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

Marlow, Socrates, and an Ancient Quarrel in Chance

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

Marlow, Socrates, and an Ancient Quarrel in Chance

Article excerpt

ONE OF THE PECULIARITIES of Chance - in addition to its narrative complexity, which so many critical essays on the novel use as their starting point - is its striking reference to the figure of Socrates. He is mentioned in the first chapter not once, but twice, first as a physical likeness to a shipping master, and then again as a temperamental contrast to the man's straightforward rhetorical manner. The shipping master then abruptly disappears from the tale, and the Classical allusion is easily forgotten or dismissed as a stray detail from an awkward chapter written long before the rest of the novel. As Conrad himself said of the chapter, in a letter to Pinker: "it did not belong to that novel - but to some other novel which will never be written now I guess" (CL5 229). Yet we should not be too quick to ignore the chapter's references to Socrates, icon of the Western philosophical tradition. For Socrates' "exasperating" manner of conversation continues to reverberate through the arguably exasperating narrative that follows, and his echo turns out to be found less in the fleeting shipping master, than in the voice that introduced the allusion, the fellow with "the habit of pursuing general ideas in a peculiar manner, between jest and earnest" (23) - that is, in Marlow himself.

This essay will suggest that Conrad sets up Marlow in Chance as a Socrates figure, fostering dialectical difficulty, curiosity and puzzlement in his manner of storytelling. But it will also emphasize a deeper complexity: Conrad importantly modifies his Marlovian Socrates from the familiar philosophical model in order to recast the search for truth on his own artistic terms. For Socrates famously rejected the poets or imaginative writers - their attachment to particularity, their fostering of passion, their defence of the human - but these turn out to be central features of Marlow's narrative activity. Indeed, Conrad's inversion of what is valued in the search for truth, conveyed in the playful guise of the Classical allusion, calls up the ancient quarrel between the philosophers and the poets, a quarrel implicit in Conrad's artistic credo as early as the Preface to The Nigger of the 'Narcissus" (1897) where he

begins by opposing his artistic approach to truth to that of the "thinker" or the "scientist." In Chance, he again takes up this gauntlet. Thus, while the allusions to Socrates signal a search for truth and dialectical activity to that end, the truths offered are found not in abstract ideas, but in the experience of individuals and in the affective sympathies and solidarities between them.

Treating Conrad's fiction as dialectical, and in the service of humanistic ends, is not new. Analyses of narrative method by Jeremy Hawthorn and Jakob Lothe reveal the intricacy and deliberateness of Conrad's art, and Richard Ambrosini's bold and poignant study, Conrad's Fiction as Critical Discourse, show how Conrad's narrative explorations were informed by a consistent integrity of vision. Conrad's classical debt, on the other hand, has been pursued since Eloise Knapp Hay's classic work of Aristotelian political analysis and Lilian Feder's essay on Virgil and "Heart of Darkness," recently further extended by Terence Bowers. Even more recently, Alexia Hannis has analyzed Conrad's debt to Aristotle. But considering how both of these aspects of Conrad's art come together in Chance helps us see the philosophical engagement and depth of his artistic vision. Of course, this is not to deny that the novel also engaged the literary genres and issues of its time, as many helpful studies have variously illuminated,1 but only to suggest that it participates equally in an even more enduring conversation.

The succinct ease of the novel's allusion to Socrates reminds us of what would have been obvious to readers in 1913 when the Classics were a constitutive part of British and European education, including Conrad's. Because of familial and political upheavals and personal illhealth, Conrad was privately tutored as well as formally schooled. …

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