- One of Us: The Mastery of Joseph Conrad, and: The Modernist as Pragmatist: E. M. Forster and the Fate of Liberalism
Those who are inclined to doubt contemporary criticism’s esteem for the traditional canon of twentieth-century literature will discover stirring rejoinders in the two books reviewed here. While neither book offers much that is substantively new, Harpham and May reinvigorate the debate over modernism by soliciting the help of recent psychoanalytic and political theory (for Harpham, Homi Bhabha and Slavoj Zizek; for May, Richard Rorty and Cornel West). When they are successful, which is often enough, both books forcefully remind us of how complicated the literary object is, of why we might enjoy reading good literature in the first place: it confuses our moral categories, it invites us to identify with what seems abhorrent, it suggests contingency precisely where we were sure of foundations, it stretches the imagination in unexpected ways. And yet neither book is entirely successful in this enterprise. When Harpham argues that “Conrad seems capable of [End Page 1017] placing racist and nonracist thinking on the scale and finding them equal,” as if this somehow constitutes a convincing response to Chinua Achebe’s indictment of Conrad’s racism, and, as if this proves that Conrad “by most measures is simply not a racist at all,” the moral issue suddenly seems more perplexing than Harpham realizes. One would have imagined that not being a racist more or less meant not regarding racist and nonracist thought as morally equivalent. When May treats Forster’s “imaginary Hinduism,” his “exotic or ‘Hindu sublime,’” as a “pragmatic” function of Forster’s “fallible” imagination and of the imaginary Hindus who “cannot find sublimity” but “must create it” in the absence of anything truly Kantian and transcendent, as if this somehow demonstrates that Forster was untainted by Orientalist fantasies, the difficulties raised by Forster’s literary vision appear likewise to extend beyond May’s grasp.
This is not to suggest that compelling literary form logically entails a morality that a given reader, especially one of a very different time and place, must approve. It has always seemed to me a weakness in contemporary criticism that it mistakes a stern analysis of a literary work’s moral or political confusion for a refusal to appreciate its literariness. Indeed, Harpham at one point goes even further than I would, for in a flank-covering maneuver near the end of his book he outlines a rather hastily conceived theory of “scoundrel genius.” “Greatness is inseparable from certain kinds of reprehensibility,” he observes, meaning that writers like Conrad draw so much grudging admiration from those they offend precisely because they identify with the “darker regions of the cultural psyche” that mediocre writers avoid. Contrary to all of May’s earnest effort, Harpham declares that Forster is simply “too enlightened” not to suffer from “a certain shallowness.” It is an interesting, if hardly original, perspective, though it is also hard to take very seriously. Fielding, Dickens, George Eliot, Joyce, and Woolf are undoubtedly “great,” though they are nowhere near as dark as Conrad; Wyndham Lewis is even less enlightened (and far more reprehensible), but is he anywhere near as good? One can only wonder then that any critic, armed with so convenient a theory, would spend as much time as Harpham does defending his author’s morality from his detractors or reading his author’s manifest politics allegorically.
Still, Harpham’s One of Us is a witty, ironic and lively read. It wears its learning lightly and treats some rather dense theoretical arguments [End Page 1018] with a casualness that only Terry Eagleton could better. It is also heavily indebted to two of Conrad’s biographers—Frederick Karl and Zdzislaw Najder—especially to Karl, whose “three lives” thesis provides the structure of Harpham’s book. Since Harpham adds no biographical information and few biographical insights not found in the earlier studies...