Published in Slavic and East European Journal 45:2 (2001): 231-242.
Conrad and Silence:
The View of Russia from Under Western Eyes
In Under Western Eyes, Joseph Conrad—the English novelist of Polish origin—examines both the West’s images of Slavic life and simultaneously his own imagination of “the Slavic.” The contemporary Western views of Russia in particular are both implicated and illuminated by the novel’s deconstruction of a wide range of assumptions about that country. Conrad’s brilliant, challenging performance here is also one of the culminations of his deepest goal for fiction from Heart of Darkness in 1900 to this work finished a decade later. That goal is to envision human life through the lens of a pervasive, complex, and destabilizing perspectivism, from which both modernism and postmodernism can be seen to proceed—a perspectivism which relentlessly exposes and pursues the question of meaning in human life generally. In this way, the encompassing achievement of Under Western Eyes is to subject the novel’s images of the human to a searching examination and to resist any too easy humanistic recuperation of the imagined lives here. The novel’s still relevant imaginative subversions provoke and intentionally challenge an art made of words, a society based in language, for at its core, this novel’s vision of existence confronts us with the opposition between speech and silence, between meaningful language and its potential erasure by a society based in brutalizing manipulation, propagandistic media, and ruinous violence.
There is a related and even more immediate relevance of Conrad’s novel to con-temporary life, specifically to present-day Russia. The novel’s images of East and West echo and participate with the opposition between silence and speech, particularly speech which is interrogatory or coerced: it is this more specific achievement of Conrad’s which profoundly bears on our contemporary understanding of Russia, and we will turn to it first. I note initially that the paradoxical tensions in Under Western Eyes between speech and silence clearly have correspondences to Conrad’s childhood experience of Poland under Russian domination. After the novelist completed his work, he suffered a profound inner crisis and physical breakdown, for in that novel he reimagines conflicts at the center of his early experience from 1857 to 1874, when he left Poland for Marseilles.
Conrad’s critics and biographers—Fleishman, Hay, Karl, Najder, Said, and others—offer rich insights into the context and details of the writer’s crisis in 1909-10. Particularly Najder illuminates the profound alienation toward Russia felt by Conrad, whose Polish inheritance was opposed to the “Slavonic tradition” (358). As Conrad wrote in “The Crime of [Polish] Partition,” Poland should historically be associated not with Russia but with France as one of the true “centres of liberal ideals” in Europe (117). In his novel of 1910, Conrad confronted in fiction memories of when his family life was consumed by the subjection of Poland by Russia, when his father Apollo Korzeniowski—a patriot and gifted translator into Polish of Hugo, Shakespeare and much else—sacrificed on the altar of his revolt the family’s life, the childhood of his sickly son Joseph and the life of his wife, Eva, who died early in their exile to Russia; Apollo had been sent there in punishment for his political activism, his romantic dedication to agitating for Polish sovereignty. Later, as a British citizen and novelist, Conrad took as his last name the middle name his father gave him, marking himself with the mantle of the heroic figure from Polish romantic poetry, an emblem of his consciousness of Poland.
Five years before writing Under Western Eyes with its vision of human lives driven into silence and negation by Russian subjection, Conrad wrote “Autocracy and War,” the most passionate and delving of his essays about Russia, the Slavic world, and “the Polish problem.” In this essay of 1905, he calls our attention to Bismarck’s comment, “La Russie, c’est le ne'ant!” Russia represents negation for Conrad; it was the region in which the human disappears into nothingness. Nothing “human...could grow” there, he writes; Russian autocracy “succeeded to nothing” and has no “historical future” (97). The force of negation embodied by its rule is expressed through not only its destructiveness toward Poland, but the destructiveness of its effects on all its victims, whether Polish or Russian. In the face of Russia’s “blind absolutism,” no “reform” is possible (96); only a self-defeating “rising of slaves” may occur, never “a revolution fruitful of moral consequences for humanity” (102), for such absolute tyranny is answerable only by absolute, self-destructive opposition, negation by self-negation, in an exfoliating pattern infecting the human universe with the sense of nothingness, of the falsity of all human endeavor. In addition, “every mental activity” is “tainted” there by a Pan-Slavism with its “assertion of purity and holiness” (98). The idea of negation—“le néant”—is finally too tame an indictment of Russia, Conrad asserts, for the word savors of infinity, whereas Russian absolutism tastes of the abyss and swallows the human whole (100). This sense of Russia as a ruinous site, of a failed and negated society has characterized the Western view from the nineteenth to the twenty-first century.
