Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Conrad's "Undying Hope" of the Polish Nation: Western Ideal and Eastern Reality

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Conrad's "Undying Hope" of the Polish Nation: Western Ideal and Eastern Reality

Article excerpt

The idealistic protagonists in Conrad's novels represent the individualistic and democratic "Western" tradition of Poland before her destruction by "Eastern" autocracy. The reconciliation between the republican tradition, inherited by the Polish revolutionaries in the nineteenth century, and the autocratic reality of Russian Poland suggests the rebirth of the Polish nation.

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The works of Joseph Conrad, the Polish-British author, reveal the cultural and political heritage of his homeland, which was part of imperial Russia. The author's Polish traits may be disavowed by the fact that not a single passing reference to Poland appears in his fictional works, except in the short story "Prince Roman." His claim, "I am a Pole" (Jean-Aubry 2: 59), however, is justified by the presence of a symbolic, rather than a geographical, Poland in his works: Poland as a romantic, idealistic, and radically liberal Western Europe that struggles against an oppressive "Eastern" (East European or Asian) reality that is subjected to Russian autocracy. In fact, Poland existed only in the Poles' hearts in nineteenth-century Europe, as she was completely partitioned between Russia, Prussia, and Austria in the century before. Rightfully, Geoffrey Galt Harpham argues, "the force with which Poland determines Conrad's work is directly proportional to its literal nonappearance within it" (12), suggesting that Poland, as the most repressed subject, is the most powerful narrative in Conrad's work. Protagonists in his political novels, then, from Kurtz to Razumov, represent the extremely individualistic and honour-cherishing tradition of Poland, which has consequently fallen into a state of anarchy.

The idealistic tradition of Poland had devastated the reality of the people's lives by Conrad's time. Although the Republic of Poland was established as early as the sixteenth century, the radically democratic tradition of the Republic led to the "Partitions," which put the Lithuanian part of Poland--from which the Conrad family came--into Russian hands. As Conrad proudly remarked, in the foundation of the united Republic of Poland-Lithuania in 1569 was "a spontaneous and complete union of sovereign States" that offers "a singular instance of an extremely liberal administrative federalism" (Notes 120). The Polish Republic was modelled upon an extreme form of democracy characterized by the practice of liberum veto, or unrestricted veto, which ensured legal equality for every member of the Polish nobility, the szlachta to which Conrad belonged. This radically democratic procedure of the nobility, which formed eight to twelve per cent of society--far larger than the one to two per cent in other European states--was not only too idealistic, often resulting in chaos, but distant from the reality of the common people, on whose complete subjugation the social system was based (Davies, Heart 261). The contradiction between the libertarian ideas and the authoritarian reality of the Polish Republic, which intensifies under Russian autocracy, is the imaginative force behind Conrad the author, who depicts the clash between idealistic heroes and their conflicting realities in his work.

The contradiction between the liberal ideal and the oppressive reality, often narrated against a colonial background in Conrad's novels, signifies the British-naturalized author's ambivalent attitude to "Western" (West-European or European) imperialism. Moreover, the contradiction illuminates the uniqueness of the Poles, who suffer from "Eastern" imperialism. The Slavonic Poles, belonging to Eastern Europe, have always looked to a predominantly Roman Catholic Western Europe for culture, what Conrad termed "Polonism," "an outpost of the Western Powers" and not an extension of "Slavonism" (Notes 137). Although they were "not conceived by Rome or born in Christianity" (Zamoyski 7), the Poles zealously committed to the tradition of Western Europe--sharing the great experiences of the Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment, and disregarding their "Eastern" reality. …

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