Conrad was a logistics man before he was an author. Unlike Melville, whose sea experience, as Charles Olson notes, was in an assembly line – in as much as the whale was caught, cut up, and its oil extracted on board ship – Conrad sailed with the middle men, the truckers and dealers. This experience within a small node of the greater global market system made Conrad sensitive to both the pre-capitalist mentality – which lent its aura of romance to the seaman – that the dealer was constantly in contact with in the far places of the earth, and one of the fundamental facts of capitalism – the dominance of exchange. Everything turns into money in the system – everything is fungible. In actual fact, pre-capitalist notions pervaded, and still pervade, the system. When pure capitalism penetrates a certain a-capitalist level, the level of more complicated exchanges, it undermines itself, for capitalism is parasitic on the economies it supposedly supercedes.
The x marks the spot where the inhuman fungibility of the capitalist ideal encounters the redoubt of the a-capitalist mentality is the treasure trove. Treasure – whether it is the miser’s hoard or the pirate’s chest – was much on the mind of Conrad’s colleagues in the later 19th century. In the contention between Henry James and Stevenson over the art of the novel, treasure becomes – I think not accidentally – the symbol of their difference:
Mr. James refers, with singular generosity of praise, to a little book about a quest for hidden treasure; but he lets fall, by the way, some rather startling words. In this book he misses what he calls the “immense luxury” of being able to quarrel with his author. The luxury, to most of us, is to lay by our judgment, to be submerged by the tale as by a billow, and only to awake, and begin to distinguish and find fault, when the piece is over and the volume laid aside. Still more remarkable is Mr. James’s reason. He cannot criticise the author, as he goes, “because,” says he, comparing it with another work, “I have been a child, but I have never been on a quest for buried treasure.” Here is, indeed, a wilful paradox; for if he has never been on a quest for buried treasure, it can be demonstrated that he has never been a child. There never was a child (unless Master James) but has hunted gold, and been a pirate, and a military commander, and a bandit of the mountains; but has fought, and suffered shipwreck and prison, and imbrued its little hands in gore, and gallantly retrieved the lost battle, and triumphantly protected innocence and beauty. Elsewhere in his essay Mr. James has protested with excellent reason against too narrow a conception of experience; for the born artist, he contends, the “faintest hints of life” are converted into revelations; and it will be found true, I believe, in a majority of cases, that the artist writes with more gusto and effect of those things which he has only wished to do, than of those which he has done. Desire is a wonderful telescope, and Pisgah the best observatory. Now, while it is true that neither Mr. James nor the author of the work in question has ever, in the fleshly sense, gone questing after gold, it is probable that both have ardently desired and fondly imagined the details of such a life in youthful day-dreams; and the author, counting upon that, and well aware (cunning and low-minded man!) that this class of interest, having been frequently treated, finds a readily accessible and beaten road to the sympathies of the reader, addressed himself throughout to the building up and circumstantiation of this boyish dream. Character to the boy is a sealed book; for him, a pirate is a beard, a pair of wide trousers and a liberal complement of pistols. The author, for the sake of circumstantiation and because he was himself more or less grown up, admitted character, within certain limits, into his design; but only within certain limits. Had the same puppets figured in a scheme of another sort, they had been drawn to very different purpose; for in this elementary novel of adventure, the characters need to be presented with but one class of qualities—the warlike and formidable. So as they appear insidious in deceit and fatal in the combat, they have served their end. Danger is the matter with which this class of novel deals; fear, the passion with which it idly trifles; and the characters are portrayed only so far as they realise the sense of danger and provoke the sympathy of fear.”
In fact, James – Stevenson could have replied – certainly did write about treasure. What else are the Spoils of Poynton? What are the Aspern Papers? And what – to go into a later novel – is Adam Verver doing in The Golden Bowl, if not treasure hunting?
The treasure has certain characteristics that signal its archaic status, its connection to the economic world of the limited good – to use George Foster’s term from his article, Peasant Society and the Image of the Limited Good, which – without Foster knowing anything about George Bataille’s work – gets a crucial dynamic in the closed world preceding capitalism. This is the notion that wealth is, centrally, something taken from the common pile. It is thus already an act of violence, best sealed by keeping quiet about it. The hesitation that we still feel about “telling your business” derives from the idea that your business is obscurely wrested from someone else’s – that, at the very least, it steals from someone else’s luck. Nostromo is in a sense an x ray of the clash of different fundamental economic notions. It is a clash that is associated, by historic necessity, with colonization and decolonization. Like Kurz’s horde of ivory, the horde of silver that lies at the center of the actions around which the narrative takes shape is something wrenched out of the world system, dialectically negating the very system that gives the material worth.
