Edward Said's Reading of Joseph Conrad
Edward Said was not only an innovator of postcolonial theory, but a keen Conradian as well. Culture.pl presents an academic paper by Jacek Gutorow on Said's relationship with the work of this most European of writers: Joseph Conrad.
The Paradoxes of the European Narrative: Edward Said's Reading of Conrad
Jacek Gutorow, Opole University
Why Said? Here and now, in the course of a conference on Joseph Conrad, with all the Conrad experts around? And I should stress that the following analyses concern Conrad as well as Said, the latter being not only a point of departure but also one of the text's main and its point of arrival. Why Said, then? Obviously enough, readers would say, because of his numerous interpretations of Conrad's works: he started his career with the 1966 publication of his doctoral dissertation Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography, and he continued to write about the Polish novelist in his subsequent books; in his Reflections on Exile he remarks that writing about Conrad is his cantus firmus, 'a steady ground bass to much that I have experienced' (555).
But another reason for speaking about Said here and now, among respected Conradians, is that Said's biography – and, as some of you know, he died exactly one year ago, today we have the first anniversary of his death – resembles the tormented biography of Józef Konrad Korzeniowski/Conrad. Both writers left their homelands, both became writers in exile, and both devoted their lives to explaining – to themselves and to their readers – what it means to be uprooted, detached from one's past, witnessing the waning of one's identity. Both decided to write in English and quickly learned that one's sense of identity has much to do with language (for example, when you write about your childhood in a foreign language). Last but not least, both recognised and described links between culture and violence, language and power, narrative and domination.
It is no surprise, then, that Said was faithful to 'his' Conrad, and that I have just used the pronoun 'his' as a sign of parallels between the two. It would be a gross exaggeration to claim that Said's preoccupation with Conrad had to do solely with his own biography; yet it seems obvious to me that while commenting upon the novelist, the critic also commented upon himself. This is one of the paradoxes worth pointing to: all the more because one of the dominant parallels between the two writers was that of their attitude to Europe as a certain cultural construct, a narrative, perhaps a sensibility.
I think Conrad and Said believed in Europe and something that might be called the European idea, but they also kept on stressing that the idea was paradoxical, and that it informs and at the same time contradicts itself. This sensitivity to the paradoxical nature of the European narrative was, I suppose, strictly autobiographical and related to their own experiences of 'life-in-exile'. It had to do with their threatened identities, with all the moments when your self is questioned and suspended – they found the same terrifying sentiments in the 20th-century Europe, the Europe that lost its links with its past and had its identity put into question.
I think it should be added that the negative moment had its positive aspects (after all, this is the nature of paradox – every moment is bound to its opposite): it made it possible for both Conrad and Said to reformulate and redefine the status and meaning of Europe. The latter should not be disregarded: it adds a genuine happy ending to both biographies.
As I must be brief here today, all I can do is merely point to certain strategies employed by Said in his interpretations of Conrad's texts. What we have in Said's subsequent analyses of the novelist is a curious staging of Conrad, and, while it is outside the framework of these remarks today, I would willingly devote myself to examine all the theatrical devices and metaphors present in Said.
For the time being, let it suffice to say that I distinguish in Said three stages, three movements, three acts of interpretation. The three critical scenes are related and complementary but they do not lead to any finale, or perhaps I should say they lead to something the American poet Wallace Stevens phrased as 'the denouement has to be postponed' (from the poem The Auroras of Autumn). We should speak here of essays rather than critical analyses: Conrad and Said do not arrive at any ultimate conclusions; rather, they constantly trouble and open spaces of discussion, and stress the value of discussion, not of its ends.
Joseph Conrad and the fiction of autobiography
The first act, the act Said started with, is to be found in his (first) book on Conrad: Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography (1966). Already in its title the book is a critical proposition: the fiction of autobiography reveals a drama of identity that finds itself imbued with fictitious gestures, poses, and words. Yet the significance of Said's interpretation is that he goes beyond such general and theoretical abstractions.
