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“Unfit for Action Unable to Rest”: Goethe, Lermontov, and Under Western Eyes

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Unfit for Action . . . Unable to Rest”:

Goethe, Lermontov, and Under Western Eyes

Richard Niland

University of Strathclyde

In 1913, referring to Goethe, Conrad stated that he had “never read a line of the Great Man” (CL5 174). Nevertheless, Under Western Eyes engages with Faust, especially in light of the strong presence of Goethe’s masterpiece in the nineteenth-century Russian literature that Conrad most directly evokes in Under Western Eyes. While some critics have drawn parallels between Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus (1947) and Under Western Eyes (Kaye) references to “Mephistophelian laughter” (60), “Mephistophelian eyebrows” (245), the Devil, and ghouls abound in the novel with sufficient frequency for our gaze to be directed more fruitfully back to earlier Faustian parallels. Indeed, the narrator makes the Faustian symbolism explicit in alluding to one of the central myths of post-mediæval European society: “To the morality of a Western reader an account of these meetings would wear perhaps the sinister character of old legendary tales where the Enemy of Mankind is represented holding subtly mendacious dialogues with some tempted soul” (304-05).

Conrad’s initial engagement with Goethe can be traced to Lord Jim. Citing the novel’s references to Goethe’s play Torquato Tasso, Paul Kirschner observes that “the lines from Tasso suggest that Goethe was one of the great writers who helped to shape Conrad’s imagination,” arguing that Stein is “a figure cast in the Goethean mould” (1979: 79).1 Essential to this connection is Stein’s philosophizing on the Faustian polarities of Jim’s character. For Jim, like Faust, in “his frenzied, crazed unrest,” “all the near and far that he desireth /Fails to subdue the tumult of his breast” (Goethe 1969: 33). Faust’s self-diagnosis offers an eloquent expression of the divided self that holds a singularly influential position in nineteenth-century European literature:

Two souls, alas! reside within my breast,

And each withdraws from, and repels, its brother;

One with tenacious organs holds in lust

And clinging love the world in its embraces;

The other strongly soars above this dust

Into the high ancestral spaces

(Goethe 1969: 58)
Faust’s salvation in Goethe’s version of the legend as a result of his incessant striving “has puzzled scholars and laymen alike” (Hagen and Mahlendorf 1963: 473), and the poem’s insistence that “Restless activity proves the man” (Goethe 1969: 78) has led to conflicting moral and political readings of Goethe’s work. Marshall Berman, asserting that Goethe’s work is “one of the primary sources of international romanticism” (1993: 43), investigates the poem’s exploration of the redemptive aspects of individual dynamism, while others have understood Faust as a “symbol of modern man’s aberrations, crimes, and failures” (Hagen and Mahlendorf 1963: 473). For the Goethean Stein in Lord Jim, Jim’s failure to submit to the “destructive element” (214) that allows man to embrace his inheritance of both the real and the ideal provokes a Faustian restlessness, thereby explaining why man makes “a great noise about himself” (208). Whereas nature achieves the “balance of colossal forces” (208), in man the dualism of the mind’s relationship to both the material world and the ancestral spaces of the Faustian imagination propels the protagonist onward in his engagement with, or flight from, the subject of “how to be” (213). The precariousness of Jim’s position is captured in Stein’s famous elliptical diagnosis of Jim’s character as “romantic,” which is “very bad. . . .Very good, too” (216).
Conrad, Russian Literature, and the Superfluous Man
In “Autocracy and War” (1905), Conrad stated that Russia had traditionally revealed an “impenetrability to whatever is true in Western thought. Western thought when it crosses her frontier falls under the spell of her autocracy and becomes a noxious parody of itself” (Notes on Life and Letters 82). However, nineteenth-century Russian literature displays a remarkable ability not merely to parody, but to renew, ironize, and subvert many of the most influential Western literary models, foremost amongst which is Goethe’s Faust. It has been amply demonstrated that the Faustian dilemma made its way into various strands of European literature in the nineteenth century, often by way of Byron’s Manfred, and not least in Poland and Russia.

