even though a good deal of it takes place in drawing rooms in Geneva. It is simultaneously a critique of Russian absolutism and of its reactive counterpart, revolutionary terrorism. Conrad is essentially a political conservative, but his background as a Polish national, raised under Tsarist rule, with an international career as a seaman before adopting British nationality, gives him a healthy non-partisan view on the political systems he considers.

“Under Western Eyes”, as its title suggests, is very much a depiction of Russia from the point of view of western liberal democracy. The narrator is an Englishman who was raised in Russia (‘a teacher of languages’) who reminds readers at regular intervals that many of the surprising details of the plot are products of a Slavic regime that will seem irrational to Europeans.

There is plenty of scope within the novel for Conrad to vent his antipathy to a regime that put his own father in jail and the entire Conrad family into a form of internal exile. But he does so in an even-handed sense. The government is shown as absolutist, despotic, riddled with police spies, and completely neglectful of its citizens, the majority of whom live in a state of abject squalor. But he is equally critical of the revolutionaries, who he depicts as a collection of misguided, self-serving bigots at best, and at worst as psychopaths, unprincipled anarchists, phony feminists, and murderous brutes.

It’s a triumph of Conrad’s skill that Haldin, a politically motivated revolutionary who assassinates not only a government official but several innocent bystanders, emerges as the novel progresses as an almost Christ-like figure. Similarly, the central figure Razumov, whose only clear behaviour for the majority of the novel is to betray a colleague to certain death and then act as a police informer, in the end undergoes a convincing transformation motivated by a sort of spiritual remorse.

“Under Western Eyes – a Tutorial, Study Guide, and Critical Commentary.”Mantex Under Western Eyes a Study Guide Comments. Mantex.

In the strategy of the novel, Haldin’s assassination of a minister has an effect of an act against the individual Razumov as much as against the Russian autocracy. Since politics is total in the modern world and offers no exemptions, Razumov has to think of an identification between himself and his nation. Consider the following: I don’t want any one to claim me. But Russia can’t disown me. She cannot! Razumov struck his breast with his fist. I am it. In the novel the victims of autocracy are all Russians “under a curse”, in their submission or in their revolt. The servants of the autocracy such as Prince K General, councelor Mikulin and Razumov, and even the utopian revolutionists, are all possessed by the dream of Russia’s sacred mission among the nations of the world. An example of this would be Haldin’s words: My spirit shall go on warring in some Russian body till all falsehood is swept out of the world. The modern civilization is false, but a new revelation shall come out of Russia.  Razumov also tries to justify his betrayal of Haldin according to the dream of Russia’s Sacred Mission.

In this criticism of revolutionaries Conrad uses Peter Invanovitch, physically a victim of autocracy “imprisoned in fortresses, beaten within an inch of his life, and condemned to work in mines, with common criminals”. Despite those experiences, the writer does not present him as a hero. He is given the character of an eloquent, woman-exploiting egoist. Peter Ivanovitch takes advantage of Madame de S., an “avaricious, greedy, and unscrupulous woman”. He proclaims in public grandiloquent feminist ideals, butin private life he is a tyrant, a coward who bullies the inoffensive and goad-natured Tekla. The character of Peter Ivanovitch probably stands for Conrad’s condemnation of the idealist who acts like a fanatic. As a matter of fact, the whole revolutionary enterprise as ironically presented as being corrupt: Madame de S. is always described as a monster, a robot, a galvanized corpse, and the revolutionaries headquarters in Geneva is always described as a desolate place. For example:

“The Château Borel, embowered in the trees and trickets of neglected grounds had its fame in our days, like the residence of that other dangerous and exiled woman … only the napoleonic despotism, the booted heir of the revolution, which counted that intellectual woman for an enemy worthy to be watched, was like the autocracy in mystic vestments, engendered by the slavery of a Tartar conquest.”

Conrad’s criticism of politics and autocracy furnishes the observation that atheism lays just a little way beneath the Russian’s orthodox ecstasies. An example of this would be the words of the Russian Minister of the Interior: “The thought of liberty never existed in the Act of the Creator”. This quotation reveals again the mystical conception of the Russian autocracy. As a result of the degeneration of autocracy, Slavophilism arose. It was a response to the French and German romantic stress on idealized conceptions of the nation and the source of strength in folk cultures. This movement is imprinted in most of the characters in Under Western Eyes. Conrad does not believe in the Christian mysticism of the writings of the slavophilist, instead he discusses the apotheosis of the Russian laborer in opposition to the deification of the tsar and state. This is particularly expressed in Under Western Eyes by the hallowing of the sledge-driver Ziemianitch and by the servant Tekla’s powerful devotion to all broken and downtrodden ceople. The basic assumption in this section is that the narrator’s words sumarize Conrad’s critical view of revolution:

“Hopes grotesquely betrayed”, ideals caricatured that is the definition of revolutionary success”.

