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  • Joseph Conrad and the Anxiety of Knowledge by William Freedman
  • Brook Miller
Freedman, William. Joseph Conrad and the Anxiety of Knowledge. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2014. 176 pp. $49.95 hardcover; $49.95 ebook.

Joseph Conrad and the Anxiety of Knowledge argues that Conrad equated truth with evil, and anxiously sought to avoid it. Truths, for Conrad, “may be devastating to the spirit, more particularly to personal identity and pride” (54). As he considers Conrad’s oeuvre chronologically, William Freedman argues that strategies of avoidance become more consciously and dramatically enacted. Conrad’s characters retain “saving illusions” that facilitate avoidance. These illusions are also Conrad’s, visible in obfuscatory tendencies in the narrative frameworks.

In lively, engaging prose (unintelligibility, for example, is described as “the palmed joker in Conrad’s deck of saving illusions” [62]), Freedman deftly employs Conrad’s occasional and nonfiction writings to demonstrate the author’s preoccupation with the dangers of truth. The strength of the book lies in subtle close readings of Heart of Darkness (1899), Lord Jim (1899–1900), Under Western Eyes (1911), and The Rescue (1920). For example, Freedman details a doubled structure of avoidance in Lord Jim: when Marlow the narrator’s “conscious deflection[s]” fail, an underlying “commitment to insoluble mystery and enigma” saves the day (82). Freedman offers an analogous reading of “cynicism” in Under Western Eyes, asserting that Conrad’s late decision to add the English narrator amplifies the obfuscation latent in the story proper.

Freedman challenges the idea that Conrad views truth as “irreducibly multiple, insubstantial, and subjective,” or that Conrad is a robust philosophical skeptic (13, 14). Freedman opposes “criticism…[that] views [Conrad’s] creative enterprise as quite masterfully calculated and controlled, leaving too little room for the psychological, emotional, and other unruly forces that influence literary choice and production” (34). To remedy this tendency, Freedman posits (in another attractive phrasing) Conrad’s “defensive urge and flight that, squidlike, jets the inky fluid of opacity across these texts” (60). Heart of Darkness, The Secret Sharer (1910), Lord Jim, and The Rescue are described as “doppelgänger tale[s],…interior narrative[s] whose progress [is] impeded by its more ominous personal implications” (110).

Freedman offers such assertions about Conrad’s psychology as heuristics, rather than biography. However, coupled with the use of universals (“truth” and “Woman”), they strand brilliant individual analyses in critical frameworks many readers will resist. The biographical theme takes several dramatic turns, such as Freedman’s claim that Razumov’s violent fate in Under Western Eyes represents Conrad’s “visceral revenge upon a character who has dared what he would not” (91). The biographical argument culminates with Freedman’s claim that The Rescue’s tortuous composition history indicates Conrad’s “sense of intolerable self-exposure” (4).

In privileging biography, Freedman resists the dominant historicism of contemporary criticism. For example, he views analyses of Heart of Darkness that frame the novel as “a study of the imperialist impulse and appetite…too narrowly political…ignoring [the Congo’s] metaphoric function as an image of the inner life, more specifically that of the descending artist in search of his truth” (49). This approach deemphasizes the politics often considered in analyses of Conrad’s aesthetics. For example, Freedman reads the island Patusan (in Lord Jim) as “an aesthetic island” (87). Instead of considering how (for example) colonial politics, or emergent forms [End Page 123] of capitalism, or modernist values shape this representation, Freedman argues that the island embodies “the menacing geography of the female” (87).

That is, rather than being shaped by specific, contemporary historical forces, Conrad’s anxiety is linked to gendered universals. For Freedman sees a “habitual connection between terrible truth often associated with woman or the feminine and the evasiveness, obscurity, and interpretive entanglements of these texts” (30). Historically-minded critics will feel Freedman’s approach to gender is overly broad. An appendix titled “Woman and Truth, the History of an Association” briefly traces a long durée arc of male, authorial fears about women’s bodies. It concludes by suggesting that these cultural myths led Conrad towards “a saving mystification and confusion that, in its obliteration of boundaries, effects a simultaneous...


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