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Benita Parry admits that her use of "imperialism" is problematic. It is "repudiated by some academics as a term unfit for scholars" because it is open to "conceptual ambiguity and terminological confusion," but she uses it anyway "because it has always been central to the Marxist vocabulary and is now widely accepted as necessary to understanding those processes which have defined the structure of the modern world and continue to characterise its interrelationships." Such an introductory statement might lead a reader to suspect that this is a study that will smell both of the lamp and the torch. We even get fair notice of the tendentious element in her book from the picture covering the dust jacket: a still from Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now that shows an American Marlow commanding a gunboat traveling along the war-torn banks of the upper Mekong.
Parry's book presents her reading of five works by Conrad: Heart of Darkness, The Rescue, The Nigger of the "Narcissus," Lord Jim, and Nostromo. Each is examined primarily from its political viewpoint, specifically its "ideologically constituted perceptions of history that interrogate the premises of the authorised version." She sees Conrad's fiction as breaking with the fictional conventions of his day in that he dramatized the antagonisms between colonizer and colonized as "conflicts of authentic alternatives" that the West invariably wins but that nevertheless question European premises and register the claims of opposing codes. His viewpoint is attributable in part to what he termed "the only legitimate basis of creative works[:] . . . in the courageous recognition of all the irreconcilable antagonisms that make our life so enigmatic, so burdensome, so fascinating, so dangerous—so full of hope." This dualistic preoccupation is seen in his composite and inconsistent outlook on imperialism, perhaps a legacy from his youth in a Poland that was both subject to Russia and lord over the serfs in the Ukraine.
To Parry, Conrad is possessed of a divided mind, an artist of ambivalence whose composite and inconsistent outlook leads to texts replete with voices articulating opposed principles. There are discontinuous meanings within the texts between what the narrative says and what the action shows. In some cases this reveals the disjunctions between noble-sounding rhetoric and base ambitions so damningly that against such goals and justifications of expansionistic Europe "Conrad's writings engender a critique more destructive of imperialism's ideological premises than do the polemics of his contemporary opponents of empire." Yet, while exposing the lie underpinning the mystique of empire, the discontinuities of his texts manage also to perceive latent idealism within a manifestly soulless enterprise. Conrad can simultaneously censure and uphold, engaging the texts as "accomplices in a life-lie necessary to the existence of a world that can neither [End Page 798] be defended nor disavowed." The results of these discontinuities in his fiction are texts that are, as with few other writers, open to a great variety of opposed interpretations.
Parry is acute in her discussion of the immanent contradictions in Heart of Darkness, particularly Marlow's bent to self-delusion, his dual voice, his selective capacity for moral shock, and his compromise of every code but that of gallantry. But she sees Conrad as most trenchant in his delineation of regressive romanticism in Kurtz, The Rescue's Lingard, and by readers like the "privileged man" in Lord Jim who can see the matter whole in that novel and in Nostromo. It is her view that Conrad's fiction develops in defensive and subversive strategies and in heterodox ideologies through the years, questioning the authoritarian philosophy of works such as The Nigger of the "Narcissus," though she also finds that work to be at odds with itself. Curiously, she omits consideration of "An Outpost of Progress," perhaps because it is—in 1897—too early a subversion of the imperialist idea...