The sympathy of the writer for the humanitarian revolutionaries is greatly evidenced in Natalia Haldin’s character. Her words hallow the lives of the conscientious revolutionaries: “Destruction is the work of anger. Let the tyrants and the slayers be forgotten together, and only the reconstructors be remembered”. Conrad is very sympatethic to Natalia Haldin indeed. She is a noble and intensely idealistic girl. She has a mystical belief in the superior destiny of Russia:

“We Russians shall find some better form of national freedom than an artificial conflict of parties … there are nations that have made their bargain with fate … we need not envy them.”

Perhaps the author’s sympathy for Natalia’s unselfish and intelligent character illustrates the fact that she is one of those who “may begin a movement” but one of those who “do not come to the front”. Let us consider this:

“If I could believe all you have said I still wouldn’t think of myself … I would take liberty from any hand as a hungry man would snatch at a piece of bread. The true progress must begin after. And for that the right men shall be found”.

One could add yet that miss Haldin stands for the mysticism of political ideas, as does her brother. Noble youths like them have their prototypes in French revolutionists.  If in Conrad’s critical approach to autocracy and politics he discusses the diseases of dogma, the corruptions of power, the impoverishment of fanaticism, he also risks his hopes in the private virtues of the noble revolutionaries, who are well represented by Natalia Haldin. Consider her following statement:

“I believe that the future will be merciful to all. Revolutionist and reactionary, victim and executioner, betrayer and betrayed, they shall all be pitied when the ligth breaks on our sky at last. Pitied and forgotten; for without that there can be no Union and no love”.

We may therefore conclude that in spite of Conrad’s dislike for anarchic rebels, he had sympathy for utopian revolutionaries. In conclusion it is legitimate to claim that Conrad’s view of revolution and anarchism in Under Western Eyes is related to his Polish experience.

Conrad’s view of revolution/anarchism in “Under Western Eyes” by Eduardo Antonio of Oliveira.

In contrast, we can see at “Nostromo” that Conrad focuses more in Decoud’s plan of political Separation, it is more than a plot point. It is the tip of a thematic iceberg than pervades the novel and which, when raised to the light, makes clear the extent of Conrad’s political insight with ongoing ramifications for our own time and those to come.

Separatism in the novel is contrasted with Unionism, to form what is presented as an eternal political cycle governing the rise and fall of states. The history of the fictional Costaguana illustrates the cycle: beginning with the Spanish conquest (an empire-building, or Unionist enterprise), it proceeds through Independence (Separatism), then Federation (further Separatism), then the forcible uniting of Costaguana under Guzman Bento (Unionism). Decoud extends the cycle to another turn of Separatism, and the novel ends with Antonia and Bishop Corbelan voicing the popular agitation for reuniting Costaguana once again.

It has been said that Nostromo expresses the futility of politics, the conviction that politics as we know them cannot solve Man’s most pressing problems. While such a reading is true, it is too basic; it does not address the detail in which Conrad examines the two political forces, illuminating their particular flaws and explaining how they fail us, and why one inevitably leads to the other. Such an understanding is particularly helpful to us today at the turn of the 21st Century, when a global era of post-colonial Separatism and atomization is giving way to a renewed turn of imperial Unionism, one in which Nostromo’s Holroyd almost seems to be writing speeches for the Bush Administration.

The larger theme of Nostromo is the role of idealism in psychological life, contrasted with that of skepticism. To understand the nature of Conrad’s political cycle, one must first understand the psychological theme, for Unionism and Separatism are but the political counterparts of idealism and skepticism. Indeed, the two are almost inseparably wedded in Decoud, the prototypical skeptic who is also the prototypical Separatist: it is he who advances the Separatist plan, and all of his scenes save one occur in Part Two, the Separatist part. (His one appearance in Part Three follows Captain Mitchell’s complacent, satisfied speech celebrating Unity; his action is to commit suicide, as if in protest.) His denunciations of idealism are conducted almost entirely in terms of denouncing national patriotism; his war against “belief” is directed specifically at belief in government:

Though she had managed to make a Blanco journalist of him, he was no patriot. First of all, the word has no sense for cultured minds, to whom the narrowness of every belief is odious; and secondly, in connexion with the everlasting troubles of this unhappy country it was hopelessly besmirched; it had been the cry of dark barbarism, the cloak of lawlessness, of crimes, of rapacity, of simple thieving.

