Fothergill, Anthony. Secret Sharers: Joseph Conrad's Cultural Reception in Germany
Bender, Todd K., Conradiana
Fothergill, Anthony. Secret Sharers: Joseph Conrad's Cultural Reception in Germany. Bern: Peter Lang, 2006. Vol. 4. Cultural History and Literary Imagination. Ed. Christian Emden and David Midgley. 274 pp.
Anthony Fothergill's Secret Sharers: Joseph Conrad's Cultural Reception in Germany is a fascinating and much needed study of the interaction of Conrad's fiction with German culture in the years following Conrad's death in 1924, which sheds light, not merely on Conrad's texts, but also on the broad development of German culture from the rise of Hitler to the present day. Fothergill utilizes Hans-Georg Gadamer's idea in Wahrheit und Methode that cultural transmission involves a "Horizontverschmelzung," a dialogue between the present reader's cultural point of view and the past cultural framework in which the artifact was produced. There are two aspects to "Horizontverschmelzung" to observe: (1) how an individual reader adjusts his cultural horizon in response to the different world of the text; (2) how the present general cultural domain enables and restricts any private experience of the artifact. Fothergill notes that Conrad's complete works in German translation were printed seriatim from about two years after Conrad's death in 1924 until the 1940s as the final step in Samuel Fisher's lifelong project at Fisher Verlag systematically to publish major foreign authors who displayed secular humanist, antifascist, republican, cosmopolitan, and broadly liberal views--writers such as Bertolt Brecht, John Dos Passos, Andre Gide, Franz Kafka, Jose Ortega y Gasset, Rainer Maria Rilke, George Bernard Shaw, Leo Tolstoy, Paul Valery, and Virginia Woolf. Not only Conrad's writings, but also his father's role in the Polish uprising in 1862 and the author's own personal biography, of course, reinforced such an image. To be published in German translation by Fisher in 1926 did not mean the same thing as did the original appearance of Conrad's works in English during the author's lifetime.
In late 1920s in Weimar Germany there was a crisis in cultural identity. Where did Conrad's work fall in its political and social orientation, in the divide between high versus mass culture, in the artistic objective of producing a best-seller for the general reader versus providing critical realism for the appreciation of a few enlightened citizens, and in the fierce battle between German nationalism versus a broad, liberal view of worldwide humanism? Does Conrad praise virile, manly qualities consistent with an idealized Nazi superman, or is he writing an allegory of stoic resistance against overwhelming amoral powers that might be applicable to the Jewish condition in Germany under National Socialism?
Fothergill compares Conrad in detail to four major German storytellers: Thomas Mann, Lothar-Guenther Bucheim (author of Das Boot), Christa Wolf, and Werner Herzog. Thomas Mann was an early champion of Conrad because they both valued conservative politics, cosmopolitanism, and commitment to stoic survival. Fothergill claims that there is a critical affinity between Heart of Darkness (1902) and Death in Venice (1912) in terms of the journey motif, quest pattern, and frame narrators, but that Conrad's story is an advance over Mann's because the limited narrator Marlow enacts his quest for certainty in a baffling world, whereas the narrative persona in Death in Venice is omniscient. Mann's own ideology was shifting in the late years of Weimar Germany. In Conrad, Mann saw an ally in his anticapitalist, anti-imperialist belief combined with a fear that socialism must end in dictatorship. Nevertheless Mann, like Conrad, distrusted revolution. In the 1920s Mann is pondering the Conradian possibility that "horror [... ] was synchronous within the culture, with those features which the culture so proudly produced: some of Europe's finest literature, music and art. The horrific deeds and the beautiful words were somehow in unknowing collusion. How can that be told?" (Fothergill 85). Der Zauberberg (1926) shows Mann's increasing commitment to a politically engaged republican position. Mann, like Conrad, explores themes of betrayal versus fidelity and the difficulty of matching word to world: is language ever adequate to capture reality truly, or does it always distort? For Conrad in Under Western Eyes, control of discourse is control of power, naming makes it so. Language can change the world. Present narrative shapes our notion of past events. In this regard, Nostromo can be compared to Der Zauberberg, in that the mountain of the San Tome mine is like the magic mountain, a place where nothing changes, no development happens. All change occurs elsewhere, afar in San Francisco or in the German lowlands. Again, Fothergill maintains that in Der Zauberberg Mann evades facing the problem of the impossibility of narrating history without distortion when he represents the frozen past on the mountain as present time, whereas Conrad addresses the problem directly when multiple unreliable narrators in Nostromo enact a search for truth about events, which lie outside the scope of their words.
One of the most valuable ideas in Fothergill's study of Conrad in Germany is his reminder that the culture of the Third Reich was complex. When the Nazis rose to power, not all Germans were completely besotted with their values. Some liberal readers of Conrad, like Mann, were driven into external exile in foreign lands; but many others, in varying degrees of underground dissent, developed a strategy of camouflage and partial collaboration. These inner exiles were hidden "Secret Sharers" with Conrad. For those Germans, who were not 100 percent behind the National Socialist program, reading Conrad while in inner exile offers the possibility of some degree of nonconformity and resistance to cultural repression. There was a current of broadly European cultural humanism suppressed in Nazi Germany that hinged on many themes central in Conrad: "the nature of political authority, loyalties to (possibly failing) ideals, the necessity to strive for the expression of truths beyond comfortable illusions," fidelity versus betrayal of one's group, and belonging versus social alienation (Fothergill 104). Conrad's works were threatened by Nazi book burning, official blacklisting, and, critically, by paper rationing. Under such repressive conditions, how does "undesirable" writing circulate? Literature offers a counter voice to dictatorial authority. Reading and writing about Conrad's novels gave Germans a hidden space in which to resist dictatorial control.
