Richard Niland.

 

 

Joseph Conrad and the Philosophy of History.

 

 

My work examines how Joseph Conradfs 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 Conradfs 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 abyssf as described in such texts as eHeart of Darknessf (1899), or in the nihilism of the closure of Victory (1915). Conradfs 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 partitioned Poland that saw the national past as a source of inspiration in the face of a stateless present.

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 Conradfs 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 Darknessf 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 Conradfs father Apollo Korzeniowski, exiled from Poland in 1862 for his subversive political activities against the Russians, and Conradfs first guardian Stefan Buszczynski, both of whom were influenced by the historiography represented in August Cieszkowskifs Prolegomena zur Historiosophie (1838), an important, innovative, yet now neglected, precursor of Marxist philosophy. By investigating Conradfs writing in light of the work of Korzeniowski, Buszczynski, and the earlier philosophies of history, it can be seen that Conradfs proto-modernist writing emerges from the backdrop of the Polish Romantic tradition.

The methods employed by Conrad in the early Marlow texts, eYouthf eHeart of Darknessf 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 phasef of Conradfs career. An important focus of these stories is Marlowfs desire to reconstruct the past. Conradfs 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 elsefs,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 Conradfs ultimate English mariner, his philosophical concerns reveal him to have emerged from a predominantly Polish milieu. Marlowfs 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 Conradfs 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 ePositivistf movement, adhered to by Conradfs influential guardian Tadeusz Bobrowski. This juncture in Polish history, with its Janus-faced gaze between past and present, is an important informant of Conradfs and Marlowfs approach to time.

In discussing Conrad and the philosophy of history, it is also necessary to examine a context for Conradfs writing that has previously received very little attention and which represents a fruitful field of investigation - Conradfs work during the Great War, the most important historical event of his lifetime. Conradfs output during this period is small but includes important works such as ePoland Revisitedf and The Shadow-Line, the more disparaged The Arrow of Gold, and relatively neglected stories such as eThe Talef and eThe Warriorfs 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, Conradfs 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 themf (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 Revisitedf (1915), The Shadow-Line, and The Arrow of Gold (1919), Conradfs 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 Conradfs generation of sending them off to die.

Conradfs 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 Conradfs 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 Conradfs career, neatly summed this up in the title of his book; Joseph Conrad: Achievement and Decline (1966). The supposed decline of Conradfs career has often been attributed to his decision to write historical fiction. However, Conradfs historical fiction reveals a complex sense of continuity with the reconstruction of the past in his earlier work, and his interest in the history of France is to a great extent the product of the influence of his Polish background. A distinct feature of Marlowfs narratives is an element of historical nostalgia connected to the narratorfs sense of displacement caused by awareness of the movement of historical forces, as witnessed by his longing for the eAge of Sailf, a time seen by the ageing Marlow as a golden past. Conrad also presents this idea in his acknowledged autobiographical works, The Mirror of the Sea (1906) and A Personal Record (1912). In the light of this interpretation, Conradfs later works can be read as the culmination of a careerfs worth of engagement with the past and Conradfs historical fiction offers an artistic culmination of his inherited historical consciousness. In The Rover (1923) and the unfinished Suspense (1925), both played out in reconstructed romantic historical settings, Conrad attempted to fulfil the major literary ambition of his later years; his intention to write a great Napoleonic novel. Conradfs fascination with the period of the Napoleonic wars, and the figure of Napoleon himself, first evident in The Mirror of the Sea (1906) and eThe Duelf (1908), has important connections to his inheritance of the Polish Romantic historiography of his youth. In A Personal Record (1912), Conrad writes of the Napoleonic period as one that was inextricably associated with his childhood memories. It was a major inspiration to his parents in their active struggles for Polish independence, circumstances that left Conrad orphaned at the age of eleven. In Suspense, his final, unfinished and posthumously published novel, the declining Conrad attempts to reconcile issues of his own past and his experience of time with the representation of history and individual identity that concern him throughout the fiction.