George Bernard Shaw, in The Perfect Wagnerite (1883), gives another, Marxist interpretation of one of the great nineteenth century treasure narratives: the Ring of the Nibelungen. He takes Wagner’s treatment of the Nibelungen horde as a kind of Hegelian motif that organizes a gloss on the history of modern Europe. It is the history of the rise of the Plutonic kingdom. Too easily, Shaw adopts the idea of the natural economy, one of primitive communism, which effaces the intricacies of the image of the limited good, and thus the cursed sense of treasure, in the peasant economy. Balzac and Marx could have told him better. But he does capture a second aspect of treasure which is echoed, both rhetorically and thematically, in Nostromo – the mysterious power of capital, viewed as a treasure, over human life:
Let me assume for a moment that you are a young and good-looking woman. Try to imagine yourself in that character at Klondyke five years ago. The place is teeming with gold. If you are content to leave the gold alone, as the wise leave flowers without plucking them, enjoying with perfect naivete its color and glitter and preciousness, no human being will ever be the worse for your knowledge of it; and whilst you remain in that frame of mind the golden age will endure.
Now suppose a man comes along: a man who has no sense of the golden age, nor any power of living in the present: a man with common desires, cupidities, ambitions, just like most of the men you know. Suppose you reveal to that man the fact that if he will only pluck this gold up, and turn it into money, millions of men, driven by the invisible whip of hunger, will toil underground and overground night and day to pile up more and more gold for him until he is master of the world! You will find that the prospect will not tempt him so much as you might imagine, because it involves some distasteful trouble to himself to start with, and because there is something else within his reach involving no distasteful toil, which he desires more passionately; and that is yourself. So long as he is preoccupied with love of you, the gold, and all that it implies, will escape him: the golden age will endure. Not until he forswears love will he stretch out his hand to the gold, and found the Plutonic empire for himself. But the choice between love and gold may not rest altogether with him. He may be an ugly, ungracious, unamiable person, whose affections may seem merely ludicrous and despicable to you. In that case, you may repulse him, and most bitterly humiliate and disappoint him. What is left to him then but to curse the love he can never win, and turn remorselessly to the gold? With that, he will make short work of your golden age, and leave you lamenting its lost thoughtlessness and sweetness.
In this sense, Nostromo as a character is the negative image of Alberic, Wagner’s dwarf, who steals the Rhine gold from the Rhine maidens. He is, instead, handsome, brave, and notoriously generous. And yet he defies Shaw’s rather smug psychology. Once treasure is introduced into the world, it is not merely the malformed, in a transvaluation of values, who glom onto it and begin the process of inoculating society with the desire for exchange in itself. Rather it is, at least in Nostromo’s case, the well formed who, inadequately equipped with an outmoded code of honor, are captured by the power of treasure, even as they are forced into the shadow side of capitalism. Shaw’s interpretation of the Rhine gold is, as far as it goes, revelatory; but it all too quickly dissolves the difference between treasure, in the form of gold, and capital, in the form of money. This transformation is fraught with more magic than Shaw can accommodate:
In due time the gold of Klondyke will find its way to the great cities of the world. But the old dilemma will keep continually reproducing itself. The man who will turn his back on love, and upon all the fruitful it, and will set himself single-heartedly to gather gold in an exultant dream of wielding its Plutonic powers, will find the treasure yielding quickly to his touch. But few men will make this sacrifice voluntarily. Not until the Plutonic power is so strongly set up that the higher human impulses are suppressed as rebellious, and even the mere appetites are denied, starved, and insulted when they cannot purchase their satisfaction with gold, are the energetic spirits driven to build their lives upon riches. How inevitable that course has become to us is plain enough to those who have the power of understanding what they see as they look at the plutocratic societies of our modern capitals.
Conrad was not satisfied with the character of Nostromo. He was unhappy about the last two chapters, in which Nostromo becomes more and more like Alberic. And one feels, in reading the novel, that Nostromo is a creature who is explained into being before he exists as a palpability. He is always too spurred, too … operatic. Conrad only hits upon Nostromo as a solid existence to be explained, instead of an explanation to be solidified, when, two thirds of the way through the book, Nostromo begins to confront the Plutocratic society that Costaguana, as the Republic of Occidente, has become – with himself unconsciously aiding the process. He, in other words, experiences a genuine raising of consciousness: he becomes conscious of class as an economic fact.