The Conradian: Review

By Sylwia Janina Wojciechowska PhD, Ignatianum University in Cracow

Alexia Hannis, The Discerning Narrator. Conrad, Aristotle, and Modernity  (Toronto Buffalo London: University of Toronto Press, 2023), 158 pp, $50

“[the] innumerable shades – they were so fine, so difficult to render in colourless words”
LJ, 2002: 60

The exasperation audible in Marlow’s voice when narrating Jim’s tale of disgrace in the quotation above is perhaps an appropriate point of reference in a discussion regarding the “classical shades” discernible in Conrad’s fiction – shades delicately shaping the lines of narration in virtually all his narratives. As usual with Conrad, the syneasthesia deployed in the half-sentence, and indeed in the whole of Chapter 8 in Lord Jim within which this metafictional admission is included, directs the attention of his readers towards the multiple threads through which Jim’s story is subtly rendered into a narrative of discernment, thus involving the contemporary reader by virtue of its classical and modern literary traces. Alexia Hannis’s 2023 publication skilfully engages with these patterns by disentangling some of the classical threads in several of Conrad’s prose fictions, i.e., An Outcast of the Islands, Lord Jim: A Tale, Falk: A Reminiscence, and, finally, Chance: a Tale of Two Parts. As the title of Hannis’ volume suggests, that is The Discerning Narrator. Conrad, Aristotle, and Modernity, the publication re-considers the Aristotelian legacy in Conrad’s prose within the broad context of modernity. Interestingly, the idea of reverting the common phrase, “the discerning reader,” into a lesser known, or perhaps thoroughly unknown phrase in narratology, namely “the discerning narrator,” signals a novel approach, while at the same time suggesting a theoretical involvement with the act of constructing the tale(s) by incorporating the classical, and the Aristotelian, in particular, within the modern views.

Hannis begins her inquiry into the patterns of narratorial discernment with an Introduction, “The Deeper Significance of the Sailing Ships,” which is followed by a lengthy passage excerpted from The Mirror of the Sea. Opening with a reference to Conrad’s maritime autobiography, the Introduction thus reminds the readers, perhaps legitimately, of the writer’s Polish roots and his classical, “essentially Greek,” education, which the novelist had enjoyed in his youth. With the basic facts thus re-asserted, the argument is developed against the broader context of the classical and Aristotelian reflections found within Conradian criticism (Eloise Knapp Hay, Avrom Fleishman, and David Adams).

Chapter I, “Conrad’s Vision of Things,” continues to focus on the autobiographical. Having indicated the existing ambivalence regarding Conrad’s status as a modernist writer, Hannis ventures a claim that the dual appeal of his prose which, paradoxically, can be read both from a classical and a modern perspective, may be due to a certain classical commitment in his literary mind. The initial assumption voiced in the Introduction, namely that the Aristotelian Nicomachean Ethics, together with his Politics, appealed greatly to modern Europeans, is further developed with reference to such notions as self-discipline, character, and action – all, indeed, evocative of both Aristotle and Conrad. In order to elaborate upon the “Aristotelian parentage” of both agency and action as rendered in his fiction – “action […] nothing but action” – Hannis adduces direct quotations of considerable significance from the rich correspondence left by the novelist, which neatly contextualises her analysis within Conrad’s autobiographical legacy. Even though some scholars may not appreciate such fragmentary discussions with regard to the correspondence (Said 1966), the citations presented help clarify Conrad’s view of “all the truth of life” which Hannis argues as essentially Aristotelian in origin.

The subsequent chapters, that is Chapters 2–5, continue with this line of argumentation, with each in turn interpreting a single prose narrative. Pathos, tragedy, and the narrative appeal become the central issues addressed in the section devoted to An Outcast of the Islands. This chapter revisits the art of tragedy as defined by Aristotle, i.e., as a poetic form engaging with universal, yet shared human truths. By focusing upon the patterns of repetition, ancient and modern alike, and referencing the Aristotelean notion of anagnorisis (recognition) and peripeteia (reversal), Hannis uncovers the fusion of the traditional with the innovative within Conrad’s second novel in the “Malay” Trilogy. Viewing several characters as modern tragic heroes when focusing on An Outcast of the Islands and Lord Jim: A Tale in Chapter 3, Hannis in each case elaborates upon the compassionate, yet rational attitude of the respective narrator(s). Such a stance adopted by the narratorial voices, she argues, paradoxically allows for an exposition of the judgements formulated by moral excellence and scepticism alike. The inclusion of critiques of European colonialism, racism, and modernisation within a discussion addressing the classical profile of the Aristotelian tragic hero, presents the Conradian protagonists as being situated in-between a world of ancient tragedy and one governed by modern pathos. While an imbalance in the former results from a necessity to choose between two goods, a disturbed equilibrium in the modern context – such as that found in “the Patna affair” – exposes a degradation which ultimately culminates in the mockery and reduction of modern man. With this, Hannis argues, Conrad reveals his concern with and “outlook on disappearing worlds.”

