Imperial Masochism: British Fiction, Fantasy, and Social Class

By John Kucich | Go to book overview

Chapter Four
THE MASOCHISM OF THE CRAFT
CONRAD'S IMPERIAL PROFESSIONALISM

The next moment he gave me a very special impression
beyond the range of commonplace definitions. It was as
though he had stabbed himself outside and had come
in there to show it; and more than that—as though he
were turning the knife in the wound and watching
the effect. That was the impression, rendered
in physical terms.
—JOSEPH CONRAD, Under Western Eyes

I admit that almost anything, anything in the world,
would serve as a good reason for not writing at all.
—JOSEPH CONRAD, “A Familiar Preface”

SPECTACLES of self-destruction dominate Joseph Conrad's novels. The psychic wounds Kaspar Almayer, Peter Willems, Tom Lingard, Lord Jim, and other early protagonists inflict on themselves anticipate dramatic self-immolations such as Martin Decoud's suicide in Nostromo (1904), the implosion of the Verloc family in The Secret Agent (1907), and Kirylo Razumov's fatal surrender to his persecutors in Under Western Eyes (1910). In Heart of Darkness (1899), the pattern is upheld by the unlikely Kurtz— that icon of imperial brutality—who embraces death by refusing to leave his outpost despite his failing health (after laying waste to his career, his moral character, and perhaps his sanity). Conrad's fiction offers us fifteen suicides, as well as many near-suicides and other self-injurers.1 Narcissistic excess routinely implicates these figures in masochistic fantasy. Yet critics tend to regard Conradian self-destructiveness as the endpoint of interpretation, a signifier of irresolvable problems whose causes lie elsewhere, not

1 This is the count of Bernard C. Meyer, Joseph Conrad: A Psychoanalytic Biography
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967), p. 5.

-196-

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