In Darkness at Heart: Fathers and Sons in Conrad, Catharine Rising's theme is the ambivalence in relations of sons and fathers (and father substitutes; "any older male who has power or influence over a younger one" is included) and Conrad's apparently obsessive concern in his fiction with paternity—whether feared, hated, or coveted. She argues that Conrad uses an array of fathers and other paternal types to achieve in his work a constantly shifting perspective on filial relationships. The characteristic aim of the older man in the tales, Ms. Rising concludes, is to kill a younger rival for the affections of a wife, daughter, or desired mistress.
This is apparently a Berkeley Ph.D. thesis that, like many theses insufficiently assimilated into monographs, drags in all of the critics and leans heavily on past work, even if only to excoriate it for neglecting the present writer's topic, a familiar approach. For a Freudian critic enamored of the Oedipal example, Ms. Rising [End Page 295] is surprisingly uninterested in the relations between Conrad and his own father, about which ample evidence exists and out of an examination of which she might have achieved insights and found patterns more promising than those culled from the crimes and omissions of earlier critics of Conrad. This work is not anchored by any biographical or historical weight, and as a result it is difficult to take seriously.
Jeremy Hawthorn is interested in the interaction between what he calls an extreme flexibility and mobility of narrative on the one hand and on the other a rootedness of moral and human commitment, an apparent paradox he perceives almost everywhere in Conrad's major texts. Conrad, he concludes, possessed an unshakable belief in the existence of a world independent of its perception by human beings.
The major weakness of Joseph Conrad: Narrative Technique and Ideological Commitment is Mr. Hawthorn's intrusive account of himself and his own convictions on almost every page; he needs to learn critical unobtrusiveness—or perhaps invisibility would be more appropriate for a commentator who is fond of classifying Conrad's greatest works as successes and "failures" (a favorite word).
Nor is this book well written. Here is Mr. Hawthorn attempting to pass off sophomoric fatuousness as profundity: "Conrad's art is not untouched by the strength and weakness of his political and social ideas and understanding." In The Secret Agent, Mr. Hawthorn declares, "Conrad has escaped from those of his common beliefs and prejudices which were most damaging to his artistic penetration and understanding"—as if an artist and his convictions were separable; as if the artist and the man were separable; as if the work and the life were separable. Who is Jeremy Hawthorn to decide which of Conrad's beliefs and prejudices "damaged" him as a writer and which were conducive to his art? For obviously those political views with which Mr. Hawthorn disagrees (primarily the conservative Conrad) will turn out to be the most "damaging" to the artist. But Conrad's work, all of it, was equally by Conrad, all of him, convictions and all. Alter the man and you alter the work—which is perhaps what Mr. Hawthorn would inexplicably like to do.