The Conradian: Review
Cover Peters book

By Anne Luyat, Université d'Avignon

John G. Peters. Conrad and Impressionism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. 206pp. £45

The subject of impressionism has attracted gifted Conrad scholars from Ramon Fernandez to John Dozier Gordan and Ian Watt, critics whose writings have become part of the canon of literary research. Conrad and Impressionism, a systematic and thorough study of the relationship between seeing and knowing in Conrad's work, perpetuates this tradition of excellence. John G. Peters treats impressionism in painting and in literature in order to evaluate their impact on Conrad's philosophical and political views as well as on his literary techniques.

Quoting from Conrad in "Heart of Darkness": "I know that the sunlight can be made to lie," he indicates that Conrad recognized the limits of impressionism and consciously sought to go beyond them after finishing The Nigger of the "Narcissus." Conrad's conception of reality as essentially indeterminate, evolving and unfinished, extended far beyond the confines of impressionism in literature and painting. Chapter II is entitled "Objects and events in the 'primitive eye': the epistemology of objectivity" and deals with no less a subject than the nature of reality in a world of precarity.

As Conrad realized, the relationship between seeing and knowing was more complex than the technical analysis of physical perceptions, hence his profound interest in point of view as both an objective and subjective phenomenon. As Peters points out, the limited point of view in Conrad "can refer to the physical location in space from which the perception occurs but it can also include the influence of the observer's personal and public past on perception."

He goes on to discuss the links between perceptions and delayed decoding as well as the sequences so often to be found in Conrad's writing of initial and later perceptions of the same objects, such as the moment when Marlow's perception of seemingly harmless "flying sticks" in "Heart of Darkness" becomes the sudden realization of mortal danger in the deadly "flying arrows" as he attempts to reach Kurtz. Mimesis has become a subjective phenomenon. Conrad is no longer imitating reality but transforming it.

In Chapter III, entitled "The Epistemology of Objectivity," we learn how Conrad came to realize that objective knowledge is actually relative knowledge, for "not only do the boundaries between objects blur but so do the boundaries between perceiving object and perceived subject. Subjects can alter objects just as objects can alter subjects." In his portrayal of perceptions as continually evolving and changing, Conrad represents the uncertainty of being able to obtain objective knowledge and the extreme difficulty of knowing with any certainty. The view of objective knowledge becomes in this light a relative one and as a consequence, western absolutes no longer have the same force in Conrad's writing as they did in the writing of his predecessors.

If objective knowledge is elusive and difficult to ascertain, so is subjective knowledge, both of oneself and of others. In Chapter IV, "The Epistemology of Subjectivity," John Peters discusses Conrad's admission that it is as difficult to know oneself as to know others. As Conrad wrote to Edward Garnett, "One's own personality is something hopelessly unknown." The attempt to know another leads to Marlow's bafflement in Lord Jim: "How incomprehensible, wavering and misty are the beings that share with us the sight of the stars and the warmth of the sun," a conception of the precarious nature of all perceptions and all knowledge that at the end of the twentieth century the French critic Jean Baudrillard would describe as perceiving "the unreality of the real."

In "The Epistemology of Temporality" not only have objective knowledge and subjective knowledge become relative quantities, so has time itself. Peters believes that human time appears in two forms in Conrad's works, as personal time and as cyclical time. Both personal time and cyclical time blur the boundaries between subjective time and context and create a conception of the flow of human existence which is extremely flexible, one that adds to its precarious nature and makes the difficulty of acquiring objective knowledge even greater.

In the final chapter, "Conrad's Impressionist Response to Solipsism and Anarchy," Peters discusses Conrad's need to create meaning in a relative and uncertain universe and to come to terms with conceptions based on relative rather than objective or absolute values. Can one society justify its values over another? Can consensus among members of society concerning moral values avoid the abyss of ethical anarchy: "If Conrad's works are tragic," he indicates in the epilogue, "their tragedy lies in their recognition of the failure of an absolute world while still clinging to the conventions of that world."

Conrad and Impressionism is remarkable for its carefully composed logical structure and the precision of its arguments as well as for the well chosen definitions and examples which render the complex philosophical and ethical concerns of Conrad. John G. Peters has made a valuable contribution to Conrad studies, one upon which future scholars can build with assurance. The notes and bibliography alone qualify the book for a prominent place on our bookshelves.

© 2006 Anne Luyat






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