The Conradian: Review

By Hugh Epstein, London

J. Hillis Miller Reading Conrad edited by John G. Peters and Jakob Lothe, Columbus OH: Ohio State University Press, 2017. 340 pp.

Reading Conrad is a collection by Jack Peters and Jakob Lothe of the essays that J Hillis Miller wrote on Conrad between 1965 and 2014. These comprise an essay each on The Secret Agent, Lord Jim and ‘The Secret Sharer’; three essays on ‘Heart of Darkness’; and a very long piece on Nostromo, constituted out of three essays written for different occasions. The writings by Miller, all of which are individual chapters from available books, are prefaced by a helpful fifteen-page Foreword by Peters and Lothe, outlining the critical movements to which these chapters originally contributed, and offering a measure of interpretation of Miller’s developing critical positions on the Conrad texts he examines. My initial resistance to the act of extracting Miller’s specifically Conrad criticism from the wider considerations in which it is embedded in his books was tempered by finding in the 450 closely-printed pages of The J Hillis Miller Reader (ed. Julian Wolfreys, Edinburgh University Press, 2005) only three fleeting mentions of Conrad and no extracts of Miller’s Conrad criticism. It would seem from the 260 pages of Peters’ and Lothe’s collection that here is a body of work worth considering in its own right. In fact, in a Preface to the Reader, Miller says, ‘my interest in literature over the years has been primarily focused not on the generation of theoretical paradigms but on the act of reading specific works and attempting to account for their singularity, peculiarity, or strangeness.’ Yet the effect of the Reader is to tend towards the theoretical; the virtue of Reading Conrad is that it corresponds more to the ‘interest’ proclaimed by Miller and, indeed, exhibited everywhere in these essays on Conrad alone. 

     The book begins with the most striking and memorable of Miller’s interventions in Conrad criticism, the chapters he wrote on ‘The Darkness’ and The Secret Agent for Poets of Reality: Six Twentieth Century Writers (1965). It was very exciting to encounter, whenever it was that one first did so, Miller’s bold, clear articulations of the existential positions that emerge from Conrad’s novels: ‘the tragedy of man’s existence lies in the fact that he is cut off irrevocably from the truth of the universe’; ‘The human world is a lie. All human ideals, even the ideal of fidelity, are lies. They are lies in the sense that they are human fabrications. They derive from man himself and are supported by nothing outside him’. It is almost as if one is reading one of Conrad’s great letters to Cunninghame Graham; and, indeed, one can’t quite tell if this is Miller voicing a declaration of belief, or whether he is ventriloquising the claim of Conrad’s novels for critical inspection. The two are almost in alignment; but the great strength of Miller’s criticism is that it is always taken back to the experience of reading, and of reading particular novels, which allows us to see the spaces between the emotionally (and politically) involved Miller, the literary text, the text’s narrator, and the text’s author. No one writes criticism like this now. The very theorising that Miller was a part of has banished its simplicity of expression and its directness.
     Taking a phrase from Wallace Stevens, Miller characterises the ambition of Conrad and his other chosen ‘Poets of Reality’: ‘To walk barefoot into reality means abandoning the independence of the ego. Instead of making everything an object for the self, the mind must efface itself before reality, or plunge into the density of an exterior world, dispersing itself in a milieu which exceeds it and which it has not made.’ Much of Miller’s later criticism explores the way in which Conrad, in his fiction, effaces his ego before reality and immerses himself, and his readers, in the density of an exterior world. In this early work, Miller is excitingly absolute in his claims: ‘The aim of all Conrad’s fiction is to destroy in the reader his bondage to illusion, and to give him a glimpse of the truth, however dark and disquieting that truth may be.’ And the truth, for Miller, is a darkness which is a metaphysical entity, which is ‘in every thing and person, underlying them as their secret substance’. This sort of assertion licensed much Conrad criticism of the sixties and seventies, notably Claire Rosenfield’s Paradise of Snakes (1967) and Royal Rousel’s Metaphysics of Darkness (1971). In his exploration of Conrad’s darkness Miller is much attracted to Conrad’s early impressionism, to those moments when sensations do not fully give way to secure perceptions through the action of mental interpretation, and thus he devotes welcome attention to The Rescue, as much as to ‘Heart of Darkness’. Yet, unlike Eloise Knap Hay or, more recently, Jack Peters, Miller is not content to analyse how writing creates impressions, but presses further into a less ascertainable realm as, for him, ‘The impressions things make on the senses are no more ultimate reality than their interpretation into meanings and objects. … Not colours or light, but the darkness behind them, is the true reality’ (that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask). This is not, he stresses, a Sartrean nothingness, or Freudian unconscious, or evil as opposed to good, but rather ‘It is the basic stuff of the universe, the uninterrupted’ (21). Written before the popularisation of dark matter and the discovery of gravitational waves, I wonder whether Miller’s formulations now would be less metaphysical and more physical.

