The Conradian: Review

By A. M. Purssell, Royal Holloway College, University of London

Agnes S. K. Yeow, Conrad's Eastern Vision: A Vain and Floating Appearance. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. 252 pp. hardback £50

In the "Author’s Note" to his early short tale, “The Lagoon” (1897), Conrad reflects fondly on “the Malayan phase” of his literary career, “with its special subject and its verbal suggestions” (Notes on My Books, 23). This phase, beginning with the publication in 1895 of Almayer’s Folly, and ending with that of The Rescue in 1920, provides the meat of this new study by Agnes S. K. Yeow. Although Conrad in the same note remarks that his “next effort in short story writing” after “The Lagoon,”“ An Outpost of Progress” (1897) was meant as “a departure from the Malay Archipelago,” the main thrust of Yeow’s argument is that this and other departures from the East of Conrad’s affectionate remembrance were never more than short absences. For, while Conrad may only have spent a relatively small part of his maritime career in the East, it was a place to which, as a writer, he returned time and again.

Some critics have taken Conrad’s recollection in A Personal Record (1912), of reaching out to touch the same sort of “English ship” in which he would later serve, as representing a foundational moment of cultural identification; they have also seen, in this image of the ship as “home”, a potent symbol, commensurate with his rootless early life and subsequent exilic status. Taking Conrad’s transition from a mariner to a writer as a point of departure, Yeow focuses on the significance of another of Conrad’s affiliations, the announcement of which was likewise made along nautical lines.

In the first flush of his literary career Conrad settled on the pseudonym “Kamudi,”“a Malay word meaning rudder” (CL1 170). This pseudonym, although later abandoned, signalled, according to Yeow, a wish to be associated in the minds of his reading public, at least at this early stage of his career, “with ships, the sea, and a seafaring life” (2). More important, for Yeow this pseudonym “clearly indicated a desire to be marketed as a writer of ‘Malay’ fiction” (Ibid.). (Just how many of Conrad's readers would have recognized these associations is, however, a pertinent but never posed question.)

In this introductory section, Conrad’s variegated Eastern world, bracketed (perhaps a little too conveniently) as “ostensibly Malay”, is placed within both broader global, and more local Malay, contexts. Conrad’s “East,” then, “is not only the product of its strategic location at the confluence of major civilizations and the crossroads of early modern globalization,”“but also the result of vast political, economical, and social changes in the region itself in the last quarter of the nineteenth century” (2).

Taking, in addition, an Orientalist tack, this section also points up an important discursive context. The “East” with which Conrad’s fiction interacts is rightly seen as “a complex scientific, historical, and ethnographical construct erected by Pires, Eredia, Valentijn, Wallace, McNair, and a host of other ‘serious traveller[s]’”, as Conrad called them (2-3). Conrad’s spat with Sir Hugh Clifford, who in the North American Review had claimed that Conrad’s representation of the Malay Archipelago “‘can only be called Malay in Mr. Conrad’s sense’” (22), is accordingly rehearsed here.

The middle three sections are particularly strong, fleshing out the historical and cultural details of Conrad’s represented Malay world. For, as Yeow (demonstrating an overarching interest in the interleaving – what she terms the “dialogism” – of “art and history”) puts it: “Conrad’s East affords us glimpses into history and history affords us glimpses into Conrad’s [fiction]” (8). (This chiasmus also hints at a tendency throughout towards rather gnomic phrasing, of which more later.) The first of these sections takes a long view of European interest in the archipelago, looking back on the early circulation in Europe of myths of the “‘Golden Chersonese,’” after early Greek and Byzantine Ptolemiac geographers had conceived of the region as “a fabulous treasure trove” (42).

This feeds into an exploration of Anglo-Dutch rivalry in the archipelago, a clash of colonial interests to which Conrad gives shape, for example, through an awareness of the historical role of “English country traders” such as Lingard, who, since the early eighteenth century, had engaged in blockade, gun-running, and other generally disruptive, activities. That recurrent phrase in Conrad, “one of us,” is accordingly re-cast here as a sign of cultural, national, or political identification with this entrepreneurial class operative at the vanguard of European commercial penetration.

