The Conradian: Review

By Hugh Epstein, London

William Freedman, Joseph Conrad and the Anxiety of Knowledge. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2014. 176pp.

If books of literary criticism can broadly be divided into two camps, those which rely on scholarship or a theoretical approach to bring something into conjunction with the text, and those which rely on sensibility and an incisiveness in reading “the words on the page” before all, then Joseph Conrad and the Anxiety of Knowledge, by William Freedman, belongs primarily in the second camp. However, Freedman is also interested in what he calls “biographical pressure,” “not the usual one of self-revelation but, more unusually, the self-revelation all but inevitably entailed in the effort to avoid or conceal it.” So his book looks squarely and in detail at major novels, but also looks beyond them at the “figure behind the veil,” as Conrad puts it in A Personal Record, a figure, in Freedman’s view, who maintains one prime strategy for remaining there.

This is a sophisticated book by someone who has read and pondered upon Conrad over many years. It has a clear and forceful argument that is pursued through five chapters with a short prologue and appendix. A chapter each is devoted to “Heart of Darkness,” (italicised throughout as Heart of Darkness) Lord Jim, Under Western Eyes and The Rescue, with several pages of commentary on The Secret Agent in the opening chapter, which is called “Forbidden Knowledge and the Saving Illusion.” The thesis of the book is unequivocal: that much of Conrad’s famed obscurity of representation and complexity of narrative technique arises from his conviction that, in Freedman’s words, “there is much that it is better not to know.” Conrad’s characteristic “obfuscation and evasion” are best read as “marks of a calculated refusal of dangerous knowledge or a defensive recoil from it.”

In a substantial opening chapter, Freedman begins by “situating dangerous and forbidden knowledge in the history of ideas,” a move which sees him swiftly and deftly cover some major figures from Eve to Foucault before resting briefly upon what will become a recurrent topic in his book, that “Woman is repeatedly identified with dangerous, enigmatic, and elusive truth in Conrad.” The chapter then goes on to explore in more detail “Conrad’s perplexed relationship with truth and knowledge, particularly his dedication to the saving illusion,” centring on Freedman’s assertion that “There is in fact little in Conrad to suggest the attractiveness of truth or the desirability of knowledge.” Despite the attractions of psychoanalysis, Freedman is not in thrall to a single theoretical approach or a particular theorist, and in a pleasingly old-fashioned way the book has its roots in the essay, eschewing the anxious establishment of positions and credentials that often characterizes modern “professional” criticism. Freedman has read his contemporaries and his forerunners widely, but he is prepared to make bold statements and say what he thinks and feels, rather than offer a collection of “as x says.”

Three critics who draw Freedman’s commendation for their rich study of “autobiographical presence” are Edward Said, Bernard Meyer and Daphna Erdinast-Vulcan, the latter two providing his most frequent citations. In connection with this approach, and establishing another way in which Freedman is unconcerned whether he catches the modern temper or not, he never questions the existence of the author: Conrad is Conrad, not merely a linguistic construction, and his intentions are to be divined, even if – or perhaps especially when – they are evasive and obscured. Freedman depicts the Conradian position he is going to investigate as “a wavering third line” between “a radical scepticism and a desire to find some point of belief,” as John Peters puts it. Thus his topic and the area he moves in is “the darkly serious play of reluctance, aversion, self-deception, and recoil.” As such, The Secret Agent offers itself as a paradigmatic novel for Conrad’s wish not to know what he knows, and Freedman is forthright: “However foolish and shallow she is, however brutal in the end her maternal passion, Winnie Verloc is right.”

