The Victorian Sage

"Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased"

Month: February, 2015

Chance (1913), by Joseph Conrad

Available for free on Kindle, Chance is not one of Conrad’s better known books now, but it was his first major commercial success on its initial release, succeeding where Nostromo, Lord Jim, et al., had, relatively speaking, failed. In Jeffrey Meyers’ biography, he suggests reasons for Chance‘s success including: a good publicity campaign, an influential review by Sidney Colvin in the Observer, a dust jacket showing an attractive lady, an “affirmative ending”, and “a romantic and sentimental heroine who is cruelly victimized and then rescued by love” (Cooper Square, 2001, p. 270). Women don’t usually play a large part in Conrad, not directly anyway. They can be, though, important absent symbolic presences, like Kurtz’s intended in HoD, who appears only briefly, but who can be read as a justification, in her beauty, innocence and embodiment of “that great and saving illusion that shone with an unearthly glow in the darkness”, for the lies and inhumanities of colonialism. But Chance does have a female character among the leads, and it also offers a chance for its narrator Marlow (the narrator of “Youth”, Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim, revived here after a decade of silence) to expound his views on gender and sexuality.

And it is Marlow’s voice that will determine the reader’s response to the book. Rather than responding to the active characters, one is experiencing everything filtered through Marlow’s voice. I disliked the book, and this comes down to the fact that Marlow is a bore. He’s at his worst when expounding on gender, and as he does this a lot in Chance, one’s patience is sorely tried. The reflections in this book differ from earlier works in that they are responding to feminism – only one year before Chance‘s publication, Emily Davison had thrown herself beneath the king’s horse at the Derby, in one of the most iconic moments in feminist history. A minor female character in Chance has written a book on feminism and female suffrage:

It was a sort of hand-book for women with grievances (and all women had them), a sort of compendious theory and practice of feminine free morality.  It made you laugh at its transparent simplicity. (51)

As that quote indicates, Marlow does not take feminism at all seriously – or tries not to, though his constant reflections on gender issues indicate that it has given him food for thought. Marlow’s attitude is, in fact, frankly reactionary:

A man can struggle to get a place for himself or perish.  But a woman’s part is passive, say what you like, and shuffle the facts of the world as you may, hinting at lack of energy, of wisdom, of courage.  As a matter of fact, almost all women have all that—of their own kind.  But they are not made for attack.  Wait they must.  I am speaking here of women who are really women.  And it’s no use talking of opportunities, either.  I know that some of them do talk of it.  But not the genuine women.  Those know better.  Nothing can beat a true woman for a clear vision of reality[.] (221)

So it is clear that Marlow has little time for feminism. Those women who actively seek societal change (i.e. those who “attack”, in Marlow’s term here) are simply not “really women” (a perfect example of a “no true Scotsman” fallacy). Thus Marlow is upholding the classic Angel in the House/ Ruskin’s “Of Queen’s Gardens” view of passive, domesticated womanhood, refusing to historicize or contextualize this at all, rather seeing it as the essence of the female role. Note also how arrogantly dismissive he is of any other viewpoint (“say what you like”). Perhaps this steadfast reactionism against an unsettling politico-social phenomenon accounted for some of the novel’s popularity as well.

But the stance taken is so lacking in imaginative sympathy and nuance that one has to question Conrad. To find his attitude even remotely worthy of interest, one would have to posit a considerable gap between Conrad himself and his narrator Marlow. I’ve said before that I don’t think such a gap exists in HoD, and I would apply that to Chance as well. Much is made of Conrad’s irony, and how that pervades even the portrait of Marlow (for example, C.P. Sarvan’s essay), but in that, as in much else, Marlow reflects Conrad. Marlow too is perpetually ironic, mocking, sardonic, as here in Chance:

Marlow emerged out of the shadow of the book-case to get himself a cigar from a box which stood on a little table by my side.  In the full light of the room I saw in his eyes that slightly mocking expression with which he habitually covers up his sympathetic impulses of mirth and pity before the unreasonable complications the idealism of mankind puts into the simple but poignant problem of conduct on this earth. (255)

Marlow, too, is always mocking, an embodiment of that Conradian irony, and can, with this attitude, stand in judgement of all mankind with its pitiful and childish ideals. Conrad and Marlow seem to me to be the prototypical examples of Zizek’s contemporary ideology:

[I]n contemporary societies, democratic or totalitarian, […] cynical distance, laughter, irony, are, so to speak, part of the game. The ruling irony is not meant to be taken seriously, or literally. Perhaps the greatest danger for totalitarianism is people who take its ideology literally […]. (The Sublime Subject of Ideology, Verso, 2008) p. 24.

To be complicit in ideology is not to believe in the system, it is precisely to not believe, but to let one’s actions do the believing for one. The not-believing, then, is done with an overlaying of ironic distance, and is practically indistinguishable from believing. This is Conrad: he does not believe, but he wishes to uphold the status quo, anyway, and he needs to co-opt the ironic position to do it. His irony, in so far as he is being ironic, is not a qualification to his arch conservatism, but a justification for it.

