Joseph Conrad and the Philosophy of History.
My work examines how Joseph Conradfs predominantly retrospective
literary style arises from his adoption of the language of Polish Romantic
historiography of the nineteenth-century. It investigates the influence of
Polish Romantic philosophies of history on Conradfs reconstruction of the past
in his fiction. Conrad contemplates how perspectives on the past shift with the
experience of time, most notably in the retrospective accounts of his early
dramatised narrators, his awareness of historical change prompted by witnessing
the First World War, and in his representation of history in the later novels.
In the context of a modernist epistemological dilemma, the understanding gained
by a reconstruction of the past constitutes to some extent a bastion or defence
against ethe abyssf as described in such texts as eHeart of Darknessf (1899),
or in the nihilism of the closure of Victory
(1915). Conradfs concern with presenting the effects of time, as evidenced by
his complex narrative structures and their investigations of the past, is in
the tradition of the philosophy and historiography of 19th century
Philosophers such as August Cieszkowski (1814-1894), Edward Dembowski (1822-1846), Bronislaw Trentowski (1808-1869) and Henryk Kamienski (1813-1866), influenced greatly the Romantic literature of Adam Mickiewicz and Juliusz Slowacki that Conrad acknowledged formed an important part of his Polish inheritance. The philosophy of history in nineteenth-century Poland and its reaction to the important Hegelian tradition of historiography, with its focus on the movement of time and historical forces, informs Conradfs own representation of the passage of time, from his intense investigations of the past and its contrast with the present in Lord Jim and eHeart of Darknessf to his consistent interest in the Napoleonic period as a historical counterpoint to his own age. The Polish national language of retrospection is present in the writing of Conradfs father Apollo Korzeniowski, exiled from Poland in 1862 for his subversive political activities against the Russians, and Conradfs first guardian Stefan Buszczynski, both of whom were influenced by the historiography represented in August Cieszkowskifs Prolegomena zur Historiosophie (1838), an important, innovative, yet now neglected, precursor of Marxist philosophy. By investigating Conradfs writing in light of the work of Korzeniowski, Buszczynski, and the earlier philosophies of history, it can be seen that Conradfs proto-modernist writing emerges from the backdrop of the Polish Romantic tradition.
The methods employed by Conrad in the early Marlow texts, eYouthf eHeart of Darknessf and Lord Jim established his authorial voice and his reputation for innovative narrative investigations. These texts are central to the instigation of what has been termed the emajor phasef of Conradfs career. An important focus of these stories is Marlowfs desire to reconstruct the past. Conradfs contrasting of active past with a desolately still, yet unavoidable, present through the voice of Marlow, is treated in relation to the influence of Polish Romantic historiography and also contemporary discussions of time such as those of Freud, Henri Bergson, and by association Marcel Proust, whom Conrad later admired for edisclosing a past like nobody elsefs,f while promoting important, but previously ignored, precursors from the early 19th century English Romantic tradition, such as William Hazlitt, an important figure for Conrad in his crafting of an English identity. But, although Marlow has been described as Conradfs ultimate English mariner, his philosophical concerns reveal him to have emerged from a predominantly Polish milieu. Marlowfs approach to time, his desire to recreate the past, and his resigned acceptance of the present, see him as a literary embodiment of the dominant philosophical discourse of Polish history from the failure of the 1863 insurrection to the time of Conradfs departure from his native country in 1874. In this period, Poland experienced a general, albeit reluctant, discrediting of the Romantic past that had been the source of inspiration for the 1863 insurrection, and an uneasy acceptance of the political status quo in the rising prominence of the ePositivistf movement, adhered to by Conradfs influential guardian Tadeusz Bobrowski. This juncture in Polish history, with its Janus-faced gaze between past and present, is an important informant of Conradfs and Marlowfs approach to time.
In discussing Conrad and the philosophy of history, it is also necessary to examine a context for Conradfs writing that has previously received very little attention and which represents a fruitful field of investigation - Conradfs work during the Great War, the most important historical event of his lifetime. Conradfs output during this period is small but includes important works such as ePoland Revisitedf and The Shadow-Line, the more disparaged The Arrow of Gold, and relatively neglected stories such as eThe Talef and eThe Warriorfs Soul.f In most of these pieces Conrad engages with the past with an intensity not seen since the stories collected in eTwixt Land and Sea in 1912. But as Laurence Davies has said, Conradfs immersion in the past in his writing of the period is enot an escape from contemporary horrors so much as a way of thinking about themf (CL 5, xxxiii). In his fiction and newspaper articles during the war, Conrad found a way of dealing with a conflict that made him acutely aware of being sidelined at a turning point in both modern Polish, and modern European history. As Conrad writes in The Arrow of Gold (1919): eWhat troubled me was the sudden, as it were material, consciousness of time passing as water flows.f The ability to deal with the war is for Conrad located in his past experience, as it is there, in that past, that the subjects of time and history, in the tradition of Cieszkowski and the Polish historiography of his youth, can be explored in light of the sufferings of the present. In works such as ePoland Revisitedf (1915), The Shadow-Line, and The Arrow of Gold (1919), Conradfs writing during the war years, although located in the past, engages fully with the historical moment, and can be read as a response to the accusations of a younger generation of writers and soldiers, such as Siegfried Sassoon, who came to accuse Conradfs generation of sending them off to die.
Conradfs later novels The Rescue (1920), The Rover (1923)
and Suspense (1925), the works of his
old age, are a long neglected part of his career, and I explore Conradfs
sustained treatment of French history in his last years. Conrad criticism has
long subscribed to the influential views of Thomas Moser who first propounded
the notion of an Aristotelian curve to Conradfs career, neatly summed this up
in the title of his book; Joseph Conrad:
Achievement and Decline (1966). The supposed decline of Conradfs career has
often been attributed to his decision to write historical fiction. However,
Conradfs historical fiction reveals a complex sense of continuity with the
reconstruction of the past in his earlier work, and his interest in the history