"Signifying Nothing": Conrad's Idiots and the Anxiety of Modernism

By Erdinast-Vulcan, Daphna | Studies in Short Fiction, Spring 1996 | Go to article overview

"Signifying Nothing": Conrad's Idiots and the Anxiety of Modernism


Erdinast-Vulcan, Daphna, Studies in Short Fiction


On or about 25 July 1894, Conrad wrote to Marguerite Poradowska:

Man must drag the ball and chain of his individuality to the very end. It

is the [price] one pays for the infernal and divine privilege of thought;

consequently, it is only the elect who are convicts in this life--the

glorious company of those who understand and who lament, but who

tread the earth amid a multitude of ghosts with maniacal gestures, with

idiotic grimaces. Which do you prefer--idiot or convict? (Collected

Letters 1: 163)

Metaphorically extended, this impossible choice between two modes of being--idiot or convict--is both a theme and a structuring principle that runs across the best of Conrad's mature modernist work, written during the first decade of the century. But it is not really a matter of choice. The author who cannot will himself into idiocy is willy-nilly a convict, imprisoned with in his own skepticism, sentenced to a lifetime of hard labor, anxiously trying to quarry meaning out of the brute matter of existence.(1) In what follows, I would suggest, on the same forensic note, that one may detect the "voice prints" of that Modernist anxiety in one of Conrad's earliest and most problematic short stories, a text that is both a symptom and a diagnosis of the same cultural crisis. The symptomaticity of the story is evident in its ultimate failure; the diagnostic power that turns it into a text of some cultural significance lies in its apparent awareness of that failure.

"The Idiots," written in May 1896, during Conrad's honeymoon in Brittany, has been almost unanimously treated by critics as an embarrassing bit of juvenilia. In his Author's Note, written in the summer of 1919, Conrad himself had, according to Najder, dissociated himself from the story "unobtrusively but quite clearly," dismissing it as "such an obviously derivative piece of work that it is impossible for me to say anything about it here" (Najder 441). The story was subsequently described in Guerard's influential study as "an amateur's desperate search for a `subject' after a dismal experience of `writer's block,'" a verdict that seems to have foreclosed any further critical discussion (95).(2)

The story did, however, draw some attention as a suggestive source of speculation for psycho-biographical or pathographical studies. Hardly a honeymoon piece, it is, no doubt, highly interesting if one takes the liberty of studying the author's psychosexual life. Bernard C. Meyer, for instance, has focused on the figure of the wife, the half-demented murderous woman who was to feature more fully in Conrad's later work as Winnie Verloc (the surrogate mother of another congenital idiot, who, like her early prototype, stabs the father-figure in a fit of fury). It is probably Meyer's rather ruthlessly clinical discussion that Najder has in mind when he observes, a touch acerbically perhaps, that the story "was to provide great fun for all Conrad's future psychoanalytical critics" (195).

I would argue that "The Idiots" is indeed interesting mainly for its symptomatic significance, but the anxiety it articulates, in the most inarticulate manner, is not merely the private mental torments of a troubled individual trying to adjust to the marital state, but a much wider-reaching cultural malaise. I believe that the biographer's justified refusal of facile, sometimes vulgar psychoanalytic or pathobiographical speculation does not necessarily rule our the perception of symptomaticity where psychic, textual, and cultural vectors are significantly related. The following discussion would question the still prevalent distinction between the psychic (private, subjective, internal) and the cultural parameters of human reality, and suggest that any such watertight compartmentalization is ultimately less productive than the rather messier practice of watching these enclosures intersect and blend into each other. …

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