- Conrad, Faulkner, and the Problem of Nonsense by Maurice Ebileeni
Maurice Ebileeni’s psychoanalytic reading of Joseph Conrad and William Faulkner explores five of their novels in the light of the French philosopher Jacques Lacan’s concepts of non-sens, symptom, and sinthome. It is a demanding but rewarding read. The concept of nonsense is shown to be a means of sublimating the textual recognition of the chaotic in three works by Conrad— Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness, and Under Western Eyes—and in two works by Faulkner—The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying. In his consideration of nonsense as a concept during his 1955 lectures in Paris at l’Hôpital Sainte Anne, Jacques Lacan referred to Aristotle’s definition of nonsense or tuché as a trauma or a missed encounter with the real. Lacan expanded the concept when he gave his first seminar at the Ecole Freudienne in Paris in 1964, noting that nonsense was inassimilable to the symbolic order because it remained outside the domain of conceptualization.
In Lacanian terms, the dying words of Kurtz, “The Horror! The Horror!” in Conrad’s novella “Heart of Darkness” indicate the existence of an unrecognized and unresolved trauma. In relating the nature of Kurtz’s excesses of avarice and cruelty during the time he worked in Africa, the story’s narrator, Marlow, indicates the origin of the unresolved trauma and gives the words of Kurtz posthumous significance. Ebileeni suggests that the efforts of Conrad’s narrators to understand the symptom—what is going wrong in the life of another character—constitutes a valuable exercise, but one that, in the case of extreme perseverance on the part of a narrator, can become an indicator of neurosis. During his meeting with Kurtz’s fiancée in Brussels, Marlow comes to the full realization that what he knows about Kurtz is unspeakable and should not be repeated. When Kurtz’s fiancée inquires about the last moments of Kurtz’s life, Marlow tells her the untruth that Kurtz spoke only her name before dying. Marlow’s decision not to communicate the last words of Kurtz [End Page 81] to her because the words were too terrible to repeat increases their resonance in the story while freeing Marlow from any further attempt to discover their exact meaning.
The haunting leitmotif of Kurtz’s unresolved trauma, “The Horror! The Horror!,” continues to echo the existence of the chaotic in the life of Kurtz and the missed encounter of his fiancée with the real, but the words themselves can no longer draw Marlow into their vortex. Ebileeni believes that the efforts of Conrad’s narrators to identify the symptom in the lives of other characters and to understand their distress will protect them and prevent them from sharing a similar destiny. Marlow employs an eloquent metaphor to describe his own close call with fate: “I had been permitted to draw back my hesitating foot.”
Ebileeni believes that Benjy’s howling in The Sound and the Fury also represents the presence of an unexplained trauma. He also believes that the succession of howls seem to fill a gap in Benjy’s mind. Benjy’s successive howls also serve to reveal a certain degree of instability in the novel’s other characters. As trauma begets trauma, the novel’s other characters begin to recognize the necessity of maintaining effective communication with one another. Their change in attitude is due at least in part to their having witnessed Benjy’s futile attempts to make himself understood. The wrenching sound of his suffering reveals the extent of his trauma and underlines the dramatic composition of the novel.
Ebileeni’s explanation of the symptom in Conrad and the sinthome in Faulkner employs terms which Jacques Lacan defined in his 1974 and 1976 seminars in Paris. The symptom, or what is going wrong in a character, is considered by Lacan to be a form of neurosis, while the sinthome, the place where an error appears, creates a situation closer to psychosis. Lacan used the example of...