Write On The Relation Between The Real

And The Ideal In Conrad’s Novels Essay, Research Paper

At every level of his story-telling, Conrad throws together

pairs of opposites, the tension between which (in his best work) seamlessly

progress from the local to the universal. One might consider man and nature in Heart of Darkness where Kurtz is

superficially degraded to the state of a ?wandering and tortured thing?[1]

crawling on all fours. Yet that dualism enters the metaphysical realm with his

jarring and inarticulate cry ? ?the horror! the horror!?[2]

?recalling Shakespearean tragedy such as Lear?s animalistic quartet of howls.[3]

Had Kurtz not been carefully prepared as a mythic figure, its own pretension

might render it absurdly out of place. The graduation is ably handled.This essay shall concentrate on

another key pair of opposites, that of the real and the ideal: the above

example merely illustrating that this is not the only axis of its type running

through Conrad?s work. Using Heart of

Darkness and Under Western Eyes

as exemplars – both use a narrative frame, both concern the meeting of Western

culture with something inimical to it, both include a narrator struggling to

understand the plight of a man under psychological disintegration – it is

possible to discern a common pattern. In the narratives itself, idealism is in

opposition to Suffering, but the narrative merely reveals that the ideal is as

hollow and dark on the inside as the thing that it purports to change or

control. In each case the ideal becomes enmeshed with a figure who is a

grotesque parody of it. Secondly, Conrad tackles the idea

of ?fictionality? head on, using self-reflexivity – an awareness of the novel?s

own artificiality – and undermining the claims of a narrative to present a

lucid, objective portrayal. This blurring of lines and attack on understanding

(as well as subversion of certain literary genres) leads up to a radical

questioning of the foundation of Western values as a whole. The enigma arises -

does a heart of darkness lie at the heart of men like Marlow and the cautious

and nameless teacher of languages? Does a void lie at the core of European

?civilised? bourgeoisie-capitalist culture and all its respectful conventions?The first thing is to identify

the ?ideal? which is to be set against the ?reality.? In Heart of Darkness one of Marlow?s first acts is to specify the

nobility and idealism involved in the imperial enterprise:?It was just

robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale and men going at it

blind – as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness. The conquest of the

earth…is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it

is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an

idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea – something you can set up, and bow

down before.? (Heart of Darkness

p.20)It is ironic that even at this

early stage there is the hint of idolatry, a paradoxical and savage metaphor

used to describe what is supposed to be the redemption of savagery – the

civilising influence on Africa. Yet Conrad has established an ideal nonetheless

- manifested in the shadowy Kurtz. Marlow recounts his journey into the jungle,

generally dismissive of the imperialists, but Kurtz is treated differently. He

is the brilliant agent, the best collector of ivory working in the deepest

interior; a reputation that helps to prepare for Kurtz? semi-mystical journal -

?burning noble words?[4]

- and the hero worship of the Russian: ?you can?t judge Mr Kurtz as you would

an ordinary man.?[5]The exposition of this ideal is

found largely in Kurtz? own writings – a particularly impassioned bent on the

standard imperial rhetoric. The white man – with his technology, his wealth,

his power, his religion – can exert an almost divinely powerful will on the

less developed areas of the globe, shaping the land, the people and the

resources in whatever shape he wants. In the right hands, Kurtz feels that this

power can do almost unimaginable good. However, it is worth noting that the

detail remains a subtext for most of the novella (perhaps not to rob the text

of its allegorical, symbolic feel) and just as important are careful

side-allusions, such as the mention of the Roman occupation in the opening

pages. It is the imposition of civilisation on the blank spaces of Marlow?s

childhood maps: primal and undeveloped, shifting starkly from the white of

boyhood dreams to the black darkness into which European battleships lob their

shells.In Under Western Eyes, the ideal is more ambiguous. If Marlow?s

initial treatment of imperialism betrays some inner conflict (reconciling the

great idea and the actual violence) then the narrating language teacher of Under Western Eyes is self-admittedly

lost. It does not help either that the second narrative presence, Razumov, is thrown

almost immediately into a situation where he is crucified by confusion and

guilt. As Razumov is dispossessed, the reader is left to wonder whether his

faith in Russian autocracy is just a matter of trying to establish some

identity and past ? a form of idealism.What can be easily identified is

the reality – Conrad in his author?s note mentions the ?formula of senseless

desperation provoked by senseless tyranny.?[6]

The reality of Russia is bleak, discernible in Razumov?s wanderings in the

slums of St. Petersburg, the language teacher?s Western attitude to the

country, or the atmosphere of fear, secrecy and violence which pervades the

opening part of the novel. The psychology of the orphaned Razumov lead the

reader to see all of Russia?s pain and turmoil in Razumov?s pain and turmoil:

as the young student points out at one stage, he is Russia, his identity lies in being a Russian.Thus the ideal is basically

