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  • An Act Cruel and Absurd:Conrad’s Romantic Aesthetic and Realist Ethic
  • G. W. Stephen Brodsky (bio)

Conrad’s Midlands breakfast was hardly disturbed when he was told of the “shot heard round the world” on 28 June 1914—“dismissed” because of “a repugnance to consider murder a factor in politics” and “an ethical sense that an act cruel and absurd should be also useless” (NLL 142). He “attended so little to the march of events,” that on 25 July only three days before Austria-Hungary’s guns opened up beginning the continental war, he set off for Poland with his family and the Retingers. Ten days later on 4 August Britain entered the war. After a harrowing journey across Europe, the Conrads left Genoa in a Dutch mail steamer on 25 October, arriving back in England on 9 November. That they got back at all was a near run thing.1

By 1914 the 19th century’s fin de siècle culture of romance with arms was on the cusp of a new agonized realism. Conrad’s intellectual revulsion for militarism, counterbalanced by a cultural and temperamental predisposition to romanticize warlike pursuits, was about to be tested when his romantic aesthetic would be weighed in the balance by mud-and-blood fact. Even despite his premonitory experience, “Poland Revisited,” first serialized as “The Shock of War” six months later in the spring of 1915, reveals a sense of unreality. The assassinations of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were for Conrad simply “a miniature rehearsal of the great world-drama” (143), the thespian metaphor betraying that, for him, there still was no “shock” at all. A drama is an amusement—ghastly maybe, yet still only mimesis of a potentially lethal puppetry of passion. By Conrad’s “ethical sense,” then, the assassination was war in miniature, differing only in the number of “political” murders.2

It followed, then, that duels with fatal outcomes—murder by individual combat—were paradigms of war; accordingly, Conrad could conceive of war itself—mass murder—as a grimly entertaining duel writ large. By this reckoning [End Page 63] the single constant in all these cruel and not unusual absurdities was murder—a grimly jocose and lethally attractive diversion for the existential spectator, disinterested, yet both horrified and fascinated. “The ethical view of the universe involves us at last in so many cruel and absurd contradictions,” the contradictorily “ethical” Conrad mused, “that I have come to suspect that the aim of creation cannot be ethical at all” (PR 92); the amusingly murderous humankind Conrad shows us mirrors his cosmos—and himself.

Unsurprisingly, the szlachcic Conrad, scion of a vendetta culture,3 did not scruple to cast Napoleon’s campaigns—the first mass war4—in a romantic dueling idiom, not only because of who Napoleon was, but who he, Conrad, was: a proud Nałęcz szlachcic, heir to a warrior tradition.5 “The Duel” (1908) opens, “Napoleon I. [sic], whose whole career had the quality of a duel against the whole of Europe[ . . . ]” (SS 165). Whatever attraction contests of arms held for Conrad the romantic, Conrad the realist had a pained awareness that genuine honor, fidelity, and solidarity were obscured by the murderous gilding of la gloire. So, Conrad the romantic realist both believed and did not believe6 that war-as-duel, and the dueling convention itself, were murderous farce.

The szlachta dueling and revenge conventions were Conrad’s frames of reference encoded throughout his oeuvre. Even the fratricidal Karain (“Karain,” 1897) and his retainer Pata Matara seem like Polish nobles in sarongs, their prototypes likely in Adam Mickiewicz’s szlachta gawęda, “Czaty;”7 for the planned ritual honor killing, Conrad draws imaginatively on the lex talionis of the szlachta’s old revenge culture.8 The szlachta ethos as the source of Conrad’s aesthetic therefore contradicted its own ethic of solidarity and fidelity. Joseph Retinger recalls, “[H]is pacifism did not interfere with his fondness for picturesque pageants of military triumphs and his partiality for displays of physical, brutal vigour” (Retinger, Conrad 165). Conrad’s attitude toward war was Homeric—both tragic folly and heroic endeavour; he mentions (surely not as...


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