Academic journal article The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.)

Moral and Religious Relativism in the Rover

Academic journal article The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.)

Moral and Religious Relativism in the Rover

Article excerpt

IN THE SOURCES of The Self, Charles Taylor challenges the theories of moral relativism, according to which any moral system - or "morality" - is a product of historical, geographical, biological, political, psychological, and other circumstances. He observes that humans have an inherent orientation towards good, notwithstanding the fact that some people's good is not necessarily accepted as such by others. Because of this orientation, we seek frameworks to provide the best ontological articulations of that good. In other words, a given ontological articulation of what we recognize as good is the specific discourse of our chosen or circumstantial framework. This, in turn, provides an identity; we begin to define ourselves in terms of the language of the specific framework. Although our orientation towards good can be manipulated or misdirected, this does not alter the fact we are morally oriented. In this context, Conrad's The Rover can be read as a moral treatise that presents several ontological articulations, some of them competing, others remaining at a distance from each other, but all affecting the novel's protagonists. The characters in The Rover are presented as agents making moral decisions amidst or against those ontological articulations.

That The Rover is a book preoccupied with morality becomes evident early in the narrative.1 After many years spent at sea, the protagonist, Peyrol, returns to his native France. The year is 1796. The revolutionary terror has ceased, and a new legal system has taken shape. As a pirate, Peyrol is an outlaw in the eyes of both the current and past laws; however, he arrives at Toulon under a pretence of legality, as the captor of a British ship. Upon landing, he first encounters the representatives of the official law: bureaucracy and the influential revolutionaries, the socalled "patriots." He quickly learns the "revolutionary jargon" and uses it "on an occasion with secret contempt" (25). This jargon represents an "ontological articulation" of the beliefs of the "patriots." While making the first steps in his transformed homeland, Peyrol compares his lawless actions with the deeds committed in the name of revolutionary "law." A "man of violent deeds," he has seen "fights, massacres on land and sea" (22), but the descriptions of the revolutionary atrocities shock him. For example, he becomes speechless when asked by Scevola, "Have you ever carried a woman's head on a spike?" (22). Peyrol's lawlessness is thus compared to the seemingly lawful activities of the patriots. The representative of the latter is Scevola. Currently excluded from public affairs, he misses the times of the Terror, during which he experienced power through chasing and killing others. An important aspect of Scevola as the novelistic representative of the State and hence the Law, is his use of depersonalized, bureaucratic language, even when personal passions or fears trigger his speech. During his first meeting with Peyrol, Scevola bursts out: "The seamen of the Republic were eaten up with corruption. ... Treachery lurks at the bosom of the representatives of the people. ... There was a time when civic virtue flourished" (27). The words "corruption," "representatives of the people," and "civic virtues" resemble the lexis of a legal or legislative discourse.

If the official law of Revolutionary France is immoral in that it kills innocent people and allows criminals like Scevola to flourish, then, by comparison, the killings Peyrol committed appear to be relatively "innocent." Ironically, the principles of the Brothers of the Coast - an outlaw society to which Peyrol belonged during his sea years - sound similar to the catchwords of the Revolution: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. Peyrol declares: "And we practiced republican principles long before a republic was thought of; for the Brothers of the Coast were all equal and elected their own chiefs" (5). Elsewhere, the narrative informs us that Peyrol "had known liberty, equality and fraternity as understood in the haunts open or secret of the Brotherhood of the Coast" (131-32). …

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