Academic journal article The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.)

"The Profound Perplexity of the Living": Narrating the Bewildered Self in the Colonial World of Victory

Academic journal article The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.)

"The Profound Perplexity of the Living": Narrating the Bewildered Self in the Colonial World of Victory

Article excerpt

FAMOUSLY, WALTER BENJAMIN distinguished the story from the novel, in terms of the authority of the told versus the perplexity of the written: "The storyteller takes what he tells from experience his own or that reported by others. And he in turn makes it the experience of those who are listening to his tale." But, Benjamin goes on, the "birthplace of the novel is the solitary individual, who is no longer able to express himself by giving examples of his most important concerns, is himself uncounseled, and cannot counsel others." Rather the novel can only give "evidence of the profound perplexity of the living" (1969: 87). While the spoken story possesses authentic counsel and authority, Benjamin claims the novel can speak only of our perplexity. Although Conrad's fictions repeatedly attempt to replicate the storyteller's situation and foreground the told nature of the narration, in each case the effect is somehow to inauthenticate what is being narrated or at least destabilize the narrator's authority. The Conradian novel insists, in a myriad of ways, that knowledge is local and provisional, and, of necessity, partial. Moreover, as things turn out in Victory, the counsel - Heyst senior's and the professed wisdom of Western imperialism - turns to ashes.

According to his many visitors over the years, Conrad was a spellbinding storyteller. His spoken voice, although heavily accented, seemed to create an experience for listeners that held and moved them. Edward Said has noticed that in his fiction as well: "Conrad never lets us forget that written narrative transcribes a told narrative" (1983: 96), and that "the dramatic protocol of much of Conrad's fiction is the swapped yarn, the historical report, the mutually exchanged legend, the musing recollection," involving a speaker and a hearer and often "a specific enabling occasion" (1983: 94). Although this storytelling situation is rehearsed in most of Conrad's fictions, as Said and others have noted, the written texts chronicle an anxiety about authority, especially the authority of the European self in the colonial world. The usual intent of his fictions, in fact, is to foreground the failures of the Victorian fathers, the smash-up of their dreams of progress, and the inadequacy of various patriarchal inheritances, more the stuff of the inconclusive novel than of the gripping story that provides counsel. Victory, in particular, narrates the bankruptcy of European expansionism and the consequent perplexity of the bewildered self unsupported by the authority of imperial discourses or of any sovereign power that might justify and centre the European self. It chronicles the failure of Western patriarchal inheritances of both public policy and personal philosophy - empire and Heyst senior's philosophy of pessimistic, paralyzing withdrawal - and does so in a particularly peculiar narrative manner, as though the narrative itself were a site of disorder.

In no other Conradian fiction is the tension between the solitary novelist and the authoritative storyteller so pronounced. We are made to sense through the unruly, disruptive narration the consternation of an author who understood his task to be to "make you see" (The Nigger of the "Narcissus" x) and yet was aware of himself as the uncounselled novelist writing out of his own darkness with only uncertainty and bewilderment to report. While many studies have examined the narrative irregularities at work in Conrad's fiction written before 1910, few have thought in these terms about Victory, a popular work at the time of its publication but later disparaged and dismissed by many as melodramatic, second-rate Conrad. Others have noticed Victory's narrative instability and have either denounced it as careless craftsmanship or have written to justify its use and explain its effects artistically and thematically. I also find the discontinuous narrative to be purposeful, in the main, rather than incompetent, but would argue, from the vantage point of the early twenty-first century, for its rather different thematic effects. …

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