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Empire and Pilgrimage in Conrad and Joyce (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 48, Number 2, Winter 2011
pp. 378-380 | 10.1353/jjq.2011.0053

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Joseph Conrad and James Joyce may seem unlikely bedfellows, but in this cogent comparative study Agata Szczeszak-Brewer argues similarities between their respective countries, which are synthesized in Adolf Nowaczyński’s description of the Irish as the Poles “of the Western world” (9).1 She points to Conrad’s and Joyce’s common status as voluntary exiles before showing that both were at odds with their countries’ respective brands of national consciousness, with their congruous saturation in Catholicism, and with parallel linguistic and identitarian obsessions. Ireland and Poland endured the often harsh effects of colonialism but also bore the impact of a diffuse and repressive Catholicism. The fact that Szczeszak-Brewer stresses—“the Irish were not the only European ethnic group ridiculed for its adherence to the backward Catholic ways”—signals a helpful correction to the all-too-commonly overused perception of Ireland as an anomalous state rather than one that also has much in common with many other former subject lands, several of them in Europe (10).

At the heart of Szczeszak-Brewer’s analysis is the idea that both Conrad and Joyce, as modernists, are deeply concerned with interrogating the colonizing impulse. If Conrad put the Congo at the heart of his Heart of Darkness,2 Joyce, too, claimed in “Ireland, Island of Saints and Sages” that “for so many centuries the Englishman has done in Ireland only what the Belgian is doing today in the Congo Free State” (CW 166). Her book also takes its place among recent studies that finally begin to see how Joyce’s life-long joust with religion is just as important as his colonial or postcolonial status. Similarly convincing is her argument that Conrad and Joyce both blur the traditional model of the “monstrous colonized” against the “saintly colonizer,” a model “in which the Catholic-Protestant dichotomy was partially inscribed”—it was as far as Britain was concerned, but surely for the other great European colonial powers it was the other way round (10).

Szczeszak-Brewer argues for the ancient nature of the colonizing impulse, which she sees as just another re-run of the age-old need to assert the self, to protect the home, and to seek salvation by conquering all that was different. It plays on the dichotomies between self and other, normal and the abnormal, civilized and the primitive, sacred and the profane, cosmos and chaos. And the chaos experienced by the writers in question was, she argues, not simply the fruit of the nineteenth century’s belief unraveling in the disasters of World War I, but the playing out of a much deeper unease inherent in humanity.

Conrad’s and Joyce’s texts are seen as exploding and subverting the binaries sanctioned by hegemony and questioning the ordering principles inflicted on the world by European powers attempting to transform an “other world” into “our world” through a process by which the foreign world becomes “a place that needs to be organized, mapped, ‘cosmicized’” (22—a term she borrows from Mircea Eliade3).

Both Joyce and Conrad are shown to manipulate western imperialist ideologies of the sacred, which are often used to justify the colonizing project. Metaphors of pilgrimage and quest (individual and national) are interrogated, then seen to be used and abused as much by the colonialists as by those involved in the anticolonial struggle toward teleological liberation. Bloom is perceived as attempting to “escape the double oppression of colonized, predominantly Catholic through literal and metaphorical forms of pilgrimage” (118). He is walking towards self-identification in search of a center that is not there.

If a criticism of the book might be made, it is of its over-reliance on uncritical readings of Joyce’s Occasional, Critical, and Political Writings that are given too much importance.4 This is compounded by liberal borrowings from Vincent J. Cheng’s Joyce, Race and Empire and Enda Duffy’s The Subaltern Ulysses, both ground-breaking works in their time but ones offering readings that have been significantly challenged in the fifteen or so years since their publication.5 There is no mention of works such as—to name just two among many—Derek Attridge’s and Marjorie Howes...

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