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"Dramas of Fallen Horses": Conrad, Dostoevsky, and Nietzsche

From: Conradiana
Volume 42, Number 3, Fall 2010
pp. 45-68 | 10.1353/cnd.2010.0019

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The contemplation of the infirm and lonely steed overcame him. Jostled, but obstinate, he would remain there, trying to express the view newly opened to his sympathies of the human and equine misery in close association. But it was very difficult.

Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent

In the essay on The Secret Agent published in The Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad, Jacques Berthoud appeals to what he considers a critical consensus regarding Conrad's intellectual pretensions and credentials—or the lack thereof—in "what is now regarded as his consummate achievement in the art of fiction" (100). The number of critics who believe that The Secret Agent "remains short in intellectual substance and coherence" and that "the novel does not offer a serious intellectual challenge" because it is "a conceptually low-powered work" are not reading the novel with a sufficient understanding of the intellectual, literary and philosophical context it demands (Berthoud 103). After quoting three specific passages from Conrad's representation of Stevie, Berthoud raises a question regarding the target of Conrad's irony (110). My response to this question, taken in a literary critical sense, is that Conrad engages in a dialogue with Fyodor Dostoevsky's and Friedrich Nietzsche's thought in the representation of Stevie. Once the connections to Dostoevsky and Nietzsche are recognized, it is difficult not to apprehend that The Secret Agent is a serious intellectual challenge to two great writers—a novelist and a philosopher—of the nineteenth century. According to Berthoud, many readers have been mislead by Conrad's dedication to H.G. Wells into thinking that the novel is not serious, but I think it is likely that many have not understood Conrad's "keen humour" which "was far greater than one might think from his work" (Galsworthy 7). Conrad's characterization of the novel as a " simple tale of the nineteenth century" is a product of his "ferocious enjoyment of the absurd" (Galsworthy 7). This is a tale of the nineteenth century with a vengeance, a story in which Conrad enters into a conversation with Dostoevsky and Nietzsche by offering the least expected of critical and intellectual replies: an idiot boy named Stevie.

Although I assent to Martin Seymour-Smith's argument that The Secret Agent " could hardly exist" without Dostoevsky and Charles Dickens, I think that the novel is inconceivable without the Nietzsche as well (12). When Conrad was writing The Secret Agent, Dickens was still commonplace reading in England (as well as Conrad's favorite English novelist). Dostoevsky and Nietzsche were quickly becoming the height of fashion in literary circles. As Peter Kaye demonstrates, Russian literature was increasingly well-regarded in England at the end of the nineteenth century and at the beginning of the twentieth century, in no small measure due to Constance Garnett's translations in the 1890s of Ivan Turgenev and others. Before Dostoevsky's novels were translated by Constance Garnett, beginning with the publication of The Brothers Karamazov in 1912, French translations of Dostoevsky were well-read in English literary circles, according to Peter Kaye. Conrad was very well aware of the increasing public interest in Dostoevsky, especially because Edward Garnett compared Heart of Darkness to Crime and Punishment in a review in December 1902 (Kaye 130). Nietzsche was no less fashionable, as David Thatcher has shown by tracing the number of articles and translations that appeared in English papers and magazines. According to Allan Bloom, "Nietzsche's effect was immediately felt in all Western countries. He was the rage from 1890 on, and hardly any important painter, poet or novelist was immune to his charm" (309). Therefore, Seymour-Smith has every reason to think that Conrad's readers would have recognized the "Professor's Nietzscheanism," and, I believe, they would have been familiar with the details of Nietzsche's collapse that Conrad's uses in Stevie's encounters with the suffering horse (22). What better than for Conrad, the novelist struggling to survive economically and to win the popular recognition he deserves, to write a novel that synthesizes the best of nineteenth-century English literature with the latest literary fashions of the time? In The Secret Agent, Conrad imports Dostoevskian anarchists preoccupied with Nietzschean...

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