The Conradian: Review

By Hugh Epstein, London

Michael John DiSanto. Under Conrad's Eyes: The Novel as Criticism. McGill-Queen's Studies in the History of Ideas Series, No. 47. Montréal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2009. 253 pp. $63.

About Under Western Eyes, Conrad wrote to Edward Garnett: “I am concerned with nothing but ideas, to the exclusion of everything else” (CL4 489). Michael DiSanto contends that “Criticism concerned with ideas and the history of ideas does not receive much attention at the present time,” and his study seeks to remedy this in the case of Conrad. His repudiation of the postcolonial dominance of contemporary Conrad studies as he sees it (he names six books and could easily have named more) announces a strong Arnoldian inflection. Clearly (liberal) humanist in tendency, Freud is here, but no Lacan; Foucault and Derrida mentioned only to claim them as Nietzsche’s descendants; we cannot separate the writer from the work. In fact, DiSanto proposes to follow Leavis’s practice in finding that “the best evidence of Conrad’s reading is in the language, style and structure of his novels.”

Much of the introductory chapter takes up an interesting debate about comparison and influence, in which DiSanto counters Yves Hervouet’s notion of Conrad’s writing as an act of “appropriation” with the idea of the “novel as criticism,” always in dialogue and often in combat with that from which it borrows. So he declares that “This study, therefore, is and is not a study of influence,” and therein lies the refreshment of the book for readers who welcome the insight contrived from an encounter between various textual moments from different writers, and the problem for readers who demand a more scholarly and rigorous documentation of exactly what Conrad read, when, and under what circumstances.

DiSanto’s work needs to be more fully and carefully established in the tradition of Patricia Beer, George Levine, and others, who have done so much to place literary texts convincingly in a wider intellectual climate. However, Under Conrad’s Eyes is precise and interesting in what its six main chapters offer the reader: readings of “Heart of Darkness,” The Secret Agent, Nostromo, Under Western Eyes, Lord Jim, and Victory (in that order) against works by Carlyle, Dickens, George Eliot, Dostoyevsky, Darwin, and Nietzsche.

There is no mention of French literature, and more mystifying, given the study’s philosophical bent, is the relegation of Schopenhauer to a footnote. This said, one of the strengths of the book is that the chosen thinkers and novelists enable DiSanto to construct three strands of thought, which he artfully entangles, that lend unity to the whole enterprise – highlighting how sympathy and pity, knowing and not knowing, and notions of self-preservation and self-sacrifice function in Conrad’s thought.
The study’s major contribution lies in reasserting Carlyle’s importance to Conrad by examining Carlyle’s two prominent prescriptions – hero-worship and work – in “Heart of Darkness.” DiSanto is surely right in his attack upon academic structures that divide Conrad from his nineteenth-century inheritance by, for instance, teaching Carlyle in courses on “Victorian Prose” and Conrad in courses on “Modernism”; however, his book itself does seem rather to be a product of “courses”, and one can see it fitting teaching purposes for “the novel and nineteenth century thought” very well.

DiSanto is penetrating and enlightening on how “Heart of Darkness” subjects Carlyle’s gospel of work to scrutiny. Pursuing Conrad’s recognition of the contradiction in Carlyle’s idea that work is the “most important expression of being and the most important avoidance of being,” DiSanto offers a telling reading of Marlow’s famous, “No, I don’t like work. I had rather laze about and think of all the fine things that can be done.”

DiSanto is eloquent in his contention that Marlow’s idealization of work grows out of his need to be saved from knowing the horrors of the grove of death, and he makes a significant intervention in post-Achebean debates by showing how “Carlyle is present at the scene.” His demonstration of the way in which the grove of death operates as a criticism of “An Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question” is a high-point of this book.

The next two chapters are impelled by a good idea, and a sensitivity to life as well as to literature, although in neither does the analysis quite fulfil the claims made for interconnectedness. To find much of the origin of The Secret Agent in Bleak House is a familiar, but by no means an exhausted, comparative move, and the strategy of entry – “The two authors share the idea that not knowing is the dominant impulse or instinct ... of a perceived sickness undermining English culture” – promises a good discussion. But for all his manoeuvring of the characters against each other, DiSanto’s writing lacks a dimension of wit that is demanded to be equal to the spectacular gymnastics of these two novels and to represent what Conrad owes to Dickens in terms of style and thought.

