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"Astray amongst the Passion of the Earth": Lord Jim as Schopenhauerian Passion Play

From: Conradiana
Volume 43, Numbers 2-3, Fall/Winter 2011
pp. 105-122 | 10.1353/cnd.2011.0027

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Was Conrad a philosophical pessimist? His critics have presumed that the ideas of post-Kantian idealist Arthur Schopenhauer exerted some measure of influence on the novelist at least since John Galsworthy's brief mention in 1924 of Conrad's fondness for the German philosopher: "Of philosophy he had read a good deal," Galsworthy recalled, "but on the whole spoke little. Schopenhauer used to give him satisfaction twenty or more years ago" (121). This spoor served as a clue for source-hunters and although the extent of Schopenhauer's influence remains uncertain, scholars have identified numerous and often quite persuasive similarities (Butte; Johnson 41-53; Knowles; Madden; Moutet; Saveson; Scheick; Stein; Tutein; Wollaeger; Wood). As Owen Knowles warns, however, mere verbal similarities are one thing, but it is "a large step to suggest a sustained grappling on Conrad's part with the sometimes tortured abstractions of The World as Will and Idea" (77-8). The present essay will endeavor to measure more precisely the length of that large step by way of identifying and analyzing the place of philosophical pessimism within the constellation of characters in Lord Jim (1900), particularly Conrad's use of a Schopenhauerian characterological scheme in constructing Jim, Cornelius, and Gentleman Brown.

It is worth recalling at the outset that Schopenhauer's popularity in Britain and on the Continent reached a peak in the 1870s and 1880s, particularly with the publication of his collected essays, the rather forbiddingly titled Parerga und Paralipomena, and by the early 1890s the American philosopher Josiah Royce could claim that "the name of Schopenhauer is better known to most general readers, in our day, than is that of any other modern Continental metaphysician, except Kant" (228). According to Bertrand Russell, Schopenhauer's "appeal has always been less to professional philosophers than to artistic and literary people in search of a philosophy that they could believe in" (753). More recently, Charles Taylor confirms this view, noting that "Schopenhauer had an immense influence on the thought and art of late-nineteenth-century Europe: in Germany, Austria, also France, even Russia. Most of the great writers, composers, and thinkers were deeply affected by his thought, imprinted with it: Wagner, Nietzsche, Mahler, Thomas Mann—one could greatly extend this list" (444). Indeed, it could easily be extended to Sigmund Freud and Otto Rank, Stefan George and Gabriele D'Annunzio, Karl Kraus and Robert Musil, even reaching as far as Wittgenstein, Whitehead, and Russell himself (Goodale; Pierrot 5-6, 15; Villa; Wier 45, 85; Williams 237, 295, 307).

That Conrad might have come under this sway during his ventures in Marseilles and Paris in the late 1870s has at least a prima facie plausibility, as Yves Hervouet notes, especially in light of his artistic tutelage under Maupassant and Flaubert, both Schopenhauer devotees (159, 263-4n.17). Another indirect source for Schopenhauer's influence, and this one closer to home for Conrad, was Ford Maddox Ford, whose father, Franz Hueffer, founded the short-lived New Quarterly in the 1870s as an organ to propagate Schopenhauer's philosophy. By the late 1880s Ford was himself posing as "a gloomy Schopenhauerian," and by 1938 he could attribute to Schopenhauer "the extra-philosophic merit of being almost the only German, except perhaps Heine and Schnitzler, to write a prose really readable to non-Germans," finding Schopenhauer's collected essays "consciously exaggerated and very humorous" (Saunders 20, 46; Ford 634). The argument from proximity for a Schopenhauer influence on Conrad thus carries some force.

Conrad's allusions to Schopenhauer's ideas are seldom as transparent as those found in the novels of Thomas Hardy or George Gissing, for instance, but careful reading reveals their presence nevertheless (Gibson; Kelly; Wagenknecht; Francis; Argyle). If one looks for some of the less controversial examples of Schopenhauerian elements in Conrad, these appear most clearly in the thematic prominence of sympathy and compassion in the novels and stories, as William J. Scheick notes (45-7). Mark Wollaeger also sees common thematic ground: "Comparisons between Conrad and Schopenhauer usually focus on several themes held in common: resignation, the blind striving of the will, or the veil of appearances screening us from the void," and Wollaeger extends this list to...

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