     In assessing Miller’s full 1960s position, one misses from Peters’ and Lothe’s volume some reference to the 1963 The Disappearance of God, with its discussion of ‘those writers for whom the absence of God has been experienced as a positive thing … From Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Lautreamont, through Nietzsche, Conrad and Mann … there has been a continuous tradition of this diabolical nihilism, this Prometheanism of the depths. For these writers God in his absence turns into a destructive power, the heart of darkness’. Likewise, we miss from Poets of Reality, ‘The pathos of the disappearance of God is the pathos of infinite space’. This is a loss when thinking about the full scope of Miller’s Conrad criticism, particularly of The Rescue, with its evocations of infinite space, and of The Secret Agent, with its oppressively enclosed spaces conveying acutely the simultaneous loss and desire for a transcendent solving realm. And thus we need the connection with the other writers in Poets of Reality and elsewhere to get the full measure of Miller’s dictum that ‘The crucial experience for Conrad’s characters is the moment when they escape from their enclosures in the sane bonds of everyday life and encounter the heart of darkness which beats at the centre of the world and in the breast of every human being on earth’. However, what these Conrad essays taken on their own do convey is that the stirring, rhetorical, even poetic, nature of Miller’s own writing in many places recalls the persistence of a belles lettres tradition that continued at that time to provide a moral urgency to a discussion of reading. This is not just commentary on Conrad’s texts: commentary on text almost becomes a direct disquisition on life. Miller’s personal configuration as an avowed inheritor of New Criticism, his grounding in phenomenology, and also his welcome of the new deconstructive, mainly French theoretical criticism, made him an important voice in the anglophone world. 

     The series from Ohio State University Press to which this volume is linked is called ‘Theory and Interpretation of Narrative’. However, Miller is not a narratologist who sees the task to codify with ever more precision what is going on in the sentences on the page. For all his extensive acquaintance with it, Miller is unconcerned with the totalising, systemising drive of ‘Theory’, retaining, rather, an interest in the singular effect upon the reader of the whole individual work of art, an interest that both first and last is moral and political in import. Not that his own drive towards finding the difficult-to-articulate universal significance in particular novels does not at times lead him into extravagant claims. It is in The Secret Agent that ‘Conrad’s voice and the voice of the darkness most nearly become one’ he says, and goes on to assert that, at the end, Ossipon survives ‘to become the inheritor of the terrible knowledge which has destroyed Verloc and Winnie’. What ‘terrible knowledge’ is this? Knowledge of the darkness that is the substance of life? If so, this ‘knowledge’ has not been demonstrated by Miller as knowledge possessed by (or possessing) any of the three characters. In practice, I don’t find – for all Miller’s rich account of Winnie and the Assistant Commissioner being absorbed by the London night – that he establishes ‘the darkness’ as a transcendent presence in the novel: it seems just to become the death to which we are all heading. Returning, now, to his writing on The Secret Agent, highly responsive to the texture of the novel though it certainly is, one finds it does not quite realise the metaphysical claim with which his chapter opened. 

