There is a powerful expression of such empathic sorrow in Conrad's creation of the Russian women characters in Under Western Eyes. These characters struggle for meaning in a world where meaning is silenced; in such a realm, the capacity to empathize and to perceive another without blinders is endangered, for in this world compassion is manipulatively selective or erased from consciousness. Apart from Razumov, most of the Russian men enact totalitarian roles, even the travestied revolutionary Peter Ivanovich, an unholy combination of Kropotkin and Bakunin. Russian women, however, join Razumov in choosing to cast off their erased and betrayed status and to emerge, even if into silence and suffering, "to burn rather than rot" (177), to struggle for meaning within its silencing in a totalized society. [Here, again, is the Amazon link: Under Western Eyes (Penguin Classics).]
These women characters - Sophia Antonovna, Tekla, Mrs. Haldin, and above all the daughter Natalia - ironically and unstably shift between opposed roles, and their ambiguity constitutes a crucial structural tension in the novel. Western romance conventions shadow Razumov’s realization of “the possibility of being loved” by Natalia, but his discovery prompts the nightmare realization of what Sophia calls the “ignominy” of existence in the East (266). There is a Dostoyevskian role of women, which is searchingly intense, revelatory, yet nurturing – Peter Ivanovich voices the standard cliché: "Admirable Russian women!" (86) – and in this novel it collides with the image of women as traditional heroines from Western fiction, gifted in attuning the community to the "heart's" needs. The instability of these characters - correctively shifting between Eastern and Western images and conventions - reinforces the sense of modern emergency in characterization and narrative convention. The portrait of these women characters enacts a sense of crisis in the silenced and erased status of the "human," a crisis in sustaining the capacity for empathic comprehension in the modern world.
Perhaps the best way to describe the critical and structural instability achieved by Conrad is to broach the notion of "playing dead" - as a means of exploring the deadnesses of modern existence. The self-hobbling, interiorized, Dostoyevskian confession is a form of such playing dead, simultaneously desired by the totalitarian state yet not perfectly fulfilling its wishes, for Dostoyevskian confession subverts the totalitarian version of confessional rhetoric, making it the instrument for an unpredictable disorder and fullness of possibility, for polyphony to use Bakhtin's resonant term. In the case of Razumov's journal, its apparent "deadness" (with its implicit acquiescence in the act of confession) masks a subversive, invigorating flux of possibility, above all the possibility of contact.
For the victims of such a world of numbing simulation and lies, it is no accident that these characters should exhibit "a generosity in their ardour of speech which removes it as far as possible from common loquacity," as the Professor observes (6). This Russian ethos of contact – this use of language and form – offers a model for many future efforts in modern fiction to draw a voice from the silence of the controlled, "totalized," insulated world its characters inhabit. Thus Natalie Sarraute writes: "[A] continual, almost maniacal need for contact ... attracts all such characters like dizziness and incites them on occasions to try, by any means whatsoever, to clear a path to the 'other,' to penetrate him as deeply as possible and make him lose his disturbing, unbearable opaqueness" (33).
Razumov's desperate act of "contact" is his confession to the very persons he has betrayed. In this way he subverts and silences the totalized expectations of his speech; after he is deafened for his troubles, he exists in a world of exterior silence, "playing" or appearing dead in terms of the fabrications and prefabrications of the totalized society. Yet as a result he is himself contacted, cared for, and listened to by Sophia, Tekla, and others, and he becomes a source of meaningful speech for the alienated inhabitants outside and silenced by the totalized field. Razumov and his fragile circle of survivors face the haunted, illusory specter - the deadness - of their society, and their role is not only to tell the dangerous, potentially immolating truths, to grieve in advance for all the betrayals their society suffers and enacts; their role is also to testify to the possibility of just and compassionate relations.
