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  • Problems with Theory of Mind in Victory
  • Judith Paltin (bio)

“this fair, palpitating handful of ashes and dust”1


Early and later readers of Victory alike have traced a contest in the text between philosophical detachment and withdrawal on the one hand, and social or emotional engagement on the other, with dramatic irony to be found in the quick deaths of Morrison and Lena after Heyst takes an active interest in them, a satisfactorily pessimistic denouement for a text published during the eruption of World War One. Cedric Watts notes in The Deceptive Text: “A central irony of the main plot [of Victory] (and one which had recurred in Conradian novels from Almayer’s Folly onwards) is that the man who benevolently intervenes in the lives of others actually sees disaster follow his intervention” (99). After bringing Lena to the island, Axel Heyst reproaches himself for being caught on the baited hook “like the silliest fish of them all”—he whose life “ought to have been a masterpiece of aloofness” and so, “he suffered” (174). If, on the other hand, as Robert Hampson has observed, the late novels are characterized by their open-ended exploration, we ought also to bring to center the text’s own broadest imaginative experiment, a fluid exploration which I will describe here as the sampling of a set of crucial disabilities about differentiating other’s mental states, needs, emotions and intentions from one’s own, deficits in the arena now referred to as theory of mind.3

Conrad’s interest in those deficits may have been motivated by the problem of international conflict, inasmuch as his narrow stage mirrors the more global context of nations on track to produce a great war. It may be read as a smaller, more tightly controlled analysis of the ways large national communities may [End Page 95] refuse or lack the collective cognitive ability to understand or translate an alien social mind, its tendencies, categories and desires. In reproducing such a contact zone and its relexifications, Conrad’s narrative performs the same kind of theorizing about minds that his text observes characters to perform. This essay maps several of Victory’s characters on the spectrum of theory of mind, works through its underlying schematics, shows the dynamic, open-ended nature of theory of mind and the linguistic interactions dependent upon it, and finally observes how it is precisely the problematic multilingual and intersectional context itself which becomes a benefit to perceiving alternative interiorities.

Heyst suffered. Encouraged (I admit) by the Author’s Note, critics have read Heyst as a dissociated character who gradually loses his principled stoicism without gaining a happy ending. As “the son of his father,” Heyst has a goal of perfect detachment, the narrator informs us, which the social world seems determined to make unachievable. The narrator remarks Heyst’s “hermit-like withdrawal,” “system of restless wandering,” “detachment” and so forth: “He became a waif and stray,”—he chooses to “drift,” “like a detached leaf drifting in the windcurrents under the immovable trees of a forest glade; to drift without ever catching on to anything” (90, 92). Yet all those immovable trees persist in bumping up against him. He has drifted so far through the world that everyone knows him and benefits from him. He buys old McNab drinks in bars and is called a “utop-ist,” he runs into Morrison on a street in Delli and somehow lets himself in for years of coal-grubbing and energetic “rushing all over the Archipelago, jumping in and out of local mail-packets as if they had been tram-cars” (8, 25).

John Howard Wills reads Heyst’s island as Axël’s castle, where Heyst fruitlessly attempts to barricade himself from the world’s pain, or, in other words, from its reality, until, like Axël, he commits suicide (25). M.C. Bradbrook, who disagrees about the presence of authorial irony, except insofar as Heyst’s own ironic “accent” is “close to part of Conrad himself,” establishes the importance of emotional tenor. In her reading, “Heyst is slowly coming to feel in the company of Lena,” though the concluding contest overwhelms them...


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pp. 95-107
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