- Recent Trends in Conrad Studies
It would seem that over the past two decades or so the call for new approaches to English literature has become increasingly pronounced, with the emergence in 1995 of the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers (as an alternative to the mla), and works such as After Theory by Terry Eagleton (2003) and Theory’s Empire: An Anthology of Dissent edited by Daphne Patai and Will H. Corral (2005). In this context, when it comes to Conrad studies we are left with questions about what lies beyond, [End Page 189] say, the well-traversed terrain of dialogism, the specialized language of Lacanian psychoanalysis, or the now-familiar tensions between critiques of and complicity with imperialism in Conrad’s fiction. Three recent contributions to Conrad studies explicitly aim to open new lines of thought for Conrad readers, with mixed results.
Joseph Conrad and the Performing Arts, edited by two recently established academics, brings together work by well-known and emergent Conradians. As its title suggests, the volume is preoccupied with examining the relatively unexplored realm of performance in Conrad’s writings. Only in the last decade has a pronounced interest in this area emerged, signaled in particular by Richard Hand’s important book, The Theatre of Joseph Conrad: Reconstructed Fictions (Palgrave, 2005). The current collection —because it is so wide-ranging, drawing from elements of performance from the theatre and theatricality to cinematography—is particularly valuable as it provides some groundwork for scholars who are interested in pursuing what the editors describe in their introduction as “one of the most interesting and nascent areas of Conrad studies” (10).
The volume opens with Linda Dryden’s “Performing Malaya,” an essay that explores anew the theme of imperialism in Conrad’s Malay fiction, by reframing the discussion with Clifford Geertz and James Clifford’s notions of culture and identity as performance. Drawing from A Personal Record, where Conrad uses theatrical imagery while reminiscing about his creative process in writing Almayer’s Folly and revisiting Conrad’s emphasis on fiction as a “visual performance” in the preface to The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus,’ Dryden argues that Conrad’s concept “art as performance” is inseparable from the ethico-political underpinnings of his literary project. That is, if “the theatrical experience” allows for “all the cast [to be] equally present before us” (14), Conrad’s theatrical imagination is consistent with his aim “to challenge the romance and adventure genre and its simplistic, reductive assumption about Eastern peoples” (12). Impressively wide-ranging, the essay offers readings of Almayer’s Folly, “Karain,” Lord Jim, and The Rescue, following a trajectory in Conrad’s oeuvre as he explored enactments of “cultural programming” at the start of his career which developed into an exploration of the arrogance and catastrophic results of European self-fashioning on the imperialist stage. We encounter in Dryden’s essay the somewhat worn-out claims about the “multivocality” of Conrad’s fiction, and her reading of Lord Jim is not, at base, particularly new. That said, the conceptual framework Dryden brings to Conrad’s Malay fiction enables readers to consider anew Conrad’s attempt to negotiate between cultural difference and “common human experiences and passions” (27). [End Page 190]
Dryden’s essay is followed by Susan Barras’s “‘Sly Civility?’: Mrs Almayer’s and Mrs Willems’s Performances of Colonial Resistance in Outcast of the Islands and Almayer’s Folly,” an essay that employs theoretical work by Erving Goffman and James C. Scott to shed light on how Mrs Almayer, Joanna Willems, and Aissa manage with varying degrees of success to exercise de facto power through performance. The backstage/front stage metaphor from Goffman’s theory and Scott’s application of this notion...