The Conradian: Review

By Jeremy Hawthorn, The Norwegian University of Science and Technology

Alan H. Goldman, Philosophy and the Novel. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. 224 pp. £32

Alan Goldman’s book consists of two parts. The first, entitled “Philosophy of Novels,” introduces the topic of philosophical content and literary value, moves on to a chapter about the interpretation of novels, next discusses the issue of incompatible interpretations of the same text with reference to Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, and concludes with a chapter arguing the case that detective fiction is possessed of aesthetic value. The second part, “Philosophy in Novels,” consists of four chapters devoted to specific novels. These focus on moral development in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and moral motivation, what we learn about rules from John Irving’s The Cider House Rules, and concludes with a chapter entitled “Nostromo and the fragility of the self.” For the benefit of readers of The Conradian I will focus most attention on to this final chapter rather than on the others concerned with specific literary texts.

Academics who write about works of literature typically have both familial and tribal associations. The larger tribal associations are generally linked to departmental affiliations within universities and colleges, and the academic discussions of literary works in departments of English, departments of comparative literature, departments of foreign languages, and departments of philosophy, have their own rituals and shibboleths, their local rules, conventions. More nomadic groupings such as narratology that lack dedicated departmental homes also have their own extensive and sophisticated bodies of theory and practice. Sometimes these traditions overlap, and sometimes they do not: as is the case with many tribes, much of daily life may be taken up by intercourse – friendly and otherwise – between families within the larger unit, but sometimes tribes come into contact when they meet on common ground: for example when they discuss the same literary work.

The author of the book under review is a professor of philosophy and writes within what we can conveniently describe as the tradition of philosophical aesthetics, a tradition that can lay claim to being the oldest intellectual or academic concern to attempt elucidation of the nature of art in general and the characteristics of specific art forms in particular. If aesthetics is “the study of the nature of art and beauty,” as the standard reference works inform us, philosophical aesthetics as an academic discipline is possessed of other characteristics – family resemblances, perhaps – that distinguish it from those of neighbouring but younger tribes. Alongside its ambitious global interest in general questions about the nature of art there is often a focussed attention directed towards the individual work of art seen as something concrete, and possessed of fixed characteristics that it is the task of the commentator to elucidate so as to allow others to appreciate them and the work as a whole. This is how Goldman puts it: “The value of artworks lies not just in any good experience they might prompt, but only in authentic experience based on objective features of the works” (50), and “artworks are something more than acts of communication. They are produced as public objects for aesthetic appreciation, and this distinguishes them from ordinary ways of communicating” (53).

For members of the tribe to which I belong – Eng. Lit. – words such as “objective” and “object” have an inescapably New Critical ring to them. They suggest a view of the work of literature as possessed of as fixed an identity as a physical object or a product of the plastic arts (the title of New Critic Cleanth Brooks’s best-known work The Well-wrought Urn makes this assertion of equivalence explicit). In contrast, much academic literary criticism associated with departments of English in recent decades has stressed processes more than objects, relationships rather than fixed identities. Reader-response criticism, feminist criticism, Marxist criticism, New Historicism, cognitive criticism, postcolonialist criticism, narratology (especially in its rhetorical variant) – all of these focus attention on to processes within which the work of literature is but one (albeit crucial) component. Thus it is very surprising to read Goldman’s statement, early on in his book, that “most recent literary criticism is mainly formalist and concerned with the details of language and expression” (8).

Those writing within the tradition of philosophical aesthetics have typically stressed the importance of the critic as interpreter of the literary work, as opposed to that of the reader as responder to it. Here Goldman’s position is representative:

The task of an art or literary critic is to be an interpreter, not simply to evaluate on the one hand or to describe or pick out random properties of works on the other, but to select those properties that are value relevant and to guide the audience to appreciation and proper evaluation by showing how those properties are relevant, how they contribute to the values of the works. (23)

Following this view the ordinary reader will benefit from guidance from the more insightful critic, with whose help a proper appreciation of the work in question may more easily be obtained. In contrast, a strong tradition within Eng. Lit. privileges not so much the critic but more the reader, and less interpretation than response. Such emphases can be dated at least as far back as Samuel Johnson’s respect for the judgement of readers in general. Writing about the reputation of Thomas Gray’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard,” Johnson rejoiced “to concur with the common reader; for by the common sense of readers, uncorrupted by literary prejudices, after all the refinements of subtlety and the dogmatism of learning, must be finally decided all claim to poetical honours.” Here it is readers who, in the last instance, guide critics, and not the other way round, helping them to escape from literary prejudices and the dogmatism of learning.

