By Daphna Erdinast-Vulcan,
The University of Haifa
Yael Levin, Tracing
the Aesthetic Principle in Conrad's Novels. London: Palgrave
Macmillan, 2008. £42.50. 203 pp.
Yael Levin's thoughtful and challenging study
aims to explore Conrad's aesthetics through the prism of what the
author calls the "otherwise present." Conrad's notorious
"adjectival insistence," ostensible failures of characterization
in his work, the frustrating inconclusiveness of ethical positions,
unresolved plots, disconcerting shifts of focalization, and the
occasional flirtation with the supernatural – all of these
difficulties, she argues, are fully motivated and may be accounted
for in terms of the aesthetic principle of the "otherwise present"
that informs Conrad's work, and constitutes a cohesive framework
for the various thematic strands in his fiction and links them with
his choice of narrative techniques throughout his career.
The inspiration behind this formulation is
unmistakably deconstructive, and Levin offers several nuanced readings
of Derrida's work in support of her own quest for an intermediary
position between the absolutes of either/or, a conjunctive rather
than a disjunctive approach to meaning. Unlike many self-declared
deconstructive projects, the study does not attempt an "application"
of ready-made, generalized concepts or mechanical reading procedures,
but pursues a course of reading that is finely tuned to the singularities
of the texts themselves. Derrida, one may speculate, would have
been pleased with that.
Levin's careful mapping of the "otherwise
present" brings together various thematic strands in Conrad's
work – spectrality, love, loyalty, and guilt – that
resist any and all binary formulations, and stylistic features,
sometimes bordering on oddities, that are closely related to them.
The thematic obsession with irreconcilable perceptions of reality
is performatively translated into Conrad's aesthetic choices, and
gives birth to the "otherwise present" – "a
palpable nonentity that resists ontological classification . . .
a product of a constant oscillation" (11) between presence
and absence, the tangible and the intangible.
Given this construct as the underlying aesthetic
of Conrad's work, Levin sees the ubiquitous and multi-leveled ambiguities
of the texts under discussion not as obstructions to hermaneutic
choices, but as sources of increased hermaneutic potential of which
her own discussion is richly nurtured.
Levin is a suspicious reader, directing her
scrutiny mainly at Conrad's narrator-figures, but there are points
when the sophistication of the reading obscures or seems to insist
on brushing aside some of the central values of a text. In Lord
Jim, for instance, the otherwise-present aesthetic is presented
as integral both to the thematic concerns of the novel and to Marlow's
storytelling, which involves "a performance of the oscillation
between absence and presence, between knowledge and skepticism,
between success and failure" (52). But this insight is followed
by the suggestion, a little more difficult to accept, that the shifts
of narrative focalization are inscriptions of Marlow's divided loyalties
and his lack of good faith in relation to Jim. There is, Levin suggests,
an increasing gap between Marlow's ethical and aesthetic commitments,
between his responsibility to Jim and to his audience, and this
discrepancy evolves into a semi-parasitic relationship between the
witness-narrator and the subject-object of the narrative.
Similarly, Levin argues that the otherwise-present
in Under Western Eyes is generated by the collapse of the
silence-speech binarism, as silence is transformed into a "powerful
and misleading signifier" (77), both in the case of Razumov
and the narrator, whose omissions are far from accidental. The doublings,
the allusions to ghosts and apparitions and the ritualistic enactments
of exorcism – all highlight the obsession of the text with
the "otherwise present," which occludes, Levin argues,
pertinent questions of responsibility and guilt.
This last claim begs a host of questions:
Who is responsible for this occlusion? Is it Razumov who conjures
up Haldin's ghost? Is it the narrator? Or, perhaps, Conrad himself?
While the axiological dimensions of a text do not necessarily overlap
with the values upheld by any of the characters or by a narrator,
it is impossible (at least for an old Conradian like the present
writer) to overlook the persistence of genuinely ethical questions
that are raised by voices within the text.
The discussion of Nostromo revolves
on the convoluted and unresolved temporality of the narrative, the
tension between spectral non-events and a historical account of
revolution and emancipation. In what is, to my mind, the best chapter
of this study, Levin offers an account of the history of Sulaco
as "prey to a spectrality effect" (58), which is performatively
inscribed in the style of the narrative itself. The novel's writing
down of history is, she astutely comments, pervaded by a sense of
the "'always already'" (65), arrested by the ghosts that
haunt nearly all of its major characters. Here too, as in the other
novels discussed in this study, the thematic concerns are metonymically
inscribed in conflicting modes of narration, and the slippage from
one to the other inhibits any attempt at a clear-cut demarcation
of their boundary-lines.
These first three chapters, dealing with indisputably
major texts, are followed by chapters on The Arrow of Gold
and Suspense, which have been relegated by an almost total
critical consensus to the very margins of Conrad's work, as samples
of a final phase of decline. Aware of this apparent quality gap,
Levin argues that all of the novels singled out for discussion are,
in fact, "the products of a shared aesthetic" (20). On
this account, the "otherwise present" in The Arrow
of Gold, is evidenced in the portrayal of Rita as "immobile
and shadowy, statuesque, and elusive" (105), to list just a
few of the obfuscating adjectives deployed by the narrative.
Rather than a resounding artistic failure,
Levin presents this as a portrayal of an "object of desire"
whose powers of attraction are directly correlated to its elusiveness,
suggesting that it is precisely Rita's absence, the fact that the
desire cannot be consummated, which inflames the passions of her
lover. She is a "mirror for fantasies, an object constituted
by desire" that, in true Lacanian fashion, keeps desire alive.
At this point Levin offers a remarkable reading of the pervasive
Pompeiian allusions in the novel, contrasting its symbolism with
Freud's reading of Jensen's Gradiva. Unlike the hero of
Gradiva, a text that ends with an affirmation of romance,
George carries the illusory and elusive image of his beloved to
the end of the novel, which marks the failure of romance through
The discussion of Suspense sets off
with the "otherwise absent" figure of Napoleon, rendered
more powerful by virtue of its non-presence. This absent character
who looms large over the entire narrative is, Levin argues, yet
another instance of Conrad's shadowy heroes and heroines, whose
narrative potential derives from their very elusiveness.
The second part of the chapter revolves on
the question of narrative closure. Here, too, as in The Arrow
of Gold, Levin seems to make virtue out of necessity, suggesting
rather than an accident of fate, a work left incomplete at the sudden
death of its author, the novel is informed by an anti-closural aesthetic.
Once again, one may wonder if the construct on which the discussion
is premised is not overextended. Surely, the novel’s incompleteness
has less to do with its lack of closure (which is, after all, the
hallmark of the best Modernist fiction) and more to do with underdeveloped
characters and relations. And, finally, one may wish to raise the
ancient question of whether an "aesthetic rather than a moral
reading" (174) is at all possible.
Be that as it may, the questions provoked
by Levin's study certainly do not diminish but enhance and augment
the pleasure of working through it. However one responds to its
theses, this original, well-written, and carefully thought-out volume
offers a valuable and original contribution as well as a worthy
challenge to Conrad studies.
© 2009 Daphna Erdinast-Vulcan