Nic Panagopoulos, the Fiction of Joseph Conrad: The Influence of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche
Martin, William Alejandro, Conradiana
Anglo American Studies. Vol. 12. London: Peter Lang, 1998.
This agreeable volume is fascinating, if for no other reason than because, as of late, so few monographs serving the authors of modernism have been forthcoming. It is enjoyable to engage a work, moreover, that attempts to unify authors as intellectually diverse as Joseph Conrad, Friedrich Nietzsche and Arthur Schopenhauer, all of whom had a substantial impact on the aestheticism, philosophies, and techniques utilized by many moderns including D. H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf and T. S. Eliot. Structurally, Panagopoulos's monograph is split up into five sections that, respectively, represent four of Conrad's major novels (Lord Jim, The Secret Agent, Under Western Eyes and Victory), as well as his novella Heart of Darkness.
The chapters are well written and bring an insight to Conrad's work that will indisputably engage many, although the issue of influence per se is a misnomer, and the question of whether or not the ideas found herein are from the work of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, or the product of internal philosophies built into the British literary movements of the nineteenth century becomes progressively spurious as the volume evolves. Pseudo-philosophical summaries of the nineteenth century's arrogance in regard to scientific empiricism, the romantic belief in the salvation of art, and the illusionary ethos celebrated by the Pre-Raphaelites, were all well established in the works of British Romanticism (especially those of Coleridge and Shelley), Victorianism (Dickens and G. Eliot) and the Fin-de-Siecle (Rossetti, Morris, Huysman), were undeniably much dearer to Conrad's heart than the work of two philosophers he neither especially respected nor celebrated. Nevertheless, Panagopoulos's use of both philosopher's ideas is a fresh change from the numerous (and seemingly never ending) Post-Marxist critiques that have continued to dominate so many of our contemporary critiques of Conrad's work.
In exercising a new avenue for investigation, this author demonstrates heuristically how the novelist's work is as fiercely relevant today as a century ago when most of his works were composed. Panagopoulos's interpretation of Conrad's novels is, for the most part, reasoned, and he is prudent to follow many of the insights previously delineated by such masterful critics as Cedric Watts and J. Hillis Miller. His examination of Under Western Eyes and Victory, moreover, transports these works back into our contemporary canonical fore, and forces the careful reader of Conrad to reconsider the specious, albeit rampant, comprehension of him as a cold, cynical logician. Indeed, Panagopoulos vividly illustrates, in his fascinating chapter on Victory, for example, that it is our contemporary collective failure that is responsible for the decline of Conrad scholarship rather than the actual relevance of the texts themselves.
That notwithstanding, this work also suffers, unfortunately, from numerous conceptual difficulties, most of which are emblematically represented in the misnomer contained in the work's title. To discover only on the fourth page of the introduction that there "is little historical evidence regarding Conrad's known reading of Schopenhauer," and that, in fact, this work will not (in any capacity) engage the issue of "influence," is, at the very least, exasperating (17). To be fair, Panagopoulos does soon, thereafter, concede that his project only attempts to illuminate how "knowledge of Schopenhauer's and Nietzsche's philosophical ideas can illuminate the central concerns of Conrad's fiction," but one might be turned off to discover that there is such a massive gap between the book's title and its thesis (18).
Locating influences in any test is always a perilous exercise, especially when dealing with an author as private, and esoteric, as Conrad. This manuscript, furthermore, is (occasionally) crippled by its lack of clarification from philosophical scholars of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer; most pointedly, because his interpretation of both philosophers' ideas grows increasingly problematic as the volume progresses. …