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  • Joseph Conrad and the Anxiety of Knowledge by William Freedman
  • Yael Levin (bio)
William Freedman. Joseph Conrad and the Anxiety of Knowledge. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2014. pp. 176 ISBN 978–1–61117–306–2.

In Joseph Conrad and the Anxiety of Knowledge, William Freedman stages a return to the obscure, evasive and enigmatic, an aspect of Conrad’s poetics that has become something of a critical commonplace. If he returns to a question that has inspired such canonical works as Allon White’s The Uses of Obscurity (1981) and Paul B. Armstrong’s The Challenge of Bewilderment (1992) it is to demonstrate that existing treatments of Conrad’s obfuscations are lacking: “Accounts of evasiveness and indeterminacy that restrict causation to a calculated reflection of certain beliefs about the limitations of language or human comprehension overlook the darkly serious play of reluctance, aversion, self-deception and recoil. More important, perhaps, they overlook Conrad’s more consistently held and oft-repeated conviction that there were many things it was better not to know” (15). While he acknowledges critics’ work on Conrad’s skepticism, truth and the oscillation between the two, Freedman argues that critics have not given adequate attention to Conrad’s deliberate and persistent orchestration of a retreat from undesirable knowledge. Conrad, he goes on to claim, does not offer his readers a shelter in truths small or large, abiding or fleeting, but rather in the practice of avoidance and obscurity. The study thus hinges on a double premise: first, that evil and truth are in some way synonymous; and second, that the artist’s task is to evade the threats issued by this pairing for the sake of self-preservation.

The book opens with an array of examples from Conrad’s prose, personal correspondence and biographical writing, all forcibly testifying to the psychological benefits of not knowing. Taking its cue from H.M. Daleski’s The Way of Dispossession (1977), Freedman reflects on the importance of self-possession in Conrad’s life and art and on the tenuousness of such an enterprise. Art is used as a defense strategy, the rendering of a reassuring surface epistemology that will secure the individual against the threat of dissolution. An interesting contribution to current [End Page 141] debates on the writer’s relation to modernism, Freedman’s interpretation might be said to distinguish Conrad’s poetics from the two aesthetic impulses that underlie the movement. They are neither the mimetic representation of the historical and social fragmentation associated with the fin de siècle, nor the artistic harmonization of the crisis, the shoring of fragments against one’s ruins. Rather than a modernist, Conrad is fashioned in this study as the reactionary who chooses to use his art to hide and conceal in order to allow himself, his readers and characters alike a moment longer in the bliss of unknowing.

The first chapter traces a history of the literary topos of forbidden knowledge, a rewardingly defamiliarizing frame for the close textual analyses in the chapters that follow. A host of cultural references from Scripture and Greek mythology to Freudian psychoanalysis are brought in evidence. While the multiplicity of associations here are intensely evocative, they are all finally funneled into the archetypal woman and “all she [is] traditionally and intimidatingly associated with . . .” (7). Such slippage is prevalent throughout the study and suggests that though Freedman relegates his focus on Woman to an appendix, she is nonetheless at the heart of his project, a shadowy second to the theme of epistemological evasion. The manner in which the master trope of Woman collapses together multiple signifieds is at times confusing, particularly as the two themes most closely associated with the figure are at odds with one another. Woman is both inherently unknowable and forbidden—two epistemological axioms that do not make for a logical combination. Such a contradiction might be ironed out if we view it as a performative mirroring of the ambiguity evident in Conrad’s works but it is not clear whether this is indeed Freedman’s objective here.

Chapters two and three present close readings of Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim and their manifold expressions of evasion...


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pp. 141-144
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