The Conradian: Review
Oxford Reader's Companion to Conrad

By Jeremy Hawthorn, Norwegian University of Technology, Trondheim

Terry Collits, Postcolonial Conrad: Paradoxes of Empire. Routledge Research in Postcolonial Literatures Series. London: Routledge, 2005. xiii + 226 pp. £55

According to the blurb on its dust-jacket, Terry Collits's study "tackles what is now a central question in both postcolonial studies and Conrad scholarship: what happens when Conrad's novels are read from the perspective of the colonized?" The book is divided into two parts. The first, "Locations," considers Conrad's fiction in the context of, in order, the history of ideas, literary history, England, Marxism, and the postcolonial world. The second part, "The Great Novels of Imperialism," devotes separate chapters to " Heart of Darkness," Lord Jim, and Nostromo, and two chapters to Victory.

Leaving aside the fact that "Heart of Darkness" is not a novel, this seems straightforward enough and yet on reading this book I repeatedly had the feeling that its focus sometimes disconcertingly shifted. Take the following comments:

  • "This book will address the hermeneutic problem framed by these two statements [from Brecht and Zizek]: from our perspective in the present, what is the best way of relating to writings from the past?" (1)

  • [The book's] "more modest aim is to survey the shifting contexts in which Conrad has been read for more than a century." (2) "The present study therefore will not only re-read Conrad's colonial novels ("themselves") but also map and analyse the interpretative tradition they have generated." (2)

  • "Rather than attempting a comprehensive and chronological survey of Conrad's reputation in the twentieth century, I intend to examine four distinct moments in the reception of his fiction which are arguably four different aspects of the Conradian moment, more widely understood."

  • [These moments are (1) the originary moment, when the works were first published; (2) Conrad's canonization by F. R. Leavis; (3) the "effect of the cultural turmoil of the 'Sixties,' which was characterized by wars of National Liberation, revolutionary hope (sexual in the West, political/cultural in the East), and a French-inspired epistemology known as critical theory"; and finally (4) "the shadowy and reflective present moment"] (3)

  • "My chief object in this book is to reconsider Conrad's meditations on European imperialism in a handful of remarkable novels set in non-European parts of the world, and to do so with reference to significant moments in the discussion they have provided during the past hundred years." (17-18)

  • "The principal concern of this study is to answer the question of how - given the complexity of the issues it examines - we may read and understand Conrad nowadays." (19)

These statements are not exactly contradictory, but they do slide around. Are the interpretive contexts studied generated by the fictions themselves, or are they the product of non-literary factors such as "wars of National Liberation"? How do the "four moments" correlate with the five chapters in the book's first part? And what does it mean to have a "chief object" that seems rather different from the book's "principal concern"?

A tendency to avoid the straightforward in presenting arguments can sometimes be frustrating. Collits's discussion of Nostromo, for example, opens with a comment on the novel from Leavis, then moves to Lukács's discussion of the similarities and differences between Homer's epics, Greek and Shakespearean tragedy, and the novels of Tolstoy. Then we are back to the issue of historical versus non-historical readings of classic texts, with a brief mention of Foucault and a full page on Samuel Johnson's discussion of King Lear. Collits then quotes from Roland Barthes's discussion of sexual allure in The Pleasure of the Text ("Is not the most erotic portion of the body where the garment gapes?"), and we are back to Nostromo and the torture of Hirsch with a paragraph that opens "As with the erotic, so with cruel violence." The use of seven-league boots in critical discussion can be exhilarating, but here and elsewhere the leaps are random, unpredictable, and unenlightening.

In my view, this book is better in local details than in cumulative force. Some of the particular discussions are certainly rewarding. Collits's account of the very important role played by F. R. Leavis in establishing Conrad's canonical status in the 1940s makes an important contribution to our understanding of the development of Conrad's reputation and readership in the second half of the twentieth century.

Collits agrees with Geoffrey Galt Harpham that Leavis's The Great Tradition (1948) was the single most influential text in the history of Conrad criticism, but he points out that Leavis's reading of Conrad "minimized consideration of those themes that are currently regarded as the principal source of his power and appeal: namely, the politics of imperialism and the ideological uses of racial difference" (51). Collits's account is useful as a way of understanding Leavis's low opinion of " Heart of Darkness," although it in its turn surely proposes too narrow a conception of the "principal source" of Conrad's "power." Were we to accept Collits's view of the principal source of Conrad's power and appeal we would be hard put to find any of it in The Secret Agent - certainly one of the major works in Conrad's canon.

Also useful is Collits's suggestion that when Leavis stresses the way in which The Shadow-Line depicts "solidarity of community or the bond of work under the sign of an august tradition" (62), but leaves out the narrator-captain's experience of isolation. This can be related to Leavis's own celebration of a relationship to Cambridge that celebrates the communal but passes over the isolation. The book also usefully discusses the way in which Leavis and Georg Lukács, despite their wholly different ideological commitments, agree in privileging realism over Modernism. (Collits fails, however, to note that this is true only with regard to fiction. When it came to poetry, Leavis was a thoroughgoing supporter of Modernist innovation.)

Other points of detail are valuable. Collits offers a thought-provoking discussion of parallels between Brierly and Jim in Lord Jim, and he argues that when the Marlow of " Heart of Darkness" talks about Towson's book with its talk of "chains and purchases," these terms punningly call to mind details of the slave trade that some of the "honest" sailors who first read Towson's book must have contributed to. I do not recall having seen this important insight pointed out before.

This is, however, a book that claims to situate Conrad in a postcolonial context. Collits's definitions of colonialism and imperialism do not appear to take in Russian imperialism or Poland's experience of it. Under Western Eyes is not a text to which Collits devotes special attention. It is, too, only in his two-chapter discussion of Victory that he really justifies the claim made in his book's blurb to read Conrad's fiction from the perspective of the colonized, and here his concentration on the figure of Wang is both rewarding and problematic.

Collits argues of Wang that "Having disarmed the white man and thrown in his lot with the Alfuro villagers, he now serves the diagnostic purpose of showing that Heyst's dreamy existence on Samburan is based on deeply racist assumptions," and that "he himself (and not Mr Jones) is the true challenger to Heyst's Adamic mission" (172). But the colonized in this novel are these same villagers, not Wang, and Conrad hardly gives the reader much of a basis to see things from their perspective, or, indeed, from Wang's after he abandons Heyst and Lena.

Collits does engage with some perennial questions relating to Conrad's depiction of colonialism and imperialism. He claims that "Like the rest of Conrad, 'Heart of Darkness' was read for almost forty years in ways that masked its political content as a critique of imperialism" (54), and, referencing Hunt Hawkins's 1979 study, suggests that it was only "Politicizing readers of 'Heart of Darkness' in the 1960s and 1970s" who "asked whether its negative critique of imperialism was directed specifically at Belgium (for perversely distorting in the Congo an otherwise worthy ideal) or included Britain as well" (127).

This omits mention of those (particularly early) readings that did see the novella as a critique of imperialism and also those more recent attempts carefully to historicize Conrad's view of colonialism and imperialism. A postcolonialist study of Conrad should certainly consider, for example, Stephen Donovan's 1999 article in The Conradian, "'Figures, Facts, Theories': Conrad and Chartered Company Imperialism" (24.2).

As its dust-jacket blurb also claims, this is a "wide-ranging volume." There are some sharp insights and points of detail to reward the student of Conrad in its pages, but its meandering progression makes it at times frustrating reading.

© 2006 Jeremy Hawthorn






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