A preference for readers over critics is very often associated with writers themselves: Virginia Woolf, tellingly, used Johnson’s formulation “The Common Reader” as title of a collection of her essays. And here we of the Eng. Lit. persuasion can count Joseph Conrad as an ally. On the 22 March, 1896, the year in which his second novel was published, Conrad wrote to Nita B. Wall: “I thank You for Your letter with a perfect gratitude which is the more great because I know very well that only half of the book comes from the hand of the author – the other half is only to be found in the heart of some rare and precious reader” (CL 9, 25). And to confirm that this is not just a random remark, writing to R. B. Cunninghame Graham on the 5 August 1897, he declares: “To know that You could read me is good news indeed – for one writes only half the book; the other half is with the reader” (CL 1, 370). Conrad is of course making use of metaphor in these comments, so that the task of elucidating the metaphor (what exactly is the nature of the reader’s “writing”?) remains.

Conrad’s comments have points of contact with a long discussion in Goldman’s book concerning the issue of incompatible interpretations of a single literary work. Working from Conrad’s view, we may assume that different readers get different things from the same text because the work that is produced in their reading is half their own creation. For those who stress the objectivity of the literary work, different interpretations are a more of a problem. Goldman suggests a three-stage sequence of events to cope with this problem. First, there is the reading of sentences in a work to get their literal meaning: “In none of the novels I will consider in later chapters is there any need to interpret the meanings of the sentences in the text” (43). A reading of these uncontested meanings gives us the “narrow world” of the text: “The text, remember, is what is literally asserted; the narrow world is what we are required to imagine as true based on the text and incontestable inferences from it” (74). This narrow world is expanded by interpretation (a process perhaps equatable with the reader’s writing of the text in Conrad’s view):

There is a single text and a single narrow world. Opposing interpretations do not create separate works. What they do create or pick out are additional worlds of the work, broader worlds filled out in different ways. (75)

Different and incompatible interpretations may thus lay claim to legitimacy because they relate to different “broader worlds” generated by and from the single, “narrow world” of the text. As he puts it: “Evaluation depends on interpretation, which in turn depends on noninterpretive descriptions of works and their elements” (25).

I must confess to finding the idea that the meaning of sentences in a literary work can be read literally and non-interpretively, prior to a subsequent, interpretive stage, unconvincing. Does Goldman really believe that one reads the whole text in a literal way before beginning to interpret? (Remember: there is no “need to interpret the meanings of the sentences in the text” [43], so interpretation must presumably be limited either to the whole work or to large chunks of it.) Surely this is not what happens as we read a novel: we are continually making assumptions and testing them, continually assessing the significance of what we are reading and revising our assessment – continually responding and continually interpreting, from sentence to sentence and chapter to chapter. Take the very first sentence of Nostromo: Goldman is correct that on a literal level it causes the reader no difficulty. But surely no-one who reads Conrad’s novel intelligently can just pass on to what follows it without a certain puzzlement. Who is telling us this, and why? What is the significance of the Baedeker-like interpolation in the middle of the sentence (is this the first of many parodies of varieties of “history”?). Why do we need to know about the history of this place? And who are “we”: the intended reader, the narratee, a character in the text? Anyone who has tried to translate this sentence into another language knows how frustratingly impossible it is to capture its full force, the clarity of its literal meaning notwithstanding.

Goldman takes opposing interpretations of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw to illustrate his argument, suggesting that the novella can either be read as if the ghosts in the story are real, or as if the governess-narrator is hallucinating, but not both:

We cannot experience the story as both supernatural and realistic at once. To read the book as ambiguous between the two is in this case to assume an analytical attitude that destroys the empathetic identification with the characters and emotional engagement with the work. (39)

I see no reason why a reader of this work cannot swing between uncertainties while reading, just as the reader of a detective novel can believe first that X is the murderer and then that Y is. This may challenge empathetic identification with characters (of which more below), but rather than destroying emotional engagement with the work it may actually enhance it. By the end of a detective story, of course, who know who the murderer is, whereas at the end of James’s novella the reader may remain torn between possibilities much as we often are in real life. John Keats’s “Negative Capability” – “that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason,” although directed by Keats at the writer rather than the reader, nonetheless captures something of what reading fiction involves, although all readers are guilty of a bit of irritated reaching on occasions, not least, perhaps, when they are readers of Nostromo. But then the irritation is part of the aesthetic challenge that the novel poses for the reader, and paradoxically part of its aesthetic value.

But Goldman’s mention of empathetic identification and emotional engagement is worthy of further attention, because here it seems to me that he does slacken some of his tribal affiliations. A view of the literary work as object that has to be analysed and interpreted by the critic so as to allow it to be appreciated – what I take to be a central if not quite universal assumption within philosophical aesthetics – is not generally associated with losing oneself in the world of the work. It rather implies a semi-scientific distancing of oneself from any emotions produced by the work so as to allow for as accurate as possible a description of the work’s “objective” qualities. But in this case Goldman does seem more attentive to the needs and experience of the reader than those of the critic, stressing empathy rather than distanced observation: “To be so captured by a work of art or literature is to appreciate its aesthetic value, at the same time to lose oneself in the world of the work, to seem to enter for a time that alternative world” (3). Approaching a novel as an object implies a sense of it as a whole, and assumes that the whole work has been read. Attention to the experience of reading a novel reminds us that we read novels not primarily for the feeling we get when we have finished them and can survey the whole, but for the experiences we have while we are reading them, when the content of the pages on the right-hand side of the book is only to be guessed at.

