The Conradian: Review

By Richard Niland, Richmond American International University, London

Joseph Conrad: Voice, Sequence, History, Genre, edited by Jakob Lothe, Jeremy Hawthorn, & James Phelan. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2008. 285pp.

Introducing his influential essays On the Aesthetic Education of Man (1795), Friedrich Schiller insisted he would rather his critical ideas “collapse from their own feebleness than maintain themselves by means of authority and borrowed strength.” While acknowledging the “Kantian principles upon which the propositions that follow will for the most part be based,” Schiller conceded that his thoughts only needed to be freed “from their technical formulation, and they will emerge as the time-honoured utterances of common reason.”

Schiller had reservations about the proximity of impenetrably presented but otherwise straightforward (apart from its accompanying jargon) theorizing to the sacred realm of Art, something that, while it helped illuminate the understanding, tainted the purity of aesthetic mystery:

But it is just this technical formulation, which reveals the truth to our understanding, that conceals it once again from our feeling; for unfortunately the understanding must first destroy the objects of the inner sense before it can appropriate them. Like the chemist, the philosopher finds combination only through dissolution, and the work of spontaneous Nature only through the torture of Art. In order to seize the fleeting appearance he must bind it in the fetters of rule, dissect its fair body into abstract notions, and preserve its living spirit in the sorry skeleton of words.

Approaching a collection of essays on narrative theory and the work of Joseph Conrad, one might expect to find the editors asking, like Schiller, for “some measure of forbearance if the following enquiries should remove their object from the sphere of sense in attempting to approximate it to the understanding."

The twelve essays contained in this handsomely produced volume, from the front of which stares Conrad’s profound and distant gaze, do not on the whole strive to say anything new about the author, but largely constitute exercises in style, where the focus of enquiry becomes, like that in Lord Jim, “not the fundamental why, but the superficial how” (56) of Conrad’s understanding and representation of narrative and history.

There is ultimately, as anyone who has embarked on such a critical venture will recognize, a certain frustrating predictability to investigations of time, narrative, and history in Conrad’s work, as it is almost guaranteed from the outset that the only achievable critical conclusion is one that informs us yet again (and in what becomes an increasingly conventional “insight”) how it is that we can never attain epistemological certainty and that we are doomed to wander in a sceptical void that, if not embraced as a refuge from self-delusional certainties, leads ineluctably to nihilistic despair or, worse, to a false belief in conquered knowledge. Conrad, we are reminded, followed a literary aesthetic challengingly devoid of narratological and historical absolutes.

Emerging from the hospitable proceedings of a colloquium held in Oslo in the autumn of 2005 in which knives were drawn and brandished on such controversial questions as to what exactly constitutes metalepsis, the papers presented here range from the impressive to those that wade deeply into the world of narrative theory, dragging, one would suspect, a reluctant Conrad along with them, an author whose works offer a rich field of speculation for such conjectures.

The Introduction explains how the field of narrative theory has allowed us to have a deeper understanding of the complex machinations of Conrad’s work. The editors tell us that “Had narrative theory existed as a well-known body of criticism at the turn of the twentieth century, many reviewers of Conrad’s fictions might have been a little less frustrated and dismissive” (3). However, as emerging archival research demonstrates, not as many of Conrad’s contemporaries were as baffled or dismissive of his work as the current consensus would have us believe. Numerous contemporary popular reviewers of Conrad’s work had a thorough understanding and appreciation of his methods and venerated his literary style.

Divided into four subsections containing essays on each of the title’s sub-headings of Voice, Sequence, History, and Genre, the first on Voice is perhaps the most disappointing in the volume, containing rather perfunctory essays, and relatively few insights, on some well-worn aspects of Conrad’s work. Zdzislaw Najder, whose work is always immediately of interest to the Conradian, usefully discusses “The Personal Voice in Conrad’s Fiction;” James Phelan speculates on “Lord Jim and the Textual Uses of Recalcitrance,” blandly informing us again that “Conrad’s audience cannot trust Marlow’s interpretation” (50) of Jim’s story; and Gail Fincham runs through some well-worn narrative conundrums in Under Western Eyes.

Things pick up in the section on Sequence, which contains some perceptive accounts of Conrad’s uses of narrative and its relationship with physical and temporal movement throughout his writing. Jeremy Hawthorn unveils Conrad himself as an “implicit narrative theorist” (98), whose writing displays complex ideas on narrative as a complement to Conrad’s own interpretation of his journey through life. Hawthorn compares “the syntactical generation of a sentence to a succession of life choices” (88), and manages to convey a slow motion like effect of the endless possibilities and fates awaiting Conrad’s characters as the writer shaped their destinies mid-sentence.

This focus on movement continues as Susan Jones analyzes how “Conrad harnessed the rhythmic and gestural properties of human action to his narrative strategy” (101), exploring the representation of narrative and bodily movement in “Heart of Darkness” and fin-de-siècle European culture, while Josiane Paccaud-Huguet investigates the culminating and short-lived “Conradian Flash of Insight” in an epistemological analysis of certain Conrad texts.

The section on History opens with an interesting reading of “The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’: History, Narrative, and Nationalism” by Allan H. Simmons, exploring how the text offers a “maritime myth of national identity” (141). The essay treats expansively the political and cultural context of the composition of Conrad’s seminal early story alongside the competing but balanced worlds, language, and identities inherent in the voyage from Bombay to London.

J. Hillis Miller’s discussion of Nostromo as a “Critique of Global Capitalism” engages the reader owing to the writer’s position in literary criticism over the last forty years, but the essay evokes the tone and brevity of a fireside chat, albeit an enjoyable one. Still, for the purposes of this volume it is a slight presentation of how the events and characters in Nostromo, especially Holroyd, remind one that the United States has played an interfering role in Latin American politics ever since the Monroe Doctrine (1823), the Spanish-American War (1898) and the Roosevelt Corollary (1904), and on into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Daphna Erdinast Vulcan treats historiography and the urge to historical narrative in Nostromo alongside a discussion of the sense of community, or lack thereof, in “Nostromo and the Writing of History,” while Christophe Robin’s “Time, Narrative, and History in Nostromo” constitutes a mystery of sorts in that it is comprised of extended quotations from Derrida, Foucault, and, most notably Paul Ricoeur, who eventually wrests control of the authorship of this essay from Robin. Robin’s speculations of the absent-presence in Conrad’s work and contemporary philosophy usurp the critic’s writing to such an extent that he himself must be found “elsewhere,” and certainly not in the work bearing his name, with Robin the real absent-presence in this critical jigsaw.

The book closes with two good essays: the first by J. H. Stape on “Narrating Identity in A Personal Record,” a counterpart to the Introduction to the recently published Cambridge edition of A Personal Record, and finally “Conrad’s Lord Jim: Narrative and Genre” by Jakob Lothe, which discusses how Lord Jim “appropriates and cumulatively combines aspects of other sub-genres of fiction, including the sketch, the tale, the fragment, the episode, the legend, the letter, the romance, and the parable” (236). Like Lothe’s important major work Conrad’s Narrative Method (1989), this essay gives the reader a renewed determination to lose oneself again in Conrad’s inexhaustible literary and philosophical landscapes.

If, on a quest for meaning, one were stopped for the night at the Spouter-Inn admiring the artwork, then a few of the essays published here might assist in the journey towards deeper Socratic understanding. Others, however, would be an unnecessary distraction from the occupation of detecting glimpses of the white whale in the brushes and strokes of finer artists.

© 2008 Richard Niland






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