In Poland, Adam Mickiewicz “found himself in the atmosphere of Goethe’s themes and literary genres, giving to Poland a Polish Werther [and] a Polish Faust” (Lednicki 1952: 24); and in Russia both Mikhail Lermontov and Turgenev wrote in the shadow of Goethe and Schiller’s literary and philosophical explorations. Boris Eikhenbaum noted that passages of Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time “resound with Goethe’s voice” (2002: 53), while Tolstoy ruefully lamented the plight of “poor Turgenev with his admiration for Faust” (Lednicki 1952: 33).

Amongst Russian writers, Turgenev is perhaps the most immediately significant for Conrad. In his essay on the writer reprinted in Notes on Life and Letters, Conrad privileged Turgenev’s “larger, non-Russian” (41) work as opposed to a tradition of Russian writing that, presumably referring to Dostoyevsky, focused on “damned souls knocking themselves to pieces in the stuffy darkness of mystical contradictions” (41). However, Conrad also drew attention to the specifically Russian aspects of Turgenev’s work, believing that “the moral and intellectual unrest of the souls” was “recorded in the whole body of his work with the unerring lucidity of a great national writer” (40). This emphasis on restless souls ensures that Conrad’s critical engagement with Turgenev resembles that of his contemporary Henry James. While in his early criticism on Turgenev “James had either little or no knowledge of the tradition of Russian literature out of which [Turgenev] grew,” he, nevertheless, and “with some ingenuity, characterized the theme of superfluousness” in Turgenev’s work. (Richards 2000: 468). Writing to John Galsworthy in 1908, Conrad explained that his proposed short story “Razumov” would “capture the soul of things Russian” (CL4 8).

Conrad’s ultimate focus on the “unstable state of the soul” (269) of Razumov invites associations with the psychology of the superfluous man in nineteenth-century Russian literature and, particularly, this tradition’s secular exploration of Faustian contrasts. Natalia Haldin, who, like Faust, “simply thirsted after knowledge” (101), is “given over to the hazards of a furious strife between equally ferocious antagonisms” (319). The Teacher of Languages struggles to understand her Faustian leanings and advises on the reconciliation of the ethereal and the material: “Life is a thing of form. It has its plastic shape and a definite intellectual aspect. The most idealistic conceptions of love and forbearance must be clothed in flesh as it were before they can be made understandable” (106). Nevertheless, in surveying her contemporaries, Natalia perfectly describes the plight of the superfluous man in her assessment of the character of the “young Russian”: “so many of them are unfit for action, and yet unable to rest” (169).

As critics have demonstrated, one way in which Conrad sought to render “the psychology of Russia itself” (vii) was through an engagement with Russian literary models, a number of which either form part of the tradition of superfluous man writing or, in the case of Dostoyevsky, engage with it in a more oblique, yet nevertheless significant, manner. Frank Friedeberg Seeley identifies three manifestations of the superfluous man, namely “the sceptics and dandies of the 1820s, the demons of revolt in the 1830s, the preachers of the 1840s” (1952: 97), corresponding to Pushkin’s Onegin, Lermontov’s Pechorin and Turgenev’s Rudin, respectively. Cedric Watts briefly connects Conrad’s heroes to these figures in Russian literature (1993: 65-67), making reference to Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, Turgenev’s The Diary of a Superfluous Man and Rudin, and later to Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground.

