The Conradian: Review

By William Atkinson, Appalachian State University, NC

Hugh Epstein, Hardy, Conrad and the Senses. (Edinburgh University Press, 2020). 304 pp. £80.

The realist novel of the nineteenth century was devoted to the constitution of individual human identity, which was achieved by the establishment and maintenance of a clear border between the self and its environment (193). Hugh Epstein’s Hardy, Conrad and the Senses argues that such a project was out of date by the second half of the nineteenth century. The notion of mind being independent of the body and its environment had come under increasing scrutiny; as early as 1855, Alexander Bain could write that the mind is “the brain, nerves, muscles, and organs of sense” in a continuum (38). However, the problem of how much we can know about the outside world persisted. In 1891, Heinrich Hertz admitted: “Outside our consciousness there lies the cold and alien world of actual things. Between the two stretches the narrow borderland of the senses. No communication between the two worlds is possible excepting across the narrow strip” (35). The communication is effected through the senses, particularly those of vision and sound. In their sensationism, their commitment to the senses, Hardy and Conrad were operating fully within the newly developing epistemology of the empirical sciences. Accordingly, Epstein devotes his valuable study to the examination of how the two writers write the sensations of sight and hearing.

The realist novel, being consciousness-oriented, risked falling into an extreme and almost solipsistic subjectivity. Pater’s Marius the Epicurean is a case in point: Marius describes himself as “never to get beyond the walls of this closely shut cell of one’s own personality” (41). Epstein suggests that Pater’s position “haunts so much of Modernist writing”. Hardy and Conrad, he shows, are free from this imprisoning spirit. Modernist interiority is interested in what happens after phenomena are apprehended; Hardy’s and Conrad’s texts devote themselves to the sensations of phenomena, to the encounter between self and the surrounding world. Therefore, Epstein concentrates his analysis on the scenes themselves rather than on the consciousness of the characters. The following short passage quoted from The Rescue focuses on the sensations delivered through Lingard’s eyes: “he had before his eyes the stern lantern expiring slowly on the abandoned vessel. When it went out without a warning flicker he could see nothing of the yacht. Not a trace of the stranded vessel’s outline could his eye find on the smooth darkness” (55). We are told nothing about what he makes of what he sees. “The End of the Tether,” being a story about a man who is losing his sight, is naturally much preoccupied by vision. Although Captain Whalley’s psychology is relevant, the text’s scenic realism draws us out into the realm of physics. The Serang, who functions as the Captain’s “eyes,” is compared to a camera. He is a pure sensing organism, troubled by no Paterian nonsense about being shut within a cell of subjectivity. His seeing is a phenomenon itself. “The record of the visual world fell through his eyes upon his unspeculating mind as on a sensitised plate through the lens of a camera. His knowledge was absolute and precise . . . He was not troubled by any intellectual mistrust of his senses” (132). Captain Whalley, on the other hand, is losing his sight, so what he “sees” is a vivid recollection of what he long ago “saw.”

Epstein’s account of the visible world of Lord Jim is one of the most intriguing sections in the book, and yet it is about the failure to see clearly. Marlow himself describes his “views” of Jim as being like “glimpses through shifting rents in thick fog.” The novel presents us not with whole views of a thing so much as awarenesses of there being something there that Marlow (and we) cannot quite make out. So we are left with “glimpses rather than what they are glimpses of” (104). There is no fully visible Jim, just the fragments we see Marlow trying to fit together to make a single, comprehensible phenomenon. This sensation of the fragmentary accentuates seeing as a sensation. The opacity of the visible world then leads to an examination of the only knowable reality: the relation between things, “the crowded perceptual space between Jim and Marlow” (106). And the space itself becomes almost a substantial phenomenon—Conrad’s celebrated “atmosphere.”

The auditory world is much less exact than the visual. Except under very special circumstances, we can point with absolute precision at an object we can see, albeit we are only seeing the light reflected off it; if an invisible object generates sound, few of us could place the source with more than ten or fifteen degrees of accuracy. So sometimes sounds may have no apparent origin at all. As Epstein acutely observes, in “Heart of Darkness,” the word “ivory” reverberates throughout the text. Where it “originates, at whom it is directed, recedes beyond the auditory compass to become an invisible prime-mover, as inherent in the air as smell” (165). This disembodied quality of the word might tempt us to consider it as being purely of the mind, but this is not Conrad’s way. Epstein shows that in Conrad’s texts sounds and sights are themselves phenomena not yet understood or defined. The character and the reader are still undergoing the foregrounded raw, unprocessed sensations (34). Marlow’s navigation through the text with its various ambient sounds generates an auditory kaleidoscope: the reverberating, hollow claps produced by the steamer’s stern wheel and “the toll of drums behind the curtain of trees [that] would run up the river and remain sustained faintly, as if hovering in the air” (167). The meaning of it all is unclear. The sounds invite Marlow to locate their sources, but only their surfaces are available. (The figure of the surface of a sound is particularly apt.) Epstein memorably calls this “Marlow’s phenomenal bewilderment” (169), and it is not restricted to “Heart of Darkness.”

