“They beat me, a sick sixty six year old man. They laid me face down on the floor and beat the soles of my feet and my back with a rubber truncheon. When I was seated on a chair they used the same truncheon to beat my legs from above with great force, from my knees to the upper parts of my legs. And in the days that followed, whem my legs were bleeding from internal haemorrhaging, they used the rubber truncheon to beat me on the red, blue and yellow bruises…
Lying face down on the floor, I discovered the capacity to cringe, writhe and howl like a dog being whipped by its master.”
This is an extract from the last letter written by Vsevolod Meyerhold, who is certainly one of the most important theater directors of the twentieth century. The letter was among the documents released in 1989 from the files of the KGB. The releases of KGB files have revealed that, contrary to the romantic hopes of Western intellectuals, the writers and artists purged by Stalin all broke. It was no surprise. Meyerhold was not made to endure torture, any more than I am, or any more than any human is.
“The stupidest mind may invent a rankling phrase or brand the innocent with a cruel aspersion. A piece of string and a ramrod; a few muskets in combination with a length of hide rope; or even a simple mallet of heavy, hard wood applied with a swing to human fingers or to the joints of a human body is enough for the infliction of the most exquisite torture. The doctor had been a very stubborn prisoner, and, as a natural consequence of that "bad disposition" (so Father Beron called it), his subjugation had been very crushing and very complete. That is why the limp in his walk, the twist of his shoulders, the scars on his cheeks were so pronounced. His confessions, when they came at last, were very complete, too.”
The citation above is from one of the most startling passages in Nostromo – especially surprising in the context of the English novel, circa 1904, which did not discuss, with such coolness, the political uses of pain. Even though by 1904 the term “concentration camp” had been added to the English language. In the just ended Boer war, the English had used them extensively. For instance, there was Camp Irene, which housed Boer women and children, witnessing the death, it was estimated at the end of the war, of 4000 of the former and 23,000 of the latter by the time it was closed in 1902. The Africans who died there were not counted.
These things, however, were matter for Irish journalists, not novelists. Conrad’s friend, Henry James, for instance, allowed a great deal of pain into his novels, but never in the crude and childish form that results from whacking a sixty six year old man, tied down to a chair, on his open soars. This does not happen in Daisy Miller, or the Turn of the Screw, or the Ambassadors, or any of his novels: in fact, the whole force of James’ work, the faith that underlies it, is that such things are incompatible with late nineteenth century and early twentieth century civilization. Such things are over.
The reason Conrad’s novel seems so contemporary is, in part, the far reaching knowledge that such things are far from over. The brief description of the breaking of Dr. Monygham comes out of the book and bites the reader for exactly that reason. This could be the dirty war in Argentina, circa 1979. This could be the dirty war in El Salvador, circa 1983. This could be the dirty war in Iraq, circa 2004. And in Dr. Monygham, whose intelligence is, in these circumstances, his great vulnerability, Conrad briefly sweeps through the entire century. It is not simply the stupidity of the torture, but what is transmitted by torture: the deadness of the torturer. Dr. Monygham is tortured under the supervision of a priest, Father Beron, who is working for the dictator of Costaguana, Guzman Bento. After confessing to everything, Monygham is put in solitary and has great hopes of starving to death, but to his dismay, he is liberated at Bento’s death, and hobbles out of the prison using a walking stick that is a little thinner than he is. He hobbles into an afterlife in which he bears his own certainties:
“And he could not forget Father Beron with his monotonous phrase, "Will you confess now?" reaching him in an awful iteration and lucidity of meaning through the delirious incoherence of unbearable pain. He could not forget. But that was not the worst. Had he met Father Beron in the street after all these years Dr. Monygham was sure he would have quailed before him. This contingency was not to be feared now. Father Beron was dead; but the sickening certitude prevented Dr. Monygham from looking anybody in the face.”
Conrad is too wise, in the novel, to allow Dr. Monygham’s disillusionment to anchor the novel in at least some fundamental level of moral certainty. Monygham’s cynicism is as fallible an attitude as any other to predict and understand the events that unfold in the civil war/revolution that engulfs Costaguana. Torture, which gives a certain self-knowledge, does not stamp its victim with any greater perception of the order of things. It doesn’t even do that. Conrad’s restraint, here, his refusal to surrender to the romanticism of victimhood, made the novel difficult for readers as acute as Forster or Pritchett. The absence of sentimentality was too explicit, and was promptly labeled obscurity.
Monygham is paired with another “disbeliever”: the French journalist Martin Decoud. Both are on the same side – the side of the “Gould concession”, or, in other words, the side of the liberal European and American exploiters of the silver mines. Monygham is simply concerned that Mrs. Gould not fall into the hands of the ‘democratic’ revolutionaries. Decoud, however, sees the revolution in large enough terms to disbelieve that the exploiters represent some higher stage, some kind of progress, for Costaguanans. The liberal ideals are wrapped around a core of money; without the money, the liberal idealists wouldn’t even be in Costaguana. Decoud, in other words, grasps cause and effect, which is something that is always being deflected and differed by the colonizers, even as they celebrate their ‘science’, the larger discoveries of cause and effect that have given them their technological edge.
Which is as far as I want to go today.