In short, then, I’ve never enjoyed a Conrad novel to any great degree, and reading Chance I’m reminded of all that’s worst about him. Indeed, so uninspiring and irritating a read is it, that it prompts one to reflect on the vagaries of circumstance (and, indeed, chance) that make a writer into a canonical figure, part of The Great Tradition. In Chance, Conrad failed spectacularly to engage with any degree of sensitivity or balance with an element of the emerging socio-political landscape. All he could do was turn his irony on it, sneer superciliously, and resurrect the ideologies of the past, as a Ruskin without passion, a Ruskin who knew he didn’t believe in the old, but was also unable to engage with anything new.

Film Adaptation of Pynchon’s Inherent Vice

One of the perks of being a grad student is the possibility of wandering into a cinema in the early afternoon of a week day, when one can have almost an entire theatre to oneself. One pities the poor fools who have to crowd in like cattle to weekend showings. Nothing says freedom like cinemagoing on weekday afternoons. Popcorn in hand – or maybe a pack of sweets from the next-door newsagents if I’m not feeling too extravagant, feet maybe on seat (gasp!), I settle into the womb-like darkness and give myself over to the magic of movie narrative.

So that’s what I was doing on Tuesday just past. I wandered into an almost empty theatre to watch Inherent Vice, the adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel from 2009. This film has been well received by critics: 81/100 from Metacritic, for example. General viewers have been more polarized, as can be seen from the debates on IMDb’s Message Boards. Most critics, I imagine, watch this as an adaptation. That is, they know (or know of) Pynchon’s novel. They know, also, that director Paul Thomas Anderson is a much feted auteur. So this film has a lot of prestige around it. It’s the first ever adaptation of a Pynchon novel, too, so interest has been high. I read the novel when it first came out – I recall enjoying it considerably, but little in the way of detail.


It’s set in 1970, in LA, and is pretty much entirely focalized on PI and hippie doper, Doc Sportello. It’s heavily inflected with real-life events of the time: the Manson murders and trial, Vietnam, etc. Generically, it’s somewhat of a crime noir in the Chandler, Hammett mode, but Sportello is no Sam Spade, rather a typically Pynchonian schlemihl. Mostly, at least: there’s a (now famous/ controversial, since the movie) sex scene where he mans up and gets all Sam Spade about stuff (not that there are any actual sex scenes in Hammett’s Sam Spade books, as I recall). But it’s also a very funny book. Reviewers at the time tended to stress its engaging and accessible character, by comparison with Pynchon’s other novels, famously difficult. This tends to recall a famous exchange between Truffaut and Hitchcock:

Tr.: I take it then that you’ll never do a screen version of Crime and Punishment.

Hit.: Even if I did, it probably wouldn’t be any good.

Tr.: Why not?

Hi.: Well, in Dostoyevsky’s novel there are many, many words and all of them have a function.

Tr.: That’s right. Theoretically, a masterpiece is something that has already found its perfect form, its definitive form.

Thus Inherent Vice is the first of Pynchon’s novels that is adaptable precisely because it is not a masterpiece, but a genre piece. Plot-wise, it kind of follows the rules: all the paranoia about conspiracy theories is resolved in a fairly coherent denouement, much more so than, say, V., anyway. And one shouldn’t be too picky about the denouement of the film, because of the history of the noir genre: famously, films like The Big Sleep (1946) have plots that don’t properly resolve – noir is not Agatha Christie.

One thing that’s clear from rereading parts of the book over the last few days is that Anderson really went for fidelity. Most of the dialogue is verbatim from Pynchon. The change is mostly in the area of condensation: it’s all Pynchon, but it’s not all of Pynchon. One unusual choice is in the voiceover. Pynchon’s narrator is heterodiegetic (i.e. not a character), but the language of the narrator is that of Doc, and when he get into doc’s mind it’s sometimes hard to tell where the voice of Doc’s thoughts (presented as free indirect discourse) ends and the voice of the narrator begins. Doc and the narrator seem inextricably linked. But Anderson goes with a female narrator (voiced by musician and now actor Joanna Newsom). Doc still remains at the centre of the film, though. He’s the one we know: well-meaning but ineffectual, a perennial loser in some respects, but pretty zen about it. Which is why the aggressive sex scene mentioned above has seemed pretty jarring to some (though it’s par for the course with Pynchon, who’s a very, well… pervy writer).

Joaquin Phoenix is well cast as Doc: he drawls, he mumbles, he has an off-kilter, enigmatic charm that keeps the character warm. The relatively unknown Catherine Waterston was good as Doc’s “eternal feminine draw[ing] us ever upward” (kinda) love interest Shasta. Lots of well-known faces pop up in supporting roles to keep it interesting. There’s an intriguing side-love-plot between Doc and a DA played by Reese Witherspoon. Just a couple of scenes, but a nice juxtaposition there. So my knowledge of this film is not so great as to allow me to perform a full formal analysis,  but I think I can stretch to an experiential analysis. Experientially, I would say: I enjoyed it. So, yeah. That’s about it. Its two and a half hours didn’t drag, and that sense of well-being that comes from being in a cinema theatre on a Tuesday afternoon was not dissipated by the film itself, its anti-establishment vibes chiming neatly with the sense of being an outlaw that comes with such an excursion.


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