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The Rescue: The Physiology of Sensation and Literary Style

From: Conradiana
Volume 43, Numbers 2-3, Fall/Winter 2011
pp. 25-50 | 10.1353/cnd.2011.0030

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Energy physics and the physiology of sense reception and transmission dramatically illuminated, in the mid-nineteenth century, the nature of the material medium within which we live, and the outward and inward aspects of the sensations by which we experience it. Results in the experimental sciences were understood and discussed beyond the confines of those disciplines, and the physiologists' term "sensationism," first used in 1863, both draws upon and contributes to a long history of thought about the constituent nature of human knowledge.

The concept of sensation became important in human thought by way of philosophical empiricism: knowledge comes to the mind through the avenues of the senses. For this reason empiricism has always been allied to sensationism and, among British empiricists, to their associationism. Physiologists turned to the problems of sensation after Bell's and Magendie's discovery (1811-1822) that sensory and motor nerves are different—the Bell-Magendie law.

So begins Edwin Boring's classic 1942 historical account, Sensation and Perception in the History of Experimental Psychology; this essay on what would seem a topic remote from Boring's technical scientific discussion—Conrad's romantic adventure novel, The Rescue—seeks to show how the novel also can enter Boring's history of modern discoveries in sensation and perception. In so doing, I propose a reading of Conrad in which experience manifests itself in physiological phenomena, often opaque and resistant to interpretation, rather than being the property of mental operations open to the novelist's close analysis.

To the extent to which Conrad is a sensationist, his Modernism reaches back to a modernity inaugurated by Müller's and Helmholtz's discoveries in the physiology of the senses, as opposed to the more completely psychological apprehension of a mental interior associated with the novels of James Joyce and Woolf. What follows establishes not direct influences upon Conrad but an intellectual context within which to read his early fiction, and argues through a study of some moments from the novel that took him longest to write, The Rescue, that the epistemology inherent in these novels creates a densely atmospheric medium within which man's place in the world is dramatized in a way that asks to be distinguished from that of the Modernist novelists to whom he is usually linked in histories of the novel. In his attention to sensation prior to thought processes, and his insistence upon the palpable invasive presence of the exterior world, Conrad is closer to a forerunner with whom he is less often associated—Hardy.

In his own first reference to The Rescue, contained in a letter to Garnett of 23/4 March 1896, Conrad humorously announces, "I am looking for a sensational title," clearly using the word in its accepted literary, rather than scientific, sense (CL 1: 268). However, it is a novel whose style is so saturated by the literary transcription of the phenomena produced by seeing, hearing and touching, that most of its pages describe sensory orientations in space and, as such, explore dimensions in which contemporary physics and physiology were also showing great interest. In The Rescue Conrad put a style created by "an absolute truth to my sensations (which are the basis of art in literature)"—as he later claimed in his famous defence of his art to William Blackwood, who was losing faith in Conrad's ability to write The End of the Tether (CL 2: 418)—in the service of a story in which "absolute faith" becomes more and more subject to sensational uncertainty. The action of the novel progressively disarms Lingard of the "careless certitude" with which he handles his brig, "as if every stone, every grain of sand upon the treacherous bottom had been plainly disclosed to his sight" (53), until he becomes a figure wearing "a fixed smile" repeatedly asking, "Can one see any distance over the water? . . . Has anything at all been seen?" in the face of one of Belarab's headsmen's assurance that, "If you see anything, Tuan, it will be but a shadow of things" (437).

A sentence in the manuscript of 'The Rescuer', sadly cut from The Rescue, can serve to introduce the way in which, in trying to...

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