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  • Empire and Pilgrimage in Conrad and Joyce by Agata Szczeszak-Brewer
  • Adam Barrows
Agata Szczeszak-Brewer. Empire and Pilgrimage in Conrad and Joyce. Gainesville: UP of Florida, 2011. xii + 201 pp.

The aesthetic sensibilities of Joseph Conrad and James Joyce, those two great émigrés of twentieth-century literature, were shaped by the political upheavals and deeply ingrained Catholicism of the nations in which they were born. In Empire and Pilgrimage in Conrad and Joyce, Agata Szczeszak-Brewer argues that Conrad’s and Joyce’s narrative imaginings of colonial power relations and imperial cartographies can be understood as attempts to work through empire’s dependence on dichotomous conceptions of the sacred and the profane. An intermingling of political ideology with mythical and messianic Judeo-Christian conceptions of the sacred was characteristic of both Polish and Irish national resistance movements. Conrad and Joyce, then, perhaps more than other modernists, were keenly attuned to empire’s reliance on mythical conceptions of cosmogony and pilgrimage and more cognizant of how damaging and self-destructive those conceptions were in a modern world marked by ambiguity and alienation.

The book is divided into sections on “Empire” and “Pilgrimage,” with each section beginning with a brief theoretical introduction before moving to close readings first of Conrad and then of Joyce. This leaves the framing introductory and concluding chapters to do the work of making the relationship between the authors more substantive than is indicated by the two conjunctive “ands” of the title. These framing chapters are in many ways the richest and most productive in the book, as Szczeszak-Brewer first draws compelling linkages between the Polish and Irish nationalisms that formed the foundation for Conrad’s and Joyce’s unique insights into the mythical nature of colonial ideologies, and then sketches a number of immensely suggestive parallels between various themes, symbols, and characters in the work of the two authors.

While “geographically remote from each other,” Szczeszak-Brewer explains, Poland and Ireland were linked not only by their “similar political struggles” but also by their “religious affiliations and influences,” which tended to blur the distinction between the political and the sacred (11). “Because of the repressive censorship in the subjugated countries and the messianic nature of both Polish and Irish nationalisms,” she writes, “politics often blended with religion and myth when young Józef’s and James’s aesthetic sensibilities were being shaped” (12). Bringing to bear on her argument the insights of a range of Polish-language scholars not often mobilized in English-language modernist scholarship, such as Caroline Hyland, Adolf Nowaczyński, and Zdzisław Najder, Szczeszak-Brewer’s comparison between Poland and Ireland is admirably attentive to historical detail and cultural nuance. [End Page 178]

Szczeszak-Brewer is an imaginative and rigorous close-reader, particularly of Conrad (she is a winner of the Bruce Harkness Young Conrad Scholar Award), and her skills are on full display in the concluding chapter, which draws a number of brief but provocative comparisons between the two authors, any one of which could have been expanded into a chapter in its own right. She reveals Stephen Dedalus and Nostromo’s Martin Decoud to be secret sharers and shows the extent to which Joyce and Conrad use Buck Mulligan and Heart of Darkness’s Russian harlequin, respectively, to both deploy and interrogate the archetypal figure of the trickster or jester. She highlights the bitter ironies both of “Home Rule” in Ulysses and of the “domestic drama” that is Conrad’s The Secret Agent (162), while charting not only Leopold Bloom’s but also Nostromo’s and Adolf Verloc’s anti-Odyssean circular flânerie, as the characters orbit homes to which they can never return without engaging in acts of willful amnesia and betrayal.

While these and other textual readings throughout the book are compelling, Szczeszak-Brewer’s central thesis depends a bit frustratingly on an oversimplified conception of empire that sees it as fundamentally unchanged in practice and ideology since the beginning of human times. It is for this reason that she relies more heavily on the mid-twentieth-century historian of religion Mircea Eliade than on any other single theorist. Eliade’s The Sacred...


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pp. 178-180
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