Although Conrad, in his “Author’s Note” to Within the Tides, lays claim to “that conscientious rendering of truth in thought and fact which has always been my aim,” Freedman is clear that “Art and truth, for Conrad, are incompatible. … To preserve oneself for the restrained moral discipline of literary creation one must step back from the edge where all wisdom, truth, and sincerity reside.” His chapter on “Heart of Darkness,” which he entitles “The Lie of Fiction,” is dedicated to the axiom that “One’s self, especially under threat, is precisely what cannot and must not be clearly seen or intimately known.” Freedman analyses with tenacity and skill the often evasive and obscure language that characterises the tale, and frequently challenges what have become the orthodoxies about how Conrad’s fictions reveal the inadequacies of language, as explored by Jeremy Hawthorn and others. “Certain experiences or glimpsed revelations are deemed “unspeakable” not because they cannot be described but because, rattling necessary defences, they should not be.” In his letters, Freedman says, Conrad doesn’t use “the language of one for whom truth is beyond language”; rather, it is that this “last word” is totally bleak. Clarity of thought and intention is a virtue of Freedman’s book, and, for instance, he does us a service by subjecting to scrutiny the deeply worrying “unselfish belief in the idea – something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to.” The celebration of “fictional self-consciousness” declared by Hawthorn’s 1979 book falls before a severer view of what “it is the writer’s duty to avoid.” Not that Freedman offers moral strictures; his attitude is more subtle and his writing more picturesque: “Toward whatever secret, Conrad, torch in hand, leads us to the edge, peers over, and, extinguishing his flame, withdraws. Although the pull is in both directions, the stronger forces are centrifugal.” I find this both provoking and convincing, though the stylistic flourish with which Freedman makes some of his major statements will clearly appeal to some readers and not to others: he closes the chapter on “Heart of Darkness,” “it is this defensive urge and flight that, squidlike, jets the inky fluid of opacity across these texts.”

In his discussion of Lord Jim, Freedman sees Jim as a version of the artist, as he does Kurtz, Razumov and Lingard. Whether or not he really justifies such self-reflexiveness, this identification enables Freedman to make interesting insights that are thoroughly in accord with Conrad’s temper: “It is not truth that Jim conveys but the spirit of his illusion. For that, ultimately, … is the goal of the artist.” Jim’s difficulty with, or, as Freedman would have it, avoidance of direct statement is seen to be an “interior image” of the novel’s own “labyrinthine circlings,” and Freedman is acute on the way that Marlow achieves “luminous omniscience” by incorporating Jim into himself, so that “Marlow’s ‘he’ is but an elidible substitute for Jim’s ‘I.’” Such analyses demand considerable attentiveness from the reader of Freedman’s densely-woven book, but, equally, he can be strikingly direct and illuminatingly so. Thus of Jewel he claims, “she alone seeks the forbidden knowledge Jim and Marlow deliberately conceal,” and he has an unawed and breezy way with Marlow’s frequent pronouncements about Jim’s inscrutability and enigma. Overall, Freedman’s view of the novel depends upon his unmasking of Marlow as someone not after truth but reassurance, and what he seeks to show is that, when the illusory structures of light and order created by a shell of words fails, like Marlow, Conrad in Lord Jim “had recourse to an artful dodge he was perhaps less cognizant of: commitment to insoluble mystery and enigma, the saving illusion that there is nothing to be known.”

The shortest and least compelling chapter that Freedman provides in his unrelenting account of Conrad’s narrative strategies for evading unpalatable knowledge is that on Under Western Eyes. Consistently, Freedman is interested in the narrator: “Conrad’s decision to add this narrator to his original story of Razumov performs, in a far more sweeping and inclusive manner, the function of Marlow’s obscuring mystifications, evasions and retreats in Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim. The strobe-light quality of flashing recognition and retraction of those novels is replaced here by a pervasive dimming, if not utter darkening, of the hall.” In accounting for the “dimming” effect of the teacher of languages, Freedman makes quite some use of Bernard Meyer and his psychoanalytic approach, the effect of which can be seen in the attention given to Conrad’s “anguished engagements with the rats and roaches swarming in his personal and historical basement.” When the discussion becomes more historical, it is difficult to distinguish Freedman on Russia from Conrad on Russia, with “ferocity,” “imbecilic” and “atrocious” among the epithets, and Russia “the cruel predator that had carved, swallowed, and devoured Poland like a slaughtered lamb.” And in this knowledgeable and scholarly book it is surprising to find Councillor Mikulin making an unwelcome appearance as “Inspector Mikunin.” However, Freedman, if uncharacteristically negligent here, is never negligible: he writes that the final violence administered to Razumov is less mystifying “if recognised as the author’s visceral revenge upon a character who has dared what he would not” (that is, facing the consequence of confessing the truth), which at first I dismissed as extravagant, and on reconsideration found troublingly plausible.

