The Victorian Sage

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

Tag: joseph conrad

Philip Roth: An Unadaptable Author (Voice and Argument in Adaptation)

Today’s Guardian does a hatchet job on Ewan McGregor’s (director and lead actor) adaptation of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, and along the way makes some points about the “calamitous history” of Roth adaptations. One problem they point up is the tendency to use voice over, apparently because adapters are unwilling to lose the Rothian voice. I suppose it indicates that voice is a far bigger element of Roth’s success than plot, and that voice tends to be less amenable to screen adaptation than plot. But such a failure is in itself interesting in the light it casts on the author adapted, in that an experience of the work shorn of the author’s voice can give us insights into the limitations of said author.  Roth, apparently, is less a great novelist than a great voice. But maybe the power of the voice is what lies behind everything, from novelists and poets to politicians and leaders. One is reminded, perhaps, of various passages concerning Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness:

The man presented himself as a voice. Not of course that I did not connect him with some sort of action. Hadn’t I been told in all the tones of jealousy and admiration that he had collected, bartered, swindled, or stolen more ivory than all the other agents together? That was not the point. The point was in his being a gifted creature, and that of all his gifts the one that stood out preeminently, that carried with it a sense of real presence, was his ability to talk, his words—the gift of expression, the bewildering, the illuminating, the most exalted and the most contemptible, the pulsating stream of light, or the deceitful flow from the heart of an impenetrable darkness.


A voice! a voice! It rang deep to the very last. It survived his strength to hide in the magnificent folds of eloquence the barren darkness of his heart. Oh, he struggled! he struggled! The wastes of his weary brain were haunted by shadowy images now—images of wealth and fame revolving obsequiously round his unextinguishable gift of noble and lofty expression. My Intended, my station, my career, my ideas—these were the subjects for the occasional utterances of elevated sentiments. The shade of the original Kurtz frequented the bedside of the hollow sham, whose fate it was to be buried presently in the mould of primeval earth. But both the diabolic love and the unearthly hate of the mysteries it had penetrated fought for the possession of that soul satiated with primitive emotions, avid of lying fame, of sham distinction, of all the appearances of success and power.

The idea of voice is one that has received attention in adaptation scholarship, although it is also one that can easily lend itself to evaluative fidelity criticism (“the film has the same plot, but, I don’t know, it just fails to capture Roth’s voice…). Can an adaptation have a voice of its own, or is it only a ventriloquist’s dummy? Andrew Davies is an interesting case study: an auteur of adaptations, an adapter whose voice is known. He is the only adapter who has been honoured with a scholarly monograph (that I can think of): Andrew Davies (Manchester UP, 2005) by Sarah Cardwell (one chapter of which is freely available on her page). Cardwell finds in Davies’ adaptations a particular voice of sympathetic irony (115), irrespective of who the source author is. She also considers that his best adaptations are, for the most part, those of authors who have a strong voice, not because he captures that voice in its singularity, but because he engages in a conversation with them, and, as he put it himself, “sometimes I’ll have a little quarrel with the authors” (ibid.). Thus, these works become multivocal, or, to use a word that Cardwell somewhat surprisingly doesn’t use, heteroglossic.

So, perhaps the problem with Roth adaptations is that the argument doesn’t take place. It’s easy when dealing with a reputedly great writer to take their words as holy writ. It takes confidence to approach adaptation more as a conversation or even a “little argument”. A paradigmatic example of the argumentative adaptation that I have been studying (and will be publishing on in the near future) is the 2007 BBC series of Oliver Twist, written by Sarah Phelps, which deals with issues of anti-semitism, class bias, and gender politics in Dickens’ novel. I’m not for a second suggesting that this series is a model (in fact, I’m not even sure I like it very much), but it is certainly a very different approach from the reverential one we often associate with the adaptation of works of literature.


Joseph Conrad’s Unnameable Book

Conrad’s third novel, published in 1897, is named The Nigger of the “Narcissus”, and this fact alone may account for its relative obscurity. Conrad himself, later in his career, looked back on Narcissus as his greatest artistic achievement:

It is the book by which, not as a novelist perhaps, but as an artist striving for the utmost sinceity of expression, I am willing to stand or fall. (Jeffrey Meyer, Joseph Conrad: A Biography)

To the modern reader it is most familiar, perhaps, not for any detail of the text itself, but for a peritextual element: the preface, a manifesto, as it has come to be seen, for the impressionist method:

All art, therefore, appeals primarily to the senses, and the artistic aim when expressing itself in written words must also make its appeal through the senses, if its highest desire is to reach the secret spring of responsive emotions. It must strenuously aspire to the plasticity of sculpture, to the colour of painting, and to the magic suggestiveness of music—which is the art of arts. And it is only through complete, unswerving devotion to the perfect blending of form and substance; it is only through an unremitting never-discouraged care for the shape and ring of sentences that an approach can be made to plasticity, to colour, and that the light of magic suggestiveness may be brought to play for an evanescent instant over the commonplace surface of words: of the old, old words, worn thin, defaced by ages of careless usage.