“Arguably,” DiSanto claims, “George Eliot was as influential as Carlyle, Dickens, or Dostoyevsky.” Were he able really to show this, his next chapter would be a major addition to Conrad studies. However, “counts for” in practice means that the critic can find opportunities for contrast. Broadly, the chapter compares Dorothea with Emila, Ladislaw with Decoud, and Lydgate and Monygham, and DiSanto persuades us that Conrad brings a more acute and seasoned set of feelings to the key issue of sympathy than Eliot, who consistently comes off worse (“There is a danger in a form of sympathy that perceives the object of sympathy as not intelligent enough to participate on an equal footing with the researcher”), while Conrad “understands this problem and presents it in Decoud.”

DiSanto feelingly conveys Conrad’s portrayal of Mrs Gould’s desolating loneliness, comparing Middlemarch (ch. 31 and ch. 83) with Nostromo (I, 6 and II, 5) to demonstrate that “Conrad reworks some fundamental elements of Eliot’s art.” This is not quite the same as identifying a specific debt. For instance, DiSanto quotes Eliot’s narrator on the marriage of Rosamond and Lydgate: “It was as if they were both adrift on one piece of wreck and looked away from each other.” This proves too much to resist as he jumps to Nostromo and Decoud on the lighter “as if (Conrad) were writing a profound meditation on the meaning of that very suggestive sentence from Eliot’s book.”

Conrad’s favourite “as if” is the weak point of the criticism here: perhaps comparison is never more than cherry-picking, but the critic should either set full passages against each other for whatever arises from the collision or establish influence in a more scholarly way. DiSanto writes interestingly about isolation, sympathy, and the want of it, in the lighter and elsewhere in Nostromo, but the linkage to Middlemarch is occasionally strained.

The Carlylean thread to DiSanto’s book is evident in his view that Under Western Eyes is “about heroes, real and sham, and what actions or sacrifices compel admiration and worship.” Central to the chapter is the Dostoyevskyan genre of “the confession”, and again, Dostoyevsky comes off the worse for the comparison. DiSanto judges that Conrad sees as a disfigurement Dostoyevsky’s self-sacrificial women of the confessional: “Conrad’s criticism is that Dostoyevsky violates, if not destroys, the individuality of his female characters in forcing them to become mouthpieces of his own ideals.” The uncontroversial, but strongly felt, conclusion is that Tekla earns the reader’s sympathy and emerges as the extraordinary person in her unidealizing service of others.

The chapter devoted to Lord Jim as a novel rewriting Darwin’s and Nietzsche’s “arguments about the instincts for self-preservation and self-destruction” is the study’s most interesting and closely argued. Using ideas from Girard, DiSanto says that Conrad makes it difficult for the reader to differentiate between sacrifice, suicide, and victimhood. The Bob Stanton and Brierly episodes attract an attentive reading that asks us to think carefully about self-sacrifice and self-regard. Prepared to take the risk of being “suggestive rather than conclusive in making (his) case,” as he puts it elsewhere, DiSanto in this chapter creates distinctive readings from the ideas he applies to Lord Jim, whether Conrad is shown conclusively to have found these ideas in Darwin or Nietzsche or not.

The final ambitious chapter, about Conrad’s criticisms of Nietzsche’s thought, proves to be the most difficult to read and enjoy. (That Conrad is “difficult to read” is an often-repeated linguistic tic here, where “read” seems to mean to arrive at a single interpretation). Clearly, however, the discussion of Nietzsche’s rejection of pity reaches back to the chapter on sympathy and provides further evidence of the intellectual thread running throughout this study. Finding Nietzsche represented in the elder Heyst as philosopher, Jim as a Christ-like “idiot,” and Stevie as the victim who becomes the self-destructive exploder, DiSanto’s aim is to explore how Conrad exposes that Nietzsche’s contempt as “a form of not knowing his own pity or capacity for pity.”

In its attention to the relations between Conrad’s fiction and the work of major nineteenth-century precursors, this is a welcome book. DiSanto is uneven in the success with which he manages to persuade us of Conrad’s debt, connection, or affinity with the style of others, a palpable hit with Carlyle not being matched elsewhere. Of course, this is a study primarily about ideas, and every page reveals DiSanto’s lively engagement with his reading in nineteenth-century intellectual history, and an enthusiasm and advocacy that is winning.

It is rather surprising then, when the whole enterprise seems to be to stress the value of Conrad as a thinker and a critic, there is no mention of the writer’s essays and literary criticism. But some reservations aside – and DiSanto deliberately positions his work outside a circle of scholarly research – Under Conrad’s Eyes is a valuable addition to the line of commentary that seeks to associate Conrad’s fiction with prior intellectual traditions, particularly in its refocusing of attention upon English writers.

© 2010 Hugh Epstein






last updated: Sunday, September 30, 2012 11:22 PM
website design by Linda Fenton Malloy
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.