Of the book's two parts, the first one provides us with a magnificent reading of Conrad's letters, and it is in them that Said discovers the genealogy of Conrad the story-teller. The critic goes back to the period 1889-1894, when Conrad was at work on Almayer's Folly, and, having referred to a pile of letters, concludes that at the time the novelist faced his first personal and artistic crisis. What was the nature of the crisis? Said: 'a curious phenomenon in Conrad's life... the creation [in letters] of a public personality that was to camouflage his deeper and more problematic difficulties with himself and with his work' (JCFA vii).
Why this? Mainly because Conrad felt there was a split, a conflict, between his experience and language that could not grasp life. For one thing, the novelist was not able to translate the chaotic flow of his life experiences as the latter were too immediate and pressing. Said writes: 'we see him gripped by a powerfully imaginative emotional and intellectual complex that he could not master because it too closely retraced the bewildering outlines of his own experience. Out of the fullness of one's heart... no grammar is possible' (JCFA 49).
But there was something equally serious beneath – Conrad's inability to grasp and frame his own identity, and his rage at authenticating his true self. While analysing the novelist's early letters to Kliszczewski, Said notices that they were written 'out of his troubled sense of the threats of chaos' (JCFA 15), and that they provide an example of 'a groping toward accurate self-awareness' (JCFA 14). Accordingly, in the years 1889-1894/5, Conrad was constructing in his letters his alter ego that would provide an alibi for his real ego his true self that evaded translation into letters but was always present in the background.
It was this knot of repressed intentions and actual realisations, Said maintains, that propelled Conrad to writing his first two novels and becoming a story-teller. Some evidence may be found in Conrad's correspondence with his aunt Małgorzata Poradowska (Said analyzes the letters written between 1890 and 1895). As a matter of fact, Said speaks of the 'sophisticated monologue directed by Conrad to his aunt' (JCFA 16; another theatrical reference) in which Conrad, like Hamlet, 'was attempting to bring himself to a meaningful point of action' (JCFA 16). The action that the author of Lord Jim sought to perform had to be twofold – framing fragments of his experience into stories, and confirming his own identity as threatened by life in exile and in a foreign language.
This feedback between writing and identity was for Said a major theme in many of his letters written during 1895. For example, in the three letters sent to Edward Noble (July 17, October 28, and November 2) Conrad stressed interdependencies between writing fiction and the writer's individuality, and he advised Noble to write from 'an inward point of view, I mean from the depth of your inwardness' (JCFA 28). Character and individuality. These two moments are set against the histrionics and theatricality that Conrad felt were undermining his true self.
But if his identity seemed confirmed by the fact that he was able to make up, direct and control fictitious stories, the surrounding reality remained unspeakable, untamed and chaotic. Fragments of reality did not add up to any harmony or integrity. Instead, they disseminated into more and more complicated and untraceable patterns. As Said writes, during the years after 1895 Conrad 'grew increasingly reliant upon himself, upon the evaluating rather than the perceiving consciousness, which faced a distracting sum of competing facts. Because each aspect of knowledge that came to his attention demanded recognition, he found it impossible to settle upon a unitary view of reality' (JCFA 31). This in turn led Conrad to another crisis – the crisis of inability to see one objective truth that would be the principle of the world. This is splendidly elucidated by Said.
The surface of his own life, like a palm whose life line breaks out in a myriad of crazy directions, and reminded him that nothing in his own experience could furnish him with a firm notion of what it meant to complete something. He had no respect for his complex character: not only in his two occupations, his two countries, his vacillating world views, but also in his gallery of 'economical' fiction, nothing could bring him to a fully manageable definition of objectivity.
That would have been a fitting reward for the 'endless discontent' of the writing. His novels, which tended, one gathers from the letters, perversely to 'grow and grow', liberated along with what they had genuinely 'rescued' too much of what was dark and imponderable. (JCFA 50-51)
The second stage in Said's life-long reading of Conrad may be reconstructed from insights recorded in the essay 'Conrad: The Presentation of Narrative' that was included in the 1983 collection The World, the Text, and the Critic. One of the essay's key statements shows Said's development and evolution: 'Conrad's writing was a way of repeatedly confirming his authorship by refracting it in a variety of often contradictory and negative narrative and quasi-narrative contingencies, and that he did this in preference to a direct representation of his neuroses' (The World 109). What the critic chose to stress in the seventies was the significance of narration, narrators, and frames of reference, as superior to the contents included in the narratives. Conrad's terrifying vision of the reality as ultimately ambiguous and meaningless manifested itself in the plurality of narrators and the 'unreliable narration' device.
