Conrad and the misery of violent revolutions

We all know that Joseph Conrad was a great novelist–perhaps the best of his time. However, he also was a great political thinker; and I particularly appreciate his insights on the theory of violent revolutions.

For instance, in his novel Under Western Eyes, Conrad uncovers the crude and embarrassing reality of violent revolutions:

A violent revolution falls into the hands of narrow-minded fanatics and of tyrannical hypocrites at first. Afterwards comes the turn of all the pretentious intellectual failures of the time. Such are the chiefs and the leaders. You will notice that I have left out the mere rogues. The scrupulous and the just, the noble, humane and devoted natures; the unselfish and the intelligent may begin a movement–but it passes away from them. They are not the leaders of a revolution. They are its victims: the victims of disgust, of disenchantment–often of remorse. Hopes grotesquely betrayed, ideals caricatured–that is the definition of revolutionary success.”

In my opinion, Conrad’s words describe the uncanny relationship between revolutionary idealism and revolutionary reality–between men of ideas and men of actions.

Also, they remind me a lot of Roberto Bolaño’s acceptance speech for the Romulo Gallegos Prize. In his speech, Bolaño concludes that all of his works are a sort of “love or farewell letter” to his generation–a generation he believes was betrayed by its chiefs and leaders, much the same way Conrad describes in many of his books.

At the end, we may suggest that both Bolaño’s generation and Conrad’s characters end up sharing a common sentiment–remorse.

Bolaño goes on

Washington Post’s articulista, Michael Dirda has just published a review about Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas.

In his review, Dirda clinches that Bolaño’s book is challenging not because of being difficult but because of its politically incorrect title. After all, he insists, you may not want to tote around a book with a title so suggestive of Nazism. And if you do, he goes on, you better have an explanation ready in advance.

Dirda’s comments remind me of something from my teenage years. Then (and now), I was an ardent reader of biographies–and I mean ardent. I read everything about anybody. Also, I used to get pictures of the people whose biography I was reading at the moment–perhaps because I like the idea of looking at their faces trying to figure out their inner beings.

In one occasion, while I was reading a bio of Adolf Hitler, I went to a local copy shop to get Hitler’s picture copied from a book. I remember the face of the shop owner when she saw the picture. She glared at me through her glasses and asked me: do you know who this person was? I answered, yes I do! Then, she took the book, copied the picture and handled it back to me with a sense of disbelief. The moraleja, unless you want to reckon with the clumsiness (or unless you are one of those provocateurs as Bolaño himself was), anytime you want to carry around something related to Nazism, wrap it around with an opaque cover, as Dirda intelligently recommends.