     In Fiction and Repetition (1982), Miller regards the view that ‘criticism went wrong when it became close reading’ as ‘a major treason against our profession’. He says directly, ‘What counts for most in literary criticism is the citations made and what the critic says about those citations’. In his several writings about ‘Heart of Darkness’ no citation is read more closely and fully than the famous analogy of the meaning of a tale as the haze made visible by the illumination of the moon. What Miller says about it in ‘Heart of Darkness Revisited’ (1985) is that it reveals the tale as both parable and apocalypse, apocalypse being the unveiling that is promised but never fully achieved. It is ‘the sort of text that promises an ultimate revelation without giving it, and says always “come” and “wait”,’ which many readers will find resonates with their experience of it, though, as Peters and Lothe point out, Miller’s ‘it is a revelation of the impossibility of revelation’ has certainly not won universal agreement. Marlow comes back with nothing to reveal except the process of unveiling; but far from merely confirming the despair of infinite regression, Miller’s reading finds in ‘Heart of Darkness’ an invitation to his own political commitment. So, in ‘Should We Read Heart of Darkness?’ from Others (2001), which is almost an answer to Achebe in its demonstration of four ways in which the tale is literature, and should be read, and read as such, Miller reminds us that Marlow survives Kurtz’s death ‘and the consequent responsibilities of the survivor enter as central issues in the novel.’ Those consequences extend to the reader who has emerged from her reading of the novel, a responsibility and responsiveness to the experience so brilliantly characterised by Miller: ‘The reader pores over and over the text trying to come to terms with it so it can be dismissed and forgotten.’ And part of the reason that it cannot be dismissed and forgotten is that ‘Conrad’s invention of Marlow at once embodies, reveals, and ironically puts in question the complex system of Western imperialist and capitalist ideology.’ Although nothing is ‘revealed’, the reader has an encounter, an encounter with an other both created and threatened by the ‘fantastic invasion’ of ruthless exploitation masquerading as civilisation. Thus, for Miller, ‘Heart of Darkness’ should be read as ‘a powerful exemplary revelation of the ideology of capitalist imperialism’ yet one that is ‘a nonrevelatory revelation or the invocation of a nonrevealable secret’. Can reading really make it operate as both simultaneously? 

     Miller’s characterisation of ‘Heart of Darkness’ as ‘a series of episodes’ in which ‘each veil must be lifted to reveal a truth behind which lies another episode, another witness’ links his report upon his reading of the novella to his earlier experience of Lord Jim. In Fiction and Repetition, from which the Lord Jim chapter is taken, Miller had written about Wuthering Heights, ‘Like Lord Jim, it overtly invites the reader to believe that there is some secret explanation which will allow him to understand the novel wholly.’ Of course, his point is that this secret explanation is not forthcoming, or not unambiguously, and ‘The critic who attempts to understand Lord Jim becomes another in a series of interpreters.’ There are some pithy and telling statements in Miller’s essay (‘Lord Jim can be defined as an attempt to understand the real by way of a long detour through the fictive’), but in Fiction and Repetition the fairly short Lord Jim chapter is offered as one which sets up the issues to be further explored, as Miller explains. To extract it on its own exposes it as a little slight and preliminary, not fully achieved. This afflicts more seriously Miller’s final contribution on ‘Heart of Darkness’, a revisiting of his earlier ‘Revisiting’ essay, which operates as prologue to Nidesh Lawtoo’s collection Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Contemporary Thought (2012). This was an effective introduction to the series of essays that Lawtoo interestingly constellated around Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe’s essay, ‘The Horror of the West’, but it does not stand so well on its own, nor really project anything distinctively different from the first ‘Revisiting’ essay. It is weaker in the present volume than in the volume for which it was designed.