On the other hand, the figure of narrator became for Conrad a way of coping with the problem of the 'endless discontent' of writing – a narrator guarantees that his/her narrative is rooted in a specific experience, and it is not a series of verbal gestures. In fact, Said underlined in his essay Conrad's 'general loss of faith in the mimetic powers of language' (The World 101), and he made an important distinction between 'wanting-to-speak', or intention, and communication.
Said's main example is Lord Jim. As we know, there are three basic frames of narration in the novel: Jim's, Marlow's, and the novelist's. The point is all of them want to speak – not so much to others but in front of others (The World 103). What is crucial here is not the power to communicate but to authenticate his story by speaking it: here I am, in the flesh, this is not a fiction. We know, however, that their stories are fictions – not only in that they are actually novelistic devices but in that, for Jim, Marlow, and Conrad himself, words cannot fully express their experiences.
Words lie, and that is why the only thing worth trusting is voice itself: narrative itself as spoken and not as a story. Said: '[t]he presence of spoken words in time mitigates, if it does not make entirely absent, their written version; a speaker takes over the narrative with his voice, and his voice overrides the fact that he is absent' (The World 95). Skeptical about the power of language, Conrad turned to the physicality of the speaker, his physical efforts to narrate a story, perhaps his bodily gestures – in other words, visible evidence of one's presence.
But this strategy led to another failure. As Said demonstrates, Lord Jim and other stories by Conrad are in fact stories about silence, and an inability even to voice oneself. At the end of his narrative, Marlow can say nothing of Jim – 'that white figure in the stillness of coast and sea seemed to stand at the heart of a vast enigma' (qtd. in The World 105) – and Jim himself, when we last see him, raises his voice only to depart in silence. The scene is permeated with absences – personal departures but also speech pauses and faulty language – and it brings to mind similar scenes in, say, Heart of Darkness or 'Amy Forster'. Said ends his essay with the following conclusion.
The self, which is the source of utterance, attempts the reconciliation of intention with actuality; words are really being bypassed as a direct embodiment in material is sought by the imagination, at the same time that the ego reports its adventures and its disappointments. If language fails ultimately to represent intention and, analogously, if the mimetic function of language is sorely inadequate to make us see, then by using substance instead of words the Conradian hero, like Conrad himself, aims to vindicate and articulate his imagination. Every reader of Conrad knows how this aim too is bound to fail. In the end, like the dying Kurtz with his hoard of ivory, the hero becomes a talking insubstantiality. (The World 110)
I would like to return to the second part of Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography where Said interprets Conrad's short stories. One of the critic's main assumptions in this book is that before the beginning of the First World War Conrad 'arrived at an impasse' (JCFA 136) both artistic and personal. In Said's words, Conrad 'became convinced that, for all the self-searching of his 'autobiographies'... he could maintain his public image only by destroying his real being' (JCFA 136). In other words, some twenty years after the decisive year 1895 the novelist faced the same crisis of inability and Hamlet-like resignation.
But in 1915 Conrad found himself in a different context and a different situation. As Said puts it, '[Conrad's] ability to harmonise past and present, action and thought, objective and subjective, failed him at just the moment that Europe's failed her' (JCFA 136). And it made a difference – the outbreak of the war was, paradoxically, an act that helped the novelist redefine and recapture himself both as artist and man. That was precisely the moment when Conrad's ardent Europeanism was born.
