Conrad's 'Nostromo' and the Third World

Article excerpt

The problem with bourgeois societies is a lack of imagination. A person raised in a middle or upper-middle class suburban environment, a place ruled by rationalism in the service of material progress, has difficulty imagining the psychological state of affairs in a society where there is little or no memory of hard work achieving its just reward, and where life inside a gang or a drafty army barracks constitutes an improvement in material and emotional security. Even to encounter first-hand such a society - whose instincts have yet to be refined by several generations of middle class existence - is not enough in the way of an education, since the visitor tends to see it as a laboratory for his or her middle class ideals, and thus immediately begins to find "evidence" for "pragmatic" solutions. For example, the belief among Clinton administration experts that Haiti - which, with the exception of a U.S. Marine occupation from 1915 to 1934, has not known a civil regime since before the French left in 1804 - could be made "democratic" by yet another, even less comprehensive occupation demonstrates how our elites just don't get it.

The problem is further compounded by the separation of literature from history and of both from political science in this age of academic specialization, creating policymakers ignorant of the very books that explain places like Haiti and Somalia far better than any social science "methodology." While the usefulness of history is accepted and needs no elaboration, the usefulness of literature is less so among the policy elite, even as Marco Diani, a senior researcher at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris, writes that, "The anguish of any society can be found in its literature, often earlier and more clearly revealed than in its social sciences."(1) That is because the future lies inside the silences, inside the very uncomfortably sensitive issues that people are afraid to discuss at dinner parties for fear of what others might think of them. And yet it is a principle function of social science to accumulate information precisely on what people are not afraid to talk about in front of a researcher's tape recorder (which is also why conventional journalism is often the most deceptive form of reporting on a society).

Literature, alas, may be the only salvation for the policy elite, because in the guise of fiction a writer can more easily tell the truth. And in literature's vast canon there is no book of which I am aware that both defines and dissects the problems with the world just beyond our own as well as Joseph Conrad's Nostromo: A Tale of the Seaboard, a 1904 novel about Westerners and indigenous inhabitants of an imaginary South American country, Costaguana.(2) Nostromo is neither overly descriptive and moodily vague like Conrad's Heart of Darkness, nor is its ending entirely unhappy. For a civil society-in-the-making does emerge in Costaguana, but it is midwived by a ruined cynic of a doctor who has given up on humanity, a deeply skeptical journalist, and two bandit gangs, not by the idealist whose actions had helped lead to the country's earlier destruction. Conrad never denies the possibility of progress in any society, but he is ironic enough to know that "The ways of human progress are inscrutable", and that is why "action is consolatory" and "the friend of flattering illusions." Charles Gould, the failed idealist of the novel, who believes absolutely in economic development, "had no ironic eye. He was not amused at the absurdities that prevail in this world."

Nostromo is at once Conrad's best and most difficult work. It is rather long, 465 pages of small paperback print, and to skim it for even a few paragraphs is to risk losing the thread of the narrative. In this media-obsessed age - when "intellectuals" spend their evenings watching C-SPAN and CNN - people may be better acquainted with Heart of Darkness than with Nostromo only because the former is exceedingly short, as well as amenable to skimming, on account of a thin plot and lengthy landscape descriptions. …