Academic journal article Conradiana

Joseph Conrad and the Arts of Letters

Academic journal article Conradiana

Joseph Conrad and the Arts of Letters

Article excerpt

It has become a critical commonplace to note that the effort to sharply distinguish visual from verbal art undergirds a good deal of the rigid disciplinarity often associated with modernism. Echoing W. J. T. Mitchell's well-known critique of Gotthold Lessing's privileging of poetry over painting and sculpture, Craig Owens stresses that the move to delineate poetry and

discursive arts along "a dynamic axis of temporal succession, and painting and sculpture along a static axis of spatial simultaneity" ultimately relies on forging an "absolute difference between visual and verbal art."(1) Maintaining such an absolute difference aims, perniciously, to deny the visual arts "access to discourse" (Owens, 45). In such a view the visual arts, because they proceed largely without words, are taken to remain utterly removed from the exigencies of being in language, cordoned off in a silent, preserved or timeless space. Whether the "silence" of the visual arts is prized for its perceived yield of some unmediated essence or degraded for marking a seeming retreat from history, it often bespeaks the urge to confine. For Owens, denying the "language" of the visual arts not only seeks to authorize the notion that all of the arts remain "rigorously isolable and definable," but aims as well to "confine the artist within the sharply delineated boundaries of a single aesthetic discipline" (Owens, 44-45). For Mitchell, confining women and securing traditional, fixed gender categories informs the move to establish rigid disciplinary borders. As he notes, in Laocoon Lessing casts painting, like "woman," as an "ideally silent, beautiful creature[s] designed for the gratification of the eye," while poetry utters the inherent, "sublime eloquence" of men.(2)

For many, however, the work of Joseph Conrad constitutes a notable departure from these modernist moves. Conrad's celebrated preface to The Nigger of the "Narcissus" (1897), for instance, reflects an early and profound consideration of the "visual" that contests the modernist impulse to rigidly discipline literary and visual art: "My task which I am trying to achieve," Conrad writes, "is by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel, --it is, before all, to make you see! That--and no more: and it is everything."(3) Critics suggest that even if Conrad's desire to generate some insight within readers requires keeping something in sight that cannot be glimpsed in the same way within the visual arts, the author's project remains bound up with invoking the resources of the visual arts--those forms in which "seeing" appears to be even more of an everything. And yet if the preface to his third published novel has been used to underscore Conrad's persistent appeal to the visual arts, it has al so been deployed by critics to restrict the range of that appeal. Its use, for instance, to sustain a view that confines Conrad solely to soliciting the resources of painting ignores the fact that even in this early statement the author looked to a wider field of visual arts when prescribing literary aims: "The artistic aim when expressing itself in written words...must strenuously aspire to the plasticity of sculpture [and] to the colour of painting..."(4)

What is more, the preface has been made to guide readings of later fiction like The Arrow of Gold (1919) and The Rover (1923), novels that invoke a cinematic medium, unexamined in this statement that predates their publication by a quarter of a century. Just as problematic, even those critics who do acknowledge that for Conrad seeing is not confined to one art, that his preface and writings gesture toward the resources of many visual arts, ultimately allow his works to invoke the visual arts discretely: in a single literary work only one visual medium can be called on at a time. They ignore the fact that a novel like The Rover, in which Conrad foregrounds the relation between literature and sculpture, might at the same time posit--even depend upon--assumptions regarding sculpture's relation to other arts like painting, photography, and cinema. …

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