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Joseph Conrad. A Polish and European writer

Joseph Conrad was born as Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in Berdychiv (today in Ukraine) in 1857. He was a child of a Polish noble family that was involved in the conspirational fight for Poland’s independence. After the death of his mother the young Conrad moved to Kraków from where he later emigrated to France and later Great Britain. In Marseille he became a sailor and since then the whole world was his home. According to literary critic Rafał Marceli Blüth, the decision to ”fraternise with the element of the sea and the element of the peoples who were not deformed by civilisation”, as non-Europeans were called back then, were Conrad’s attempts to distance himself from his homeland, his nation and European culture overall. The truth, however, is that he never abandoned any of them. Conrad returned to Poland several times later on in life.

August 1, 2017 - Kinga Gajda - Conrad

Conrad in 1918 800x1058

Citizen of Europe, and the world

Speaking in today’s terms, we can say that Conrad was shaped by a cultural hybrid. He was influenced by many value-systems and was an heir to different legacies. This transcultural identity was reflected in the writer’s language as reportedly in conversations Conrad would smoothly switch from Polish to English or French. The choice of language depended on what he wanted to express. As a result, already in his lifetime, many nations desired to have Conrad as their own and wanted to place him among their national authors. Until today he is seen both as an English and Polish writer, but one who also thought in French. The only thing that is probably missing is his Ukrainian roots. 

It can also be said that Conrad was a citizen of Europe – a Europe whose outpost, as he believed, was to be found in Poland. But he was also a citizen of the world but of the 19th century world, of course. Conrad was deeply grounded in this reality and fascinated with the ideas that were influencing it: primarily colonialism and the mission to spread western civilisation. Clearly under this influence, the writer was also in awe to some older concepts, such as the medieval chivalry code of conduct and the more recent romantic visions of heroism and Messianism.

Conrad was also quite realistic and correct in recognising the problems of the world of his time. He was especially concerned about the lack of inter-cultural dialogue, seeing it as a potential global problem of the future. He held this conviction even though he himself held his own prejudices, especially towards Russians and Prussians whom he associated with tyranny.

While holding in high esteem western values and European civilisation, Conrad was also deeply rooted in the culture of the multi-ethnic Polish borderlands (Kresy). In his memory he held fond images of the Ukrainian landscape, even though he felt more of a Pole than a borderland Slav. The authors of the collected work Conrad żywy (Conrad Alive), which was published in London in 1957 by the Association of Polish Writers Abroad, stress that traces of this experience could be found in the writer’s skill to enter the internal world of peoples of different ethnicities and cultures.

A European Pole

Two recent Polish prime ministers, Jerzy Buzek and Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz, once said that “Joseph Conrad was the first conscious modern European-Pole. The tradition that Conrad identified himself with is European.” Indeed, in his works and letters Conrad presented a vision of Europe’s future where he saw Poland as a country of universal importance; Europe’s enclave. He glorified his homeland, arguing that its soil gave life to romantic ideas. He appreciated his compatriots’ attachment to freedom, respect for individual rights, high esteem of democracy and tolerance. He also valued Polish honour and chivalry code of conduct, and stressed Poles’ compassion towards the weak, as well as their idealism and spirituality. All in all Poland, in Conrad’s view, was a romantic hero: one that was sacrificing itself for others, one that loved for millions and suffered for them as well.

The authors of Conrad żywy even argued that it was thanks to Conrad that Polish romanticism, and its vision of the world, became more universal. However, they also rightly stress that the romantic references that can be found in Conrad’s works might have generated the biggest misunderstanding among his readers. The same could be said about the ambiguous image of Poland that he presented. On the one hand, he showed his homeland to be a place of positivist concepts of work (in reference to the 19th century positivist movement – editor’s note), duty and responsibility, stressing Polish hospitality. Noteworthy is the fact that Conrad was a very hospitable person himself. He would welcome many guests to his house where he would feast with them and engage in conversation. On the other hand, Conrad did not hide his lack of faith in the success of the patriotic school of thought, one to which he was nonetheless deeply devoted. Nor was he convinced that Poland would regain independence. In his homeland he saw people who were weak and tired. Those who could think, talk, have faith, and suffer, but would not rise up again. It was only during the early years of the First World War that he started believing in Poland’s independence.

Nevertheless, Conrad was convinced of Poland’s great contribution to Europe. He would present his homeland as a country with a great history and tradition – one that preserves the old Roman values and is located between the West (inhabited by German tribes) and the Byzantine Slavic-Tatar barbarism. In his view, it was an enclave of Italian and French culture, the last bastion of the West which, despite its difficult geopolitical situation, was capable of pushing back foreign influences and remaining faithful to its own values. Poland was the beacon of Europe and Europeaness and always eager to defend western civilisation.

In Conrad’s eyes Poland was also an absorber of western ideas and culture. It was located at the threshold of western civilisation and always eager to “fight with Asian despotism”. Thus, when Conrad would stress in his letters that Poland was an heir to the chivalry tradition, he was expressing his belief that it was a sign of its western, not barbarian, roots. In these words and others, the author of Lord Jim greatly idealised Poland.

Peaceful nation

Conrad was also convinced of the peaceful disposition of the Polish people. He would argue that the spirit of aggression was foreign to this nation and that it never engaged in any war that was aimed at expansion. Poles only defended their own territory. Conrad would make many references to the history of the Polish Commonwealth when Poland was a large and powerful empire, stressing that this achievement was not a result of conquest. Conversely in his description, he would point out that Poland’s greatness was a result of its European heritage: namely, ancient Roman Christianity, and a respect for individual rights. He would even state that therebuilding Polish statehood was a warranty for Europe’s security. In the Memorandum of the Polish Question he wrote: “Being convinced that European affairs can be settled after a general armistice by a Congress of all States, it is my intention: generally, to bring up and accustom the English public to the idea that the Poles should have a legal recognition of their nationality in the defeated as well as in the victorious states.”  

