Monday, January 19, 2009

Nostromo: Wall-to-Wall with Gregory Bullock

19 January 2009

One of the ways that the world has changed is that due to the internet, we can engage in discussions with friends around the world about topics of our choice.

Fellow New College of Florida alumnus Gregory Bullock and I became involved in a discussion of Joseph Conrad's Nostromo over the past week. The novel is the story of the development of a silver mine in a corrupt (and fictional) Latin American country, and how human nature influences and distorts that process.

I had not read the book, and so I asked Gregory to tell me more about it. I found Gregory's insights fascinating and enlightening, to the point that it is now on my reading list!

The exchange began when I responded to the following note on Gregory's profile page on Facebook:

  • Gregory is reading Nostromo by Joseph Conrad and pondering Conrad's views on idealism and scepticism. 9:27am - Comment

The balance of our discussion follows below....

Laurence Hunt wrote
at 12:38am on January 11th, 2009

OK, So what is Conrad's take on idealism and skepticism???

Gregory Bullock (Suffolk County, NY) wrote
at 6:59am on January 12th, 2009

It's been compared to the Icarus myth. Icarus is lost in the maze of empirical experience. He adopts a set of ideals so he can fly. He moves ahead and escapes the maze but as he approaches the Sun "reality" the wings melt and he falls back to earth "scepticism". The political ideas are interesting also: People are motivated by "dream ideals". Material progress, nationlism, religion. When reality causes these ideals to fail – people are in turmoil ‘til another dream ideal takes its place a gives them a direction to move ahead.

Laurence Hunt wrote
at 1:19pm on January 12th, 2009

Interestingly, Conrad shares this view at least partially in common with Dietrich Bonhoeffer (one of several members of Hitler assassination plots, on which the current film Valkyrie is based), who maintained that "God hates visionary dreaming." However, Conrad seems to be suggesting that without the visionary dream, we live an oppressed existence? Have I got it? (My exposure to Heart of Darkness is so far only through Coppola, and I have not read Nostromo.) By the way, are you suggesting that Nostromo is a book that should be read?

Gregory Bullock (Suffolk County, NY) wrote
at 1:58pm on January 12th, 2009

Yes - you are right on with that Bonhoeffer quote. However Conrad speaks more from the viewpoint of the amused skeptic aware of a paradox. Only the deluded ever get anything done because they are deceived. This is a great book. Many consider it his masterwork. It was also made into a public television miniseries. If anybody knows anything about going into the wilderness it would be you! Many contemporary Latin American thinkers find it valuable. Interestingly Conrad never experienced any of this kind of life in depth. He only observed "offshore" as a merchant sailor.

Laurence Hunt wrote
at 2:22pm on January 12th, 2009

Reading between the lines, I'd speculate that Conrad is largely describing himself. Here he is, sitting offshore, but immersed in rich and complex fantasies about what is taking place beyond the docks. However, he'd need fuel from some source to portray his "visionary dreams" so convincingly. You've gotta guess he's observing every move of his shipmates, reading cause-and-effect into the behaviour of everyone he encounters. I'm not really implying that this is voyeurism, just that he is an observer more than a doer, as in the classic case was Proust. Maybe the really active guys write poetry, because they can't sit still to write the novels – I'm thinking of such as Dylan Thomas, Canada's Earle Birney (oft' quoted by my wife), etc. Or you have the perhaps bipolar creator such as Tolstoy. In any case, it's interesting to speculate as to how Conrad could have produced something so rich from the railings of a merchant vessel. I must now search around for this book!

Gregory Bullock (Suffolk County, NY) wrote
at 5:57am on January 13th, 2009

Some commentaries that I've read have traced a lot of the social and political ideas to travel books about the area that were current at the time. This reminds me of Melville. He chased whales as a young man but Moby Dick was written from the safety of New England. Conrad was a successful merchant mariner but retired to write sea novels.