Part One, which deals with Unionism, is filled with examples of this sort of secret fracture undermining alliances and projects. Sir John and the chief engineer work together for the railroad, though they are “two personalities, who had not the same vision of the world.” When Charles Gould and Holroyd launch the San Tomé mine together, each believes himself to be using the other: Holroyd sees himself as “running a man,” while to Gould, “the other man appeared for an instant as a dreamy idealist of no importance.” Don José Avellanos supports Charles Gould’s project because he believes they have a common patriotic agenda (“Oh, you two patriots!” he cries to Charles and his wife), not realizing that the Goulds will eventually sever Costaguana in pursuit of what is a decidedly supra-patriotic vision. Even the fundamental partnership of a marriage is shown, in the case of the Goulds, to be based on the same sort of mistake. Mrs Gould is initially attracted to Charles’ “unsentimentalism,” though he is nothing if not fanatically sentimental (a point Decoud hammers home to Mrs Gould when he describes him as a “Sentimentalist, sentimentalist . . . sentimentalist, after the amazing manner of your people”). Charles, for his part, “imagined that he had fallen in love with a girl’s sound common sense,” when common sense is precisely the quality that Mrs Gould lacks (the narrator describes her as lacking “even the most legitimate touch of materialism”). Though the Goulds launch the San Tomé mine as a common endeavor, their subtly clashing agendas eventually drive them to the point where “He seemed to dwell alone within a circumvallation of precious metal, leaving her outside with her school, her hospital, the sick mothers, and the feeble old men, mere insignificant vestiges of the initial inspiration.”

Unionism is expansionism: it is the relentless process of converting more and more people to a common idea, be it political, religious, or, what “Nostromo” explores most of all, economic. Where people resist seduction by the idea, force is used. Sir John aims to acquire land for the railroad by impressing the landowners with a Presidential tour, but makes it clear that the railroad will get the land regardless, “even if it had to use force for the purpose.” The expansionist theme permeates Part One in the form of the growth of the material interests in Costaguana. We see it in the plans of Sir John, which involve “a project for systematic colonization of the Occidental Province.” We find it stressed to an ominous degree in the trumpeting speeches of Holroyd, who proclaims that the United States “shall be giving the word for everything: industry, trade, law, journalism, art, politics, and religion, from Cape Horn clear over to Smith’s Sound, and beyond, too, if anything worth taking hold of turns up at the North Pole. And then we shall have the leisure to take in hand the outlying islands and continents of the earth.” Unionism is naked conquest, but it is also a growing sentiment, an animating principle, “a subtle force that could set in motion mighty machines, men’s muscles, and awaken also in human breasts an unbounded devotion to the task.” In the following description of workers being drawn to the San Tomé mine, the Unionist force is given almost physical shape:

Whole families had been moving from the first towards the spot in the Higuerota range, whence the rumour of work and safety had spread over the pastoral Campo, forcing its way also, even as the waters of a high flood, into the nooks and crannies of the distant blue walls of the Sierras.

But the most concisely revealing Unionist speech in the novel is Charles Gould’s, which defends the material interests on the basis of “security” for the people while at the same time admitting that this very security is something one must “impose” upon them:

Only let the material interests once get a firm footing, and they are bound to impose the conditions on which alone they can continue to exist. That’s how your money-making is justified here in the face of lawlessness and disorder. It is justified because the security which it demands must be shared with an oppressed people.

Guzman Bento typifies the brutalities of Costaguana’s past. The novel describes at length the cruelties of his reign. Dr. Monygham, Don José Avellanos and Henry Gould are all victims of it, and in many ways Guzman Bento is held up as the example of everything the material interests hope to replace. And yet Bento is a Unionist figure, “the barbarous unionist general.” His role in the novel is, in fact, to represent the logical culmination of all Unionist movements. On the traditional political spectrum Bento is the right-most of the figures in Nostromo; he is a proto-fascist for whom “The power of Supreme Government had become in his dull mind an object of strange worship, as if it were some sort of cruel deity. It was incarnated in himself . . .” If Unionism is the effort to bring people together in a single ideal, then its extreme state is tyranny: the effort to force all mankind to the obeisance of a single will. The innumerable proliferation of unique individual ambitions, ever competing for influence, must eventually cough up a victor, who becomes psychologically indistinguishable from the ideal he serves. Having invented in 1904 the monstrous Guzman Bento, Conrad made the correct prediction that the 20th century would see much blood spilt in the name of worshipping the personified ideal of a centralized State:

It was the same Guzman Bento who, becoming later Perpetual President, famed for his ruthless and cruel tyranny, reached his apotheosis in the popular legend of a sanguinary land-haunting spectre whose body had been carried off by the devil in person from the brick mausoleum in the nave of the Church of Assumption in Sta Marta. Thus, at least, the priests explained its disappearance to the barefooted multitude that streamed in, awestruck, to gaze at the hole in the side of the ugly box of bricks before the great altar.

