The Conradian: Review

By Stephen Ross, University of Victoria, Victoria B.C., Canada

Outposts of Progress: Joseph Conrad, Modernism and Post-colonialism (eds. Gail Fincham, Jeremy Hawthorn, and Jakob Lothe). Cape Town: UCT Press, 2015. Pb. £22.50

Growing out of a 2011 conference on Conrad held in Cape Town, South Africa, this volume manages to go well beyond the usual confines of conference proceeding-based publications. The insights offered up here are precise and compelling, helping to limn Conrad’s legacy as a writer of both modernist and post-colonial engagement. At their heart, many of these papers concern how Conrad’s particular modernism may be understood as itself an encounter with what was still, during his lifetime, a colonial world. They do this by engaging his modernist practice as itself a form of challenge to the Manichean parameters of the imperialist world-view.

It is especially heartening in this respect to note that though Chinua Achebe’s facile contribution to Conrad criticism is inevitably invoked, it is not given undue space, instead receiving a respectful but rightfully diminished handling. Likewise, these essays constitute a major contribution to Conrad scholarship in their recognition that Conrad’s situation, complex as it was, extends beyond imperialism-as-racism to include imperialism-as-global-capitalism. The formal experiments traced in papers by Kai Wiegandt, Jeremy Hawthorn, Konstantin Sofianos, Douglas Kerr, and Jakob Lothe align well with the complicated politics of Conrad’s work. Each of these critics shows how Conrad’s modernism is of a piece with his ambivalent – often contradictory – view of imperialism, leavened as it inevitably was with the need to sell books and stories, and not to offend potential audiences.

Problems of anachronism and belatedness govern much of what is to be found here. The volume proceeds in part from the question, “What might it mean to propose that Conrad ‘writes forward’ to post-colonial fiction?” (xxiii). Each of the papers engages with this problem as an inevitability of reading Conrad at the far end of a century of decolonization and liberation movements. In a certain sense, they all contend, it is impossible to read Conrad otherwise than anachronistically, examining his work for evidence that he thought as deeply about problems of race and empire as the century after his death has done. These issues are worked out most explicitly in David Medalie’s chapter comparing “Heart of Darkness” to J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace. Granting that every age has its own modernity, and that one of the characteristics of modernity is a sense of belatedness (though without referring to Gregory Jusdanis’s seminal work in this vein), Medalie argues that the very situation at the end of a century marks Conrad and Coetzee with a sense of having arrived too late to see the fruits of earlier promises that have, nevertheless, been left unrealized.

By contrast, Andrew Glazzard’s chapter attempts to restore some of the historical context for Conrad’s writing, arguing that “Heart of Darkness” falls on a continuum of attitudes in published works around the turn of the twentieth century, neither flirting with the racist extreme nor adopting a simplistic open critique of empire. Such readings are informative, but one doubts they will do much to move the anachronists who insist upon reading Conrad’s 100-year-old texts as though they had been written last week.

Russell West-Pavlov’s chapter on “Heart of Darkness”’s cultural afterlives would suggest that such readers are in the minority, though. Compiling an impressive array of adaptations, borrowings, writings-back, and confrontations with “Heart of Darkness” across a range of cultural production, West-Pavlov illustrates with abundant documentary evidence the power of Conrad’s key work to continue speaking to readers and writers even now – and well outside the community of Conrad scholars.

Perhaps my favourite element of this volume comes from the chapters that raise incipient global capitalism as a key element in Conrad’s engagement with imperialism. As Lenin famously remarked, imperialism is “the highest stage of capitalism,” a fact that has far too often been lost on critics of Conrad’s work. In focusing on race and exploration, too many readers have lost sight of the sophisticated handling of finance, economics, and markets in his work. Indeed, some have gone so far as to suggest that this awareness is in fact the underlying thrust of his work – the thing that keeps it relevant even after the great age of nation-state imperialism has passed. Konstantin Sofianos and Robert Hampson provide the relevant work in the present volume, situating Conrad’s prescient post-colonialism in the context of global capital in addition to its racial and national logics.