Similarly, Kirschner links Conrad’s work to the Hamlet/Don Quixote dichotomy of Turgenev’s 1860 lecture, one of the seminal developments in assessments of the Russian character in the nineteenth century.2 Kirschner observes the “thematic and verbal resemblances” between Lord Jim and Turgenev’s Rudin (1968: 247) and the importance of Smoke for Conrad’s development of Under Western Eyes (1968: 249-52). Turgenev’s Hamlet and Don Quixote asked “Do not all men belong more or less to one type or the other” (Turgenev 1930: 11). Referring to Goethe’s Faust, Turgenev asserts that “Hamlet is Mephistopheles shut up in the straiter bounds of a nature purely human” (25).

The essential subtext of Turgenev’s essay, however, is that Hamlet and Don Quixote not only stand opposed to each other as external types, but that these characters also embody the “two souls at war in one breast” of Goethe’s Faust. Of course, Turgenev’s essay, and Conrad’s engagement with its ideas, cannot be properly assessed without a full understanding of the superfluous men whose shadows loom over much of Russian literature in the nineteenth century and whose diverse presence has, as yet, to be fully explored in Under Western Eyes. If, as Watts has recently observed, Conrad’s Russian novel is a “remarkably haunted text,” (2009: 35), then several Russian literary ghosts, not only Dostoevsky, still possess its pages.

Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time and Under Western Eyes
A work that encapsulates many of Conrad’s borrowings from or echoes of the superfluous man is Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time (1841). For Vladimir Nabokov, A Hero of Our Time caused readers to “marvel indeed at the superb energy of the tale” (1984: xviii) in which “the ‘time’ is of less interest to the student of literature than the ‘hero’” (xvii). Additionally, in reference to the subject of duelling in the novel and Lermontov’s death in a duel at the age of twenty-seven in 1841, Nabokov noted that for the “emotional type of reader, much of the novel’s poignancy and fascination resides in the fact that Lermontov’s own tragic fate is somehow superimposed upon that of Pechorin” (1984: xviii-xix).

The work was widely translated in Europe in the nineteenth century, with a Polish translation published in Warsaw as early as 1844, an English translation appearing as early as 1854, and French editions of Lermontov’s prose and poetry, especially the influential poem The Demon, appearing throughout the century. At the height of the vogue for all things Russian in Britain in the early twentieth century, what Gilbert Phelps labels “the Russian fever” (1958: 433) – of which Under Western Eyes forms a part – A Hero of Our Time was republished as The Heart of a Russian in 1912. However, as Phelps also notes, as early as 1869 there was already “a considerable body of Russian literature available in English translation” (433) that included a range of the most celebrated nineteenth-century Russian writers, including Pushkin, Gogol, Lermontov, Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, and Tolstoy. Constance Garnett’s translations, often cited in relation to Conrad’s exploration of Russian themes, can therefore be seen as the culmination of a long-developing process of British literary engagement with Russian literature rather than its initiation.

One reason for Lermontov’s European popularity may be the fact that the author of A Hero of Our Time did not, as Zdzisław Najder puts it, conceive of his work “in predominantly national terms” (1970: 656), and all of Lermontov’s writing engages profoundly with European, and especially Byronic and Goethean, literary influences. The strength of Byron’s influence on Lermontov can be felt in the latter’s poem entitled “No, I Am Not Byron,” in which the poet observes:

No, I am not Byron, it’s my role

To be an undiscovered wonder,

Like him, a persecuted wand’rer,

But furnished with a Russian soul.

(Myers 1989: 86)

Lermontov translated from Mickiewicz’s Crimean Sonnets and Mickiewicz’s influence on Lermontov and Pushkin has been widely discussed in Polish literary criticism.3 However, Lermontov’s most acclaimed achievement remains his one completed novel. With its focus through a variety of narratorial perspectives on the dashing, restless hero Pechorin, who “was born with a passion for contradiction” and an “insatiable craving” (Lermontov 2001: 77, 103), A Hero of Our Time, a descendant of Benjamin Constant’s Adolphe (1816) and Alfred de Musset’s La Confession d’un enfant du siècle (1836) in its psychological focus, offers an innovative portrait of one of the “demons of revolt” of the 1830s.

