“The Thing Which Was Not” and The Thing That Is Also: Conrad’s Ironic Shadowing
Dubravka Ugres˘ic´, who ﬁnds herself reluctantly a Croat, pointed out this unreﬂective symmetry more than ten years ago. Denounced as a “witch” for showing up such embarrassing parallels and threatened with death by some of those public-spirited but anonymous patriots who strive to keep so many homelands pure, she found it wise to emigrate. Though in their Biblical form they are neither as exclusive nor as belligerent as they have become, the words she cites have ancient roots.1 Despite their venerable ancestry, the current versions show three qualities of adolescence-vigor, truculence, and simplicity. When spoken with conviction (and no fuss about excluded middles), or when taken up indeed in a spirit of political opportunity, they offer not a peep of irony; when put in the mouths of ﬁctional characters or quoted polyphonically, the ironies are resonant. To quote Kierkegaard, irony “reinforces vanity in its vanity and renders madness more mad” (271). What better example of madness than the urban planner from the besieging side who, after several months of shelling, assured the world, “We shall build Dubrovnik again, even lovelier, even older?” (Ugres˘ic´ 195). One might talk about such demented statements as a gift to the ironist, but saying so implies that irony is a career, or another variety of opportunism, or the kind of boulevard gossip practiced by Martin Decoud in his Parisian phase. I shall argue in this chapter on Conrad as ironist that, on the contrary, irony is a necessity, a mode that speaks from and to urgent yet lasting wants.