The Shadow Line
According to Said, the decisive moment found its expression in The Shadow Line (written in 1915). At the beginning of the story, its narrator decides to leave the sea in 'an implied avoidance of the spiritual impasse to which Conrad's antecedent stories had inevitably moved' (JCFA 171). His subsequent decision to take a job as a ship's captain marks his disinterested response to what seems an abstract situation – the narrator takes it as there is nothing else to do. From that moment on, the surrounding reality takes on a somewhat nightmarish aspect as if the whole world was stuck in an impasse.
This helps (another paradox): the narrator is forced to overcome his own inertia and collect himself to face the ongoing disaster. In Said's words: 'N [the narrator] is made to understand the real meaning of 'being oneself', which is to cross the line of shadowy, unrealised ambitions into a sort of restricted, terrible reality' (JCFA 186). The climax of the story comes when the calm and darkness give way to a storm, and the narrator's gloomy vision of the beastly Thing is dispelled. The narrator saves Burns from death and his sense of 'duties' is reinforced.
What is equally important is that, as Said notices, 'N has really done something, has performed a complete action' (JCFA 194). Thus, The Shadow Line is a story of transition from a state of psychological inertia to a creation of character in which impasse and an awareness of impasse find a hard-won synthesis. For Said this was also true of Conrad who managed to create his own character in the face of the world war disaster: 'Conrad's achievement is that he ordered the chaos of his existence into a highly patterned art that accurately reflected and controlled the realities with which it dealt' (JCFA 196).
One of the conclusions drawn from Said's essay has to do with the origins of Conrad's Europeanism. As the critic repeats over and over again, the narrator of The Shadow Line 'puts his confidence in a historical, hierarchic continuum of imperishable worth' (JCFA 195); that is, 'a ship's captaincy is a command within the order of British tradition, and British tradition derives (Conrad came to believe) from European tradition' (JCFA 195). Earlier in the text, Said writes that
For the first time in Conrad's short fiction, we are watching a hero who unquestioningly accepts the responsibilities of tradition and the implications of his nationality. Is this not a reflection of Conrad's new, tolerant acceptance of his second nationality, seen as a first step toward the general establishment of Europeanism? (JCFA 178)
The answer, at least for Said, is yes – one of the critic's concluding statements is that 'in Europeanism, Conrad sought the remedy for his troubles' (JCFA 186). Obviously enough, the troubles referred to are not only those connected with the political situation of Europe and England, but also those concerning Conrad's own stance as artist and man. Put briefly, Europeanism was a promise of a new rooting of the self – be it in political, psychological, spiritual, or linguistic terms.
Culture and Imperialism
This is a good moment to move on to the third stage in Said's interpretation. I'm thinking here of his opus magnum – the 1993 Culture and Imperialism - and, more specifically, of one of its chapters entitled 'Two Visions in Heart of Darkness'. As is well-known, in the 1990s Said's postcolonial attitudes were sharper and much more combative. The same applied to his readings of Conrad. Although he remained faithful to his vision of Conrad as a great pioneer of the 20th-century novel and a prophet of what is known today as postcolonialism, Said voiced his distrust toward some aspects of Conrad's oeuvre; particularly those having to do with the idea of Europeanism.
The change may be felt in Said's introduction to the book. While mentioning Nostromo, the critic pays attention to Conrad's 'limitations in vision', the most significant one consisting in providing 'the same paternalistic arrogance of imperialism that it mocks in characters like Gould and Holroyd' (Culture xviii). All in all, the novelist may be called imperialist and anti-imperialist at the same time (Culture xviii), 'progressive when it came to rendering fearlessly and pessimistically the self-confirming, self-deluding corruption of overseas domination, deeply reactionary when it came to conceding that Africa or South America could ever have had an independent history or culture' (Culture xviii).
A much more incisive analysis is included in the chapter devoted to Heart of Darkness. Its opening point is quite pessimistic: in the world presented in Heart of Darkness there is no way out of the imperialist discourse. Even Marlow is a part of the discourse: 'the almost oppressive force of Marlow's narrative leaves us with a quite accurate sense that there is no way out of the sovereign historical force of imperialism, and that it has the power of a system representing as well as speaking for everything within its dominion' (Culture 24). In other words, 'imperialism has monopolised the entire system of representation' (Culture 25) – it is by no means only political but also, perhaps first of all, ideological, cultural, and linguistic. In this context Conrad's Europeanism turns out to be ideologically loaded, and his hard-won identity is susceptible to imperialist pulls.