Unionism always begins by promising peace. Even Guzman Bento, in Part One, is presented as the man who brought “twelve years of peace” to Costaguana following the period of Federation, which is described as an “epoch of civil wars” characterized by “fierce and blindly ferocious political fanaticism.” (The severest cruelties of his own reign are not revealed until Part Two, which is to say, through the Separatist lens.) The problem with Unionism is that, despite whatever grandly reformist ideals are attached to it, in the end it must boil down to personal and tyrannical rule, because the motive power behind it is the irreconcilable self-serving illusion governing the individual. Charles Gould, too, sets out on “the conquest of peace for Sulaco,” but as his quest proceeds he instigates one war, defends against a second with conscripted troops, and in the pinch is willing to sacrifice everything to his personal desires. His resolve to blow up the San Tomé mine, if acted upon, would mean the end of prosperity, investment and any sort of “peace” for the province, but it would satisfy his increasingly fanatic sense of possessive connection to the mine, based on what the narrator calls “the almost mystic view he took of his right.” We cannot help connecting this mystic right with his popular nickname, “the King of Sulaco,” connoting not just the backstage rulership of the material interests, but the absolutist urge lurking behind the so-called dedication to reform.

Having submitted that all forms of government are various justifications of the same selfish desire, Conrad draws a distinction based on political sophistication. Straight dictatorship in “Nostromo” is seen both the most brutal and, paradoxically, the most innocent form of government. The Costaguana dictators and functionaries are presented as simple, childlike, and frequently quite funny. General Montero, Barrios, Sotillo, and the various provincial authorities are presented as buffoons, ruled by the immediate impulses of greed, yet at the same time “clear-minded” compared to their idealistic counterparts:

There is always something childish in the rapacity of the passionate, clear-minded, Southern races, wanting in the misty idealism of the Northerners, who at the smallest encouragement dream of nothing less than the conquest of the earth. Sotillo was fond of jewels, gold trinkets, of personal adornment.

If Unionism consists of cooperation based on mistaken belief in a common goal, Separatism consists simply of the recognition that there is no common goal. In Part Two Mrs Gould samples, against her wishes, the opinions of several members of the Ribierist party, which is supposedly united by “one common master-thought in their heads,” and finds them to be motivated by a diverse motley of private self-serving agendas. To Barrios, the goal is to “grow rich, one and all, like so many Englishmen,” while Scarfe, the young engineer, participates because “It would give him the pull over a lot of chaps all through life.” It is with a “slightly worried graciousness” that she listens to the chief engineer, who is along for the ride apparently because “The humours of railway building in South America appealed to his keen appreciation of the absurd.” Finally turning to her husband in search of the most basic sense of shared purpose, she is met with his unilateral resolve to go “Any distance, any length, of course,” openly regardless of the consequence to her. Later, Decoud begins to tell her that his own private agenda is the love of Antonia:

“You would not believe me if I were to say that it is the love of the country which…”

She made a sort of discouraged protest with her arm, as if to express that she had given up expecting that motive from anyone.

If the San Tomé mine within Costaguana is an “Imperium in Imperio,” then so is any group within a larger group, and ultimately the individual within the State. Decoud, who advances the plan of formal Separation for the Occidental Province, has as his goal a form of Unity: namely, of himself with his beloved Antonia. “I cannot part with Antonia,” his logic goes, “therefore the one and indivisible Republic of Costaguana must be made to part with its western province.” He also imagines that the Occidental Province will retain a Unity of its own. Neither happens. “I thought I could depend on every man in this province. It was a mistake,” he says, after the neighboring city of Esmeralda goes over to the enemy, the parliament of Sulaco elects not to mount a resistance, and Decoud is forced to flee town in the opposite direction from Antonia. Decoud is in fact hoisted on his own Separatist petard, because his arguments for the plan were based on exposing the illusion of Unity and appealing to individualized motive. In the Casa Gould he mercilessly dissects the self-interest of Charles Gould (“You just ask him to throw his mine into the melting-pot for the great cause”) and Father Corbelan (“The idea of political honour, justice, and honesty for him consists in the restitution of the confiscated Church property”), and he enlists Mrs Gould’s help by appealing directly to her own personal altruistic sentiment.

Think also of your hospitals, of your schools, of your ailing mothers and feeble old men, of all that population which you and your husband have brought into the rocky gorge of San Tomé. Are you not responsible to your conscience for all these people?

