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Under Western Eyes


It must be admitted that by the mere force of circumstances "Under
Western Eyes" has become already a sort of historical novel dealing with
the past.

This reflection bears entirely upon the events of the tale; but being as
a whole an attempt to render not so much the political state as the
psychology of Russia itself, I venture to hope that it has not lost all
its interest. I am encouraged in this flattering belief by noticing
that in many articles on Russian affairs of the present day reference is
made to certain sayings and opinions uttered in the pages that follow,
in a manner testifying to the clearness of my vision and the correctness
of my judgment. I need not say that in writing this novel I had no other
object in view than to express imaginatively the general truth which
underlies its action, together with my honest convictions as to the
moral complexion of certain facts more or less known to the whole world.

As to the actual creation I may say that when I began to write I had a
distinct conception of the first part only, with the three figures of
Haldin, Razumov, and Councillor Mikulin, defined exactly in my mind. It
was only after I had finished writing the first part that the whole
story revealed itself to me in its tragic character and in the march of
its events as unavoidable and sufficiently ample in its outline to give
free play to my creative instinct and to the dramatic possibilities of
the subject.

The course of action need not be explained. It has suggested itself more
as a matter of feeling than a matter of thinking. It is the result not
of a special experience but of general knowledge, fortified by earnest
meditation. My greatest anxiety was in being able to strike and sustain
the note of scrupulous fairness. The obligation of absolute fairness was
imposed on me historically and hereditarily, by the peculiar experience
of race and family, and, in addition, by my primary conviction that
truth alone is the justification of any fiction which can make the least
claim to the quality of art or may hope to take its place in the culture
of men and women of its time. I had never been called before to a
greater effort of detachment: detachment from all passions, prejudices
and even from personal memories. "Under Western Eyes" on its first
appearance in England was a failure with the public, perhaps because of
that very detachment. I obtained my reward some six years later when I
first heard that the book had found universal recognition in Russia and
had been re-published there in many editions.

The various figures playing their part in the story also owe their
existence to no special experience but to the general knowledge of the
condition of Russia and of the moral and emotional reactions of the
Russian temperament to the pressure of tyrannical lawlessness, which, in
general human terms, could be reduced to the formula of senseless
desperation provoked by senseless tyranny. What I was concerned with
mainly was the aspect, the character, and the fate of the individuals as
they appeared to the Western Eyes of the old teacher of languages. He
himself has been much criticized; but I will not at this late hour
undertake to justify his existence. He was useful to me and therefore I
think that he must be useful to the reader both in the way of comment
and by the part he plays in the development of the story. In my desire
to produce the effect of actuality it seemed to me indispensable to have
an eye-witness of the transactions in Geneva. I needed also a
sympathetic friend for Miss Haldin, who otherwise would have been too
much alone and unsupported to be perfectly credible. She would have had
no one to whom she could give a glimpse of her idealistic faith, of her
great heart, and of her simple emotions.

Razumov is treated sympathetically. Why should he not be? He is an
ordinary young man, with a healthy capacity for work and sane
ambitions. He has an average conscience. If he is slightly abnormal it
is only in his sensitiveness to his position. Being nobody's child he
feels rather more keenly than another would that he is a Russian--or he
is nothing. He is perfectly right in looking on all Russia as his
heritage. The sanguinary futility of the crimes and the sacrifices
seething in that amorphous mass envelops and crushes him. But I don't
think that in his distraction he is ever monstrous. Nobody is exhibited
as a monster here--neither the simple-minded Tekla nor the wrong-headed
Sophia Antonovna. Peter Ivanovitch and Madame de S. are fair game. They
are the apes of a sinister jungle and are treated as their grimaces
deserve. As to Nikita--nicknamed Necator--he is the perfect flower of
the terroristic wilderness. What troubled me most in dealing with him
was not his monstrosity but his banality. He has been exhibited to the
public eye for years in so-called "disclosures" in newspaper articles,
in secret histories, in sensational novels.

The most terrifying reflection (I am speaking now for myself) is that
all these people are not the product of the exceptional but of the
general--of the normality of their place, and time, and race. The
ferocity and imbecility of an autocratic rule rejecting all legality and
in fact basing itself upon complete moral anarchism provokes the no less
imbecile and atrocious answer of a purely Utopian revolutionism
encompassing destruction by the first means to hand, in the strange
conviction that a fundamental change of hearts must follow the downfall
of any given human institutions. These people are unable to see that all
they can effect is merely a change of names. The oppressors and the
oppressed are all Russians together; and the world is brought once more
face to face with the truth of the saying that the tiger cannot change
his stripes nor the leopard his spots.

J. C.

1920.

Joseph Conrad

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