- Conrad & Language
THE FIRST THING people ask me about the work of Joseph Conrad concerns language. “How,” they ask, “could a Pole write such extraordinary novels in English?” Until now, I have been unable to give more than a flippant answer, marveling with them that he wrote so beautifully in his third language. Katherine Isobel Baxter and Robert Hampson’s Conrad and Language suggests I was wrong; English may actually have been Conrad’s sixth language, following Polish, French, Latin, German, and Russian.
As the introduction claims, one great strength of this volume is that it adds to our understanding of one central concern in Conrad’s work: the uncertain relationship between language and truth, which remains a vital issue of our own time. And it places Conrad in the context of late-nineteenth-century interest in comparative linguistics: “While Conrad may not have thought of his own writing practice in this quasi-scientific way, nonetheless his own assessment of language in the world echoes in an existential vein the same concerns for the precarious and arbitrary condition of language expressed by Frege, Wittgenstein and Saussure.” As the noted Conradian, Laurence Davies, eloquently suggests in his “Afterward,”
The chapters … consider many junctures, many differences—not so much polarities as swirls of literary energy between and among spoken and unspoken, spoken and written, articulate and inarticulate, multinational and domestic; terms of art and terms of common discourse, heteroglossia and polyglossia, frankness and evasion, ontology and epistemology, the locutionary or illocutionary and the perlocutionary.… These studies of Conrad [End Page 544] and language mix in various proportions the aesthetic, philosophical, ethnographic, historical, ethical, cultural and geographical with the linguistic.
The problem of a collection of this nature is nearly always unevenness—both in quality and in style—which make it difficult to review in a general way. The focus on language also does little to delineate the content of the volume, so the chapters range widely in their focus and theoretical foundations, from literary theory to linguistics to colonial discourse theory to various areas of philosophy. Some chapters seem to have been truncated to meet the publisher’s word limit. Others need greater illustration and documentation. Still others add insufficiently to what we already know. However, overall this is a well-edited and sometimes revelatory collection that includes chapters by some of the most thoughtful and original academics working today in Conrad studies.
Hampson’s “Conrad and Nautical Language: Flying Moors and Crimson Barometers” takes up the observation from the introduction that Conrad looked back nostalgically on his life as a sailor in part because a sailor’s language is concrete: an existential hedge against chaos and the void. He praises that language in The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’, Lord Jim, “Typhoon,” and “The End of the Tether” for its efficiency and its clarity—clarity even for the non-expert. He touches on the ways Conrad euphemized standard sailor profanity, but he is as careful as any Victorian with his own language. Hampson might have done a full translation of Conrad’s often amusing euphemisms, but he refrains, merely translating words such as “b’gosh” to “by God” and “durned” to “damned,” avoiding translation of more explosive profanity. When he notes that Conrad euphemizes the “cloacal nature” of the Patna captain’s language, he employs euphemisms himself. Conrad, he writes, “offers a double-voiced text: an irreproachable text for the delicate or juvenile reader and a readily translatable text for those with stronger nerves.” This begs the question: How did sailors curse in the 1880s and 1890s? He refrains as well from sufficiently examining Conrad’s use of the term “nigger” in The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus.’ In their reviews, Hampson tells us, Americans noted that its use violated good taste on our side of the Atlantic, while British reviewers tended to ignore it. As Hampson points out, however, Wait himself objects to the term, used by the infamous Donkin, in the novella. Hampson might have contributed to the debate about Conrad’s use of the term, and...