     This is not the case, however, with the essay on ‘The Secret Sharer’ (written in 1994, published in Others, 2001), Miller’s analysis emerging in the Peters and Lothe collection as a substantial platform in his Conrad criticism. ‘‘The Secret Sharer’ depends on the assumption that some secrets can be shared without ceasing to be secret’, Miller writes, and goes on ‘such sharing is more than the imparting of knowledge. It also lays on the one who receives an obligation, a responsibility to judge, to decide, to act.’ The story is fitted to his recurrent theme of obligation, the thread which, for Miller, unbreakably ties the aesthetics of reading to ethical response: ‘What should we do, if anything, when we have read ‘The Secret Sharer’?’, he asks. His brilliant readings of the famous opening paragraph of the story, and of the hat episode which closes it, provide the empirical ground for what becomes an essential discussion of literary criticism as a discipline. Miller makes the fundamental distinction between hermeneutic and rhetorical reading, between ‘interpretation’ and ‘reading’. Hugely versed in the former, ‘reading’ is what Miller does. So he characterises approaches that are ‘religious, Freudian, Lacanian, feminist, new historicist, postcolonial, or whatever – some interpretative procedure that knows what it is going to find and can therefore always find what it seeks’ as having a different genesis from ‘A rhetorical reading (which) starts with the words and stays with them’. Thus he says that for the kernel in the nut meaning we don’t need the story, the meaning pre-exists it, it is there already and ascertainable by other means. The misty halo however can only be made visible by this story, ‘by just these words in just this order’. Miller’s reading of ‘The Secret Sharer’ makes total sense of the story without explaining the story away. In practice, he confirms that reading of the story which approves the young captain in his choice of nightmares, his loyalty to Leggatt, as an obligation which will make him worthy of command; yet, Miller says, ‘The grounds for these acts remains private, hidden, secret…something that is unpresentable, unrepresentable’. Nevertheless, ‘it can be passed on to those who are fit to ‘understand’… it can be transmitted in a narration like ‘The Secret Sharer’.’ Not only the ‘sinister resonance’ of ‘Heart of Darkness’, but also the several meanings of Toni Morrison’s ‘It was not a story to pass on’ in Beloved stand in vital relationship to Miller’s discussion. But it is one that takes a final, worrying turn towards a quasi-religious obscurantism: ‘The basis of ethical decision and act, including the act of reading and writing, is the ultimate secret, the most secret secret. This secret cannot be revealed. It is not the object of a possible clear knowledge. Nevertheless, it is a secret I can share, though it remains secret. This secret can only be passed on to me as an obscure but commanding force that comes from something absolutely other. If it cannot be named, it can be made into a story and so transferred to me when I read it.’ While I respond to the affirmation of the irreducibility of the story, I find the notion of an elect (and, in fact, Miller cites the Protestant Martyrs) runs disturbingly counter to the politics that Miller consciously avows.

    The final third of Reading Conrad is taken up with ‘Conrad’s Colonial (Non)Community: Nostromo’. Miller’s writing on Nostromo increasingly ties the novel as ‘an alternative mode of history-writing’ to the political and economic world of the century that followed its publication. The indictments of U.S. foreign policy seem now to belong very much to the period when these essays were written, and thus to stress Conrad’s prescience takes us, in 2018, backwards rather than forwards – though Miller does acknowledge at one point that China will soon become the world’s largest economy. Even as it is rather less concerned with gestures towards a reality of some unrepresentable darkness than with depictions of the historical realities of a world economic order, there is something a little less intense about this work on Nostromo (it is all from the present century). However, this in no way diminishes Miller’s sense of the novel’s non-human, extra-human scope; more precisely, he says that Conrad’s ‘aim is to show … how human history occurs if its background is the total impersonality and ‘indifference’ of nature’. Thus from a reading of the opening chapter Miller observes, ‘The entire landscape was there before mankind came, and it will still be there when mankind has vanished. … The scene is not teleological. It does not lead to anything, nor is it good for anything. It just goes on repeating itself endlessly’. Miller’s angle of reading is clearly consistent with Fiction and Repetition all those years previously, and what he is so good at showing us is the overall dynamic of a novel: ‘Nostromo is, to a considerable degree, made up of separate segments in which nothing much in the way of forward moving action in some imaginary present takes place. In each segment, rather, the narrative voice hovers over the continually subsisting subjectivity and iterative way of life of one of the characters.’ But it is true that a new note enters to correspond with his feeling that ‘All the “metaphysics of darkness” seems to have vanished from Conrad’s work in the few short years between ‘Heart of Darkness’ and Nostromo.’ His feeling for this, expressed as ‘the forlornness’ of the characters in Nostromo is surely spot-on. And there is, perhaps, some forlornness in Miller too: a sense that trying to write about how literature relates to ‘the world’ is less thrilling than walking with it ‘barefoot into reality’.

     This is a book about which I have changed my mind. Initially disappointed that what it offers is reprints of Hillis Miller’s extant essays on Conrad, I have come to feel that Peters and Lothe have done us a service by collecting these in a single volume. Their Foreword provides good explanations, historically and critically informed (and a different account from the one I have given in this review). Miller is a greater critic of Hardy: Thomas Hardy, Distance and Desire (1970) remains the best, the most indispensable, work of close criticism of Hardy’s novels fifty years after its publication. But the attention Miller has applied to Conrad is original, intense and capacious, and thoroughly unpretentious and accessible in its expression. We continue to need it.

© 2018 Hugh Epstein

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