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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 49.4 (2003) 874-876
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Cesare Casarino. Modernity at Sea: Melville, Marx, Conrad in Crisis. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2002. xli + 271 pp.
One might not readily associate Joseph Conrad with René Magritte, but just such an unexpectedly illuminating juxtaposition typifies Cesare Casarino's innovative criticism. For Casarino, Magritte's painting La Reproduction Interdite (1937)—depicting a man, with his back turned, gazing at a mirror reflecting an image of himself with his back turned—illustrates the breakdown of subjectivity, the erasure of the face, and the terror of and desire for doubleness in the charged space of the captain's cabin in The Secret Sharer (1910). That the book on Magritte's mantelpiece is Edgar Allan Poe's Aventures d'Arthur Gordon Pym (1838), another tale of fraught doubleness, deepens these insights and leads to Casarino's perceptive questions: "[W]hy do Poe, Pym, and all their doubles naturally gravitate toward ships at sea? Why are they produced and reproduced within the crammed and breathless enclosure of the heterotopia . . . that is the ship?"
Part of his answer, that The Secret Sharer is "principally a same-sex romance" revolving around "the ruse of a highly complex and unlikely narrative apparatus . . . mobilized so that two men could be put legitimately and secretly in the same bed," is provocative. To make this claim, Casarino poses a wide-ranging and compelling argument about the creation of modernity through crises of production and sexuality staged in the nineteenth-century sea narrative. The ship as heterotopia (Michel Foucault's term for a constructed utopia representing and contesting a culture's real sites) enables the portrayal of the body of labor central to a whaling industry about to dissolve and the crisis of same-sex desire created and regulated through contemporary culture. Such sea-based depictions reflect transitions [End Page 874] in the economies of power, capital, and the body marking the modern age in this persuasive study of how the sea narrative's archaic form became pressed into service for new cultural products.
Drawing on Karl Marx, Foucault, Louis Althusser, Leo Bersani, and a host of related critics, Casarino reads White-Jacket (1850), Moby-Dick (1851), The Nigger of the "Narcissus" (1897), and The Secret Sharer as sites of the interference of multiple cultural practices, as systematized by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in What is Philosophy? (1994). Thus, Casarino sees in White-Jacket "an experimentation with a new poetics of temporality" foreshadowing Walter Benjamin's concept of Jetztzeit (time of the now) and a preoccupation with preserving a moment when capital did not rule time. Casarino's central question examines how Moby-Dick and Marx's Grundrisse (1857) similarly textualize the production of crisis as a theoretical concept.
While the richness of his methodology threatens to swamp its own unifying structure, Casarino's well-developed close readings offer insightful new routes over often-traveled ground in Moby-Dick, read as an eroticized narrative recording the self-denial and abandonment of the kind that, to Marx, constitutes a "counterattack against capital" through the "crisis of pleasure." Casarino further identifies in the novel the notion of futur antérieur, with Melville documenting a dying artisanal world at its peak in a "delirium of writing" analogous to the political urgency and "prescience of crisis" informing Grundrisse. In one of Casarino's signal achievements, he deftly brings Marxist and Foucauldian lines of inquiry into conversation within the paradigmatic and formal space of the ship. The body as potentia, Ishmael's homosexual panic, and Ahab's attempt to abolish historical limits all support what Casarino convincingly argues takes place aboard modernity—or, specifically, in the ship figured as the space of modernity as crisis.
Paradoxically, Casarino's subtle and extensive reading of Moby-Dick marginalizes his engagement with Conrad. The Secret Sharer completes a portrayal of the ship as a closeted space where pleasures are "regulated by a dialectical economy of desire," but without the corresponding considerations of labor and capital in earlier chapters. His characterization of The Secret Sharer as...