Conrad's Nostromo and the Third World

Joseph Conrad's Nostromo: A Tale of the Seaboard, a 1904 novel about Westerners and indigenous inhabitants of an imaginary South American country, skillfully defines and dissects the problems of the Third World.

Issue: Spring 1998

The problem with bourgeois societies is a lack of imagination. A person raised in a middle or upper-middle class suburban environment, a place ruled by rationalism in the service of material progress, has difficulty imagining the psychological state of affairs in a society where there is little or no memory of hard work achieving its just reward, and where life inside a gang or a drafty army barracks constitutes an improvement in material and emotional security. Even to encounter first-hand such a society--whose instincts have yet to be refined by several generations of middle class existence--is not enough in the way of an education, since the visitor tends to see it as a laboratory for his or her middle class ideals, and thus immediately begins to find "evidence" for "pragmatic" solutions. For example, the belief among Clinton administration experts that Haiti--which, with the exception of a U.S. Marine occupation from 1915 to 1934, has not known a civil regime since before the French left in 1804--could be made "democratic" by yet another, even less comprehensive occupation demonstrates how our elites just don't get it.

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