There is then, at the very least, a tension between “appreciation” and “losing oneself.” Bertolt Brecht was famously opposed to the tendency of dramatic audiences to sink into the world of the play, advocating rather that they be encouraged to maintain an emotional and intellectual distance from characters and events so as to be able to think about them from an external perspective rather than experience and feel with them from an internal one. More recently Judith Fetterley’s concept of the resistant reader captures one possible way of engaging with a literary work that advocates a Brechtian resistance to the siren calls of the work that seek to wreck the reader on the rocks of immersion in the world of the fiction. It would be interesting to know what Goldman thinks of such recommendations, although one suspects that he would disapprove of them.

Which brings us back to Nostromo. Given Goldman’s emphasis on the importance of being able to lose oneself in the world of a novel, Conradians may feel that this is an odd choice to make from the corpus of Conrad’s fiction. Of all Conrad’s novels this is in a sense the most Brechtian, the novel that most continually frustrates the reader’s desire to sink into the world it portrays and to empathise with characters. This is partly a matter of the unremitting irony directed at almost all the characters by the extradiegetic narrator. But the non-linear narrative that shifts backwards and forwards in time, and from place to place, ensures that the reader is continually forced to step back from immersion in the world of the novel to get his or her bearings: “Where are we? Is this before or after that happened?” – and so on. Goldman fully recognises this aspect of the novel. He concedes that all of “the characters are variations on this theme of the fragile and ultimately fragmented self. The reader cannot identify with any of them (a cause for misplaced criticism by some critics), simply because there is not a coherent inner self with which to identify” (198). Given that earlier on in the book Goldman has argued that an “important role for imagination to play in appreciating fiction consists in imaginative identification with the fictional characters and with the author’s point of view” (97), the reader’s inability to identify with the characters of Conrad’s novel would appear to be something of a problem when it comes to appreciating the novel, but in this instance Goldman does not suggest that it is.

Goldman further notes “the novel’s somewhat chaotic formal structure, its rapid and nearly incomprehensible shifts in time and space” (5), admits that “key historical events are largely omitted from direct narration” (178), and alludes to the “style of narrational externality and distance” (179). Many critics have concluded on the basis of such elements that Conrad’s aim in the novel is to force the reader to focus attention not on to the lives of individual characters, but, as might have pleased Brecht (did he ever read Conrad, I wonder?), on to those impersonal historical and economic forces that mould, control and defeat the aims and desires of these characters. Goldman disagrees. Citing among others Eloise Knapp Hay’s claim that “historic process could be seen as the real subject of the story, more important than any of the people in it,” he responds:

I profoundly disagree. My focus here will be exclusively on the characters as individual selves who tell us much about the nature of character and the self. I believe Conrad’s focus is the same. The incredibly rich fictional history that he creates in this novel is still only contextual backdrop for the deeply revealing, however unsuccessful, interactions among the characters. (177)

Goldman repeats the word “backdrop” later on: “The continuous destruction of the social order is a contributing backdrop to the destructions of the individual selves of the main characters, more sharply focused in the later parts of the novel, leading up to the literal deaths of both Nostromo and Decoud” (179). For me, however, the interpenetration of character and history in Nostromo renders the word “backdrop” less than adequate to Conrad’s conception in the novel. Surely it is not a question of having to decide whether the novel is concerned mainly with the process of history, or more with the nature of character and selves. More recent critics have argued that it is precisely the interaction between these two elements on which the novel focuses – the ways in which the actions of characters affect the course of history (although not in the ways in which they have intended or expected), and the ways in which larger historical processes form, frustrate, and often break characters.

