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  • The Politics of Gothic in Conrad's Under Western Eyes
  • Daniel Darvay (bio)

Emblematic Gothic works such as Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho and William Godwin's Caleb Williams use fantastic operations of spies to reinforce the constitution of modern secular society. Both novels reveal the institution of the family as the site of spectral surveillance that gives birth to the rational modern subject rescued from superstition. Characteristically, Gothic protagonists discover their modernity when they are jeopardized by and at the same time successfully purified from the idea that their very existence might be the product of ghostly supervision. Personal insecurity shows itself to be, in Gothic circumstances, a key feature of modern social existence.1 In his representations of Russian politics, Joseph Conrad enacts the broad redefinition of modern Western society by employing and extending the Gothic connotations of espionage elaborated in eighteenth-century Gothic and continued in fin de siècle British spy fiction.

Developing classic Gothic conventions, fin de siècle English spy novels explored the nationalist implications of espionage. A generic constant of spy narratives was a focus on an unprepared nation under assault from overwhelming albeit fictitious Continental forces, a feature established by late-nineteenth-century invasion fiction initiated with Sir George Chesney's Battle of Dorking (1871). Max Pemberton's Pro Patria (1901), Erskine Childers's The Riddle of the Sands (1903), and William Le Queux's The Invasion of 1910 (1906) and Spies of the Kaiser are a few of the most famous examples of this immensely popular genre. It deployed Gothic aspects of espionage not only to [End Page 693] strengthen but also to construct the need for national cohesion.2 Spy novels at this time recast key Gothic elements in ways that reveal the extension of familial affairs to issues of political propaganda. The usual Gothic seclusion into private chambers turns into the wholesale isolation of an island nation. Personal fear of threatening specters develops into a general alarm of alien spies. The typical exposure to intrusion via secret passages expands into the vulnerability of a society invaded through obscure cross-channel tunnels. Fin de siècle English spy novels imply that a nation's security depends on the staging of its potential dissolution. Foreign spies regularly feature as the evil protagonists of the Gothic show, energizing campaigns for domestic unity in pre-World War I England.

Faced with the increasingly xenophobic milieu of pre-War English society, Conrad refashioned his Polish expatriate identity by drawing on the Gothic logic of the British spy novel. To make his foreign heritage appear Western to a British audience, he dissociated Polish tradition from Slavic irrationality typified by alleged nihilistic features of Russian mysticism. Although Conrad had often been labeled by his contemporaries as a "Slav," his remarks against Edward Garnett's and Henry Louis Mencken's allegations tellingly display a Gothic defense strategy designed to evince an ethnic integrity. In both cases, Conrad transforms the term "Slav" into an exclusive national trademark of primitive and confusing Russian character, so that Poland may occupy a position among the civilized Western Powers. "You remember always," he writes to Garnett in 1907, "that I am a Slav (it's your idée fixe), but you seem to forget that I am a Pole" (Letters 3: 492), adding, "[Y]ou have been learning your history from Russians no doubt" (492–93). His fierce reaction against Mencken's use of the epithet is to quickly ascribe Slavonic qualities to a Russian realm of "primitive natures fashioned by [a] byzantine-theological conception of life, with an inclination to perverted mysticism," while defending by contrast his native Poland as "an outpost of Westernism with a Roman tradition" (7: 615). Conrad's depiction of Russia in "Autocracy and War" (1905) is emblematic of how his political writings employ Gothic patterns. Outlined as a spectral champion of autocracy, a "dreaded and strange apparition" in the guise of a "ravenous Ghoul" (Notes on Life 75), Gothicized Russia is judged the "negation of . . . everything else that has its root in reason" (84). Reason is associated with enlightened Polish civilization delivered from the destructive political influence of its major historical antagonist.3 Russian...


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