The deepest terror exhibited and forecast by Under Western Eyes’ images of terrorism, autocracy, and the struggle to endure in Russian life is that, under circumstances of total simulation and dissimulation, truth disappears into silence, and reality undergoes an absolute erasure and substitution. Here we enter the region of Conrad's "néant," of negation. Conrad's readers are themselves made to experience a version of this negation, for the self-reflexive effect of the British professor's unreliable narration is to place them in the position of questioning the Western assumptions embedded in the text as a document written in English.
The resulting self-conscious and paradoxical perspectivism destabilizes our reading which depends on the Western professor's on-going narrative even when, for example, we realize that the compassion and perception he refuses to most of the Russians are what their struggle with erasure and suffering requires and embodies. "I suppose one must be a Russian to understand Russian simplicity, a terrible corroding simplicity in which mystic phrases clothe a naive and hopeless cynicism," he writes even about the Russian with whom he sympathizes the most, Natalia Haldin (76).
The concept of Russian cynicism helps us again to observe how a motif is made to break down in the novel, and reveal instability and negation. On one side is the Professor's condescension for Natalia's "naive and hopeless cynicism" - his snide "key-word" for his chronicle (49). On the other, we find the protagonist Razumov's paradoxical formulation, contorted by fear and despair, of Russian suffering: '''Stoicism! That's a pose ... We are Russians, that is - children; that is - sincere; that is - cynical, if you like. But that's not a pose!'" (147). Further, there is the revolutionary Sophia Antonovna's comment that "'women, children, and revolutionists hate irony, which is the negation of all saving instincts, of all faith, of all devotion, of all action'" (197). The novel's ironic questioning of irony is as brilliantly dislocating as it is compelling, for these carefully designed structural collisions and negations prompt readers to become as morally alert and delving as possible.
Found everywhere on this vertiginous landscape of dislocation is the primary mechanism of communication at work within a totalizing system and practiced even by Conrad's central, English narrator: that is, "interrogation" – detached, reductive, and imposing, for example, the Englishman's censure and sentimentality on the interrogated. Interrogation in his case is a metaphor to characterize the British professor's point of view on "things Russian," but in Conrad's vision of Russian life interrogation is more than metaphoric. It is at the core of experience itself, and most of the novel's key scenes involve acts of interrogation: the revolutionist Haldin's testing of Razumov and then the Intelligence bureaucrat Mikulin's questioning of both of them, the myriad interrogations of Razumov by the Geneva Russians - the Haldins, Sophia Antonovna, not to mention Peter Ivanovich - and finally Razumov's own self-interrogation in his Dostoyevskian journal.
Why is the intrusion and inquisition of interrogation essential in a totalized society like the Russian autocracy? It is the tool that allows the Intelligence apparatus (the brain of a totalitarian body politic) to confront the silence - and shape the speech - of the totalized Russian society presented by Conrad. The passive, impervious, even moribund nature of this body politic informs the recurrent image of a body - drunk, dead, or asleep - suspended in a vast frozen waste, and this image of groundless suspension in a frozen blank white void applies above all to Razumov. Silence is the meaning of these many encompassing images of being frozen alive, and is the focus of Conrad's interrogation of Russia and, finally, of language itself. The haunted fatality of this vision is confirmed by its echoing of Adam Mickiewicz's classic Polish critique of Russia eighty years earlier, the "Digression" in Forefather's Eve of 1832; Czeslaw Milosz writes that Conrad "seems to repeat its contents line for line in . . . Under Western Eyes" (225)
Silence is a signal characteristic of the frozen Russian wastes here. The novel's images of suspended corpses are silent, and as well the holders of power - Prince K, Councilor Mikulin, etc. - mumble or are silent; the key words in their sentences are ellipses, erasures, silences. The "truths" of Razumov's story are silenced, and by the end of the novel his world is literally silence: his eardrums are shattered by the counterspy Nikita’s gun. This final silence of Razumov's world merely makes manifest its actual condition: all previous hearing and speech have been invalidated by lies, within himself and within the world he inhabited; both the official story or history and his personal version are compounded of falsifications. The brunt and import of the novel's interrogation, then, reveal that language capable of uttering meaning is silenced in the Geneva of the revolutionaries, the Petersburg of the autocracy, and indeed the Europe of modernity.
The interrogatory rhetoric - of the nearly mute aristocrats and of the strategically mumbling Intelligence chief in Russia - plays at a silence which invites the interrogated to fill the gaps, to accede to and participate in a totalized societal speech. What the society evokes is, then, not only passivity and imperviousness, but also a sort of participation taking the peculiar form, however, of confession. Though, as we saw, Conrad was highly critical of Dostoevsky, this novel has characters who echo Crime and Punishment; and of course Razumov's confessional journal represents a development of the novel genre modeled by Dostoevsky, not least in Notes from Underground. Mikulin's interrogation of Razumov draws from him what is desired, confession, collusion, and betrayal, but in a Dostoyevskian confessional form which the interrogating apparatus does not expect and cannot decipher. Against the interrogating rhetoric of the totalized Slavic society, this "Slavic" English novel pits an alternative equally characteristic of Slavic culture - a confessional rhetoric based in a sort of silence.
Totalitarian speech, in sum, ironically and unstably calls forth the upwelling confessional speech it requires, but in a hybrid form undecipherable to it. In a further irony, the opacity of Razumov's confession complicates and reinforces what we have noted is the ironic doubleness of his character, making him simultaneously a haunted Petersburg hero of Eastern genre and origin and a coldly "English" rational Western temperament, though the latter recedes by novel's end. Finally, the novel's narrative structure ironically juxtaposes Razumov's Dostoyevskian confession with the British professor's narration and "translation" of that narrative. A Slavic literary form, then, is paired against and interacts with a more traditional, conventionally Western version of the novel genre, and a mutually deconstructive tension results, measuring Eastern and Western rhetoric against each other.
I'll post the conclusion of this essay next week.
Here are Amazon links to Conrad's novel and to Dostoyevsky's two works cited above: Under Western Eyes (Penguin Classics) and Crime and Punishment (Penguin Classics) and Notes from Underground and The Double (Penguin Classics).