In such a ruined society, communication itself is seen to be negated, all acts of questioning become hobbled or corrupt, and all answers driven into silence. Language becomes invalidated. For Conrad, Polish—the language of his original culture—had been subjected to a deforming and decisive trauma, so he sought alternative languages, first like so many other Poles in French, and finally English. But in writing this novel of Russia and its impact on human lives, Conrad had to seek new strategies in the language of English fiction to explore the negative universe of silenced lives, and despite his often expressed revulsion for Dostoyevsky, he modeled that part of Under Western Eyes based in a confessional journal on the Russian’s use of deeply searching inside views, his tormented voicings of inner struggle, and his openness to the dark region of psychic suffering; even Conrad’s narrative structure is linked to that of Crime and Punishment, specifically to its parallel action of crime compounded with moral isolation, then extended public as well as private self- interrogation, provisional and protracted upwellings of confession, finally expiation. To note this debt is, however, again to be reminded of the Polish émigré’s agonized crisis in writing his novel during 1909-10, for Dostoyevsky’s vision was—to Conrad—complicit with the Slavic obliteration of humanity and culture Russia represents for him. Among Russian writers, Conrad preferred the “non-Russian” “lucidity” and humanism of Turgenev’s achievement in rendering the “perplexed lives” of “oppressed and oppressors” in Russia; so he writes in an essay of appreciation for that most Flaubertian of Russian writers, admiring his avoidance of Dostoyevskian “extremity” and his refusal to turn his characters into “strange beasts in a menagerie or damned souls knocking themselves to pieces in the stuffy darkness of mystical contradictions” (46-7).
Yet to read Under Western Eyes is to encounter just such “damned souls” and “strange beasts.” Razumov, its focal character, is the nearly identity-less illegitimate son of vague ‘noble’ connection; even before he plunges into suffering, we find him profoundly isolated and abjectly dependent on the covert support of his aristocratic protector, as he attends university in St. Petersburg. Conrad appropriates the Dostoyevskian model in creating Razumov and his confessional journal, though the novelist’s mirroring of such a model is ironic and critical. Conrad’s Russian hero possesses a coolly self-protective “English” manner; he is an orphan, himself ironic and temperamentally detached. A vaguely liberal-minded student, he is intent on ‘creating himself’ as a professor, and for the contemporary reader a subversive mirroring is achieved, since—in the English-speaking world—many of the novel’s readers are university students and scholars. (As I photocopied this page, the machine provided by the Administration to the Department obliterated all but the following sentence: Possessing a mediocre soul and an adequate intellect, Razumov planned to become an academic bureaucrat serving what he rationalized to be the necessary order of the current system. Conrad’s text holds the mirror up to interrogate the possibility of betrayal within any academic who would read and face Razumov’s fate.)
The fate of this “damned soul” is to be cut off from origins; initially detached from life and unformed as a human being, he can identify himself with nothing but the abstract patrimony of autocratic Russia; “I am it!” he says at a key moment (148). His detached and uncreated quality of mind is mistaken for profound sympathy by a revolutionary fellow student, Victor Haldin, whose being is utterly focussed on opposition to Russia’s absolute tyranny. Haldin assassinates the head of the Czar’s “notorious Repressive Commission,” he who had written that “‘God was the Autocrat of the Universe’” (8). Haldin arrives then in ill-conceived flight at his acquaintance’s apartment. Razumov is instantly aware that any future career has been obliterated by the suspicion which Haldin’s visit will arouse. In despair about this erasure of his future, he seeks out his protector, Prince K--, who in turn consults with one General T--. With his “goggle-eyes,” the General embodies “the power of autocracy, grotesque and terrible,...the incarnate suspicion, the incarnate anger, the incarnate ruthlessness” (61-2). The two men turn Razumov’s fate over to Councilor Mikulin, in charge of ‘undercover’ work. The Councilor interrogates him and finally appropriates Razumov for his own purposes, and this completes the job of erasing the young man.
