Thoughts on Nostromo by Joseph Conrad

Just finished Nostromo.
I must say I found it a chore – a useful one though.
I can see that Conrad struggled with depicting South America. I went back and read the editor’s intro to the novel and was heartened to read that he openly admitted to struggling with it. The fact that he struggled makes me feel better about struggling. Conrad suceeds in vividly describing a setting but it just doesn’t feel like South America. I bet almost anyone who has been there would agree. It feels like this weird place with lots of transplanted Europeans running around.  In my experience even the most want-to-be Europeans in South America can’t pull it off, but in Conrad’s novel they do.
Another problem for Conrad I think was that so much of this story takes place on land. In the scenes that take place on the water he suddenly becomes so much more interesting  and assured. He suddenly becomes the guy who wrote Heart of Darkness – which I though t was awesome.

A friend told me tha he found Conrad’s failure to convey the indigenous perspective frustrating. Actually I don’t think Conrad succeeded in conveying the white South American perspective either. The politics of the novel I found hard to pin down. Seemed vaguely reactionary at times, but then other times just defeatist - status quo is bad, revolution is worse.

I’ve contributed a story to Liblit recently.


I hope people check out the site (edited by Tony Cristini and Andre Vltchek)

A goal I have is to write a story that describes a Pareconish society.  It’s tough to do for many reasons but one reason is that defeatism has been instilled in me to a greater extent than I’ve realized.

To help me out in this long term project I recently read Ernest Callenbach’s "Ecotopia".

The book describes the goals of a good society very nicely. People are not over worked, enjoy their extended families, their sexuality, even their work. They are able to integrate their work and family life (a very important and appealing part of his vision I think. One does not compromise the other). Hierarchy, sexism and racism have basically been eliminated. Inequality is minimal.

However, I don’t think the institutional changes he describes are deep enough to bring what he envisions about. His society is one of market socialism. Workplaces are democratically run and tightly regulated by the government which has policies that aggressively stamp out the damage that markets inflict, but competitive markets are still relied on to set prices (i.e to solve the problem of allocation).

I think markets would ultimately undermine workplace democracy and progressive government regulation and taxation.The key word is "ultimately" though. Perhaps a society like his is possible for a decade or two (the post war Bretton Woods system, not nearly as good as Callenbach’s vision but far better than neoliberalism, survived for a few decades) Any society could be destroyed by external factors beyond its control, but I think markets would sow the seeds of destruction (backsliding into capitalism) from within – regardless of whether uncontrollable external factors were significant or not.

So the reliance on markets, to me, is one example where Callenbach fails to break free of capitalist propaganda. Another example is when he states that Ecotopia is actually a low tax state. It is as if he is telling the reader "You see. You don’t need to have high taxes to have a decent society". That passage read to me like he was trying to sell his vision to Americans brainwashed into mindless hatred of taxation – the libertarian taxation equals theft line. Some goods and services are consumed individually, some collectively. The level of taxation in a society that uses markets basically represents the ratio between individual and collective consumption. There is no reason to brag about a ratio of collective to individual consumption that is high or low. They key concerns are

1) Is the ratio decided on fairly and democratically

2) Are people aware of all the implications of the ratio they choose to maintain.

I’m not sure about the "war games" he describes. Do people (in particular men) really need such an obvious outlet for their aggression? I don’t think so, but maybe he is right and I agree that a sane society would study the matter carefully and provide such outlets if required.

But overall the book had a positive impact on me. It chips away at defeatism.




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