The Conradian: Review

By Ellie Stedall, Cambridge University

Hearts of Darkness: Melville, Conrad and Narratives of Oppression, edited by Pawel Jedrzejko, Milton M. Reigelman, and Zuzanna Szatanik. 262 pp. Zabrze: MStudio, 2010. $30

Secret Sharers: Melville, Conrad and Narratives of the Real, edited by Pawel Jedrzejko, Milton M. Reigelman, and Zuzanna Szatanik. 395 pp. Zabrze: MStudio, 2011. $30

These two volumes derive from a joint Herman Melville and Joseph Conrad conference held in Szczecin in 2007. In the introduction to the first volume the editors describe that meeting as an “international gam,” and the essays that arise from it as an attempt “to fill a gap on the comparativist chart” (21). Notwithstanding studies by James Guetti and Leon Seltzer, little academic work has dealt with both authors. Perhaps it is not surprising that this courageous attempt to fill the comparativist gap should rely heavily on maritime metaphors, for if Conrad and Melville share anything, it is surely the sea.

Indeed, the conference brochure, quoted in the Preface to the first volume, proclaims: “Melville and Conrad, although as different as an oaken full-rigger and a steel-clad steamer, both float on – or dive into – a sea of profound issues that have always unsettled thinking minds” (xvii). By characterizing these authors as ships the editors imply the possibility of another “gam,” a mid-ocean exchange of news and even letters between these two “transatlantic and transgenerational counterparts” (21).

But even so, this unifying metaphor of ships betrays the unlikeliness of the meeting – why after all would a steel-clad steamer speak an oaken full-rigger? Perhaps it is pertinent too to recall how few gams occur in the writing of either author. The most famous occurs in Chapter 71 of Moby-Dick; it is an inauspicious meeting between the Pequod and the Jeroboam in which an offered letter falls into the wrong hands and is thrust back to the giver. The incident proves that it is not always easy to hold two ships steady, or to transfer anything successfully between them, and these two volumes share that difficulty: the moments in which Conrad and Melville are brought together for direct comparison, in which “correspondences” (HD 203) are sought between them, are their most precarious.

The editors identify certain central affinities between the two authors, which provide the organizing structure for the collection of essays that follow. “What became clear”, they write in the Introduction to the first volume, “was that Herman Melville and Joseph Conrad Korzeniowski shared the intuition that the essential liquidity of the existential human condition necessitates “a universal squeeze of the hand” (21–22).

They are alluding, of course, to the idea “beautifully conceptualized by Melville in Chapter 94 of Moby-Dick” (HD 22). The introduction to the second volume recurs to the seemingly irresistible concept of the Secret Sharer to affirm that: “what Melville and Conrad (secretly) share is precisely the premonition that even in the face of the impossibility of “certain knowledge,” one is never absolved of making sense of his or her own reality” (SS 25–26). Melville and Conrad are characterized as men who recognized and experienced isolation and anguish, and who, alert to persecution in the world, promoted the necessity of kindness in their texts.

What is particularly interesting about this representation is its relationship to Conrad’s famous dismissal of Melville, which is quoted at the very beginning of the Introduction of the first volume: “Years ago I looked into Typee and Omoo, but as I didn’t find there what I am looking for when I open a book I did go no further. Lately I had in my hand Moby Dick. It struck me as a rather strained rhapsody with whaling for a subject and not a single sincere line in the 3 vols of it” (HD 21).

These words would seem to be a disheartening precursor to the comparativist project, and yet their implications are largely ignored, surfacing only in Chapter 14 of the second volume, when they are requoted by Wendy Stallard Flory who writes: “Herman Melville’s fiction was not important to Joseph Conrad” (SS 261). But for the most part this piece of unkindness – is it even persecution? – on the part of Conrad is not allowed to trouble the premise of friendship. (It is interesting however that both volumes are named after Conrad stories, as if the parity of academic attention has suffered from Conrad’s condescension.)

But can the universal squeeze of the hand – which, incidentally, is conceptualised in a chapter which one can hardly imagine Conrad calling beautiful – incorporate the hand in which Melville’s masterwork lay open and unappreciated. And should that matter? Does comparativism have to be companionable; should we look for friends in the authors we admire; must their work make the world less hostile?

What is also so striking about this quotation in the context of the present volumes is the various descriptions if offers of reading. To look into a book, to have it open in one’s hand, and to scrutinize it thoroughly enough to be able to attest for every line are very different activities. It is as if Conrad wishes to be able to authoritatively dismiss his newly revived rival while at the same time being unwilling to admit that he has actually read him. His phrasing raises question about precisely how closely one has to look at a text to be able to adjudicate upon it, and this seems particularly pertinent to a project that often relies upon a kind of critical leniency, amounting almost to inattention, in order to generate its correspondences.

It is interesting in this regard to note how many of the essays contained in these volumes address both authors – only half of the thirty-four chapters. The first four chapters are solely on Moby-Dick; the fifth on Conrad; and it is only in the sixth that the comparisons get underway with “In the Dark Narcissism of Se(a)cret Sh(e)aring/Sh(e)aring Se(a)cret: Conrad, Melville and the Eruption of the Other.”

A brief survey of the search for affinities suggests how difficult it is to accommodate the two authors without relying upon generalisms: “In Melville’s and Conrad’s works, transgressions of boundaries are highlighted in crucial scenes” (HD 122); “Pierre Glendinning and Axel Heyst contend with the same essential problems that Shakespeare’s prince fails to solve” (HD 180); “[Kurtz and Ahab] suffer trauma, fail to deal with it effectively, and bring on their own tragedies” (HD 209). Less ambitiously, other contributors refer to “surprising similarities” (HD 203), “a point of connection between the two writers” (SS 204) and “a telling coincidence that further binds the two texts” (SS 336).

In the attempt to hold these resisting ships together certain texts inevitably invite more attention than others. Moby-Dick and "Heart of Darkness" appear to be the unquestioned masterpieces, and as such are subject to considerable comparison. More unusual pairings are welcome, and include Pierre and Victory, Omoo and The Mirror of the Sea, and The Nigger of the “Narcissus” and Moby-Dick. Although in the latter case the claim that the two texts represent “a precise mathematical inversion” (SS 179) of each other might perhaps be seen as correspondence for correspondence’s sake.

It is hard not to feel that the essays making the least concession to the comparativist chart offer the most dedicated attention to the text in hand. Rodrigo Andrés’s and Ralph James Savarese’s essays, both on Billy Budd, are examples of this. There are, of course, serious and sensitive attempts to consider Conrad and Melville together: John Bryant’s, Dennis Berthold’s, and Laurence Davies’s essays stand out among these.

Interestingly, all three emphasize “protean” (HD 228) qualities that would seem to frustrate the possibility of a gam, describing Conrad and Melville as rovers, revisers, cosmopolites – changeful, elusive, and unsteady. In what is one of the last essays Davies alludes to Conrad’s dislike of Melville: “A disciple of the French masters and their code of aesthetic purity, Conrad did not love Melville, but as critics and scholars we are free, if we want, to love them both” (HD 228n.). For all the excellent individual essays within these volumes, the contributors do not take advantage of that critical liberty. Instead, they incline towards a a form of comparison that insists on kindnesses that were never there.

© 2012 Ellie Stedall






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