- Joseph Conrad and the Modern Temper
Without a doubt, the prevailing trend in Joseph Conrad studies is toward contextual criticism: criticism that illuminates Conrad's texts by illuminating their informing historical, aesthetic, political, socioeconomic, or philosophical contexts. Daphna Erdinast-Vulcan's Joseph Conrad and the Modern Temper is the most recent exemplar of this approach, as it demarcates the central "crisis which looms so large in [End Page 957] Conrad's work," the "cultural habitat" in which the work lives and to which it responds. This lucid and engaging study focuses on "the tension inherent in Conrad's response to modernity: the tension between the writer's temperamental affinity with the Nietzschean conception of culture as a set of fragile illusions imperfectly overlaid on a chaotic, fragmented, and meaningless reality, and his ideological need to reinstate the Ptolemaic (i.e. integrated and anthropocentric) universe." Situating Conrad's novels between premodern ("poetic/Ptolemaic") and Nietzschean ("scientific/Copernican") views of the universe, Erdinast-Vulcan argues that the "ultimate project of Conrad's work" is the "Sisyphean task" of suspending the Copernican system and reinstating the Ptolemaic one.
The book's opening chapter explores the "modern temper"—of which Nietzsche is "the herald"—and Conrad's ambivalent response to it. For Erdinast-Vulcan, Conrad's works both "reflect" and "revolt against" this modern temper: "the Hobbesian view of human nature, the devastating cosmological pessimism, the nihilistic view of faith and knowledge as man-made illusions, and the desperate vision of the artist as the procurer of comforting untruths." This opening chapter is followed by three chapters that assiduously treat nine novels spanning Conrad's entire career.
In the first of these, Erdinast-Vulcan argues that Lord Jim, The Rescue, and Nostromo are Conrad's early attempts "to break away from the modern temper through a regression into the heroic-mythical frame of reference." For her, the European characters in these novels are offered a "sanctuary" in their "insulated" non-European hide-aways, a space where the heroic-mythical mode of discourse is a viable . . . alternative to the modern outlook." Next comes a chapter that treats Heart of Darkness, Under Western Eyes, and The Shadow Line as failed pilgrimages in quest of metaphysical essences or transcendental authority. Erdinast-Vulcan then closes with her most provocative, interesting, and original chapter of all, a reading of Chance, Victory, and The Arrow of Gold as "proto-deconstructionist" works "afflicted with a Nietzschean view of reality as an indeterminate text." In a particularly brilliant discussion of Victory, Erdinast-Vulcan makes the case that Heyst cannot shake the awareness of his own literariness and fictionality, even as he acts out his self-assigned role as a knight in a romance of his own making. Hence, for Erdinast-Vulcan, Conrad in this and other late works surrenders "to the radical scepticism of the Nietzschean outlook which he had managed to keep at bay" in his earlier novels.
Despite the book's few minor problems—the introductory chapter might have accomplished more; an excuse for leaving out a consideration of The Secret Agent remains unconvincing; and many typographical errors and strained transitions appear—Joseph Conrad and the Modern Temper is a genuine event in Conrad scholarship, an erudite and insightful foray into Conrad's complex relationship with modernity. [End Page 958]