Conrad’s creations—Haldin with his fate sealed and Razumov with his tortured and disappearing sense of existence—are just such “damned souls” as Conrad protested against in Dostoyevsky; Razumov exists from then on in the moral isolation arising from both his betrayal of Haldin and the destroyed, destructive identity the establishment offers him—as we find out by novel’s end: the identity of a spy working, exiled from Russia, among Geneva’s Russian émigrés (a community which included Lenin before his journey to the Finland Station). The pressure of his moral solitude increases as he faces experiences which constitute “the revenge of the unknown” (239), intimacies at least of communication particularly with the Russian women he is expected to betray in Geneva: Haldin’s mother and his sister Natalia and a brilliant Russian feminist revolutionary Sophia Antonovna. It is of course Natalia Haldin who provides the epigram on the novel’s title page: “I would take liberty from any hand as a hungry man would snatch a piece of bread” (97). After a series of provisional and deceptive self-disclosures, Razumov finally confesses his betrayal to Natalia and then to the community at large; ironically, then, one of the “strange beasts” among them—appropriately a secret police counterspy—deafens Razumov’s ears: he will live from then on in a physical silence enacting the moral and societal silence already present in his life.
Razumov’s plummet into silence and erasure is the Russian ‘story’ of this novel, but it is narrated not as an unimpeded rush of confession; his Dostoyevskian journal is fragmented, provisionally withheld, filtered and “translated” by another narrator and character in the novel, an Englishman and professor: the “teacher of languages.” One of the living organs left out of the above anatomy of the novel is the breathing voice and narration of the professor’s language. The tasks of narration are in effect shared, unstably and in a dialectic which develops between English and Russian points of view. For example, the British professor imposes a sentimental view of love on all contact between Natalia Haldin and Razumov, her brother’s betrayer; when they first meet, for example, the professor writes that “I saw these two, escaped out of four score of millions of human beings ground between the upper and nether millstone, walking under these trees, their young heads close together. Yes, an excellent place to stroll and talk in...” (125). Even as he observes the suffering of his Russians, he repeatedly domesticates it with his sentimental plot; this tendency is most exposed in the novel’s climactic sequence when the same moment leading to Razumov’s confession is narrated twice, once from the Professor’s obtuse point of view—“they looked like two people becoming conscious of a spell which had been lying on them ever since they first set eyes on each other” (242)—and then from the desperate viewpoint in Razumov’s journal: “every word of that friend of yours was egging me on to the unpardonable sin of stealing a soul” (252). This crisis in narration is felt also in the overarching structure of the novel in which the final Part IV returns to the first part of the novel and replays key events, in a newly destabilizing form which prompts a delayed decoding (in Watt’s phrase—176-9) of the intensifying tragic plot.
A sensation of vertigo is intentionally produced for the reader by this contradictory, even self-destroying narrative structure, in which both plot and narration become a collision from which harmed and broken humans are extracted. A grave and powerful effect of critical awareness and self-reflection—of mutual and, for the characters, unwitting measurement—is achieved, an awareness which is both modernist and a prefiguring of postmodern self-reflexivity. The assumptions about Russia made by the often prejudiced and obtuse English observer are measured—sometimes confirmed, and always ironically complicated—by the agonized perceptions and experiences of the Russians he observes and the journal he translates. The English language version and vision of things Russian, which the British narrator counterposes between Razumov’s ‘story’ and us its readers, is tested and transformed by the story it renders. Even as Razumov and the rest of the Russians all exist in submission to ("under" or within) the translating language of the Englishman's "Western eyes," this "professor of languages" is himself interrogated by Conradian irony, through its exposure of his rationalistic and sentimental reductions of what he narrates; in this way, also, Conrad tests the Professor's Western Enlightenment faith in individual reason, will, freedom, and love. These articles of faith are the mainstays not only of the narrator's complacencies, but also of bourgeois realist fiction itself. In effect, that Western humanist faith is exposed by Conrad to an implacable testing of its capacity to secure the worth of even a single life and a ferocious questioning of its justice or efficacy as the basis for society and the resistance to autocracy—past, present or future.
For Under Western Eyes, the concept of the Slavic receives the brunt of questioning and critique. The work constructs a dialectical field of both Western and Eastern perspectives designed to question and deconstruct the meaning and value of ‘the Slavic,’ to interrogate any humanistic value and rationale for it—whether in conceptions of community or individuality, order or freedom. At the center of this field of interrogation, where Eastern and Western cultural assumptions continually oppose and collide with each other, Conrad places most prominently images concerned with using, abusing, and refusing speech and language itself.
