Fothergill, Anthony. Secret Sharers: Joseph Conrad's Cultural Reception in Germany

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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. …