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  • Joseph Conrad & J. Hillis Miller
  • Richard Niland
J. Hillis Miller. Reading Conrad. John G. Peters and Jakob Lothe, eds. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2017. xxvi + 266 pp. Cloth $129.95 Paper $34.95

READING CONRAD BRINGS TOGETHER respected critic J. Hillis Miller’s major reflections on Joseph Conrad’s writing over the course of his influential career. Following a useful introduction by editors John G. Peters and Jakob Lothe, noted Conrad scholars in their own right, which sets out the significance of Conrad in Miller’s life and literary criticism, there then follows a brief personal reflection by Miller himself entitled “Conrad and Me” on his life-long attachment to Conrad’s work. Here he recalls his first encounter with the author through a reading of Typhoon, that text’s curious presence amidst his father’s otherwise distinctly non-Conradian shelves, and his own political, literary and philosophical affinities with Conradian themes and contexts.

The focus of these essays is on Conrad’s major fiction: Heart of Darkness, The Secret Agent, Lord Jim, “The Secret Sharer” and Nostromo. Spread over a career that dates back to the 1950s, the essays not only display Miller’s adroitness as an original critic, but also the ways in which he has responded to shifting political and cultural attitudes to Conrad’s texts and to evolving currents in literary criticism. In particular, the essay “Heart of Darkness Revisited,” originally published in 1985, is drawn upon to engage in a useful dialogue with the work of philosopher Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe in Miller’s later essay “Revisiting “Heart of Darkness Revisited,’” first published in 2012, allowing the volume to display a level of inter- and trans-textuality that reflects many of the post-structuralist concerns of Miller’s work more generally. While Miller returns to his own previous critical enunciations [End Page 451] in this instance, more importantly he reiterates the importance of the readerly return to Conrad. Conrad’s richness lies in the fact that “it is possible to go back again and again to the same work by Conrad and always find something new to say about it.”

A case could be made with some of these essays for greater concision— the one on Nostromo runs to 87 pages—but the collection demonstrates the scope of Milller’s concerns, from an analysis of repetition and the cyclical in Lord Jim as “an attempt on Conrad’s part to understand the real by way of a long detour through the fictive” to how, ultimately, any explication of the novel must rely on evidence “only to be found within the novel, not in any texts outside it.” This placing of literature in an indeterminate space also informs the reading of Heart of Darkness, where the novella is understood as “a radically fictional transposition of historical and autobiographical facts that can by no means be fully explained by them, formally, thematically, or rhetorically.” In addition, Miller’s attraction to subjects such as irony and the parabolic come to the fore throughout. For him, Heart of Darkness is both parabolic and apocalyptic in form, and, indeed, Miller acknowledges that the “key terms in my reading are Biblical ones: parable, apocalypse, and allegory.” The parabolic form also relates to what Miller understands as one of the great constants of the narrative and the literary, namely that “Literature, particularly story-telling in literature, as well as teaching and writing about literature, seems to have something to do with the sharing of secrets.” By way of Derrida, Miller observes that a “true secret, if there is such a thing, cannot be revealed.” Such secrets, bound up with the incommunicable and ineffable elements of literature, allow for Miller to indicate his skepticism about what particular trends in literary criticism might ultimately tell us, noting the passing vogue for the subject of the body, affect, and more recently cognitive science, which leave the critic making it clear that he “cannot quite be satisfied by the vision of literary studies happily reduced to the study of brains scans.”

Overall, this volume is a valuable resource for readers interested in the evolution of attitudes to the work of Joseph Conrad and also in charting...


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pp. 451-453
Launched on MUSE
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Will Be Archived 2021
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