- Conrad’s Accusative Case:Romanization, Changing Loyalties, and Switching Scripts
A much-cited letter to his friend R. B. Cunninghame Graham from May 1st 1898 finds Joseph Conrad characteristically complaining about his work: “Wrist bad again, baby ill, wife frightened, damned worry about my work and about other things, a fit of such stupidity that I could not think out a single sentence—excuses enough in all conscience, since I am not the master but the slave of the peripeties and accidents (generally beastly) of existence” (Collected Letters, 2, 59). Besides the characteristic Conradian difficulty in “think(ing) out a single sentence,” this letter is also famously revealing for sharing Conrad’s views on the Spanish-American war in a series of reflections, beginning with “By all means Viva l’España!!!!” echoing his friend’s pro-Spanish sympathies, while lamenting the possibility that “the Latin race” may be doomed: “Will the certain issue of that struggle awaken the Latin race to the sense of its dangerous position? Will it be any good if they did awaken? . . . But, perhaps, the race is doomed? It would be a pity. It would narrow life, it would destroy a whole side of it which had its morality and was always picturesque and at times inspiring” (60). Each twist and turn in Conrad’s phrasing here betrays layers of satire and irony, all very much shaped by the person to whom the letter is addressed; but also, at each level, linking Conrad’s difficulty in “think(ing) out a single sentence” with the global shift in perspective precipitated by the Spanish-American war. As a number of critics have noted, this letter anticipates the sudden shift in perspective that will allow Conrad to abandon the plot of The Rescue (probably uppermost in his mind when he writes of “damned worry about my work”) and turn to the plot of Nostromo (condensed into the thought that what others may celebrate in an American victory over the Spanish [shouting ‘Fiat Lux’] “will be only the reflected light [End Page 53] of a silver dollar and no sanctimonious pretence will make it resemble the real sunshine”).1 The phrase “the Latin race” in this letter is meant, of course, ironically; but with so trenchant an irony that its racism cuts almost all ways—with and against the racialized myths (and racialized ethos) of both northern and southern European stereotypes. Underlying this formula, “the Latin race,” I want to suggest we might also glimpse a Conradian insight into the fate of Latin letters. Indeed, more than mere insight, we might discern Conrad’s long-standing and thoroughly crafted ironic practice of exploiting the unpredictable effects of transcribing, transliterating, and translating English using latin letters: a romanization constantly scripting and also constantly betraying any attempt to master the English language. The switching of plot-scripts—from The Rescue to Nostromo—reflects the way the Conradian trope of betrayal emerges from this constant process of transcription, transliteration, and translation involved in the romanization of English.
The paper proposes to outline this Conradian problem of romanization by tracking down the most elementary narrative unit of betrayal in Conrad. In Conrad’s fiction, solidarities are usually premised on betrayal: Razumov’s betrayal of Haldin; Lingard’s betrayal of his Malay Bugis friends Hassim and Immada; Jim’s betrayal (on the Patna and then again at Patusan); the betrayal of “he whom the English called Nostromo” (Nostromo, 29). Betrayal seems to be the crux of Conrad’s characters and plots. My concern here, though, is less with character, or plot. What interests me is how betrayal works at the micronarrative level—at the level of minute lexical effects that shape those overall features of character and plot. The aim is to find a micro-narrative explanation for how Conradian narrative precipitates a radical switching of global perspectives that makes his work so relevant for our times.
The underlying argument is that Conradian betrayal is connected with the process of converting scripts into romanized print form. This may be evident at the level of character in the case of Under Western Eyes, where the psychological intensity of Razumov’s conflicted experience...