My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see. That—and no more, and it is everything.

Thus though there is an element of realism on Conrad’s work – and Narcissus has a considerable biographical element – everything is heightened so that physical details are experienced symbolically. There is not a shadow cast Conrad doesn’t elevate into something cosmic, some never-to-be-defined symbol of the human condition. Recall the insistent gloom at the beginning of Heart of Darkness (1899):

The air was dark above Gravesend, and farther back still seemed condensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth.


It was difficult to realize his work was not out there in the luminous estuary, but behind him, within the brooding gloom.


The water shone pacifically; the sky, without a speck, was a benign immensity of unstained light; the very mist on the Essex marsh was like a gauzy and radiant fabric, hung from the wooded rises inland, and draping the low shores in diaphanous folds. Only the gloom to the west, brooding over the upper reaches, became more sombre every minute, as if angered by the approach of the sun.

That gloom may function well enough as a realistic element, but Conrad’s reiteration makes clear that it pertains also to something within the characters’ experience during the story, and creates the impression in the reader of an unvanquishable sense of impotence and sadness attaching to human endeavour.

For some tastes, Conrad is all too insistent in his use of natural and other phenomena as vague metaphors for human experience. F.R. Leavis in The Great Tradition provides the classic statement of this position, referring specifically to Heart of Darkness:

[W]e have an adjectival and worse than supererogatory insistence on ‘unspeakable rites’, ‘unspeakable secrets’, ‘monstrous passions’, ‘inconceivable mystery’, and so on. If it were only, as it largely is in Heart of Darkness, a matter of an occasional phrase it would still be regrettable as tending to cheapen the tone.


Conrad must […] stand convicted of borrowing the arts of the magazine-writer (who has borrowed his, shall we say, from Kipling and Poe) in order to impose on his readers and on himself, for thrilled response, a ‘significance* that is merely an emotional insistence on the presence of what he can’t produce. The insistence betrays the absence, the willed ‘intensity’ the nullity. He is intent on making a virtue out of not knowing what he means.

I am quite sympathetic to this reading of Conrad, who certainly likes to hint at a deeper and darker knowledge that he cannot share with his readers. It is certainly a feature that seems to me to mar Heart of Darkness.

With The Nigger of the “Narcissus” I have come to somewhat share in the sense of Conrad’s power as a writer that so many distinguished critics, from Leavis himself up to Edward Said and others, have felt so strongly. I didn’t feel it with any of the major works, Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, The Secret Agent or Nostromo (I still haven’t completed the last). But Narcissus, problematic as it is, is also memorable and compelling.


The problems with Narcissus for a 21st-century reader are significant. With regard to the title, this is obvious. Some people point out that the n-word did not mean the same in the late 19th century as it means today. This is a point that I think can be overstated. Earlier in the 19th century, the n-word was already the preserve of those with racist views. This is clear to me from reading the Carlyle-Mill debate on slavery: the abolitionist Mill consistently used the term “negro” while the pro-slavery and explicitly racist Carlyle used, particularly in later works, the n-word quite profusely. So Conrad was positioning himself very clearly by his use of the word.

It doesn’t end there, though. Conrad was, as is clear from the discussion above, a very symbolic writer. He always hints at the great significance of details. And nothing in the book is more symbolically loaded than the title character, the black sailor James Wait. A full explication of what Wait symbolizes is impossible – perhaps because Conrad himself is not wholly coherent on this front – but that he is a deathly blight on life on board the good ship Narcissus is obvious. Early in the book the narrator (a member of the ship’s crew, though no detail on him is given) describes Wait as a “hateful burden”, evoking considerations of Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden” which appeared 2 years later. Later, Wait is associated with lying. Again, Heart of Darkness is recalled here. The narrator Marlow’s supposed hatred of lies is one of the motifs of that work, culminating in the lie to the beloved in the novella’s final scene. Here, again, lying and falsehood become central motifs in the latter part of the story:

Falsehood triumphed. It triumphed through doubt, through stupidity, through pity, through sentimentalism. We set ourselves to bolster it up from compassion, from recklessness, from a sense of fun. Jimmy’s steadfastness to his untruthful attitude in the face of the inevitable truth had the proportions of a colossal enigma—of a manifestation grand and incomprehensible that at times inspired a wondering awe; and there was also, to many, something exquisitely droll in fooling him thus to the top of his bent.