The most recent critic of Conrad footnoted by Goldman, however, is Ian Watt, represented by his 1988 study of the novel. Other critical works cited are by Suresh Raval, Eloise Knapp Hay, Albert Guerard and Jocelyn Baines – all important critics it is true, but followed since 1988 by many other important critics unnoted by Goldman. Since Baines’s excellent biography there have been major biographies by Frederick Karl, Zdzislaw Najder, and John Stape among others, that include material unavailable to Baines. Conrad’s letters have been published in a scholarly edition of nine volumes, and many of his fictional and non-fictional works, along with four volumes of contemporary reviews, have been published in the ongoing Cambridge edition. Journals such as The Conradian and Conradiana have been publishing articles on Conrad’s life, times, and writing for many decades now. Goldman does not cite from this body of work, and it is only the references to more recent works of philosophy that prevent one from wondering if this chapter was not actually written a couple of decades ago. This is certainly not to claim that a sensitive and alert reader of a text cannot discover things in it unnoticed by a succession of professors; teachers of literature know that a bright student – a Common Reader – is always liable to find something in a text, especially a long text such as Nostromo, that he or she has previously overlooked. But those who pass over the accumulated insights of a critical tradition run the risk of reinventing the wheel. Do we need, in 2014, to be told that “At the beginning of the story, [Nostromo’s] private self is simply his public self, and that is why we see him initially only through the eyes of other characters (185), or that Nostromo’s “public and private self, formerly indistinguishable, now come completely apart” (189)?

Goldman suggests that one “clue to the centrality of character study in the novel, the lack of dominant focus on the philosophy of history, is the fact that the key historical events are largely omitted from direct narration” (178). But one might argue, as indeed some have, that such a way of recording key historical events mirrors the characters’ own very partial awareness of them. One of the reasons why these characters are to a large extent the slaves of history is that their understanding of history is obscured by their private concerns. “That is history, as that absurd Captain Mitchell is always saying” (174), Decoud remarks to Antonia. But we know that Mitchell, for all that he remains a brave and a principled man throughout the novel, has no idea of what history is, and is like a man walking through a minefield who adjudges his survival to have been the result of an intelligent grappling with difficulties while in reality it is largely a matter of enormous luck.

These are not the only debatable comments on characters in the novel. Goldman claims that Holroyd “hypocritically speaks of bringing a pure form of Christianity to the benighted natives, when we suspect that his only real motive is further profits for himself” (196), but surely the narrative makes it clear that the reason Holroyd keeps his Costaguana dealings private and hidden from his staff really is that they are prompted by motives unconcerned with profit:

But, in fact, the hobby theory was the right one. It interested the great man to attend personally to the San Tomé mine; it interested him so much that he allowed this hobby to give a direction to the first complete holiday he had taken for quite a startling number of years. He was not running a great enterprise there; no mere railway board or industrial corporation. He was running a man! (81)

Goldman argues that Charles Gould’s initial motives are moral: “to avenge his badly treated father by redeeming the silver mine for which he was victimized, and in so doing to bring prosperity and peace to Sulaco and Costaguana” (191), and that “Like Nostromo, Gould, an innately good man, is the victim of bad circumstantial moral luck, and the result is a gradual descent into fanatic pursuit of the single goal of maintaining the profits of the mine” (192). But this ignores clues early on in the novel that Gould’s concern with the mine has a self-centred, œdipal element that predates any bad luck and that corrupts from the start his relationship with his wife. Consider this passage:

The two young people had met in Lucca. After that meeting Charles Gould visited no mines, though they went together in a carriage, once, to see some marble quarries, where the work resembled mining in so far that it also was the tearing of the raw material of treasure from the earth. Charles Gould did not open his heart to her in any set speeches. He simply went on acting and thinking in her sight. This is the true method of sincerity. One of his frequent remarks was, “I think sometimes that poor father takes a wrong view of that San Tomé business.” And they discussed that opinion long and earnestly, as if they could influence a mind across half the globe; but in reality they discussed it because the sentiment of love can enter into any subject and live ardently in remote phrases. For this natural reason these discussions were precious to Mrs. Gould in her engaged state. Charles feared that Mr. Gould, senior, was wasting his strength and making himself ill by his efforts to get rid of the Concession. “I fancy that this is not the kind of handling it requires,” he mused aloud, as if to himself. (60)

Here Gould’s selfishness and egocentricity are already marked clearly by his treatment of his wife as audience rather than interlocutor. The caustic irony in the narrator’s comment about “the true method of sincerity” is repeated in a comment made after Gould senior’s death: “But now he [Charles Gould] was actually not looking at her [Emilia] at all; and his expression was tense and irrational, as is natural in a man who elects to stare at nothing past a young girl’s head” (63).

This then is a book that engages with a number of interesting issues, but the chapter on Nostromo is not its strongest part. The discussion of the issues raised by incompatible interpretations that focuses on The Sun Also Rises shows Goldman more at home with his material and better able to relate theoretical assertions to textual analysis. The best chapters, however, are I think those on Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Irving’s The Cider House Rules, in which the textual analyses and the theoretical arguments mesh more satisfyingly than they do in the final chapter on Nostromo.

Oxford University Press should be congratulated on the standard of proofreading, printing, and general production of this book. (I thought I had spotted a misprint but then discovered that “satisficing” is a real word.) It is also on sale for a price lower than that many publishers are charging for paperbacks. Academics of whatever tribe must applaud such things.

© 2014 Jeremy Hawthorn






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