Conrad’s Politics

In the Shadow of the Pillar: The Political Novels of Joseph Conrad

by Eloise Knapp Hay
Chicago, 350 pp., $6.00
Joseph Conrad
Joseph Conrad; drawing by David Levine

Charles Gould’s fits of abstraction depicted the energetic concentration of a will haunted by a fixed idea. A man haunted by a fixed idea is insane. He is dangerous even if that idea is an idea of justice…


The ideas (that live) should be combatted, not the men who die.

Conrad, in a letter to William Blackwood.
October 29, 1897

Conrad systematically avoided all political commitment. He never voted in a British election in spite of his respect for English institutions; nor would he involve himself in Polish affairs. He distrusted socialism—as leading inevitably to “Caesarism”—yet loathed capitalism; autocracy and revolution he saw as alternate faces of a base coin. Although he sailed in an English ship when the navy was the vanguard of British imperialism, in private he despised the “appalling fatuity in this business.” Yet when asked by his friend Cunninghame-Graham to support a plan of “international brotherhood” he answered with bitterness: “Fraternity means nothing unless the Cain-Abel business. That’s your true fraternity.”

A plague on both your houses? Not really. “We must fight in the ranks or our lives don’t count”; “We must hang together”—his work continually demonstrates that eminently political lesson. He distrusted all abstract ideas because of the inhumanities commited in their name, yet he believed in certain fixed standards that could govern conduct. He saw state action as a form of vanity and disguised aggression: but on the personal level “man is a worker. If he is not that he is nothing.” What lies behind these paradoxes? Conrad certainly believed that man cannot live alone, but when he so accurately singled out the rotten patches in contemporary forms of government, what alternative means of group functioning did he have in mind? How, exactly, did he think man can live with his necessary neighbors?

In this interesting study, Mrs. Hay has addressed herself to the task of explaining some of these paradoxes. She sees, rightly, that “Conrad’s much-stressed preoccupation with human isolation is both the cause and result of his strong sense of man’s involvement in social effort.” She has scrutinized manuscripts, had Polish material translated, and introduced relevant historical data, thus suggesting many new ways of looking at some of Conrad’s major novels. She starts her account with early and little-known Polish influences on Conrad, revealing his devotion to the abolished constitution of the old Polish Republic and to the never-realized Polish “tradition of self-government, its chivalrous view of moral restraints and an exaggerated respect for individual rights”—as he put it.

This is an important clue. Conrad’s ideal Polish “nationalism” was never imperialistic, aggressive, or autocratic in home affairs; it was a stable “hanging together” based on self-discipline and a correct concern for duty to others. With this model in mind, he could turn his scorn on “Russian lawlessness” or “German submissiveness,” indeed on any form of government that tended…

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