Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Ethical Limits and Confession in Conrad's under Western Eyes and "Poland Revisited"

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Ethical Limits and Confession in Conrad's under Western Eyes and "Poland Revisited"

Article excerpt

Through the framing narrative of an English witness, Conrad's 1911 novel, Under Western Eyes, depicts the underground dealings of administers and challengers of the Russian state as they travel across various geopolitical, cultural, and linguistic terrains of Europe. Suggesting the central role testimony will play in this text, Conrad places readers before the law in the first sentence. The novel commences with a confession sealed by the novel's narrator, an English teacher of languages: "To begin with I wish to disclaim the possession of those high gifts of imagination and expression which would have enabled my pen to create for the reader the personality of the man who called himself, after the Russian custom, Cyril son of Isidor--Kirylo Sidorovitch--Razumov" (3). By disclaiming possession of these gifts, the narrator confesses that he cannot take responsibility for the narrative that follows. He cannot claim authority for the events about to unfold, and therefore cannot guarantee the story will be a truthful or accurate account of the personality on which it centers, or a faithful rendering of the common nouns to which that man's proper name refers: the Russian language, particularly writing (Kirylo, or Cyrillic), and reason (Razumov, or son of reason). Confessions of this sort repeat throughout the novel, insisting that the work we are reading is not an original text but a transcription of one that already exists. The English work, recites the narrator, "is based on a document; all I have brought to it is my knowledge of the Russian language." This document, the novel's central embedded narrative, is a confessional writing composed by the Russian student-turned-spy-turned double-agent, Razumov.

The opening confession, testifying that the text that follows is a record of a confession authored by Razumov, is paradoxical in its form however. The narrator's signature, a gesture of responsibility before the law, also refuses responsibility before the law. The English narrator performs an act that at once guarantees, assumes, and produces authority--signing--to claim his lack of authority, intimating a tension and even discontinuity between witnessing and truth. By framing the narrative to follow, a true "story of Russia," in this way, Conrad suspends the novel between responsibility and irresponsibility, and truth and fiction. This is exemplary of how confession operates throughout Under Western Eyes. It is an exercise in regulating even as it reveals the madness that structures the novel from within.

In this essay, I explore how two of Conrad's later works employ confession to manage the crisis of being haunted by revolutionary and colonial pasts, while also challenging this endeavor in their formal staging. By subjecting confession not merely to criticism, but critique in the Kantian sense, (1) these writings question an act generally enlisted to provide both narrative closure and moral redemption. Such an analysis of Conrad's elaboration of confession illuminates the genealogy of a discursive form that persists beyond the modernist moment, as Peter Brooks has shown, and comes increasingly to dominate literary, political, and cultural narratives throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first century. Confession as a historical and literary phenomenon, then, did not end with the modernists, or for that matter with Augustine, Rousseau, or Dostoevsky before them, signaling a predicament internal to its narrative mechanism, an inherent perversion of its law of enunciation. This internal perversion, marks a problem of bringing things to an end--no small issue, for in confession lies the hope tot only of discovering hidden truths of personal and historical pasts, but in achieving expiation for them, setting the moral balance right. Secular confessions inherit principles of both juridico-legal and religious traditions that attempt to redress wrongs of the past, calling them to closure. And Conrad's writings shed light on epistemological and ethical limits of these traditions and their iterations in literary, political, and popular culture. …

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