Conrad and the Cloud of Unknowing


Joseph Conrad was Polish, born in 1857 into what was then a part of the Russian Empire. His father resisted the Russians and, as a result, the family was imprisoned in Warsaw, then in Vologda in Russia and finally Chernihiv in Ukraine where his mother died of Tuberculosis.

He wrote in English, and like Nabokov later, he wrote better than the vast majority of native speakers. His years in the British and the French merchant navies took him all over the world, and his works were set in Africa, south America, the pacific and Indian ocean islands and London amongst others. You should read him: he was almost alone writing in English from a truly global perspective and he was a genius, not like Bill Hicks was a genius or like Breaking Bad is like total genius dude, but the real thing.

Under Western Eyes was published in 1911 and was partly a reaction to Crime and Punishment, which he hated, along with its author. It tells the story of revolutionaries and the tsarist secret police in Saint Petersburg and of the émigré Russian community in Geneva. Here is a quote, the one that strikes a chord even now for anyone living in Russia. Whether he is right or wrong can be debated, but that he found the heart of the question is clear, for me at least. He writes:

“That propensity of lifting every problem from the plane of the understandable by means of some sort of mystic expression is very Russian. I knew her well enough to have discovered her scorn for all the practical forms of political liberty known to the western world. I suppose one must be a Russian to understand Russian simplicity, a terrible corroding simplicity in which mystic phrases clothe a naive and hopeless cynicism. I think sometimes that the psychological secret of the profound difference of that people consists in this, that they detest life, the irremediable life of the earth as it is, whereas we westerners cherish it with perhaps an equal exaggeration of its sentimental value.”

This is the Russian soul again; it usually pops up just at the moment when you think you have persuaded your Russian friend to concede some point about freedom or justice or the possibility of finding what they desire. All those horrible facts and uncomfortable truths you have been discussing suddenly turn out to be irrelevant in the face of the mystery of the Russian Soul, Russkaya Dusha. And it is your lack of a Russian Soul, apparently, that renders you incapable of grasping what is really going on. If your Russian friend is of a literary turn he might give you the following quote from Fyodor Tyutchev:

“Russia cannot be understood with the mind alone,
No ordinary yardstick can span her greatness:
She stands alone, unique –
In Russia, one can only believe.”

And it’s tempting, oh God bless you it is, because it absolutely is a hard place to understand, as Churchill pointed out. Still if I had a ruble for every time a Russian had invited me to join them on the plane of the unknowable then I would have $5.50 by now.

By Kim McDevitt

By Kim McDevitt

This is the country that put a man into space and spent 70 years in a rationalistic materialism, though you could argue that they turned that into a form of mysticism too. This is where all the programmers come from, where maths is fun and where chess was a spectator sport, it’s not as though they are fools, but given a choice between facing what is, including the part they have played in making it so, and heading into mysticville on the train marked “nothing is certain”, many, not all, but many of them sprint for the ticket office. And when they take their seats they find Dostoevsky is the conductor and the Patriarch of the Orthodox church is up front in the gold plated drivers cabin, and it is warm in the wagon and safe and no one is playing the Kreutser Sonata.

Sure you can talk to Americans offering a version of reality so far removed from the truth as to be farcical, you can turn on FOX News and watch people being paid to lie. But behind it is the notion that truth exists, that one or other parties in the fight has a grasp of it. The idea that the truth cannot be known would strike even Glenn Beck as wrong. That argument belongs to the religious and the Russians. In 1911 or 2013 you can find that game being played.