The volume’s second half deals more directly with genre and writing in Conrad, exposing the extent to which Conrad’s experiments with narrative technique and genre themselves constitute complicated political engagements. Josianne Paccaud-Huguet’s chapter deals with Conrad’s modernist revision of epic in a cynical vein in “Youth.” Daphna Erdinast-Vulcan sheds interesting new light on Bronislaw Malinowski’s use of Conrad both as he conducted his anthropological observations and his publications. Proving that Conrad’s work had a profound impact upon one of the most important ethnographers of the post-colonial century, Erdinast-Vulcan links modernist narrative technique with shifting understandings of race, empire, and cultures. It’s a sobering reminder that the twentieth century is largely Conradian, whether we wish to recognize that fact or not.

Douglas Kerr and Jürgen Kramer return to well-trodden areas of Conrad studies to shed new light on old questions. Kerr illustrates the forceful truth of Conrad’s own claim that fidelity is at the heart of his body of work. Arguing that fidelity works as an aesthetic principle governing A Personal Record, and that Conrad thus finds formal means of expressing his apex concept, Kerr opens Conrad’s life-writing up to serious consideration as literary work. It is one thing to claim that fidelity is the enduring theme and story element of most of Conrad’s major works, and quite another to claim that it permeates even the form of his ostensibly personal life-writing. Such a claim drives a more expansive understanding of Conrad’s devotion to fidelity, and encourages us to consider his writing in toto as an ethical project of the highest order. Kramer, likewise, returns us to the scene of many previous comparisons by putting Conrad alongside Stevenson – but again, with a difference. Allowing Stevenson and Conrad to reinforce each other, Kramer argues that both authors challenge the prevailing hegemonies of imperialism through their works, often by using irony to undercut routine pieties. Of course, irony can be problematic as a vehicle for critique, and Kramer cannily takes care to acknowledge the potential for Conrad’s use of irony to reinforce the very attitudes he challenges.

The tension between an unnamed third-person narrator in “An Outpost of Progress” versus the narrator/Marlow frame of Heart of Darkness provides the material for Jakob Lothe’s scintillating close reading of the politics of irony in the two texts. Attending carefully to the many ways in which the title of “An Outpost” is played in variation by the narrator throughout the story, Lothe illustrates how the narrator manipulates readers into particular ideological positions. The key term here is progress, of course, and Lothe illustrates the extent to which Conrad carefully shifts its significations to proliferate irony formally as well as thematically. Such reading is, unfortunately, less and less common, but Lothe shows why it remains vital to a true appreciation of Conrad’s artistry as well as his politics.

Finally, Gail Fincham opens out the scope of the volume with its closing piece, comparing the Marlow narratives with Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s A Grain of Wheat. Much as Susan Stanford Friedman has claimed that Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North writes back to “Heart of Darkness,” so Fincham argues that comparison of Conrad to Ngugi allows history to re-enter the conversation. For both, history is the unmarked background to which they can only gesture as they outline the personal and intimate narratives for which they are so well known. Such historical framing shapes not only the narratives, but their readers as well, affording early twenty-first-century readers the opportunity to reflect upon how history continues to shape us and our reading practices. Naturally, our understanding of Conrad’s historical moment is both increasingly distanced from the reality in which he lived (and as he lived it – which may be very different) and more stable than our understanding of our own moment can be. Observing how history shaped Conrad and his readers, and Ngugi and his readers provides keys to thinking about how it also shapes us as readers of them both. Our historical moment includes Ngugi’s and Conrad’s too; understanding how history has framed and determined previous narrative encounters promises illumination for the future as well.

The upshot, in the words of the editors, is that this volume indeed does “demonstrate the significance and relevance of Conrad’s work in the twenty-first century” (xxxv). The collection coheres brilliantly, and provides many variable, but complementary, points of entry into thinking about Conrad in relation to post-colonialism, empire, and global capitalism. Certainly, it lays the ghost of Achebe once and for all.

© 2015 Stephen Ross






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