Hannis succeeds in indicating the possible sources of the Conradian critique regarding the modern condition of man. By disentangling the ancient from the modern elements in the tragic patterns of his prose, Hannis systematically uncovers the mechanisms modelling the line of argumentation. In both An Outcast of the Islands and Lord Jim: A Tale, the modern is featured as exemplifying an aporia since no genuine agency over a heroic or tragic blueprint is ever possible for the man who belongs to the modernised world of steam and technology; sadly, he appears to be abandoned to pathos alone rather than tragic elevation, which at times borders on the grotesque. In fact, Hannis explores the notion of an overplay of the grotesque in Conrad’s prose by describing and subsequently interpreting its deployment in his other narratives, namely Falk: A Reminiscence and Chance: a Tale of Two Parts – the main subject matter in Chapters 4 and 5 of her study, respectively. This direct juxtaposition of tragedy and comedy, noted in the general outline of her Discerning Narrator, has seen Chapters 2 and 3 dedicated to the former and Chapters 4 and 5 to the latter. This allows Hannis to reveal, in the discussion in Chapters 4 and 5, the different layers of social critique as constructed in texts which, though once esteemed by the author, as is the case with Falk, or appreciated by the public, as with Chance, today remain at the periphery of Conrad’s oeuvre. As Hannis puts it, “the sea is (…) tragic and comic,” and so is Conrad’s prose.

Whereas Chapters 2 and 3 mainly reference Aristotle, Chapters 4 and 5 expand the scope of interpretation by supplementing the philosophical framework with the work of Nietzsche and Rousseau, who view modern life either as a “nauseating affair” bordering on the absurd, or as an issue stimulated by romanticising musings upon “noble savage[ry],” respectively. Hannis argues that the interlacement of the comic with the grotesque and the absurd, as achieved in the literary description of Hermann, a captain-character in Falk, exposes the modern man as lost, following conventionality and illusory respectability, a man perhaps evocative of the Nietzschean “last man.” Such a paralysis, she argues, can only be overcome by those who, as with the unnamed frame narrator in Falk, actively practice the Aristotelian suggnōmē (fair and compassionate judgement) in their approach to life in extremis. A novella with a “comedic key,” Falk is thus revealed as a narrative bespeaking a serious critique of modernity, rather than a minor tale amongst the impressive oeuvre of the author: arguably, a commendable alternative to the modern extremes is a disposition nourished by the Aristotelian idea of the middle-way, which combines reason with a sound appraisal of the situation and a pertinent contextual understanding. As further explored in Chapter 5, “Marlow’s Practical Wisdom: Chance: A Tale in Two Parts,” the act of “judging with” (suggnōmē) concurs with Marlow’s “practical sagacity” as depicted in Conrad’s most-recognised novel. Hannis ventures the claim that, while the featuring of Marlow in Chance somewhat deviates from his literary representations in Lord Jim or “Heart of Darkness,” the saliency of the higher knowledge motivating his judgements remains the same in nature as that practiced by the narrator in Falk: it is primarily Aristotelian. As the scholar asserts, Marlow in Chance is a knowledgeable narrator whose skepticism allows him to distinguish between theoretical philosophising and practical wisdom, with the latter the preferred option for modern man. “The correctness of thinking” that Marlow practices consists in focusing upon the “process [of discernment] rather than a desired consequence,” which leaves space for chance and experience to adjust the position formerly adopted. Hannis argues that Marlow’s practical approach to contingencies displays yet another application of the Aristotelian assertions in the representation of modern man: instead of the unthinking conformism displayed by fossilised quasi-philosophers, practical wisdom defying mandatory theoretical ethics appears to be the required position. Reading Chance, the reader may conclude that “principles, duties, rules of conduct should indeed inform one’s actions but rules in themselves are not a sufficient guide to action, because they cannot prepare us to respond to chance.”

With the modern world changing beyond recognition at the cusp of the twentieth century, Conrad and other writers alike found themselves exposed to a new reality which called for the traditional to be recast within new artistic frameworks and visions. Hannis’s The Discerning Narrator: Conrad, Aristotle, and Modernity investigates the manner in which Conrad’s narrator(s) react to the changed world and manage to address, albeit with varying success, the impoverishment marking the sphere of action for modern man: if Lingard and Jim appear “anachronistic” to the discerning narrator(s), the characters in Falk or Chance are less so. Today, in the centennial year of Conrad’s death, Hannis’s study reminds us that, a hundred years ago, the writer found a way to aptly register the changed status of modern man, and appropriately discerning narratorial voice(s) that engage with ancient claims while formulating modern positions. In view of the uncertainty regarding the actual extent of Conrad’s education, Hannis’s volume not only contributes valuable insights on the Aristotelian echoes in the writer’s oeuvre, but invites further research upon the classical underpinnings of his works.

© 2024 Sylwia Janina Wojciechowska

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