Joseph Conrad and the Fictions of Skepticism

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Stanford University Press, 1990 M11 1 - 284 pages
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"You want more scepticism at the very foundation of your work. Scepticism, the tonic of minds, the tonic of life, the agent of truth - the way of art and salvation." Joseph Conrad wrote these words to John Galsworthy in 1901, and this study argues that Conrad's skepticism forms the basis of his most important works, participating in a tradition of philosophical skepticism that extends from Descartes to the present. Conrad's epistemological and moral skepticism - expressed, forestalled, mitigated, and suppressed - provides the terms for the author's rethinking of the peculiar relation between philosophy and literary form in Conrad's writing and, more broadly, for reconsidering what it means to call any novel 'philosophical'. Among the issues freshly argued are Conrad's thematics of coercion, isolation, and betrayal; the complicated relations among author, narrator, and character; and the logic of Conradian romance, comedy, and tragedy. The author also offers a new way of conceptualizing the shape of Conrad's career, especially the 'decline' evidenced in the later fiction. The uniqueness of Conrad's multifarious literary and cultural inheritance makes it difficult to locate him securely in the dominant tradition of the British novel. A philosophical approach to Conrad, however, reveals links to other novelists - notably Hardy, Forster, and Woolf - all of whom share in the increasing philosophical burden of the modern novel by enacting the very philosophical issues that are discussed within their pages. Conrad's interest as a skeptic is heightened by the degree to which he resists the insights proffered by his own skepticism. The first chapter introduces the idea of the Conradian 'shelter', and the next two use Schopenhauer to show how the language of metaphysical speculation in Tales of Unrest and 'Heart of Darkness' spills over into a religious impulse that resists the disintegrating effect of Conrad's skepticism. The author then turns to Hume to model the authorial skepticism that in Lord Jim contests the continuing visionary strain of the earlier fiction and Descartes to analyze the ways in which Romantic vision is more stringently chastened by irony in Nostromo and The Secret Agent. The concluding chapter touches on several late novels before examining how competing models of political agency in Conrad's last great fiction of skepticism, Under Western Eyes, situate it somewhere between ideology critique and a mystified account of the exigencies of individual consciousness.

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Contents

One Skepticism and the Sheltered Retreat
1
Two Early Stories and the Ghosts of Belief
28
Visionary Skepticism
57
The Refuge of Art
78
The Ethics of Form
120
Six Under Western Eyes and the Later Affirmations
170
Epilogue
193
Works Cited
239
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Page 111 - Most fortunately it happens that, since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind or by some avocation and lively impression of my senses which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse and am merry with my friends ; and when, after three or four hours...
Page 60 - Marlow was not typical (if his propensity to spin yarns be excepted), and to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.
Page 122 - Where am I, or what ? From what causes do I derive my existence, and to what condition shall I return ? Whose favour shall I court, and whose anger must I dread? What beings surround me, and on whom have I any influence, or who have any influence on me ? I am confounded with all these questions, and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, environed with the deepest darkness, and utterly deprived of the use of every member and faculty.
Page 33 - A work that aspires, however humbly, to the condition of art should carry its justification in every line. And art itself may be defined as a single-minded attempt to render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe, by bringing to light the truth, manifold and one, underlying its every aspect.
Page 68 - The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea - something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to.
Page 28 - To snatch in a moment of courage, from the remorseless rush of time, a passing phase of life, is only the beginning of the task. The task approached in tenderness and faith is to hold up unquestioningly, without choice and without fear, the rescued fragment before all eyes in the light of a sincere mood.
Page 69 - You can't understand. How could you with solid pavement under your feet, surrounded by kind neighbours ready to cheer you or to fall on you, stepping delicately between the butcher and the policeman, in the holy terror of scandal and gallows and lunatic asylums how can you imagine what particular region of the first ages a man's...
Page 115 - Now he is no more, there are days when the reality of his existence comes to me with an immense, with an overwhelming force; and yet upon my honour there are moments, too when he passes from my eyes like a disembodied spirit astray amongst the passions of this earth, ready to surrender himself faithfully to the claim of his own world of shades.
Page 62 - The moon had spread over everything a thin layer of silver - over the rank grass, over the mud, upon the wall of matted vegetation standing higher than the wall of a temple, over the great river I could see through a sombre gap glittering, glittering, as it flowed broadly by without a murmur.
Page 97 - I am not yet of Percy's mind, the Hotspur of the north ; he that kills me some six or seven dozen of Scots at a breakfast, washes his hands, and says to his wife, Fie upon this quiet life ! I want work.

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