The Conradian: Review

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 endless deferral.

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






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ody of ambitious plays” by placing them within the context of evolving theatrical traditions, including melodrama, Expressionism, Grand-Guignol, and naturalism, to argue that, despite his protestations to the contrary, Conrad’s awareness of contemporary theatre was more advanced than has hitherto been recognized.

Bringing the volume to a close, Mary Morzinski challenges the “achievement and decline” claims made by Moser et al. to provide a strident defence of Conrad’s stylistic development as one of continual growth, using the manuscript of The Rescue as evidence. A linguistic approach to Conrad, this essay’s context is Second Language Acquisition, whereby the speaker develops an “interlanguage.” Analysis of such characteristics as verb tense and word order (of adverbial modifiers and adjectives) leads into a discussion of asyndeton and synecdoche to argue that the hallmarks of Conrad’s style are simultaneously aspects of his artistic techniques, and that these continue to evolve across Conrad’s career.

The Conrad: Eastern and Western Perspectives series is proving to be a useful contribution to on-going Conradian scholarship and critical debate. Apart from occasional designated monographs, including Morzinski’s own Linguistic Influence of Polish on Conrad’s Style (Vol. 3: 1994), the series are largely composed of edited collections of essays that, if heterogeneous, are ultimately satisfyingly wide-ranging in their range and scope.