Freedman finds again some of his strongest ground in his discussion of that strangely vaporous tale of dissolving certainties, The Rescue, a novel in which there has been some recent renewal of interest, and of which Paul Wiley rightly said over fifty years ago that, if not Conrad’s most popular novel, it is “the most representative.” For Freedman, The Rescue is Conrad’s most extreme case of avoidance, one in which he “all but fled the waters altogether – and that for twenty years.” Dismissing other critics’ accounts of Conrad’s paralysis in the writing of the novel, he suggests that this condition is something in the very material of the novel itself, and that Edith Travers is the character who invades and overwhelms Conrad more than any other secret sharer. Freedman is persuasive on Conrad’s identification with the “disarmed” Lingard, who abandons his brig to his passion for Mrs Travers just as, taking seriously the pun of the brig as his “craft,” Conrad comparably abandons his enterprise. But the subtlety of the chapter lies in Freedman’s discussion of Conrad’s equal identification with Edith Travers: “As Conrad’s perfect listener, who views … a story that draws her so richly and utterly inside it that its characters belong to her life and impose themselves upon her senses,” she also “shares with her creator a paralyzing vision of the infinite and eternal darkness that empties life and action of all meaning.” Thus she emerges from this account as far more interesting than Lingard, and a compelling figure to close Freedman’s excursus into the realm of dangerously intriguing womanhood.

I have two quarrels with Freedman’s impressive book. The first is that it sounds the single note of its thesis a little too insistently and frequently. All readings are brought back to the protective need not to know, and the necessity not to pass on what you do know. However, this clarity, and the firm assertion of a meaning to the obscurity of much of Conrad’s writing, is part of the book’s interpretative strength and its force as a definite intervention in the direction of Conrad studies. The second is that Freedman does not take on directly whether Conrad’s avoidance of the truth compromises the value of his works to the reader. Insofar as they represent dramatizations of psychological terrors familiar to all of us, their portrayal of obfuscation is highly illuminating; as methods of avoidance of “the sustained reflection that brings some fearful revelation roaring from its cave,” we are left uneasily with the feeling that they are lesser works than they might have been.

The Anxiety of Knowledge, with its emphasis on the captivating threat that women pose in Conrad’s works to saving rationality, will find little favour, I imagine, among many of the contributors to the recent Terra Incognita conference in Lyon about the feminine in Conrad. This was a conference which promoted a view of Conrad as open to the knowledge that accompanies the feminine, as opposed to the shuddering away from it in Freedman’s version. For all that his book is strongly informed by psychoanalysis, it is committed more to the daylight world which resists dreams than to that aspect of Conrad which insists that for art to produce a successful “picture of life” it must be captured by the dream: “Like a dream it must be startling, undeniable, absurd and appalling … a thing monstrous or sweet from which You cannot escape” (letter to T Fisher Unwin, 1896, CL 1:303). Freedman’s eye is on the escaping novelist. In the recent New Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad, David Miller notes that the Colombian novelist Juan Gabriel Vásquez “observed that Conrad’s writing was key to him, particularly “his obsessive idea that novels go into dark places and come back with the news” (interview with Maya Jaggi, The Guardian, 26 June 2010). Joseph Conrad and the Anxiety of Knowledge contests this idea of Conrad at every turn by examining acutely, sceptically, but sympathetically, just that “coming back.”

© 2015 Hugh Epstein






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