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  • Conrad and the Spaces of War
  • Mark D. Larabee (bio)

When did the Great War become a World War? The answer is not quite as straightforward as one might think. Of course, the war could not be called the First World War until the start of the second. In the United States, while newspapers initially referred to the “European War,” the American entry in 1917 turned the conflict, for them at least, into the “World War.” In Britain, the favored name at the time was the Great War. However, as early as August 1914 the term “World’s War” was also in use.1 Although British and German forces fought outside Europe, what globalized this war was, politically, the steady addition of belligerents: the Ottoman Empire later in 1914, Italy and Bulgaria in 1915, ultimately including Japan and China, and even Siam and Brazil. In this expansion, national interests tended to be negotiated and expressed in terms of space, as when Italy, for instance, was brought from the German to the Allied camp through promises of Austrian territory. Britain similarly offered territory to Rumania, Greece, and Bulgaria (Gilbert 33). Germany used a form of cartographic propaganda in 1915 to try to recruit neutral Holland, providing sets of contrasting maps predicting European national boundaries in the event of either a Central Powers or Allied victory (Banks 132). Along with adding allies, peripheral campaigns (such as those at Gallipoli and Salonika) were designed, as their proponents imagined, to outflank the stalemate that had settled over the Western Front.

It is this conceptual globalization of the war, its “worlding” in the imagination, under examination in what follows, because we speak of Conrad as a cosmopolitan writer, as a world literature writer, and as a worldly writer. To what extent did he participate in this worlding of the war? As a mariner and navigator, Conrad was particularly attentive to the visible world and geographical space, and the First World War brought about key transformations in how space was thought of and represented. I will trace some consequences of those [End Page 5] transformations in The Shadow-Line (1916–17), which at first may seem to bear traces of the war only tangentially or abstractly, if at all. What emerges, I propose, can be an invitation to consider additional ways to approach Conrad through similarly unexamined connections between his writing and its historical context.

Changes in thinking about the spaces of the Great War were part of larger, ongoing conceptual changes that had begun decades before. In the nineteenth century, a series of developments in technology, geopolitics, and bureaucratic standardization had apparently rationalized space. Precise spatial measurement became standardized in 1875 through the Convention of the Meter, eventually resulting in 1889 in the creation of thirty platinum-iridium bars each a meter long, which became the world’s first prime standard of physical length. In 1884, the International Meridian Conference selected Greenwich as the world’s prime meridian; the conference also established world time zones, subsequently formalized at the 1912 International Conference on Time. Geographical societies sprang up in Europe and America to help widely disseminate this progressively standardized spatial knowledge.

In the decades leading up to the Great War, consequently, not only cartographers but also the general public increasingly understood physical space as subject to positivist principles of measurement and representation. Nineteenth-century spatial surveys, such as the nation-wide mapping carried out by the Ordnance Survey in Britain, relied on such positivist representational techniques as orthogonal perspective and the cartographic graticule (the network of latitude and longitude lines on which maps are drawn). Such techniques both demonstrated and reaffirmed the Newtonian concept of absolute space and the Cartesian mind-body dualism: physical space is an endless void, within which objects have an existence separate from the observer’s subjective perception. Yet this understanding of space began to break down in the face of further scientific advances towards the end of the century and at the beginning of the next. For example, Henri Poincare posited in 1901 the existence of alternative spaces that were unaccountable to known geometry (Kern 133). In 1887, the Michelson-Morley experiment demonstrated that light does not travel at a...


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