Josef Theodore Konrad Korzeniowski was born in the Ukraine in 1857 and grew up under Tzarist autocracy. His parents, ardent Polish patriots, died when he was a child, following their exile for anti-Russian activities. Later, Josef became the author Joseph Conrad who wrote mostly stories about the sea based on his own experiences as an English merchant seaman. English became his third language, after Polish and French, and he is one of the best writers I have ever read. But in addition to his sea stories, he wrote two novels about politics and about repressive regimes, of which he had first-hand knowledge (as he did the sea). One of these is Under Western Eyes which examines the “psychology” of Russia in the early part of the twentieth century. I take a few snippets from that book which are worth reflection as we in this country have undergone a revolution of sorts and seem to be headed for four years, at least, of despotism and distrust, characteristics of the political world familiar to Joseph Conrad, the Russia so admired by our president-elect.
“. . .and still more characteristic of the moral corruption of an oppressed society where the noblest aspirations of humanity, the desire of freedom, an ardent patriotism, the love of justice, the sense of pity, and even the fidelity of simple minds are prostituted to the lusts of hate and fear, the inseparable companions of an uneasy despotism.”
“Calumny is a weapon of our government, too.”
“In Russia, the land of spectral ideas and disembodied aspirations, . . . they turned to autocracy for the peace of their patriotic conscience as a weary unbeliever, touched by grace, turns to the faith of his fathers for the blessings of spiritual rest.”
“For that is the mark of Russian autocracy and of Russian revolt. In its pride of numbers, in its strange pretensions of sanctity, and in the secret readiness to abase itself in suffering, the spirit of Russia is the spirit of cynicism. It informs the declarations of her statesmen, the theories of her revolutionaries, and the mystic vaticinations of prophets to the point of making freedom look like a form of debauch, and the Christian virtues themselves appear actually indecent.”
“. . .Western ears . . . are not attuned to certain tones of cynicism and cruelty, or moral negation, and even of moral distress already silenced in [Western] Europe.”
“As if anything can be changed! In this world of men nothing can be changed — neither happiness nor misery. They can only be displaced at the cost of corrupted consciences and broken lives — a futile game for arrogant philosophers and sanguinary triflers.”
“It is more difficult to live a life of toil and self-denial than to go out in the street and kill from conviction.”
“Truly, the oppressors of thought which quickens the world, the destroyers of souls which aspire to the perfection of human dignity, they shall be haunted.”
“Life. . . not to be vile must be a revolt — a pitiless protest — all the time.”
“There is not much perspicacity in the world.”
In all, it is a fine piece of work and well worth reading as we contemplate the challenges that lie ahead of us in a country now led by a would-be autocrat surrounded by disciples who have already shown that they share their leader’s intolerance and bigotry and his need to bully and belittle others into following his lead.