Russia?s future, as opposed to Russia?s tormented present. Razumov?s hopes for

solid reform are politicised into his five-pointed manifesto; yet there is also

the revolutionary idealism seen in Haldin, Nathalia and the radicals gathered

in Geneva. Ironically enough, Razumov is able to embody them all, for in both Under Western Eyes and Heart of Darkness, the climax of an

ideal is in hollow and suffering parody. As a double-agent, Razumov ably

serves this purpose as a parody for both ideals. If the culmination of Heart of Darkness recalled Shakespearean

tragedy, then the early stages of Razumov?s narrative are bizarrely indebted to

Shakespearean comedy with its catalogue of confused identities. Haldin comes to

Razumov?s rooms in the mistaken assumption that he is a political thinker, and

after Haldin?s arrest, Razumov begins to assume a formidable reputation among

his fellow students. When in Geneva, the revolutionaries treat him with a wary

deference: his identity is so secretive that not even leading figures like

Ivanovitch and particularly Sophia cannot fathom him. Razumov himself notes the

parodic element of this comedy of errors: ?the fantastic absurdity of it

revolted him because it seemed to outrage his ruined hopes with the vision of a

mock career.?[7] The

idealistic agendas of the revolutionaries are constantly ridiculed (Ivanovitch

and Madame de S- supremely) and only Nathalia?s idealism is treated with any

respect by Conrad.Yet Razumov is also a parody of

the reformist hopes for Russia: a government agent who is wracked by terror and

haunted by phantoms because he informed on a revolutionary, a spy who ends up

confessing his deeds to the very people he is supposed to be spying upon. This

paradox is emphasised by the tension and paranoia Razumov feels in the presence

of officials, and in the figure of Razumov?s nemesis: Nikita, the other double-agent

and sadistic slayer of Gendarmes. In Nikita?s wanton violence and Razumov?s

inner turmoil (note his empathy with the raging waters under the bridge) Conrad

reveals the hollowness of both ideals. The true mark of Russia is not autocracy

or revolution – both are systems of thought compromised by secrecy, egotism and

suffering – but cynicism. Conrad?s double-agents help to point out the

ideological bankruptcy of both and Razumov in particular embodies the

intellectual dispossession of the Russian people: ?who knows what true

loneliness is – not the conventional word, but the naked terror…the most

miserable outcast hugs some memory or some illusion.?[8]In Heart of Darkness, the ?naked terror? is even more palpable.

Opposition between darkness and light is presented bluntly, and at the moment

of confronting Kurtz, Marlow discovers the parody. The implacable darkness of

the jungle flares into a sudden attack, and the Westerners come across the

Inner Station, festooned with human skulls. The lure of absolutism has proved

too much, and Kurtz? plans collapse under the pressure of ?brutal instinct?

driving his ?unlawful soul beyond the bounds of permitted aspirations.?[9]

The full horror of Kurtz? acts largely remain unspoken: Conrad allows the

reader?s imagination to wander among the silences and doubts he creates. (Cave

remarks on Conrad?s similar use of voids in Under

Western Eyes: the possible seduction of Nathalia by Razumov, for example.[10])

Yet certain devices – such as

Marlow?s feeling of kinship with the savages, or the brief presentation of the

African woman, or indeed generally sympathetic portrait of Kurtz – cut across

the basic ?fall of Man? archetype in the novel. There is a powerful questioning

of the imperial ideal itself; Kurtz? situation seen as a natural progression

and not as a perversion – this is when the subtle hints of Conrad?s opening

begin to have real resonance. Marlow does not condemn Kurtz, but sees him as a

victor: the emptiness and savagery that the ideal opposes lies at the heart of the

ideal itself, and enlightenment is seemingly remaining loyal to the nightmare.

Marlow remarks: ?perhaps all the wisdom and all the truth, and all sincerity,

are just compressed into that inappreciable moment of time in which we step

over the threshold of the invisible.?[11]

Just as Russia?s future is seen to lie in a fatalistic cynicism, the conclusion

of Marlow?s experience is the civilising enterprise is also hollow to the core.This clearly raises, in turn,

larger questions: a radical critique of the idea of civilisation and the

superiority of Western values itself becomes apparent in Marlow?s contempt for

the city-dwellers and greasy merchants with their ?insignificant and silly

dreams.?[12] Are the

reader?s cherished assumptions ?real? or ?ideal?? Is the entire moral framework

the reader is judging the work of fiction with ?real? or ?ideal?? ?Conrad tackles this question by first drawing attention to the

fictionality and lack of reality of his work – typical modernist

self-reflexivity. This is most apparent in Under

Western Eyes, where the language teacher constantly draws attention to his

own incompetence, his crude structural skills, the fantastic nature of the

plot. On one level, this is a ploy to make the actual narrative seem more

credible, but on a different level it simply draws attention to the fact that

this is a novel. Improbably, even

after Razumov?s journal has been closed, the language teacher continues to

narrate Razumov?s inner feelings. Daleski[13]

