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  • Conradian Alienation and Imperial Intimacy
  • Sarah Cole (bio)

The last several decades have seen a major shift in Joseph Conrad’s reputation. His status as an archetypal modernist whose fractured, convulsed narratives represent the turmoil of a literary practice at war with its past has been shaken by an assessment of the racial and gender assumptions undergirding his tales. As the language and logic of imperialism have increasingly been subjected to critical investigation, Conrad’s texts have come to mark an important moment in a literary tradition defined not by its heroic break with bourgeois conventionality, but by its adherence to a Western, male world hegemony. 1 Although literary critics on the whole have not adopted Chinua Achebe’s bracing denunciation of Conrad as a “bloody racist,” they nevertheless have revalued Conrad’s work in the context of a discursive economy that functions in both overt and subtle ways to justify imperialism and racial hierarchy (Achebe 788).

Conversely, when Conrad is read sympathetically today, it is typically because of his modernist innovation and subsequent refusal to conform systematically to any single ideological position. In a study of Conrad’s place in the adventure tradition, for instance, Andrea White concedes Conrad’s problematic accession to the idea of an “imperial subject,” but suggests that his use of Marlow and other distancing formal devices prevents the reader from identifying him with a straightforward and unappealing ethos. Even Edward Said argues that Conrad’s [End Page 251] innovative formal strategies create a radical ambiguity around imperialism, an elliptical attitude that enables Conrad to point beyond imperial discourse: “Conrad’s tales and novels in one sense reproduce the aggressive contours of the high imperialist undertaking, but in another sense they are infected with the easily recognizable, ironic awareness of the post-realist modernist sensibility” (Said 188). Thus, criticism tends to set off Conrad’s imperialist complicity against his modernism: he is either condemned for ascribing to popular notions of racial supremacy and difference, or, alternatively, his guilt is partially mitigated by his formal commitment to ambiguity, fragmentation, linguistic indeterminacy, and other strategies typically understood as modernist.

What is overlooked by both of these approaches is the important way in which Conrad’s modernism grows directly out of his conflicted relation to imperial conventions. 2 Both of the critical positions I have outlined, that is, fail to take into account the complete interdependence of Conrad’s modernist anguish and his reliance on the literature of imperialism. In this essay, which focuses on the highly canonical Heart of Darkness, I propose that Conrad’s creation of a twentieth-century alienated subject—perhaps the quintessential icon in modernism’s landscape—derives from his simultaneous rejection of and dependence upon traditions of imperial narration. 3 More specifically, Conrad’s texts rely heavily on nineteenth-century tropes of masculine intimacy and friendship, relations that become the central pivots in his tales of communal and historical disjunction. It is on the threshold of acceptance and repulsion in relation to imperial friendship that Conrad develops the fractures in community, language, and identity that largely characterize his modernist sensibility. 4

Conrad inherits from Victorian adventure narratives a belief in the fundamental connection between imperialism and male friendship, but the intense masculine relations that he chronicles become disengaged from nineteenth-century ideological superstructures. This separation of male community from imperial ideology creates powerful images of isolation in his texts, not only as social relationships collapse into solitary struggles, but also as language disintegrates as a bearer of truth. When Conrad revises Victorian conventions of imperial heroics, then, he invests intimacy with a new urgency and initiates a trajectory that leads, paradoxically, to social and linguistic solipsism. However, for Conrad to reject a Victorian worldview, in which domestic ideology is [End Page 252] neatly linked with homosocial male institutions, and to replace such a system with a modernist iconography of alienation, is not without its own ideological significance. Indeed, what emerges from Conrad’s struggle to retain and to invigorate male intimacy is not only alienation, but also a resplendent—if battle-scarred—masculine individual who speaks with a new kind of literary authority.

The creation of empire is inevitably connected with narrative. As...

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pp. 251-281
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