- Conrad’s Destructive Element: The Metaphysical World-View Unifying Lord Jim by Kenneth Newell
Despite the esteem in which Lord Jim continues to be held, and the broad and ever-expanding library of works concerning Joseph Conrad’s oeuvre, only a handful of book-length critical texts have been dedicated to that particular novel, and fewer still to its metaphysical underpinnings. It is welcome, then, that Kenneth B. Newell has taken up the task of attending to the specifics of Conrad’s text, and to place that attention at the service of a unified reading of the two halves of the novel. Still, for an author keen to mine Lord Jim’s incomplete manuscript trail, he is perhaps unlucky not to have been able to avail himself of more recent volumes clarifying that work’s textual genesis—one thinks here of the 2012 volume for The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Joseph Conrad, edited by John Stape and ernest Sullivan, and those same scholars’ emendation of the source material, published as Conrad’s Lord Jim: A Transcription of the Manuscript (2011). None of this deters Newell, who makes extensive use of what exists of Conrad’s pre-publication drafts. This objectivity of method is crucial as it has prompted Newell to eschew “other interpretations of the novel” for the author’s words; hence his volume “differs from all other critical works [on Lord Jim] by quoting and using forty-eight variant readings from the main handwritten manuscript of the novel to clarify explication” (xiv). Because Newell’s purpose in the book is so closely tied to his approach, much of what follows stems from the fallouts of Newell’s decision to bypass so many contemporary points of critique. First, some broader observations.
Newell’s thesis concerns the unity of Lord Jim and the linked metaphysical and aesthetic features by which such unity is sustained. Stein’s pregnant phrase, “the destructive element,” proves central to this understanding, signifying the potentially chaotic realm of nature in relation to Jim’s “vivid and romantic nature” (xi). In Newell’s reading, the novel instructs us that to be “in life” is to [End Page 221] inhabit “an untrustworthy and precarious medium,” a belief aligned with Jim’s own psychological dispositions as well as Marlow’s (and Conrad’s) narrative outlooks (xii). To this extent, the universe is both impartial and home to blindly destructive capacities that individuals weather as they will. The waywardness of the “destructive element,” and one’s reactions to it, expose the limits of one’s character as they do the moral or human parameters of those around one. On this note, Newell quotes Marlow’s observation that Jim is finally engaged in “a subtle and momentous quarrel as to the true essence of life,” one in which standards of ideal conduct, moral standing, and failure play their parts (xiii). Moreover, and as further unified by Conrad’s literary aesthetics, Jim’s struggle with the universe’s destructive potential allows a sustained metaphysical outlook to be constructed across the Patna and Patusan halves of the text, thus providing the novel’s thematic and symbolic continuum. Indeed, Newell’s methodological combativeness suggests a long-standing concern with critics less likely to accede to claims of the novel’s literary cohesion, nor to the benefits of seeking such cohesion via its aesthetic and philosophical features: “Although it may be untimely and unfashionable, a close reading of Lord Jim that shows a unifying metaphysical world-view may still be considered relevant and even necessary to an understanding of the novel” (xvi).
There are corollaries to Newell’s rather traditionalist approach. A strong point is that, once past the methodological issues of the preface, his volume is free to pursue its argument unencumbered by the positional negotiations associable with much literary scholarship. Newell is upfront about his disinclination to broach theoretical points of view, let alone to beat a path through competing views. echoing Ian watt’s now classic Conrad...