The Conradian: Review

By Michael John DiSanto, Algoma University

Richard Ruppel, A Political Genealogy of Joseph Conrad. Lanham, MD.: Lexington Books, 2015. Hardcover. £49.95. $80.00

In A Political Genealogy of Joseph Conrad, as the concluding sentences neatly summarize, Richard Ruppel argues that “in Conrad’s novels and stories, the politics are embedded in the genre. Attempts to impose a stable or developing political position on his work will always fail. Despite readers’ best efforts to bring him into one political fold or another, he remains, politically, the most elusive of authors” (137). This concise study is divided into eight parts, with an introduction entitled “Conrad’s Radically Contingent Politics” and seven chapters that move through a significant number of Conrad’s works in roughly chronological order: Chapter One – The Nigger of the “Narcissus”, Almayer’s Folly, and An Outcast of the Islands; Chapter Two – Lord Jim; Chapter Three – Heart of Darkness; Chapter Four – Nostromo; Chapter Five – “An Anarchist,” “The Informer,” and The Secret Agent; Chapter Six – A Personal Record and Under Western Eyes; and Chapter Seven – Chance. The longest chapter is thirty pages, and the shortest is thirteen.

Ruppel begins with a brief survey of previous works on Conrad’s politics, including Irving Howe’s Politics and the Novel, Eloise Knapp Hay’s The Political Novels of Joseph Conrad, Avrom Fleishman’s Conrad’s Politics: Community and Anarchy in the Fiction of Joseph Conrad, Jeremy Hawthorn’s Joseph Conrad: Narrative Technique and Ideological Commitment, and Paul B. Armstrong’s Play and the Politics of Reading. The first few are criticized for positioning Conrad as a conservative, and the last one is praised because “it frees us from the critical compulsion to seek a consistent lens through which to read Conrad’s political fiction” (5). Ruppel explains that his work follows in the wake of Jean-Francois Lyotard and Michel Foucault in its scepticism toward grand narratives, systems, and institutions, and that he sees Conrad’s novels as anticipating those postmodernists in their critiques.

Throughout the book Ruppel traces ways in which Conrad’s writing reproduces, reworks, and repudiates, with various methods and in differing degrees, the many genres he read and the stereotypes and conventions of representation he found in them. It is an attempt to elucidate what Conrad found in his sources – e.g. Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago, the Journals of James Brooke, C. J. Cutliffe Hyne’s stories, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, dynamite fiction, and popular magazines, among others – and how these played in his imagination and shaped his politics. Conrad was not a Burkean, as Ruppel says, and his political thinking cannot be categorized as upholding organic conservatism. The polyphony in Conrad’s works is essential to their distinctiveness, in Ruppel’s view, because it opens up some distance, great or small, from the conventional narratives and the politics embodied in them of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. One comes to see Conrad as a writer keenly attuned to the characteristics that make genres work and the politics those genres support or undercut. Conrad’s works continuously blend together elements, and his practice produces, in many of his narratives, “a generic mélange” (41). His writing “perpetuates and subverts the conventions” that he inherited and “reintroduces and reconsiders concepts” formulated by his predecessors (41).

In reading Ruppel, one is reminded of the strangeness of Conrad’s novels, of the impossibility of compartmentalizing them. Lord Jim is “an imperial romance, an art novel, a study in epistemology, a meditation on masculine codes of honour, and a cultural and critical Rorschach test” (41). The book’s argument as a whole can be seen as a sustained meditation on the observation that Conrad’s work (in this passage, Chance) “echoes and quietly mocks the popular genres of its day: the romance, the melodrama, the Bildungsroman, the crime novel, and the sea novel,” a theme (or pattern) Ruppel sees repeated with variations throughout Conrad’s fiction (124).

An astute remark Ruppel makes is about critics who “must create an alternative, supportive framework for [their] argument, forcing the text to conform to what are likely [their] own feelings about” a subject (134). This is true, very likely, of every reader more or less, and some evidence of it is discovered here and there in this book. In the chapter on Nostromo, which the claim is made that the novel “contains all the features of the epic,” Ruppel argues that “the novel’s politics […] emerge from the epic genre; very much like his near contemporary, Karl Marx […] Conrad drew on large, overarching economic and political concepts to trace the forces responsible for the republic’s founding” (41). In moving from the earlier to the later works, Ruppel believes that he hears Conrad writing “less and less like Thomas Carlyle, more and more like Karl Marx” (82). “[T]he opening pages of The Secret Agent might have appeared in a description of London written by a bona fide Marxist” in Ruppel’s view (95). These observations lead up to the declaration that “Marx was the first great, secular philosopher to suggest that human beings are controlled and even, in a sense, created by economic and cultural forces they neither control nor entirely understand; that is a central observation and claim that undergirds Marxist theory. It is also a central observation and claim informing all of Conrad’s greatest fiction” (98). Ruppel’s admiration for Marx is evident, and it appears that he projects Marxist theory onto Conrad without questioning if it must be counted among the number of grand narratives that the novelist inherits and subverts. In the opening of the book, Ruppel chastizes a critic who “imposes a system” and whose “argument is strained repeatedly as he tries to impose his vision” (3). This is a temptation and a danger for any critic, and Ruppel is not excluded.

In his account of Under Western Eyes Ruppel is sensitive to “the novel’s genuine polyphony” (119) and sees Conrad’s representations of Natalia, Tekla, and Sophia Antonovna as strengths in the book. These female characters are, as Ruppel suggests, opposed to the cynicism that can be found in the male characters. But some of the remarks on these characters give one pause. Sophia Antonovna is “the most unambivalently heroic character in Conrad’s fiction” (119). What is the range between least and most? The complexities inscribed in Conrad’s representations of heroism are bewildering. They render the attempt to measure the differences among them a dreadful task. If one is to grapple seriously with the “genuine polyphony” in Conrad’s art, then one might doubt a reading that sees the structure of the narrative in this way: “The narrator’s lack of faith in all systems of government dominate the book until he is answered so effectively by Natalia’s simple defense of her doctrine of reconciliation and love” (119). One response is to say that none of the characters’ voices should claim our assent readily, regardless of the doctrine. Natalia’s declaration of faith, as it is articulated in this passage found late in the novel, is troubling:

I must own to you that I shall never give up looking forward to the day when all discord shall be silenced. […] The tempest of blows and execrations is over; all is still; the new sun is rising, and the weary men united at last, taking count in their conscience of the ended contest, feel saddened by their victory, because so many ideas have perished for the triumph of one, so many beliefs have abandoned them without support. […] But at last the anguish of hearts shall be extinguished in love.

This is a vision of harmony and accord that, one might suggest, implies she looks eagerly toward the end of polyphony in the “triumph of one” idea. Surely it is significant for Natalia to be uttering this in a novel in which polyphony is an organizing principle. And this kind of utterance, suspended in tension with the many others demanding a reader’s attention, contributes to the complex representation of politics in Conrad’s novel.

© 2015 John DiSanto






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