In important ways, however, Lermontov’s Pechorin is also derived from the author’s celebrated poem The Demon, which had presented a distinctly Byronic malevolent anti-hero. Lermontov’s Demon is a literary embodiment of the Teacher of Language’s view in Under Western Eyes that “the Evil One, with his single passion of satanic pride for the only motive, is yet, on a larger, modern view, allowed to be not quite so black as he used to be painted” (305). As Alexander Condie Stephen noted in his 1875 English translation of The Demon, “The similarity of the subject with that of “Faust,” and of the character with that of Lucifer in “Cain,” will doubtless strike all at first” (Lermontoff 1875: 6):

But in the fallen Spirit’s fleshless breast,

Except a cold and envious thought,

Nature, in all her fairest raiment dress’d,

No vernal power, no new sensation brought—

And all that coldly round his eye glanced o’er

Unmoved, he only scorned and hated more.

(Lermontoff 1875: 13)4
Lermontov’s charismatic Demon, who mercilessly seduces a Caucasian princess, was central to the development of the character of Pechorin. As W. J. Leatherbarrow notes, “Because the demon was a projection of essentially human qualities, Lermontov was able to extend the typology almost unchanged into Pechorin, the central figure of his novel A Hero of Our Time” (2000: 300). Pechorin’s enigmatic nature is conveyed through a series of narrators who vary in their reliability, including Pechorin himself. According to Donald Davie, in his narrative experimentation Lermontov “anticipated by fifty years or more the experiments of Henry James and Joseph Conrad in stories written from several different points of view”; and Davie believes that Lermontov’s “achievement has never been fully appreciated in the West, where it was Turgenev who was applauded for self-effacement and presented as the creator of ‘the dramatic novel’” (1965: 196).

Given Lermontov’s central position in the development of the superfluous man, it is worth presuming that Conrad was familiar with his work, especially considering the fact that the acknowledged influences on Conrad’s writing from Russian literature for Under Western Eyes all feature explicit references to Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time and Lermontov’s poetry. Turgenev’s Rudin, in his indecisiveness and hesitation, is contrasted with “Gentlemen of the Pechorin school” (Turgenev 1983: 82), and lines from Lermontov’s poem “The Dream” appear in Crime and Punishment (1997: 348). Indeed, the full import of characters such as Rudin and Raskolnikov cannot be grasped without an understanding of Pechorin. If Raskolnikov stands behind Razumov, then it is worth noting that, as Hans Rothe observes, “Behind Raskol’nikov in Prestupleniyie nakazaniye (‘Crime and Punishment’) the shadows of Lermontov, Lord Byron, and Napoleon appear” (1987: xxxv).5 Indeed, if the dark moral atmosphere of Under Western Eyes evokes the world of Dostoyevsky, it should be remembered that, as critic Dmitry Merezhkovsky stressed in 1909, “All Russian literature is, to a certain degree, a struggle with the temptation of demonism, an attempt to undress Lermontov’s Demon” (cited in Davidson 2000: 176).

In light of this, it is revealing that Conrad’s language when writing of Russia abounds in Lermontovian and Gogolian expressions connected to notions of malevolence and evil. In “Autocracy and War,” he writes of the “ghost of Russian might” (73) as a “gigantic and dreaded phantom” (73). The “spectre” (75) of Russia appears as a “dreaded and strange apparition” (75), a “soulless autocracy” (75). The Russia of Peter the Great had been an “ill-omened creation” (76) that was “a fantasy of a madman’s brain” (77). Russia is a “monster” “held by an evil spell” (82) and “a visitation, like a curse from heaven falling in the darkness of ages” (82).