In this dialectical interaction, the language of resonant phrases and images for Russia and the Slavic is rehearsed and examined. Let us note some examples in the novel. From the Western narrator’s vantagepoint, the images of Russian “repression” project a practically “unthinkable” extremity of absolute, encompassing power (20). When Razumov arrives at the implosion point of his decision to give up Haldin, the narrator evokes the encompassing power of the autocracy: “In Russia, the land of spectral ideas and disembodied aspirations, many brave minds have turned away at last from the vain and endless conflict to the one great historical fact of the land. They turned to autocracy for the peace of their patriotic conscience....” (26). Razumov struggles to imagine himself as a “[s]ervant..of the mightiest homogeneous mass of mankind with a capability for logical, guided development in a brotherly solidarity of force and aim such as the world had never dreamt of . . .the Russian nation! . . .” (213). The “land” of Russia embodies the force of Slavic “spirit” and authority, of resources both natural and cultural, and it is endowed with a unique capacity to encompass—through assimilation and imitation—and finally to supercede the rest of the world’s values and achievements, a propensity embodied for example by Peter the Great’s appropriation of Western European models. For the individual within the empire, of course, there is the negative image of this world-encompassing picture of Russia; when Councilor Mikulin hears Razumov voice his wish to escape, to “retire,” he replies: “Where to?” (72), for no corner of the world is outside the autocracy’s reach, no place or mechanism of escape from the encompassing Absolute.
There is a another tendency in Slavic life, related to its ferocious and headlong rush to assimilate and imitate the rest of the world, and that is its tendency toward myth, its movement into a region of abstract and “mystic” simulation. The British narrator complains that the “propensity of lifting every problem from the plane of the understandable by means of some sort of mystic expression is very Russian” (76). Though Russians seem accustomed to the simulated world of myth, “under western eyes” this custom seems fixed on the cliched, insistent fantasies of the Slavic as font of all force and resource, whether indigenous or imitated. A result of this Russian propensity for myth, simulation, fantasy, and imitation is that Russians seem to have developed a keen sense of the unreality of their world. For the empowered and imperial, this sense of unreality appears to manifest itself as paranoia, a bloated sense of destiny, and an overreaching display of oppressive absolute power. Of the assassinated Minister, Mr. de P--, we learn that “[i]n his mystic acceptance of the principle of autocracy he was bent on extirpating from the land every vestige of anything that resembled freedom in public institutions, and in his ruthless persecution of the rising generation he seemed to aim at the destruction of the very hope of liberty itself” (8).
For the vast populace of the disempowered in Russia, the sense of unreality here expresses itself in an assumption of falsity. “‘In Russia,’” Haldin’s mother tells the Professor, “‘all knowledge was tainted with falsehood’” (74). Lying can contaminate the most earnest and ideal utterances, perhaps especially these. Razumov thinks, in the throes of his struggle with himself and the Geneva circle of revolutionaries, “speech has been given to us for the purpose of concealing our thoughts” (185). Russians possess essential words naming this element of falsification, of the fictive, at the center of things: “poshlust”—a term Nabokov favored—or “neemist.”
The embattled, unstable, ambiguous nature of truth represents a key resonance of the image of Russia. It is not only a matter of the ambiguity of the real, for that is a familiar feature of reality around the globe. The deeper extremity of the false for Russians is the continual awareness of the link between truth and the terror of its disappearance. Truth is always subject to erasure, reality to its dissimulation, life to its imaginary simulation—and death as well. (For the contemporary Russian and his Western observer, a symbolic linkage exists among the images of Lenin in his tomb, Catherine the Great traipsing through a fake Chinese village on her estate, workers in Potemkin villages, and now the grotesque version of rackets-ridden capitalism marking recent Russian life.) The deepest terror exhibited and forecast in Under Western Eyes by its images of Russian life is that, under circumstances of total simulation and dissimulation, truth disappears into silence and reality undergoes an absolute erasure and substitution. We are in the region of Conrad’s “néant,” of negation.
More to be posted soon.
About the arts and ideas - on my novels and literature, music, and art
My newly completed novel is The Fall of the Berlin Wall, about musicians and particularly the intense, irrepressible daughter of the legendary pianist featured in my previous novel Hungry Generations, now fifteen years after those events. My 2015 novel, The Ash Tree, was published by West of West Books in conjunction with the April 24, 2015 centenary of the Armenian genocide; it's about an Armenian-American family and the sweep of their history in the twentieth century - particularly from the points of view of two women in the family.
There are three other novels of mine, One is Pathological States, about a physician's family in L.A. in 1962, which is as yet unpublished. Another is Hungry Generations, about a young composer's friendship in L.A. with the family of a virtuoso pianist, published on demand by iUniverse. A Burnt Offering - a fable (a rewriting and expansion of my earlier Acts of Terror and Contrition - a nuclear fable) is my political novella about Israel and its reactions to the possibility of a war with Iran (with the fear that it will be a nuclear war).
[These blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]
[These blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]