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

The Agency of the Letter and the Function of the Textual Voice in under Western Eyes

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

The Agency of the Letter and the Function of the Textual Voice in under Western Eyes

Article excerpt

IFIN 1965 Ted E. Boyle could claim that Under Western Eyes hud been neglected by critics (1965: 195), it is no longer the case at the outset of the twenty-first century, and it is perhaps not too bold a claim that it can be regarded as the Conradian novel that most directly addresses the moral, social, political, and ideological issues by which our postmodern world is confronted. Indeed, the novel's contemporary relevance could well be found in the way that it raises major questions related to globalization, the new world order, and liberal humanism.

From the very beginning two major critical approaches prevailed, distinguished by the emphasis they put either on the novel's political dimension or on the psychological study of Razumov's fateful act of betrayal. Of course, these approaches could not really be mutually exclusive, since the betrayal in question was not a of a sentimental but of a political order, even if Haldin's revolutionary action cornered the reluctant Razumov into clarifying his own position, in determining which locus standi he chose to occupy. Consequently, this essay argues that the novel's very undecidability, far from being a critical shortcoming, affords the ideal ground for showing that Conrad's text - one of his most philosophical - means to situate its exploration beyond the conventional themes of confidence versus betrayal or order versus chaos, leading us to reconsider the most cherished values of the Western world like democracy, human rights, universality, in the light of the critique elaborated by Zizek and contemporary progressive thinkers.

Obviously, such a reassessment has already been attempted by critics like JiI Larson who argued that Under Western Eyes "frustrates efforts to locate its moral centre because one of the novel's most insistent themes - that language itself is suspect - denies readers the comfort of a clearly communicated moral meaning" (1997: 41). My discussion will precisely focus on the suspicion of language noted by Larson, and argue that it is not so much language as such that plays a destabilizing role as the way it is used to defeat authority.

The Silent Textual Voice and the Metaleptic Impulse

The narrative method of Under Western Eyes has already been thoroughly studied, mainly by Jakob Lothe (1989), and the aim of this essay is not to improve on that, but merely to use it as a springboard to take a more phenomenologically oriented look at some aspects of the narrative strategy. Indeed, it is a well-established fact that one of the most characteristic features of the narrative set-up lies in all the disruptions to the narrative flow, caused by the incessant shifts in narrative level. In other words, the phenomenological surface of the text (to borrow Barthes's phrase) appears to be full of rents, faults, cracks, gaps, in short all the modes of surreptitiously introducing various forms of discontinuity. These gaps were probably not those Henry James had in mind when, discussing Chance, he spoke of Conrad's propensity to "glory in a gap" (1914: 347), but all the same, they are part and parcel of the emergent, yet silent and fragmented, textual voice. It is not so much a variant of the information gap which operates at the level of the signified as it is a blurring of the origins of the discourse which operates at the level of the énoncé. The main issue, therefore, is that of enunciation and the answer to the question: Who actually speaks? Who is in charge of the production of any particular segment of narrative discourse?

The nature of this textual voice is conditioned by the very objectivity of the text, namely the fact that it is a material object of paper and ink in the shape of letters. In short, the existence of the text is founded on the materiality of the signifier, which does not make the text less problematic, as Razumov remarks when engaged in a conversation with the teacher of languages on the Promenade des Bastions, providing the answer himself:

"How can you tell truth from lies? …

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