Given such language, it is not surprising that among the more notable readings of evil and deception in Under Western Eyes has been Frank Kermode’s assessment of Conrad’s narrator and his language of ghouls, phantoms, apparitions, and ghosts, asking whether Conrad’s novel does not in fact operate in the traditions of writing on the demonic: “What if the old Englishman should be the father of lies?” (1983: 152). Additionally, as Jeremy Hawthorn argues in the present collection of essays, Under Western Eyes abounds in references to split selves and Doubles that one can link to Dostoevsky’s The Double and to the writing of E. T. A. Hoffmann, who is mentioned in the text of Conrad’s novel.

The period of Lermontov’s literary activity in Russia in the 1830s “saw the beginning of a veritable cult of Hoffmann which lasted for more than a decade” (Ighmam 1974: 9). Lermontov’s unfinished final work Štoss has been investigated “as a serious work in the tradition of Hoffmann and Gogol” (Mersereau 1962: 283). Although Norman W. Ingham argues that in Lermontov’s works Hoffmann’s themes are “treated humorously” (260), the notion of doubling nevertheless plays an important role in A Hero of Our Time, especially in Pechorin’s relationship with his “enemy” Grushnitsky, and his “friend,” Werner, both of whom embody suppressed aspects of Pechorin’s demonic character. Therefore, in alluding to Hoffmann’s work in Under Western Eyes, Conrad employs a literary reference that is to some extent a signature of Russian explorations of the protagonist’s psychology extending from Dostoyevsky back to Lermontov.

A Hero of Our Time, it might be argued, provides a template for many of the characteristically “Russian” psychological and formal traits of Under Western Eyes, most pointedly the focus on restless souls in the first instance, and the detailed attention given to the literary form of the diary or confession in the second. Haldin in his initial appearance in Razumov’s chambers raises the first of many references throughout the text to the Faustian elements of the superfluous man best represented by the divided character of Pechorin. Prior to the assassination, Haldin is already notably condemned by the authorities for being “restless” (15), one of the defining characteristics of the superfluous man embodied by Pechorin, who manically, and unsuccessfully, seeks a worthy sphere of activity for his talents and energy. Indeed, if one recalls Berman’s reading of Faust and his redemption, it is noteworthy that Haldin also regards his restlessness and his ultimate fate as redemptive: “Men like me leave no posterity, but their souls are not lost. No man’s soul is ever lost” (22). For Sophia Antonovna later, restless activity does, in the Faustian tradition, prove the man: “for stop you cannot, you must not” (245); “I have been one of these that never rested” (246). In fact, the choice of life is simple: “You have either to rot or to burn. And there is not one of us . . . that would not rather burn than rot” (250). For her, life “not to be vile must be a revolt – a pitiless protest – all the time” (260).

Significantly, in light of these Faustian allusions and the significance of such ideas for the Romantic era in Russian literary history, Haldin makes particular note of his familial connections to Russian romantic politics and the years that gave rise to Pushkin and Lermontov’s most celebrated works. Haldin bears a physical, and we might understand, philosophical resemblance to an unnamed martyred ancestor, executed following Nicholas I’s repression of the Decembrist Revolt in 1825: “They say I resemble my mother’s eldest brother, an officer. They shot him in ’28. Under Nicholas, you know” (23). Mrs. Haldin, we are told, had “felt the pangs of her own generation” (318) and this romantic heritage passes to her children.

The generational pangs that Mrs Haldin alludes to are best captured in Romantic Russian literature by Lermontov’s poem “Meditation,” written in the years following the failure of the Decembrist Revolt of 1825:
With sadness I survey our present generation!

Their future seems so empty, dark, and cold.

Weighed down beneath a load of knowing hesitation,

In idleness stagnating, growing old.

