- Solitude versus Solidarity in the Novels of Joseph Conrad: Political and Epistemological Implications of Narrative Innovation
For a scholar new to the criticism of Joseph Conrad, Ursula Lord’s rich study of Conrad’s intellectual roots would provide an excellent introduction, for it elegantly combines a broad-based account of foundational thinkers of the period with detailed close readings of several of Conrad’s major texts. Solitude versus Solidarity in the Novels of Joseph Conrad takes as its goal the impressive task of depicting the large-scale intellectual landscape from which Conrad emerged and within which his novels should be situated, if they are to be understood with sufficiently rigorous historicity. Lord firmly rejects an outmoded, conventional approach to Conrad—popular not only in the heyday of the New Critics, but also with a certain style of deconstructive criticism—which tended to deracinate the Conradian crises in language, experience, and epistemology from larger cultural frameworks. Lord’s aim in this ambitious book is to connect central formal and thematic elements in the canonical Conrad (her primary texts are Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, and Nostromo) with parallel developments in nineteenth-century sociological, scientific, political, and philosophical thought. In contextualizing Conrad, Lord is primarily interested in examining major thinkers who addressed sweeping fields of discourse: Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, Max Weber, Friedrich Nietzsche, Hannah Arendt, and Karl Mannheim all figure in her analysis. Her approach can best be understood less as an example of contemporary New Historicism than as an older style of intellectual history.
Though Lord makes specific claims about each of the literary texts, her primary argument can be summarized as follows: the fundamental and insoluble conflict between individuality (or individualism) and collectivity in Conrad’s novels—a conflict she sees generating much of his famous formal experimentation—belongs not only to Conrad, but to the culture of European thought at the end of the nineteenth century. Lord characterizes this as a period when a complex belief system that had relied on the sovereignty of the individual was in the process of giving way to a view of the social order that displaced and superseded the individual. Such a movement, of course, would [End Page 1063] never be absolute, clear, or direct, and one virtue of Lord’s analysis is that she steadfastly refuses to flatten out such relations as that between romanticism and individualism, or among different forms of imperialist rhetoric. Lord casts her net widely, covering varied terrain without schematizing; in addition to imperialism and romanticism, she looks, for example, at evolution, historical materialism, and socialism.
Yet such a broad-based approach has its inevitable drawbacks. If Lord is able to gesture towards a wide range of cultural attitudes and ideas, she does not cover any of them in detail. At times her discussion of figures such as Marx and Nietzsche borders on the casual, as she summarizes in several paragraphs an enormous—and enormously complicated—body of texts and problems. Conversely, her detailed close readings of Conrad and Hardy often seem surprisingly self-sufficient, as the cultural framework allegedly motivating her analysis slips away and the reader is left with a rather familiar, if thorough, discussion of such issues as alienation, epistemological doubt, and the appropriateness of frame narration for expressing representational indeterminacy. Indeed, one of Lord’s most central concerns—the relation between narrational form and the widespread spirit of doubt at the turn of the century—leads to perhaps her most conventional observations: while Hardy is critiqued for what Lord sees as his inability to construct a formal structure to accommodate his radical doubts about the viability of the individual in a universe governed by evolutionary principles, Conrad is applauded for developing the figure of Marlow as a partial solution, or at least a formal correlative, to his sense of insoluble conflict at the heart of western culture. Solitude versus Solidarity in the Novels of Joseph Conrad does not break a great deal of new ground in the field of Conrad studies, but what...