- The Political Conrad
RICHARD RUPPEL’S A Political Genealogy of Joseph Conrad is direct, clearly written, and stylistically effective. This book considers Conrad’s works from a political perspective. Such a view is welcome since the only monographs devoted exclusively to Conrad’s politics (Eloise Knapp Hay’s The Political Novels of Joseph Conrad and Avrom Fleishman’s Conrad’s Politics) were published some fifty years ago. [End Page 125] Valuable as those are, Conrad’s politics is an area that could use further fruitful commentary.
Even so, the majority of the book’s strengths lie in the many ad hoc insights that Ruppel provides concerning the works he discusses. His views on the political aspects of A Personal Record and Chance, for example, seem particularly original and insightful, especially his discussion of class in both of these works.
In addition to ad hoc insights, Ruppel’s main contribution comes in his assessment of Conrad’s political stance. While at least since Robert Penn Warren’s well-known essay on Nostromo (which later served as the introduction to the Modern Library edition of the novel), Conrad scholars have generally accepted that Conrad was not a systematic philosopher (neither in the narrow philosophical sense of having a systematic philosophy nor in the more common sense of have a consistent view of the world). In contrast, extended discussions of Conrad’s politics, as with Irving Howe, Eloise Knapp Hay, and Avrom Fleishman, have typically assumed a much more consistent political thought. Ruppel writes in contrast to this way of thinking. He proposes instead a more situational political thinking, arguing for a Conrad whose political thinking cannot be circumscribed into a single political position and is instead influenced by the particulars of particular situations. Ruppel makes a good case for this position, and I think that he presents a valuable way of looking at Conrad’s politics that will influence how future commentators on Conrad’s politics approach the topic.
In arriving at this perspective, Ruppel works from Lyotard’s idea of “grand narratives” (large, overarching, systematic theories), arguing that Conrad rejects such thinking. I think that Ruppel is right when he suggests that Conrad was skeptical of grand narratives. I also think that Ruppel is right in his assertion that Conrad’s colonial fiction presents a similarly nonsystematic political view of the colonial world. I agree with Ruppel when he argues that in his political novels and stories (in the more common sense of the term “political”) Conrad criticizes both revolutionary politics and established governments. However, concerning Ruppel’s discussion of Conrad’s politics in his colonial works (particularly Almayer’s Folly and An Outcast of the Islands), I would have liked to have seen a little more clearly delineated where Ruppel’s ideas fit into the larger conversation concerning the politics of Conrad’s colonial world as it appears in the works of such commentators as, for example, Benita Parry, Terry Eagleton, Patrick Brantlinger, and Chris Bongie. [End Page 126]
In his book, Ruppel covers a wide variety of Conrad’s works: from his early colonial writings to what are often referred to as his political novels (Nostromo, The Secret Agent, and Under Western Eyes) to A Personal Record and Chance. Ruppel justifies this breadth by working from the presupposition that everything is political. In practice, though, much of his discussion focuses on the areas of class conflict, imperialism/colonialism, and what might be seen more traditionally as politics (that is, the workings of political parties and governments). Somewhat similar to Ruppel’s discussion of the colonial fiction, I felt that his discussion of The Secret Agent would have benefited from engaging with Cedric Watts’s The Deceptive Text, which approaches the novel in a somewhat similar way, and I think his discussion of the political novels would have also benefited from engaging with Daniel Schwarz’s article “Conrad’s Quarrel with Politics.”
Finally, I find proceeding upon the idea that everything is political to be problematic, because for me it empties the term of meaning, and since this...