Interestingly, Yeow notes that Conrad’s fictional locales such as Sambir and Patusan lay “mostly outside British and Dutch jurisdiction, in places where the traditional socio-political structure was” frequently “still extant in its entirety” (49). Correspondingly, the next section focuses on how European interlopers adapted these structures to their own purposes, taking Lord Jim (1899-1900) as an example. Yeow unravels the political valences of “the multi-purpose term” “Tuan,” and the significance of Marlow’s stress that, rather than claim it directly, Jim’s political authority in Patusan is foisted upon him – a fine, but crucial, distinction. The passive character of Jim’s assumption of power corresponds to “native models of kingship,” which European powers depended upon for political leverage: “’He who is made lord’ is surrounded by an aura of sanctity and invincibility called daulat,” which loosely translates as “‘sovereignty’” (79). Jim’s authority in Patusan, then, has strong foundations in a Malay narrative of legitimation on which European narratives legitimating the imperial project would feed.

The implications of Yeow’s analysis are twofold: Jim is placed in a much broader tradition of Western “kings of the Malay world” than familiar scholarly comparisons with, for example, the “Rajah of Sarawak”, tend to allow. And, whereas this Western appropriation of Malay titles is, likewise, familiar from other studies of Conrad, Yeow looks much closer at the ideological implications of this appropriation from, crucially, a Malay perspective. One cavil, however, is that in the process Jim’s own motivations are sometimes overlooked. For instance, Yeow concludes by describing Jim’s death as “unromantic” (91). Surely, as other critics have suggested, Jim’s demise is nothing if not true to the generic tenets of the romance and adventure fiction that hitherto have provided the measure of his actions?

Rounding things off, the third of these middle sections examines Conrad’s attentiveness not just to Western, but also to Chinese and Arab, influences in the archipelago. After all, Conrad’s introduction to this part of the world was largely mediated through Arab, not European, trading networks. Particularly interesting is the discussion of how an Arab élite, represented in An Outcast of the Islands (1896) by Syed Abdulla’s “rhizomatic” networks of correspondence, sustained an empire of influence across Malayo-Muslim communities in a similar way as did the Colonial Office in London elsewhere, with its “volumes of letter, dossiers, files and reports” (123-24). Sticking with Conrad’s early Malay fiction, discussion also focuses upon how members of a Chinese business élite, in particular Straits-born Chinese like Jim-Eng in Almayer’s Folly (1895), were able to cross, and thereby confuse, cultural lines through their claim to “Britishness.” Such represented crossings had an historical precedent, as Yeow, building on existing scholarship, ably demonstrates.

The final chapter, like the book itself, comes under the heading “A Vain and Floating Appearance,” a strange sentence lifted from one of Conrad’s letters to R. B. Cunninghame Graham, written in late January 1898. In it Conrad, sounding rather like Victory’s Schopenhauerian miserabilist, Heyst Senior, ruminates thus: “There is no morality, no knowledge and no hope; there is only the consciousness of ourselves which drives us about a world that whether seen in a convex or a concave mirror is always but a vain and floating appearance” (CL2 30).

Yeow seems to offer this privately-voiced concern with the instability of “appearances” as a reason for Conrad’s attempts in his fiction at scopic fidelity, a task enshrined in Conrad’s oft-cited, coercive address to the reader in the Preface to The Nigger, to, “by the power of the written word … make you see” (x). The word “seems,” however, is used advisedly: too often this chapter’s argument, in an unfortunate echo of Conrad’s complaint to Cunninghame Graham, tends to hove from view. The dust-jacket blurb, apparently unable to decide what the book is about, struggles instead to describe this last chapter. Thus, Conrad’s “belief in the superiority of fiction over [contemporary] optical inventions as a way of stimulating vision compelled him to invoke the prevailing visual paradigms of his times in order to emphasize the truth of his own particular vision.” Such obscurantism is less likely to invite than dissuade potential readers, be they battle-hardened scholars of, or newcomers to, Conrad.

Similarly, the book is studded with too many sentences that, at the risk of over-flogging Forster’s famous grumble about Conrad, are misty in the middle as well as at the edges. For example: “Conrad’s East is a visual construct in the form of a hallucinated mirage, no more or less” (6); or, three lines later: “Nothing is anything in and of itself and both art and history are themselves dialogic and subjective”; these appear intent more on emulating than unpacking the secret casket of Conradian obscurity. In addition, much is made of “the relativity of all facts” (41), in line with an overall interest in the narrative make-up of Western historiographical representation.

There are, however, plenty of established “facts” in Conrad studies that could better have been attended to. This is a problem typified by the opening gambit’s reference to “The Lagoon” – rather than “The Idiots” – as Conrad’s “first short story” (1). Nevertheless, there is much in this study to recommend it; indeed, the middle sections alone make it worth a look. Overall, Conrad’s Eastern Vision is a useful addition to an ever-growing, and ever-fascinating, body of scholarship on Conrad’s Malay world.

© 2009 A. M. Purssell






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.