is one critic who has noted the intricacy of the time shifts that the

supposedly inept language teacher carries off. In Heart of Darkness, too, Conrad emphasises the fact that Marlow?s is

a tale being told – a narrative within a narrative. It is also worth noting

Conrad?s author?s notes, which seal the works? fictionality. This

self-reflexivity blurs the boundary between the real and the fictional.This use of narrative frames is

particularly important when considering perspectives: the essential function of

Conrad?s narrative lies in instability. Both narrators struggle to understand,

and their own values are brought into relief with the values of another. In the

case of the language teacher, the lack is total: ?I confess that I have no

comprehension of the Russian character.?[14]


makes the point that the language teacher seems to recede away as an insipid,

unimaginative, neutral character; Razumov?s situation eclipsing it in a rush of

humanity. A similar judgement is extended to Geneva, painted as ?a perfection

of puerile neatness.?[16]

Thus the language teacher both admits he cannot fathom the Russian code of

being, whilst his own (and that of the implied reader) is called into doubt.The same process is at work in Heart of Darkness: indeed Marlow?s

description of civilisation is Geneva intensified by disgust. Yet Marlow at

least struggles to understand. By the end the reader is convinced that (like

Kurtz) Marlow?s Western code, already shaped by the cruelty and brotherhood of

the sea, has become something distinctly different from the world of the Intended

he preserves with the infamous lie. The very act of narration is an act of

comprehension, highlighted by the outburst culminating in the following

passage:?Do you see the

story? Do you see anything? It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream -

making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the

dream-sensation, that conmingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a

tremor of struggling revolt? (Heart of

Darkness p.50)It is not only a reprimand to his

listeners, but to the entire myopia of Western culture. Interestingly, as the

language teacher also notes, words are the enemy of the real (thereby bringing

the idea of self-reflexivity full circle.) It?s a conclusion reinforced by both

Kurtz? ineffable cry and Marlow?s shoring up of civilisation with his falsehood

to the Intended. It is interesting that the Intended?s name is never given, it

remains silent, yet that is the crucial lie – surely no accidental move on the

part of Conrad. Language is implicit in the Western code, and complicit in

covering over the voids in the Western code.Conrad helps to fracture the

image language presents (and thereby peer into the void within) by subverting

literary genres. Heart of Darkness is

clearly indebted to earlier imperial romance, whereas Under Western Eyes is basically a spy story. Those two genres

thrive on the predictability of telos

- the adventurers (usually European) show their great courage and tenacity; the

good spies (usually European) defeat the morally corrupt ones. Telos is thrown into chaos by Conrad?s

narrative strategy, resulting in anomy

- a disregard of the law. For example, a heroic epic depends on knowing in

advance who is on the side of righteousness and who is not. The multiple

perspectives in Conradian fiction erode this foundation: the moral situation of

Kurtz and the political situation of Russia are ambiguous and unstable. The

constant presence of ?foreign? elements in the narrative – Razumov and Africa -

in turn present a threat to the Western values which are usually ?taken as

read.? In Cave?s words: ?Conrad?s narrative modes work against the moral

assumptions which seem to anchor the fiction, so that is fiction offers us not

closure but an unending pursuit of knowledge.?[17]Thus Conrad throws real and ideal

into conflict. Idealism itself becomes a parody with violence and fatalism at

its unacknowledged centre, and through careful use of narrative, the reader?s

own ability to assess the events within is brought into question. Images are

constantly destroyed to reveal the blankness and silence within, until

ultimately the assumptions of reason, civilisation and morality threaten to be

nothing more than images created by cultural ideology. Conrad shows the reader

hollow men in order that they may wonder if they are hollow themselves: what is

truly ?real?, he argues, may be the suffering of Russia or the savagery of the

Congo ? a? frightening horror which may

be at the core of Western belief too. ??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????? ??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????? ??????????????????????????????? [1] Joseph

Conrad, Heart of Darkness p.106 [2] Ibid. p.112 [3] William

Shakespeare, King Lear V.iii:257 [4]Joseph

Conrad, Heart of Darkness. p.83 [5] Ibid. p.94 [6] Joseph

Conrad, Under Western Eyes (Pan Classics)

p.8 [7] Ibid. p.169 [8] Ibid. p.37 [9] Joseph

Conrad, Heart of Darkness p.107 [10] Terence

Cave, Joseph Conrad: The Revenge of the

Unknown (1988) collected in Longman

Critical Readers: Joseph Conrad ed.Andrew Roberts (1998) [11] Joseph

Conrad, Heart of Darkness p.113 [12] Ibid. p.114 [13] H.M.

Daleski, Dispossession and Self

Possession (1977) collected in Cox. [14] Joseph

Conrad, Under Western Eyes p.11 [15] Tony

Tanner, Nightmare and Complacency:

Razumov and the Western Eye (1962), collected in Cox. [16] Joseph

Conrad, Under Western Eyes p.219 [17] Terence

Cave, Joseph Conrad: The Revenge of the

Unknown (1988) collected in Roberts, p.47


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