In "Autocracy and War," Conrad writes that - in the face of societal delusion and oppression - it is only by using "our sympathetic imagination" that we may glimpse the possibility of any "triumph of concord and justice" (84) [see this link to Conrad's Notes on Life and Letters]. In the end, Razumov and his listeners inhabit the land of the silenced where they struggle to imagine and communicate fragmentary, forecasting images of what community, freedom, truth, and justice might be. These characters thus embody a sort of waiting described by later writers - from Walter Benjamin (264) and Adorno (247) to Derrida (168) - a waiting which places their suffering and grief in the perspective of possibility: that the future may yet exist, obliterated though it now is, decipherable perhaps in the paradoxical cracks and crevices of a narrative which allows the significance of Razumov's silence to manifest itself.
The idea of "playing dead" - and all it may signify - applies even to the British professor. Concerned always with detachment in manner and sentimental propriety in plot, his narration is "dead" to the motives and issues of the scenes he observes, issues we discover from Razumov's juxtaposed journal. As one reads the professor's narration, its deadness - its clichés, its imperceptions, its incapacity to comprehend or express the lives it attempts to render - becomes a structural paradox, for it is only in the West - inside Geneva and this Professor's denying, sentimentalizing narration - that the utterances of the novel exist at all. The novel thus becomes a model of how to balance East and West with and against one another, in order to allow for the mutual survival of human beings on both sides of the Slavic/Western or any imperial, racial, or national divide. The denials and deadnesses of the West become equally, then, a rhetoric of "playing dead," a paradoxical cover for the struggle to use speech to utter meaning. For Conrad, only in ironic tension and perspective can either language - Slavic or Western - be retrieved from its deadnesses; only so can silence produce meaning. (Rather different approaches to the significance of “silence” in Conrad can be found in studies by Carabine, Fogel, and GoGwilt.)
Conrad's art is based in a language which plays on the edge of silence. This is the core paradox of his modernism: his art would use language as if it utters meaning in order simultaneously to expose language's failure to convey meaning and sustain the vanishing possibility that meaning can be conveyed. Hence, silence becomes the sign of truth, of escape from the being and world of lies: the deaf Razumov at novel's end is visited by the characters whose endurance is nurtured by hearing him utter some form of truth from within his silence. Once again, the narrative emerges from silence and honors its origins. Conrad offers here an image of tragically belated romanticism; when Razumov writes in his journal on Rousseau's Island in Lake Geneva, he asks the same questions which Rousseau's Solitary Traveler posed there a century and a half before (206). Can we use silence and irony, the suspension and negation or "forgetting" of the self's roles, to create meaning?
In the answer offered by modernism's language for the arts, silence becomes speech, fragmentation suggests an absent wholeness, absence implies presence, dissonance is all the harmony there is, and descent into the heart of darkness can yield visionary illumination. In Under Western Eyes, Conrad employs modernist strategies akin to those in Heart of Darkness, where the totalitarian abomination is racist imperialism rather than autocracy. In each text, Conrad indicts the symbiosis of colonizer and colonized, master and servant, the former transformed - with god-like presumption and absolutism - into an instrument of barbaric domination, the latter struggling with desperate absoluteness to overcome dehumanized subjection. In the dialectical vision of each text, the reader is located at the focal point of modernist paradox, where endless interrogation dominates and exposes every facet of the human, where the "human" is driven into silence and negation and the literary text forced into fragmentation and perspectivism.
In Conrad's novel of 1911, the reader experiences a far-reaching deconstruction of conceptions of the Slavic and of Russia; we are made to explore a paradoxical field where all "truths" are revealed to be compounded with illusion, all speech compounded with silence. Conradian perspectivism exposes the implacable insecurity of basing the struggle for meaning in any national, ethnic, or societal images; meaning is achieved only, if at all, in the shared recognition that it emerges from silence, from its own erasure. Compassion is an imaginative act in this regard, for it operates against all societal prompts to the contrary: "sympathetic imagination" - as Conrad calls it - locates the human and imagines meaning within the silenced and erased "other" who faces one across the divides which society erects. To act "as if" meaning exists, with a continual awareness of its emergence from erased images and silenced voices, is what can be achieved in a world where all manifestations of individual and community are shown to be either instruments or victims of interrogative domination. For Conrad, any conception of individual or community which now arises or endures can emerge only from the resulting silence. As if silence were a form of speech.