The Separatist themes are given their most highly artistic presentation in the symbolic journey of Nostromo, Decoud and Hirsch that concludes Part Two. Supposedly alone, Nostromo and Decoud are sent to sea in a lighter in the dead of night to escort the silver cache to safety. The lighter immediately becomes a society in miniature, holding the aristocracy that provides the political purpose, the laboring class that provides the muscle, and the silver that stands symbolically for the Unionist illusion (the lighter is loaded by the Eurpoeans “as if the silver of the mine had been the emblem of a common cause,” and when it’s gone we learn that the “loading the silver was their last concerted action”). As the lighter proceeds, the darkness of the Gulf enhances the related themes of Separatism and Skepticism: it casts doubt on the existence of everything but the self, subsuming both the physical world and other people:

“He had the strangest sensation of his soul having just returned into his body from the circumambient darkness in which land, sea, sky, the mountains, and the rocks were as if they had not been.”

Part Three, which opens with the long night of Sulaco anarchy, and then shows society knitting itself back together, illustrates this principle in a variety of ways. Chief among them is the highly thematic chapter in which Don Pepe resolves to have the San Tomé miners march on the town. As in Part One, Conrad uses the San Tomé mine to illustrate Unionism, but the tone is now different. The optimism and sense of advancement that characterized Part One are gone, replaced by a huddled defensiveness. The notion of “protection” occurs twice in this summary of the mine’s power:

In a very few years the sense of belonging to a powerful organization had been developed in these harassed, half-wild Indians. They were proud of, and attached to, the mine. It had secured their confidence and belief. They invested it with a protecting and invincible virtue as though it were a fetish made by their own hands, for they were ignorant, and in other respects did not differ appreciably from the rest of mankind which puts infinite trust in its own creations. It never entered the alcalde’s head that the mine could fail in its protection and force.

The novel ends with a workers’ revolt breaking out at the silver mine, presaging that the demise of capitalism will come from within, and that the modern world’s most crucial antagonism is between “the world’s business” and the world’s labor. But of what does this antagonism consist? Bishop Corbelan threatens that the oppressed people will “rise and claim their share of the wealth and their share of the power,” implying that motives of greed and domination have yet to go out of style, but I think the novel goes deeper than that.

Capitalism, as portrayed by Conrad, is the most self-sublimating of the Unionist movements. Its rulers — Holroyd, Sir John, Charles Gould — are none of them political men; none of them seek personal rule. They are highly idealistic, even fanatic men, who cloak themselves in dreams of destiny, grandeur or morality, but they are not throne-seekers. The theme of self-sublimation gets its most personal treatment in the figure of Charles Gould, who starts by prohibiting himself speech and ends by becoming as emotionless as the metal he mines. Indeed, there is a sense in which the “material interests” are primarily concerned with material alone, above and instead of human beings, themselves included. Charles Gould, describing Holroyd, says that he can “suffer from no sense of defeat. He may have to give in, or he may have to die tomorrow, but the great silver and iron interests shall survive.” (Mrs Gould, in a line her husband doesn’t get, calls this a “most awful materialism.”) Charles himself becomes willing to sacrifice not only his miners to the dynamite but himself to a firing squad in defense of the purity of his metal. It is this self-extinguishing aspect that Dr Monygham names when he calls the material interests “inhuman” and amoral in his famous speech:

There is no peace and no rest in the development of material interests. They have their law, and their justice. But it is founded on expediency, and is inhuman; it is without rectitude, without the continuity and the force that can be found only in a moral principle.

The cycle of Unionism and Separatism continues in the world of globalized capital, Conrad suggests, but it has been reduced to its essentials: it is the cycle of dominance as such vs. resistance to dominance as such, politically and economically; it is the imposition of illusory common ideals to a socially-homogenizing and self-eliminating extent vs. the liberation of every human impulse. In its simplest (and in our time all-pervasive) form it is the war of the small against the big: the small merchant vs. the multinational corporation, the independent film vs. the Hollywood blockbuster, the provocatively malleable lifestyle vs. the church; the individual vs. the police (it is no accident that the final image of Nostromo includes a circling police-boat). This is not peace by any means, nor does Conrad project that it will ever lead to peace. It is an ongoing dynamic, that we may perhaps hope to tame but never to control, between the conflicting desires of “inhuman” order and human lawlessness.

The novel leaves it an open question as to which is worse.

“Unionism and Separatism.” Essay. Nostromo Online.


Academic year 2013/2014
© a.r.e.a./Dr.Vicente Forés López
© Aitor Bori Ibáñez



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