Lothar-Guenther Bucheim, author of Das Boot, was assigned as a young reporter to record in photographs and journalism the experience of German sailors serving on a boat patrol in the Atlantic during World War II. Astonishingly, he reports that, although Conrad was banned by the Nazis as an "undesirable" author, the U-boat skipper and officers at sea read Conrad's works. Bucheim sees in the personal dilemma of the U-boat crew and in the situation of Conrad's maritime characters a common recognition of the indifference of the sea to human aspirations. He records how the German officers felt a surreal sharing with Conrad's characters of a "circumspect cynicism and guilty complicity" creating a basic horror that defies linguistic expression (Fothergill 183). Bucheim and Conrad shared a feeling of being absurdly caught between caprice and servitude, like Poland caught in the middle between the forces of czarist Russia and Prussia, or like a submariner's nostalgia for sailing ships, which leads to the sad conviction that technological advance inevitably brings loss.
Both Conrad and Christa Wolf were born in Poland. Her situation as a leading writer in communist East Germany before unification is similar to that of the U-boat captain in Bucheim's experience. They are at once aware that they are accomplices, devoted to authority and afraid to dissent from it, yet deeply troubled by its failure to deliver its utopian promises. This question of moral complicity is the unheard voice of Wolf's Kassandra (1983). For Wolf and Conrad there is a redemptive power of speech confronted with the unspeakable underside of civilization, to attempt to tell the tale of the dark side. Marlow often complains that he cannot explain. In the Congo, Marlow has an epiphany, which is also civilization's blind spot, when he witnesses the inextricable connection between modernization and murder exposed in the concrete working of Europe's commerce with Africa and the slave trade. Marlow struggles with the inability of language to capture the momentary fact of such an epiphany. Similarly Wolf in her novel about the Chernobyl catastrophe, Stoerfall (1987), experiences a shattering reorientation of her accustomed Weltanschauung when the promise of her Marxist future world turned into a nightmare vision in the horror of Chernobyl.
How to make the reader see? How to convey the epiphany, the moment when one's whole cognitive and affective organization and the basic orientation of the observing mind shifts under contradictory, conflicting forces? Conrad's cinematic techniques of narrative are forerunners of the German cinema of Werner Herzog, such as Fitzcarraldo, Kaspar Hauser, or Aguirre, which join with Conrad in projecting a pessimistic view of progress whenever highly developed Western culture impinges on the third world in a search for El Dorado and which display how the destructive obsession with a will to power becomes the trope of possessor possessed. Kurtz thinks he has the ivory, but the ivory has him. Charles Gould thinks he possesses the silver, but the silver possesses him. Conrad's imperative to make the reader see has its counterpart in Herzog's aim in his films to create a sequence of gripping, immediate, and actual visual images, rather than to create a smoothly flowing narrative story line.
Both Nostromo and Aguirre are about empire building. Both could be considered in the long tradition of imperial fiction, exploring the encounter of old world with the new. Both display a crisis in the empire and expose the idea that empire is a false model for the future. Democratic striving merely masks empire building and the creation of empire is linked with destruction. Both Conrad and Herzog display the disruption and confusion of historical events by using narrative techniques that disrupt linear progress: time shift, crosscutting of scenes, voiceover, ventriloquism and puppetry, and performative violence along the lines of J. L. Austin's idea of performative utterance in his Philosophical Papers.
As this brief summary of Fothergill's rich argument may suggest, his book is helpful not merely to readers of Conrad, but to all readers generally concerned with the vexed history of Germany from Weimar to today. It might well be read in conjunction with the Ugo Mursia Memorial Lectures, Second Series: Papers from the International Conrad Conference, which explores the interaction of Conrad with Italian culture. Conrad intentionally addressed his writings to readers of English, but much of the power and interest we find in his work transcends the parochial domain of Great Britain to work on the cultural values of readers alien and out of sympathy with Victorian culture. As Conrad personally crossed the threshold between Poland and England, land and sea, immaturity and manhood, he has a uniquely powerful sense of cultural abrasion, compromise, and mediation. He has much to say to politicians and warriors of our time who stand at the shadow line between forces of violent cultural confrontation. Do leaders of the Western Alliance or of fundamental Islam read Conrad? If so, is Conrad meaningful to them in the way he appears to have been to Bucheim's U-boat skipper?
Ugo Mursia Memorial Lectures, Second Series: Papers from the International Conrad Conference, University of Pisa. 16-18 September 2004. Ed. Mario Curreli. Pisa: Edizioni ETS, 2005.
TODD K. BENDER
University of Wisconsin-Madison…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Fothergill, Anthony. Secret Sharers: Joseph Conrad's Cultural Reception in Germany. Contributors: Bender, Todd K. - Author. Journal title: Conradiana. Volume: 41. Issue: 1 Publication date: Spring 2009. Page number: 98+. © 2008 Texas Tech University Press. COPYRIGHT 2009 Gale Group.
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