Laurence Hunt wrote
at 11:46am on January 13th, 2009

I know travel books had become very popular at that time. Fine British ladies took off to West Africa and slogged through swamp and muck at great peril, not always surviving for long, but delivering many well-attended lectures (back home) before death. You've certainly piqued my interest in Nostromo. Re: Melville, the CBC here in Canada did a great "Ideas" program on him (probably available at the CBC Ideas website). Was he the "archetypal" American writer? I don't know. But he included pages on Egyptian techniques of Mummification in Moby Dick, I guess just because the subject had interested him. Melville was broadly read, and in his case, I'm sure the whale chasing aided him. Few patrons of the coffee chain attribute the name of their product to Melville. I need more leisure time to read. Having caught up with 43 reports last holiday, I must now relax and read on the next one! Moby Dick and Nostromo would be two good picks for holiday reading. Your opinion on Nostromo vs Heart of D?

Gregory Bullock (Suffolk County, NY) wrote
at 1:15pm on January 13th, 2009

Nostromo is a longer more measured and complex work. It has more of an epic quality and deals more with political issues and the way they relate to the individual self. Heart of Darkness is more of a blazing intense short work. I googled Nostromo and was amused to see the comments of an international aid worker complaining that he was encountering the same situations and problems today. Even mentions expat colonies of Europeans that were controlling trade and shipping.

Laurence Hunt wrote
at 2:27pm on January 13th, 2009

You're piquing my interest for sure. You've never taught English Lit have you? I can see how Heart of Darkness might have garnered the greater share of attention, being blazing and intense. Isn't that virtually all that current markets demand? Given the choice, Nostromo would now be my pick.

Gregory Bullock (Suffolk County, NY) wrote
at 7:12am yesterday

Check this post out:;col1

Laurence Hunt wrote
at 1:44pm

Re Conrad. I read Kaplan's article, and am familiar with his earlier work, due once again to his being featured on CBC Radio (my main channel to the outside world). I absolutely agree with every point – literature trumps history and poli-sci – because narrative trumps ratiocination, and intuition trumps logic. What an insightful piece on Kaplan's part. And I know too that Kaplan is in many ways a jaded pessimist – things fall apart, the centre cannot hold, yet people are resourceful and figure out ways to survive in absurd circumstances, and have we not now recapitulated Dostoevsky, Camus, Sartre, et al? Anyway, I'm sold on Nostromo, and have ordered the Folio edition, as I thought it would be worth it. Threw a couple of Conrad specials into the order also. Conrad was prolific, and by the capsule summaries, a master of popular as well as literate story-telling!

Laurence Hunt wrote
at 1:38pm

Bill Conerly - NC Alum - does a nice economics blog, and I personally rant about gold investing, as I think the powers that be wrecked the economy with indulgent central bank policies and military spending.

Gregory Bullock (Suffolk County, NY) wrote
at 1:53pm

I read one of Bill’s blogs and thought it was good. Gold symbolizes authority in Nostromo and silver represents ideals. Of course the whole book spins around the hijacking of silver.

Laurence Hunt wrote
at 2:04pm

Bill is an independent thinker, though I have challenged him to question his assumptions in some cases. (Perhaps I'm waiting for him to challenge me back.) Interesting that in Conrad's time the fierce struggles were over things that were real. Now it's all about SIVs, MBSs, CDOs and other leveraged financial fantasies! One (jaded) prediction for the future - we shall be back to fighting over things that are real before all is done with! In the investment world, gold leads silver, then silver plays catch-up and overshoots to the high side. It has been a virtual historical certainty, to which few investors pay attention these days. It seems that intuitively, Conrad had accurately grasped this centuries if not millennia-long relationship, despite being by no means a financial analyst! I just get more impressed with your comments on Conrad. And he mastered the literature of a language he did not acquire until his 20s. Wow!

Laurence Hunt wrote
at 2:05pm

So have you considered teaching an evening literature course?


Gregory Bullock (Suffolk County, NY) wrote
at 6:27am on January 16th, 2009

I love this stuff but I'm not the literary genius you think I am. A lot of this material is in commentaries online. Maybe when I retire at 80 years old I'll have time!

Gregory Bullock (Suffolk County, NY) wrote
at 10:54am

Got a great x-mas gift from my brother- a collectible copy of Steinbeck's short novels. Tortilla Flat is my home reading. Nostromo my work break reading.

So… it looks like Steinbeck could be next on our list!


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