(Meyers 1989: 87)
Lermontov’s poem can be understood as a response to both the failure of the Decembrist Revolt and an initial poetic expression of the views of a generation of Russian writers who grew up under the powerful influence of Hegelian philosophy, which began to dominate historical and political discourse in Russia in the 1830s and 1840s. While Hegelianism provoked stoical acceptance of the political status quo to Lermontov’s generation, or literary attempts to subvert its teleology through temporally disjointed experimental narratives such as A Hero of Our Time, to the later superfluous men Hegelianism became “a key to the understanding of their own weakness, inner division, and incapacity for action” (Walicki 1975: 351); in other words, a way of resolving the psychological Faustian contradictions that drive Pechorin. A sense of the emerging power of Hegel’s philosophy in Russia is ironically revealed by Turgenev in Rudin, in which the unseen Baron is “reputed to be a great philosophe, literally fizzing with Hegel” (Turgenev 1983: 47).

Under Western Eyes’ acknowledgement of the “sadness” of the generation of Russian Romantics testifies to a period in Russian history and literature that Conrad perhaps saw as more European and Western, before, in Conrad’s somewhat inverted chronology, the arrival of the “fierce mouthings from prehistoric ages” (CL5 70) of Dostoyevsky, a style “too Russian” for Conrad. Indeed, Conrad’s appreciation of Turgenev’s position in Russian literature and his literary technique relies on just such an historical distinction. Given Haldin’s important connection to the heritage of Russian Romanticism, a sense of generational conflict is central to the characterization of both Haldin and Razumov – despite their being contemporaries – with Haldin evoking the energetic yet directionless individualism of Pechorin and Razumov embodying a character riven by the later secularized Faustian dichotomy of Turgenev’s Hamlet /Don Quixote in his quietism and hesitation.

While Razumov initially raises Faustian associations through his studious “wish for distinction” (14) as he listens in his dimly-lit rooms “to the faint sounds of some town clock tolling the hour” (63), he is nevertheless, unlike Faust, “always accessible, and there was nothing secret or reserved in his life” (7). Unable or unwilling to connect to a Romantic heritage as Haldin is, Razumov is characterized by his Positivism and depends “upon the development of his natural abilities for his place in the world” (25). Both characters, therefore, embody the major shifts in Russian history in the nineteenth century. However, despite his attempts at political equilibrium, Razumov is ultimately understood by his relationship to the antagonisms of his political creed and his inability to resolve their opposing views either in theory or in practice:

History not Theory.

Patriotism not Internationalism.

Evolution not Revolution.

Direction not Destruction.

Unity not Disruption.

(Under Western Eyes, 66)

Razumov also offers a Faustian interpretation of happiness bound up with restlessness and dynamism: “Looking forward was happiness – that’s all – nothing more. To look forward to the gratification of some desire, to the gratification of some passion, love, ambition, hate – hate too indubitably” (69). Mostly, though, Razumov’s “conservative convictions” (67) seek “an activity that made for progress without being revolutionary” (71). Politically, Conrad characterized the novel as one of political extremes that examined the “ferocity and imbecility of an autocratic rule” and the “no less imbecile and atrocious answer of a purely Utopian revolutionism encompassing destruction by the first means to hand” (x). Razumov is marked out by his inability to embrace extreme positions, finding himself “done for” as he stands “Between the drunkenness of the peasant incapable of action and the dream-intoxication of the idealist incapable of perceiving the reason of things” (31). This ultimately leads to a Lermontovian isolation, as Razumov desires to cut himself off from all community. In his confession to the revolutionaries Razumov strives to make himself “independent of every single human being on this earth” (368).

