Joseph Conrad and the Anxiety of Knowledge
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142 pages

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Few if any writers in the English language have been cited, praised, chided, or marveled at more routinely than Joseph Conrad for the perplexing evasiveness, contradictoriness, and indeterminacy of their fiction. William Freedman argues that the explanations typically offered for these identifying characteristics of much of Conrad's work are inadequate if not mistaken.

Freedman's claim is that the illusiveness of a coherent interpretation of Conrad's novels and shorter fictions is owed not primarily to the inherent slipperiness or inadequacy of language or the consequence of a willful self-deconstruction. Nor is it a product of the writer's philosophical nihilism or a realized aesthetic of suggestive vagueness. Rather, Freedman argues, the perplexing elusiveness of Conrad's fiction is the consequence of a pervasive ambivalence toward threatening knowledge, a protective reluctance and recoil that are not only inscribed in Conrad's tales and novels, but repeatedly declared, defended, and explained in his letters and essays.

Conrad's narrators and protagonists often set out on an apparent quest for hidden knowledge or are drawn into one. But repelled or intimidated by the looming consequences of their own curiosity and fervor, they protectively obscure what they have barely glimpsed or else retreat to an armory of practiced distractions. The result is a confusingly choreographed dance of approach and withdrawal, fascination and revulsion, revelation and concealment. The riddling contradictions of these fictions are thus in large measure the result of this ambivalence, their evasiveness the mark of intimidation's triumph over fascination.

The idea of dangerous and forbidden knowledge is at least as old as Genesis, and Freedman provides a background for Conrad's recoil from full exposure in the rich admonitory history of such knowledge in theology, myth, philosophy, and literature. He traces Conrad's impassioned, at times pleading case for protective avoidance in the writer's letters, essays, and prefaces, and he elucidates its enactment and its connection to Conrad's signature evasiveness in a number of short stories and novels, with special attention to The Secret Agent, Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, Under Western Eyes, and The Rescue.



Publié par
Date de parution 07 avril 2014
Nombre de lectures 0
EAN13 9781611173079
Langue English

