Having endured a childhood of annual vacations to the same place, I tend to regard "revisits" as failures of imagination. Ross C. Murfin's Conrad Revisited does little to alter this prejudice. Too often the eight critics in this volume sound like experts "revisiting" a famous monument: having been there (at least) once before, they feel no compulsion to demonstrate or validate their arguments. Because they are registered tour guides, we should take their word on Conrad without question.
In truth, some of these critics seem to be revisiting themselves more than Conrad. For example, Frederick Karl recalls placing great stress in his Conrad biography on Conrad's relationship with Gide, but he never says why, even admitting that such emphasis "may be biographically defective." Hunt Hawkins, on the other hand, presents an interesting thesis about Conrad's imperialism, a subject he has previously treated with vigor, but here he applies it mechanically, reducing the novels in the process. Daniel Schwarz's concluding essay has merits, but it also generalizes too readily. Yet the worst offender is Robert Caserio. Holding that The Rescue is Conrad's unrecognized masterpiece, Caserio never turns to the text, to Conrad's life, or to his letters for hard evidence. We must accept his [End Page 793] judgment on arbitrary statements such as "The Rescue becomes a tale of the withdrawal of novelistic representation from the world—and the author asks us to feel the withdrawal as outrage." Where is any such thing asked?
Murfin acknowledges, perhaps unconsciously, the problem in his short Introduction with his countless, defensive avowals that the essays are "revisionary." If only these essays contained more revision, less revisiting. This volume springs from an international Conrad conference held in 1982, and the essays referred to so far suffer from conference-paper syndrome: they lack the rigorous testing of thesis that good criticism demands.
Some of the essays, however, are good. Bruce Johnson reevaluates Conrad's impressionism in light of the philosophical temper of his time, demonstrating impressionism's desire to uncover man's origins. H. M. Daleski's portrait of Axel Heyst's self-division and fear of life places Victory in a tradition of nineteenth-century novels. But the finest essay is surely J. Hillis Miller's "Heart of Darkness Revisited." Miller has written many times on Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim without overwhelming success: thus, he returns to Conrad's great story more as a pilgrim than as the keeper of its mysteries. Reading Heart of Darkness as a modern parable, Miller calls the story "a revelation of the impossibility of revelation." Is this a cop-out? If so, Miller knows it and confesses his guilt: "By unveiling the lack of unveiling in Heart of Darkness, I have become another witness . . . guilty as any other . . . of covering over while claiming to illuminate." Miller's essay thus becomes a theoretical exposé, signifying the limits of criticism in the face of Conrad's masterpiece.
Conradians and critics of fiction in general will find more meat in Mark Conroy's book. Indeed, every critic of fiction can profit from the Introduction and the first section of this book for its superb analysis of "the phantom audience" ("a ghost of readers past and future"), the novel's bastard origins, and the act of writing as usurpation (a seizure of the word from "the language-giving father"). Late in the nineteenth century, Conroy argues, writers such as Flaubert and Conrad became aware of these problems, which were being heightened by changing economic trends and the resulting bourgeois readership.
Conroy examines the role of the modern marketplace (a term he overuses) without the Marxist cant or heavy-handed political manipulation of Jameson. With the new economic and political sphere came a loss of traditional patriarchal structures; in response, says Conroy, writers sought a new legitimation in metaphor. He cites the nineteenth-century's need "to revivify fatherhood as a...