In order to betray, reasons Razumov, “There must be a moral bond first. All a man can betray is his conscience” (37). Razumov’s communion with his conscience introduces one of the identifying traits of the superfluous man tradition; namely, the use of the confessional mode and a corresponding analysis of its integrity and trustworthiness, often by means of an intermediary narrator who claims to withhold part of the diary or confession. In A Hero of Our Time, the editor/narrator claims to “have in my possession another thick notebook in which Pechorin recounts his whole life-story” (2001: 56). Pechorin’s diary is ostensibly offered “as a rare glimpse behind the facade, a privileged view uncontaminated by any attempt on the part of its author to perform for a public” (Abbott 1980: 32). Pechorin asserts that “For a long time now I’ve lived by intellect, not feeling. I weigh and analyse my emotions and actions with close interest, but complete detachment. There are two men within me – one lives in the full sense of the word, the other reflects and judges him” (134). This tension between aspects of the divided self is manifested in both A Hero of Our Time and Under Western Eyes. After a particularly obtuse entry in his diary, Pechorin notes contradictorily that “Many similar thoughts ran through my mind, but I didn’t dwell on them, for I’m not given to brooding on abstract ideas” (153). In Under Western Eyes, we learn that “It is the peculiarity of Russian natures that, however strongly engaged in the drama of action, they are still turning their ear to the murmur of abstract ideas” (294).

Importantly, in the case of A Hero of Our Time, as in Under Western Eyes, this confessional ambiguity engages directly with the influential work and person of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Central to this is speculation on the issue of readership, audience, and the motivating impulse for the alleged confession, with authenticity being conferred on Pechorin’s diary through its contrast with Rousseau’s Confessions. As the travelling editor who makes the hero Pechorin’s journal available to the reader remarks, “The story of a man’s soul, even the pettiest, can be more interesting and instructive than the story of a whole nation, especially if it is written with no vain desire to arouse sympathy or surprise. The trouble with Rousseau’s Confessions is that he read them to his friends” (Lermontov 2001: 55).

Indeed, as the disaffected superfluous man is transformed into Dostoevsky’s later “underground man” in Notes from Underground (1864), the same focus on confession and autobiography in relation to Rousseau recurs: “I may remark, by the way, that Heine states that trustworthy autobiographies are almost an impossibility, and that a man will probably never tell the truth about himself. According to him, Rousseau, for example, lied about himself in his Confessions, even deliberately, out of vanity. I am sure Heine was right” (Dostoyevsky 1985: 45). As J. M. Coetzee has observed, however, the irony of Notes from Underground is that while the narrator “promises a confession that will outdo Rousseau in truthfulness, a confession he believes himself fitted to make because he is afflicted with hyperconsciousness to the ultimate degree, his confession reveals nothing so much as the helplessness of confession before the desire of the self to construct its own truth” (1985: 220).

By engaging in similar speculations on confession and autobiography through the mediating figure of the ambiguous Teacher of Languages, Conrad’s novel neatly continues a Russian tradition of psychological investigation of troubled young protagonists. Under the watchful gaze of “a bronze effigy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau” (290) in Geneva in Under Western Eyes, the teacher divulges the complicated manner of his engagement with Razumov’s diary. He ruminates on what can “be inferred clearly from the mental and psychological self-confession, self-analysis of Mr. Razumov’s written journal – the pitiful resource of a young man who had near him no trusted intimacy, no natural affection to turn to” (308-09). We learn, too, through the narrator, that Razumov ponders the significance of his diary:
Alone in his room after having posted his secret letter, he had regained a certain measure of composure by writing in his secret diary. He was aware of the danger of that strange self-indulgence. He alludes to it himself, but he could not refrain. It calmed him – it reconciled him to his existence. (252)
In echoing the superfluous man tradition through the emphasis on confession, diaries, and writing, Conrad also treats one of the major recurring philosophical subjects of a number of its protagonists, including Lermontov’s Pechorin, Turgenev’s Tchulkaturin, and Dostoevsky’s Underground Man: namely, the subject of fate. The subject dominates A Hero of Our Time, with Pechorin reflecting incessantly on his understanding of freewill, chance, and predestination. The final section of Lermontov’s work, which centres on the subject of Russian roulette, suicide, and predestination, is known as “The Fatalist.” In Under Western Eyes, Razumov believes that “Fatality enters your rooms while your landlady’s back is turned; you come home and find it in possession bearing a man’s name, clothed in flesh” (83). Further, it introduces the question of whether suicide can assist in escaping fate: “You cannot shake it off any more. It will cling to you for ever. Neither halter nor bullet can give you back the freedom of your life and the sanity of your thought. . . . It was enough to make one dash one’s head against a wall” (84). Later the narrator notes: “Fatality – chance! Razumov meditated in silent astonishment upon the queer verisimilitude of these inferences” (276). During his staged flight from Russia with the help of Madcap Kostia, Razumov feels that everything “continued on foreseen lines, inexorably logical” (315), while later in his final meeting with Natalia Haldin Razumov ponders whether she is a “predestined victim” (349).

