- Testimony on Trial: Conrad, James, and the Contest for Modernism by Brian Artese
This book grew out of a Northwestern University dissertation that produced two good articles published by major journals. One of these, on Conrad’s disdain for journalism, appeared in Novel: A Forum on Fiction in 2003, and the other, on James’s aversion to sentimentalism, won the Leon Edel Prize for younger scholars and was published by the Henry James Review in 2006. These pieces, reprinted almost verbatim in Brian Artese’s book, are interesting, competent works of scholarship and criticism that make small but not insignificant contributions to the conversations about these authors. That is a better result than most dissertations can claim, but the pressure to turn a dissertation into a book is almost irresistible these days (despite cutbacks in university press lists that make this harder and harder to do), and so it is understandable that Artese wanted more than his articles.
This was, however, an ill-advised decision. Flaws in his argument that are not especially visible in the articles become magnified in the attempt to provide a theoretical justification for the project, and the need to claim a place in the critical debates results in excessive, implausible assertions about its implications. The clotted, opaque prose of the ten-page introduction is painful reading because the need to theorize results in obscure, abstract formulations, passive constructions, and jargony metaphors (e.g., Conrad’s “definitively modernist narrative technique is readily conceived as saturating the deep weave of a given work with any and all colonialist ideologies that modernism has been said to instantiate” ). The articles make measured arguments and offer interesting reports about little-noticed texts, but the introduction gets carried away with sweeping claims. His book will correct the “erroneous structural premises” of narratology, for example, that have plagued literary criticism “from Marxism to cosmopolitanism, new historicism to ‘new modernism’” (6). Further, to justify the key term in his title, Artese feels compelled to assert that “the very intelligibility of the novel as a cultural artefact is dependent on the question of testimony” (10). Really? Does ignoring “testimony” make the entire genre “unintelligible”?
These excesses are no doubt evidence of the pressure younger scholars feel to make an “intervention” that will radically overturn the field. Artese takes on Fredric Jameson, Gerard Genette, Michael McKeon, and Shoshana Felman, among others, and attempts to clear up lamentable confusions caused by their mistakes. This is more than a first book on two novelists can or needs to accomplish. The articles are more persuasive because their ambitions are more modest—limited, constructive contributions to ongoing conversations that aren’t so grievously wrong-headed that they need someone to “intervene” and set them back on course. [End Page 376]
The major theoretical contradiction that becomes clear in the conversion of the articles into a book is not Artese’s alone but is evidence of deep problems with the historicist project of the so-called “new modernist studies.” Artese argues that Conrad and James were suspicious of the rhetorical power-play of the journalism of their day in disguising individual reporters’ “testimony” in unauthored articles whose anonymity made an unwarranted claim to authority. This suspicion, according to Artese, leads these two novelists to develop textual strategies that carefully locate the testimonial authority of their witnesses. But this assertion about the origins of their narrative strategies conflicts with the other oft-heard line of argument among the new modernists that Artese also adopts and endorses—namely, that it is wrong to view the modern novel as focusing on epistemological issues and formal questions about how to render subjectivity (its so-called “inward turn”) because these are symptoms of more fundamental political, social, and institutional problems. The alleged concern of “impressionism” with these matters is “a great shibboleth in modernist studies” (6), in Artese’s words, and he instead wishes “to demonstrate...that this embrace of subjectivity and this retreat inward, purportedly the necessary consequences of Conrad’s [and James’s] narrative arrangements...