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The University of South Carolina Press
2014 University of South Carolina
Published by the University of South Carolina Press
Columbia, South Carolina 29208
23 22 21 20 19 18 17 16 15 14 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Freedman, William, 1938-
Joseph Conrad and the anxiety of knowledge / William Freedman.
pages cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-1-61117-306-2 (hardbound : alk. paper)-ISBN 978-1-61117-307-9 (ebook)
1. Conrad, Joseph, 1857-1924-Criticism and interpretation. 1. Title.
PR6005.04Z7235 2014
823 .912-dc23 2013022870
Frontispiece: Cartoon by Charles Barsotti, from the New Yorker, April 24, 2006. Copyright Charles
Barsotti. The New Yorker Collection, The Cartoon Bank,
To my dearly loved wife, daughter, and son
To the memory of my mother, my father, and my stepfather
And to all those, far too many, whose truth it would have been better not to know
With the truth man cannot live. To be able to live one needs illusions.
Will Therapy and Truth and Reality
What makes mankind tragic is not that they are the victims of nature, it is that they are conscious of it.
Letter to Cunninghame Graham, January 31, 1898
Prologue: Ambivalent Fabulist, Indeterminate Fables
1 Forbidden Knowledge and the Saving Illusion
2 The Lie of Fiction: Heart of Darkness
3 The Soft Spot: Lord Jim
4 A More Dangerous Revolution: Under Western Eyes
5 Drowning in the Romance of the Shallows: The Rescue
Appendix: Woman and Truth, the History of an Association
Works Cited
All references to Conrad s novels, short stories, and essays are to the Uniform Edition of The Works of Joseph Conrad (1923). The following abbreviations are used: CL: The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad HD: Heart of Darkness LE: Last Essays LJ: Lord Jim NLL: Notes on Life and Letters NN: The Nigger of the Narcissus PR: A Personal Record R: The Rescue UWE: Under Western Eyes
Ambivalent Fabulist, Indeterminate Fables
The insistent haziness and evasiveness of many of Conrad s novels and shorter tales has provoked readers at least as far back as E. M. Forster and H. L. Mencken and generated much comment and complaint. For Mencken there flows through all Conrad s stories a kind of tempered melancholy, a sense of seeking and not finding. Quoting Wilson Follett on Conrad s fascination with the profound meaninglessness of life, Mencken maintains that the author grounds his work upon this sense of cosmic implacability, this confession of unintelligibility. Mencken was perhaps the first to note what has lately become a sophisticated commonplace: that the exact point of the story of Kurtz in Heart of Darkness is that it is pointless. 1 Less contentedly Forster complained that the secret casket of [Conrad s] genius contains a vapor rather than a jewel. What is so elusive about [him], remarks Forster, . . . is that he is always promising to make some general philosophical statement about the universe and then refraining in a gruff disclaimer. . . . There is a central obscurity in Conrad: something noble, heroic, and inspiring but obscure! Obscure! Misty in the middle as well as at the edges. 2
More recent criticism has kept to this path with varying degrees of approval or dismay. The narrative voice in The Secret Agent confesses that true wisdom . . . is not certain of anything in this world of contradictions (84), and many of Conrad s novels are read, with increasing frequency, as self-contradictory, evasive by habit, compulsion, or design, or otherwise resistant to coherent understanding or interpretation. Edward Said remarks that the subject of Conrad s narratives is illusory, or shadowy, or dark and that what the tale usually reveals is the exact contours of this obscurity. 3
In what follows I argue that many of Conrad s novels and shorter tales are the elusive and contradictory entities they are not principally for the reasons usually proffered but as an expression of destabilizing ambivalence about the revelation and content of the knowledge they ostensibly seek or glancingly recover. Where the threat of knowledge is especially chilling, the balance tips, weighted to one side by the conviction that, as Jocasta warned, there is much it is better not to know. The reasons typically offered to explain the evasive obscurity or indeterminacy of Conrad s narratives-the inherent inadequacy of language, the multiplicity or elusiveness of truth, a philosophical skepticism or nihilism that negates it, or commitment to an aesthetic of romantic vagueness, among others-are at best incomplete. They must be complemented, I believe, by a reading that recognizes textual inconsistencies as reflective of attitudinal ambivalence, and obfuscation and evasion as marks of a calculated refusal of dangerous knowledge or a defensive recoil from it.
As Andrew Michael Roberts observes, There is general agreement . . . that Conrad s fiction emphasizes the problematic nature of questions of what we can know, how we can know it and what degree of certainty is possible. These questions are raised in particular in terms of the relationship of language to truth and reality and in this form locate Conrad s work within literary modernism 4 My point in this study is that while these questions may often be raised in these fictions in terms of that relationship, they are as often raised by these texts in terms that make of Conrad s modernism in no small measure a defense against powerful forces working beneath the safer epistemological surface and finally destabilizing it. A principal source of the evasions and obfuscations in Conrad s works, as we will see, are threatened assaults on the self-possession-the narrator s, the protagonist s, finally the writer s-on which one s sense of honor, integrity, and personal worth depend. H. M. Daleski rightly emphasizes the determinate importance of Conrad s famous admission that I have a positive horror of losing even for one moving moment that full possession of myself which is the first condition of good service. And I have carried my notion of good service from my earlier into my later existence ( PR xvii), which is to say, from his early life as a merchant seaman to his later life as a writer, the demands of which he often analogized to those required by the successful seaman. For Daleski the four principal threats to the loss of self depicted in the novels are the surrender of self in passion, the loss of one s head in a situation which demands physical self-possession, the loss of self that is a concomitant of spiritual disintegration, and suicide, the deliberate destruction of self. 5 But these threats are not confined to or safely contained within the narratives. Rather they endanger the writer and his fictions no less than the protagonists they describe, and they are responsible for many of the imposed obscurities and defensive evasions that pervade the writing.
A FEW WORDS about the claims and organization of this study. The first chapter, on dangerous or forbidden knowledge, is divided into two parts. The first section lays the ideational foundation for what follows by situating the key concept- dangerous and forbidden knowledge-in the history of ideas. The point is that Conrad s subscription to this notion is by no means idiosyncratic. The concept occupies a substantial cross-cultural space in the history of human thought, broad and enduring enough to suggest a deeply rooted, perhaps archetypal foundation not unrelated, perhaps, to the power of its rendering in these narratives. The discussion is brief because the notion is, I believe, familiar to us all, in need therefore of only limited elaboration and emphasis. The considerably longer second part is a study of Conrad s perplexed relationship with truth and knowledge, particularly his dedication to the saving illusion, his conviction, iterated frequently and in a variety of forms in his letters, essays, tales, and novels, that because many truths are too dark altogether, there is much it is better not to know.
The four chapters that follow are intensive text-based studies of four of Conrad s novels: Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, Under Western Eyes, and The Rescue . The first three adhere closely to the study s overarching claim that the obscurities of these narratives and the consequent difficulties of interpretation are owed largely to a wrenching ambivalence toward confrontation with threatening knowledge marked, typically, by a recoil from it. All three novels, in addition to much else that Conrad wrote, are dramatized explorations of the question that troubled him throughout his writing career: whether it is wisdom or folly to pursue knowledge that threatens not only our peace of mind but also our will and capacity to function honorably in the time we are allotted on this planet. The answer is implicit in the performance. In all three novels, though the impetus to obfuscation and retreat varies, there is more obscurity, finally, than revelation.
The treatments of this subject, tied to the inevitable differences between the novels, are not identical. In the Marlow tales, Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim, where the veilings and evasions that obscure meaning are owed to the narrator s glaring, often acknowledged reluctance to discover what he ostensibly so vigorously pursues, attention will be principally on the repeated occlusions and evasions where impending knowledge looms most thre

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