Nostromo is rich in sounds, in the noise of history. While sight is inherently spatial, sound is bound to duration, to time. The novel opens with a description of what Sulaco and its environs look like and have looked like for centuries. Modernity is about to intervene. It will be the sound of the silver mine, a “clattering, shuffling noise, gathering weight and speed.” Amplified by the walls of the gorge, modernity will arrive in Rincon like the sound of a storm in the mountains. Epstein writes that for Charles Gould “the harsh sound of the silver production has penetrated the fabric of life in the Occidental Province to be a resident of the state with its own force of personality” (179). It has been “sent” out upon the plain, and yet is so much its own agent that it can “meet” Charles Gould at the edge of a wood. Hearer and sound are so mixed that in this encounter, self and other are equal and part of the same fabric.

In what is perhaps the most fascinating chapter of the book—“Identity and Margin”, Epstein looks more closely at how this commingling comes about. Throughout the monograph, he insists that sensationism in both Hardy and Conrad should be read as an encounter between the self and the surrounding world. Heinrich Hertz had spoken of a narrow strip between the two. “For a proper understanding of ourselves and of the world, it is of the highest importance that this borderland should be thoroughly explored” (35). This is a figure that Epstein follows when he writes of the mature fiction of Hardy and Conrad as “exploring a point at which sensory experience creates a margin within which self and circumambient world are not so exclusively defined” (193). The border is a place that is neither here nor there and therefore free of the determining expectations and values of either. However, Epstein acknowledges “a vein of apprehension” (212) and represents the borderland’s liberty as a perilous condition. Both Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Nostromo “depict the margins within which expressions of identity and impressions of the world meet” (213), and the latter overwhelms the former. The case of Decoud is an example. He is left alone on the island, seeing, hearing, and otherwise sensing the natural world. But like so many of Conrad’s characters, once deprived of the support of his human social group, he is effectively in sensory deprivation. After three days and no sight of any human face, “Decoud,” Conrad tells us, “caught himself entertaining a doubt of his own individuality. It had merged into the world of cloud and water, of natural forces and forms of nature” (238). Unable “to maintain that margin of distinction between self and other ... which is necessary to sustain ‘the illusion of an independent existence’ in the Conradian universe” (238), Decoud drowns himself and merges with the sea, with nature. Did Decoud die because the non-human other swarmed across the margin, or was he stranded in this margin, in the indeterminate borderland where self and other merge and separate, over and over, in a fog of unknowing, a place of madness? Hertz referred to communication across a narrow strip. He almost immediately speaks of the need to explore than strip. In the first case, the strip’s substance is insignificant; it is like a Euclidian line, which has no breadth and is no more than the difference between one thing and another. In the next sentence, the strip is a “borderland” that “should be thoroughly explored” (35). Thus, Hertz’s “borderland” and Epstein’s own “margin” both entail a region wherein one may spend time and which one may “explore,” as is the case with Decoud. But sometimes the division is more of a geometric line. Epstein cites a passage from Tess of the d’Urbervilles that describes the moment between evening and night “when the light and the darkness are so evenly balanced that the constraint of day and suspense of night neutralize each other, leaving absolute mental liberty” (211). The moment is fleeting; indeed, it is arguably not a measurable moment of time at all but the edge between one state and another, perceived only from before and after, so that the mental liberty is purely notional. Something very similar becomes apparent when Nostromo decides to steal the silver. In its way, Nostromo’s ego is even more social than Decoud’s, although it is an identity based on actions rather than words. Nostromo is his reputation for honesty and reliability and his acts of derring-do during the revolution. Conrad describes his transformation as first an emptying out of the public Nostromo. Then, the soul of the silver-thief steals into the “untenanted body” (236). The margin between the two states, the moment when Nostromo develops an inside as well as an outside—and becomes Captain Fidanza—is now the finest of fine lines. There is nowhere to explore. We are thus afforded a glimpse of the line of separation as it comes into being at the moment of transformation.

Whether there is a line or a borderland is all a matter of positioning. Epstein’s account shows clearly that when one is located in, or even at, the margin, there is a perceptible borderland; the further one moves away from it, the more linear it seems. Epstein’s original and insightful study locates Hardy and Conrad in the borderland between Victorian realism and Modernism, and by lingering in this marginal space, he shows how indeterminate the distinction is and how dependent it is on where one positions oneself.

© 2020 William Atkinson

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