In another chapter Said suggests that it is in Yeats's poetry that we can see the full swing from 'nationalism' (resisting imperialism) to 'nativism' (reintroducing imperialism in its cultural and ideological forms). With Conrad, however, Said is more cautious. After all, Conrad was fully aware that narrative and discourse might be unreliable and double-dealing. Perhaps it was his exile – his being an outsider – that helped him keep an ironic distance (this is what the critic himself suggests, Culture 25).
As a matter of fact, Conrad's Europeanism cannot be approached in so simple (i.e. postcolonial) terms. There is too much rhetorical irony in his stories, and too many frames of reference to be taken into account – this dissemination of perspectives cannot be framed by any system of representation. It seems to me that the Said of the 1990s was not able to decide about Conrad's true intentions. He ends the chapter by stating that, almost despite himself, Conrad was a victim of the imperialist ideology: 'Conrad's tragic limitation is that even though he could see clearly that on one level imperialism was essentially pure dominance and land-grabbing, he could not then conclude that imperialism had to end so that natives could lead lives free from European domination' (Culture 30). But even this sentence is ambiguous – as Said suggests in many other texts, the novelist is not supposed to provide such strong conclusions; these might be voiced by way of, say, innuendo or conjectural implication.
What I find particularly stimulating in the chapter is Said's idea of two visions informing Conrad's work, of its inherently paradoxical character and its immunity to naïve, one-sided interpretations. While discussing the novelist's ability to keep his ironic distance, Said writes: '[t]the form of Conrad's narrative has thus made it possible to derive two possible arguments, two visions, in the postcolonial world that succeeded his' (Culture 25).
I think the same may be said of Conrad's own work. On the one hand, we have in his texts the narrative of Europeanism understood as an ideological construct – Conrad speaks from within Europe as a figure of identity and order. On the other hand, he constantly undermines this narrative, for example by showing 'how ideas and values are constructed (and deconstructed) through dislocations in the narrator's language' (Culture 29). Said has a nice formula for this: 'with Conrad we are in a world being made and unmade more or less all the time' (Culture 29).
What seems worth stressing is that the two visions do not constitute a logical sequence. One does not precede or follow the other. I think this kind of critical honesty – i.e. acknowledging that criticism, even when disinterested, is partial and subjective – does justice to Conrad's work. After all, he himself was very sensitive to the fact that what is being said is said from a certain point of view – that is why he paid so much attention to the point of view technique, anticipating the devices of shifting viewpoint and anti-hero.
Also, the two visions inform Conrad's narrative of Europeanism: the latter was never taken at face value; the novelist was capable of seeing its rhetorical character and its ideological undercurrents, and at the same time he believed that such objections were made possible by the narrative of Europeanism. Thus, Europe as a certain idea and Europeanism as an ideological narrative stand in contradiction – yet I would claim it is a happy and prolific contradiction.
The same contradiction informs the best texts written by Edward Said. True, there are in his books arguments and examples that make us think of Said as an ideologue of sorts. But there is also something that makes his work exemplary and highly original: an assumption that nothing in a work of art can be disregarded, marginalised, backgrounded. This is expressed in the passage (taken from Culture and Imperialism) that seems to sum up Said's critical stance.
As we look back at the cultural archive, we begin to reread it not univocally but contrapuntally, with a simultaneous awareness both of the metropolitan history that is narrated and of those other histories against which (and together with which) the dominating discourse acts. In the counterpoint of Western classical music, various themes play off one another, with only provisional privilege being given to any particular one; yet in the resulting polyphony there is concert and order, an organised interplay that derives from the themes, not from a rigorous melodic or formal principle outside the work. (Culture 51)
- Said, Edward. Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1966.
- _____. The World, the Text, and the Critic. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1983.
- _____. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Vintage Books, 1993.
- _____. Reflections on Exile and Other Literary and Cultural Essays. London: Granta, 2001.