Joseph Conrad and the Anxiety of Knowledge

Joseph Conrad and the Anxiety of Knowledge

Joseph Conrad and the Anxiety of Knowledge

Joseph Conrad and the Anxiety of Knowledge

Synopsis

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 that 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 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.

Excerpt

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 elligibility.” 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.” 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.”

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.”

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 . . .

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