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Tracing the Aesthetic Principle in Conrad's Novels (review)

From: Conradiana
Volume 42, Number 3, Fall 2010
pp. 90-94 | 10.1353/cnd.2010.0015

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Reviewed by
Yael Levin. Tracing the Aesthetic Principle in Conrad's Novels. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. 203 p. ISBN 0-230-60986-4

Tracing the Aesthetic Principle in Conrad's Novels is a very well-written and engaging deconstructive study of five novels by Joseph Conrad in chronological order: Lord Jim, Nostromo, Under Western Eyes, The Arrow of Gold, and Suspense. In the Introduction (which is strangely also called "Chapter 1") Levin claims that "one of the key motivations underlying this analysis is a wish to reopen the text for those who have become overhabituated or desensitized to it" and this is achieved quite efficiently through the exploration of the "otherwise present," or the constant oscillation between absence and presence in the given texts (22). Levin's original approach is premised on the theory that presence is absented when represented textually, while absence is inversely made tangible via the same process. A primary theoretical model for the study is therefore Jacques Derrida's principle of difference/différance as well as his notion of "hauntology" by which traces of the excluded linguistic other are detected contaminating the same with its antithesis and converting it to the "altogether other" of an "alternate ontology" (55). Acknowledging from the onset that the terms "presence" and "absence" are "always already haunted by the traces of inverted commas," Levin applies the post-structural paradigm of either/or to overcome the impasse produced by a strictly Aristotelian reading of the contradictions and paradoxes inherent in the Conradian text (11). The results are overall quite impressive, especially in the last two chapters of the study where The Arrow of Gold and Suspense are treated to strikingly original readings. Here the theory of the "otherwise present" works particularly well as these are the works which have been relatively neglected and, in the case of Suspense, undervalued by the critics (22). Following Gene Moore, Levin makes a powerful case of regarding Conrad's last novel, Suspense, as a finished work, effectively overturning almost a century of established criticism which found it very difficult to disagree with Thomas Moser's achievement and decline theory in relation to a novel which seemed to have been cut short by the author's death. Amongst the books other strengths is its exploration of Conrad's narrative technique, especially in Chapter 2, "Seeing Otherwise: From Almayer's Folly to Lord Jim" where Charlie Marlow's strategy of representing Jim is analyzed from a variety of fruitful perspectives. The argument in this chapter is particularly erudite and nuanced, highlighting the sophistication of Conrad's epistemological vision and his mingling of realist and modernist [End Page 90] tropes in the development of that masterful distancing device called Marlow.

One problem with Tracing the Aesthetic Principle in Conrad's Novels is that the fiction sometimes seems forced to fit the theory, as in Chapter 4 on Under Western Eyes and to a lesser extent in Chapter 3, on Nostromo. Here, Levin's theory of the "otherwise present" seems somewhat artificially tacked onto a fairly orthodox albeit well-versed deconstructive analysis of these novels (22). On the other hand, the analysis is perhaps too often padded with existing or mainstream criticism which is unnecessary, to my mind, because Levin is confident enough in her own approach not to need outside support. One also feels that familiar Conradian tropes and themes such as the circularity of narrative, the vital illusion, the theme of ontological security/insecurity, and the open ending are sometimes rehashed as the "otherwise-present" when there is enough original material to more than justify Levin's project (22). As a result, "seeing otherwise" works best in the analysis of Conrad's less known novels, as here it cannot rely on or work against existing readings to the same degree and is therefore freer to show its true worth (24). Having said that, there are some flaws in these chapters too, as in the excessive emphasis placed on Richard Curle's prologue to Suspense in Chapter 6 (perhaps as a consequence of the relative absence of close reading in this chapter) and the uncharacteristically convoluted introduction to the Pompeii motif in the chapter...