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  • Conrad’s Writing as Criticism
  • Richard Niland
Michael John DiSanto. Under Conrad’s Eyes: The Novel as Criticism. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2009. xv + 253 pp. $85.00

Disanto’s Under Conrad’s Eyes explores Joseph Conrad’s engagement as both novelist and critical thinker with various important literary and philosophical voices of the nineteenth century. The study strives to take an awareness of Conrad’s relationship with figures such as Carlyle, Dickens, George Eliot, Dostoevsky, and Nietzsche beyond an acknowledgement of stylistic or philosophical echoes to a more sustained argument that sees Conrad’s work as a nuanced critical reading of its intellectual forerunners.

It is certainly true that Conrad “lived more of his life in the nineteenth century than in the twentieth, both literally and figuratively,” and DiSanto seeks to outline the ways in which the “shadows of nineteenth-century writers still enveloped the language and thought of the world in which Conrad wrote his novels.” His method is announced as [End Page 491] one in which “Conrad’s novels are read as critical texts in which he writes sustained meditations on the questions and ideas that preoccupied some of his major nineteenth-century predecessors.”

There is much to be said for such an approach, although given the rich nature of Conrad’s cultural inheritance such an undertaking will necessarily, and sometimes frustratingly, be highly selective. For example, in a work that presents itself as a discussion of Conrad and nineteenth-century ideas, no mention appears of the intellectual consequences of the French Revolution, Napoleon, Hegel, Marx, Poland, French literature, or nineteenth-century nationalism, and there is something immediately familiar about the choice of Carlyle and Dickens, while the pairing of Nostromo with Middlemarch conjures up memories of incongruous articles that attempt to connect these two big works. However, if the conception is sometimes obvious, or perhaps narrowly subjective, DiSanto’s analyses do ultimately bear some fruit by bringing a specific focus to topics of discussion that are often presumed to be definitively covered and addressed.

The section on Carlyle is the most impressive in this regard, given that so much work has already been done on outlining Conrad’s familiarity with, appreciation of, and intricate borrowing/updating/reworking of Carlyle’s ideas. DiSanto reinforces the complexity of Conrad’s adoption of Carlyle’s language, outlining the use of sartorial motifs and imagery in “Heart of Darkness,” and this chapter is especially illuminating on the ways in which Carlyle’s writing in Oliver Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches provided Conrad with a suitable vocabulary for presenting history itself as a “dark continent.” DiSanto asserts that “Conrad attempts to elevate himself above his predecessor in terms of a greater earnestness and stronger work ethic.”

However, at times an underlying, problematic conservatism manifests itself in some of the conclusions, especially when DiSanto claims that Marlow’s “criticism of life in Europe is extreme and unbalanced.” One is reminded of Graham Greene’s disappointment on hearing Maureen O’Sullivan in A Day at the Races label Groucho Marx’s quips as “silly.” Could it be, Greene observes, dismayed at such a departure from the earlier anarchic comedy of the Marx Brothers, that Groucho and Chico are merely silly and not poets of Edward Lear’s stature? Likewise, could it be that Marlow is merely an unbalanced, garrulous seaman and not a bitterly perceptive amateur philosopher?

There follows a philosophically underdeveloped chapter, lacking a firm epistemological approach, on “knowing and not knowing” in Bleak [End Page 492] House and The Secret Agent. While this section at times offers some clear readings, it simultaneously leaves the impression that the major analyses of Conrad and Dickens have still to be written, or, more likely, that Dickens’s relevance to Conrad’s writing is so overwhelmingly important and conventionally influential that there may be little by way of original criticism that one can say about it without descending into pedantic parallels. DiSanto, however, addresses this subject in his conclusion, noting that “the assumption is that Conrad’s indebtedness to Dickens is obvious, partly because of Conrad’s explicit admiration in A Personal Record, so it is hardly worth a careful commentary; however, the...


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pp. 491-494
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