According to the narrator, this last reference to predestination and fate’s victims brings forth images of “a man defying his own dizziness in high places and tottering suddenly on the very edge of the precipice” (349), thereby resonating with the most celebrated scenes from A Hero of Our Time in which the callous Pechorin dispatches his enemy Grushnitsky in a vertiginous duel on the edge of a dizzying precipice. Indeed, by the end of Under Western Eyes, Razumov, according to the narrator, believes that “the facts and the words of a certain evening in the past were timing his conduct in the present” (362), the evening when Victor Haldin appeared as a Faustian figure and initiated Razumov’s ultimately tragic encounter with the realities of Russian politics and history, all of which Conrad evokes through allusion to a rich tradition of Russian literature and ideas.

Throughout Under Western Eyes a range of structural and thematic literary devices point to the presence of seminal works from the Russian tradition of writing on the subject of the superfluous man. Amongst these is Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, a work that became a reference point for later writings on the subject and of particular importance to the writings of Turgenev and Dostoyevsky that Conrad draws on for Under Western Eyes. In “Autocracy and War,” Conrad characterized Russia as geographically and politically superfluous, indicating, as Bismarck and Jules Michelet had before him, that Russia was “le néant” (79). Similarly, in his “Author’s Note” to Under Western Eyes, Conrad implied that Razumov was either “a Russian – or he is nothing” (ix). In offering Razumov either Russianness or the decidedly Russian alternate fate of superfluousness, Conrad ensured that Under Western Eyes and its protagonist engaged directly with one of the most important traditions of Russian writing of the nineteenth century.

Works cited
Abbott, H. Porter. “Letters to the Self: The Cloistered Writer in Nonretrospective Fiction.” PMLA 95.1 (1980): 23-41.

Berman, Marshall. All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity. London: Verso, 1993.

Coetzee, J. M. “Confession and Double Thoughts: Tolstoy, Rousseau, Dostoevsky.” Comparative Literature 37.3 (1985): 193-232.

Davidson, Pamela, ed. Russian Literature and its Demons. Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2000.

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1 Conrad quotes the following lines: “So halt’ ich’s endlich denn in meinen Händen/Und nenn’es in gewissen Sinne mein” (211) [And so at last I hold it in my hands /And call it in a certain sense my own] (cited in Kirschner 1979: 65).

2 For a discussion of Conrad’s engagement with the ideas of this essay, see Mulry (2011).

3 See, in particular, Zgorzelski (1951: 129-43).

4 Lermontov is possibly the poet Razumov alludes to in the hitherto untraced reference to the poet who speaks of “a breast unwarmed by any affection” (344). Lermontov’s Demon describes himself as “He whom, no one loving, all abhor, /Accursed by every living soul” (35), explaining that “Nature’s warm embrace /To endless time grew cold for me” (38). In addition to evoking the words of Lermontov’s Demon and the reflections of Pechorin, Razumov’s words correspond to the tendency of Russian literary characters, such as Turgenev’s Chulkaturin in The Diary of a Superfluous Man and Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man in Notes from Underground to quote from Lermontov’s poetry.

5 In Dostoyevsky’s The Devils “a consistent system of both overt and oblique references point to Lermontov and his hero as a yardstick against which we must measure the demonism of Stavrogin” (Leatherbarrow 2000: 300-01).

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