Attached to romantic ideas Conrad would present Poland as a Messiah of Europe’s nations – a moral and unbreakable country. Thus his protagonists were similar to the heroes of romantic epic poems and became Poland’s porte parole. Adam Gillon would write about the loneliness of Conrad’s protagonists, comparing their alienation with romantic behaviour. “Their isolation – he stated – is essentially of a spiritual kind. Possessed by the idea of saving their people without the people themselves, they trust only their own effort and heroism, ever ready to give their lives in the service of Poland.”

Conrad would stress that by only participating in the shaping of Poland’s independence could Europe pay its debt towards Poland which allowed it to be offered as a sacrifice, but will one day rise to protect the order and security of Europe. Conrad understood Europe to be a multi-cultural and pluralistic federation. While preparing the Memorandum of the Polish Question together with Józef Retinger, his closest friend and a great Polish patriot and political advisor, Conrad pointed to the special role Russia, England and France were to play. It was under their protectorate that Poland was to stand up from its knees. At the same time, he never forgave the states of Western Europe and their acceptance of Poland’s partitions.

Loyal subject to the Queen

Czesław Miłosz wrote that “Conrad’s attachment to the British Empire and a strong sense of the borders of Western European civilisation were in a way a transposition of his faith in the Polish republic as a antemurale christanitatis. Islam and Byzantine Russia, in the minds of Poles, especially those from Lithuania and Ukraine, were the same enemy, an anti-civilisational element, which was constantly aiming to destroy Europe.” Conrad, as Retinger would say, was a Homo duplex – one with a dual nationality. He was 100 per cent a Pole, Retinger would write, when it came to his ethnic background and lifestyle, but at the same time he was a subject of the Queen of England.

 Conrad felt that he participated in England’s might and glory. He admired the British Empire and liked Englishmen. It was this attitude that gained most of Retinger’s respect. He thought such a mentality was a rarity, believing that those who move between cultures usually choose one of them over the other. Retinger was convinced that it was usually someone’s original identity that would win out in situations like this, and that someone’s new citizenship was more of a pragmatic choice. Conrad, as a co-participant of the English Empire and a Pole, felt obliged however to stress both Poland’s and Britain’s influence on him.  

Conrad not only saw the advantages of this outlook, but also – being marked by the experience of Poland’s history and its lost independence – he showed that he could relate to the peoples whose culture was poorly understood and destroyed. He would point out the negative effects that colonial expansion had on native peoples, who were often treated with hatred and brutality. At the same time, he would also unveil the lack of competence of the colonists, even though he did not abstain from showing them as cordial people, friendly to the local population. In his descriptions they were both philanthropists and adventure seekers, but they cared about profit and their own careers. In other words, instead of civilising others, they were acting at the same level of those who were being colonised.  

This stereotyped way of depicting native peoples as less civilised can be found in many of Conrad’s works. Despite this Conrad also talked about the isolation of the colonist as well as those who were being colonised. Both in the novels and short stories about the conquest of the white man (for example Amy Foster), he would point to the lack of inter-cultural dialogue, omnipresent stereotypes, which were all leading to mutual misunderstandings.

Sense of loneliness

Deriving from his experiences, Conrad was trying to prove that an understanding and openness of foreign cultures leads to co-existence and adaptation of new elements, which do not need to mean a rejection of older values. Throughout his life he experienced both the sense of alienation and being foreign. On many occasions he would talk not only about the geographic isolation, but also the cultural and psychological isolation. These feelings were probably the reason why Conrad was so upset by the words of his compatriot and well-known writer, Eliza Orzeszkowa. She accused him of having a lack of patriotism. To heal himself from the loneliness and separation he experienced, he found an escape in cultivating familiar national customs. He probably felt that it was his duty to be faithful to Polish traditions, especially those aspects of it that were becoming increasingly foreign and misunderstood.

That is why he would be so idealistic in his writing about the chivalrous code of conduct and nobility. It was in here that he saw Polish heritage and its uniqueness. The duty of cultivating heritage was something that Conrad grew up with. His uncle, Tadeusz Bobrowski, taught him that Poles had to protect their distinctiveness, holding their position until fate brings them the right to independence.  Conrad believed that the concept of honour was an important element of this heritage, even though idealisation of nobility and chivalry were the symptoms of the noble traditions that at that time were already going into oblivion.  As Zdzisław Najder, Conrad’s biographer, stresses: “The idea of honour was at the centre of Conrad’s interest, which was met with misunderstanding and led to many misinterpretations of his works.” 

Conrad’s trans-culturalism can be explained by his profound understanding of the diffusion of cultures, combined with the adherence to national heritage and many traditions. It did not mean the disappearance of different cultures or the blurring of differences, or the lack of recognition of the origins of different borrowings and heritages. On the contrary, it was meant to identify the essence, of what was valuable and unique to a given culture, and to connect it with what was equally important and unique in other cultures. That is why in Conrad’s writings we can find both the glorification of the chivalric code of conduct, honour and adherence to values that were characteristic for his Polish background, as well as an openness towards those who were foreign or unknown. This included the Ukrainian steppe, the French admiration for individual rights and the ideals of the French Revolution, the European heritage of Roman culture, and the British aspiration to expand and spread European values. A similar philosophy could be found in Conrad’s understanding of human experiences and everything that is universal in human nature, including such emotions as joy and sorrow, loneliness, bitterness, fear and hope.

Translated by Iwona Reichardt

Kinga Anna Gajda is an assistant professor at the Institute of European Studies of the Jagiellonian University in Kraków. She holds a PhD in literature.

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