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James and Conrad: The Psychological Premises by Daniel J. Schneider, University of Tennessee The many points of resemblance in the fiction of Henry James and Joseph Conrad have often been remarked in criticism over the past several decades. Although Frederick Karl feels that the linkage between the two writers has been overstressed , a number of prominent critics, including E. K. Brown, Morton Zabel, Ian Watt, and Leon Edel, have noted both technical and thematic similarities in the works of the two writers; and Elsa Netteis, in her comprehensive James and Conrad, has added a great deal to our awareness of these similarities, notably in her chapters on the theory of fiction, on romance, and on tragedy. Yet the deepest link between James and Conrad, apart from their technical and epistemological interest in "the subjective," is probably their psychology— their shared convictions regarding the deep motives of human behavior. Their agreement on the premises of their psychologies was indeed suggested in Conrad's 1905 essay on James, in which Conrad, who had spoken in his "Preface" to The Nigger of the Narcissus of "the warlike conditions of existence," called attention to James's exhibition of a "very relentless warfare" that arises from "the duality of man's nature and the competition of individuals." The universal problem that Conrad saw revealed in James's work is that "wherever he stands ... a man has to sacrifice his gods to his passions or his passions to his gods. That is the problem, great enough, in all truth, if approached in the spirit of sincerity and knowledge" (19). What Conrad found in James, then, was a problem that seemed central to the Pole, who was preoccupied in his earliest works with the fear of yielding to his passions —the fear of losing control, of deserting one's post, and of plunging into a hell of iniquity. "'No one of us is safe,'" says the apparently incorruptible and invulnerable Brierly in Lord Jim; in a crisis "'some of us are totaHy and completely undone .'" But though no one is '"good enough,'" man must follow the dream of "the sovereign power enthroned in a fixed standard of conduct." He must affirm his belief in an ideal self, steadfast, brave, trustworthy, and loyal to the community of men, despite his animal weakness, his cowardice and selfishness, his deep craving for rest and escape from responsibility. Above aU, man must fight, must exert himself and, with the motions of his arms and legs, keep himself afloat in "the destructive element" that is his dream. Should man cease to fight, should he choose rest or peace instead of incessant struggle, he becomes a corpse, a skeleton, a carcass, a brute, a thing, a nobody, nothing. He ceases morally —and hence humanly—to exist. The art that issues from this psychological and ethical insight works with three basic themes that are found everywhere in James and Conrad. The first is the deep need to create and maintain an ideal image of self in the face of the terrible revelations that subvert and destroy that image. Man struggles to be "Lord" when in reality he may be "just Jim," a "nobody." Frequently the discrepancy between man's ideal image of self and his actual conduct is blackly comic. It leads in Conrad to "scenes of low comedy" enacted by "clowns in a farce" when, as in Lord Jim, men lose all ideal dignity and humanity and are driven solely by panic (104). In James, it leads to the frequent recognition in his later works that the characters are, as Mrs. Brook says in The Awkward Age, '"part of the circus—it's the way we earn our living'" (AA 189). The second psychological theme is the craving for rest, peace, safety, perfect security. Confronted by "the ordeal of change," by a flux of accident and contingency , by the terror of uncertainty, man seeks to immobilize life, to keep it still and unchanging. The ultimate condition he craves is perhaps the perfect peace of death. Freud's death instinct, or the Nirvana principle, would have surprised Volume VI 32 Number 1 The Henry James Review Fall, 1984 neither James nor Conrad. The third...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6555
Print ISSN
0273-0340
Pages
pp. 32-38
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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