In a way that is slightly obscure, Jimmy/James Wait becomes responsible for an epidemic of falsehood among the crew. What exactly Wait’s falsehood lies in is not that clear. He is sick, and has been throughout the voyage. But is he pretending? Or is he in fact dying? Is it his actual ill health that provokes such a malaise among the crew, or his shamming (he is later described as having a “sham existence”). None of this is wholly clear.

The disturbing thing is that Wait is not just an inferior being, but one whose inferiority is somehow dangerous and even contagious, such that his death at the novel’s end is like the release from a spell. Read through a racial prism, this seems very dark indeed. Was Conrad just tapping into the symbolic resonances of blackness as established by poetry and literature over centuries, or is there a real political content to the book? This is the difficult question a 21st-century reader of the book must face, and, as always with Conrad, there is no clear answer. Similar questions arise with Heart of Darkness, of course, and maybe if that work had such a title as the present one, it would not have such a large readership.

Conrad’s narrator

There’s a curious anomaly regarding Conrad’s narrator. Conrad’s narrator’s do tend to be shadowy characters, observers rather than protagonists. But the narrator of Narcissus takes this to extremes. He has no name, his position in the ship is unknown, he never speaks to the other crew members, he is never acknowledged by them (this is from memory; maybe he does somewhere in the early part, but if so it’s very limited). In fact, were it not for the narratorial use of “we” to describe the crew, one would imagine a heterodiegetic narrator, not a homodiegetic one. And, indeed, some scenes are logically inconsistent with a homodiegetic narrator, notably the climactic scene between Wait and Donkin, culminating in the former’s death. Clearly, the players in the scene felt themselves unobserved, so how can any but an omniscient heterodiegetic narrator have recorded their encounter? Was he hiding in the cupboard?

Such anomalies are common enough in Conrad. As was long ago pointed out, much of Lord Jim was apparently told by Marlow at one sitting, yet the length of the work renders this a practical impossibility. It is an interesting question why Conrad insisted on using first-person narration when it was so unsuitable for the stories he had to tell, which is certainly the case in Narcissus. My hunch is that it relates to the implied Englishness of his narrators. A heterodiegetic narrator would be identified with Conrad himself, and have rendered his books more identifiably foreign, but by establishing the character of Marlow or the other narrators, Conrad is impersonating the English gentleman as he liked to do in real life as well. So the reason is less narrative than personal-psychological, I suggest.

Trade unionism and Filthy Eloquence

If one can’t help thinking of the politics of race in Conrad’s portrayal of Wait, his portrayal of Donkin is even more starkly ideological. Donkin’s dialogue is rendered phonetically, his cockney accent and dropped h’s contrasting with the rest of the crew. He also spins the rhetoric of workers’ rights and trade unionism. You don’t have to work hard to show that Conrad disapproves of such rhetoric. Very late in the book (the penultimate paragraph), the narrator says, with out-of-character brutality, “Donkin, who never did a decent day’s work in his life, no doubt earns his living by discoursing with filthy eloquence upon the right of labour to live.” As quoted, it loses something, but that filthy is striking in context. Conrad was an admirer of strong leadership, such as that demonstrated in time of crisis by Captain Allistoun in Narcissus; he was not at all a believe in democratic or socialist movements.

In short, one can’t count Conrad among the political progressives. But recent readings of Conrad do tend to count him in that group. As far as Heart of Darkness goes, this works by seeing as  all of Marlow’s racist and pro-imperialist comments as Conradian irony, while taking the anti-imperialist ones at face value. This is more difficult with Narcissus, as there is no clear irony in the narrator’s stance, so this book brings us even more starkly up against the challenging politics of Conrad, even while it beguiles with its often beautiful, though sometimes, one feels, slightly overheated, prose.


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 campaing, an influential review by Sidney Colvin in the Observer, a dust jacket showing an attractive lady, an “affirmative ending”, and “a romantic and sentimental heroizine 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 shocking and 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”. 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.

Reading Heart of Darkness and Conrad’s Biography

I’ve read all of Joseph Conrad’s major works – Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, The Secret Agent, Nostromo (still haven’t gotten around to finishing the last one, though) – plus several of the not-so-major ones, and have yet to really “get” what it is about him that has inspired such tributes from experts and literary critics. The Guardian are currently running a series of the 100 best novels of all time, and the recently published entry for Heart of Darkness shows how that book remains a central text of 20th-century literature, and a uniquely provocative piece of work. The short and rather insubstantial synopsis of HoD by Robert McCrumb has attracted no less than 332 comments – far more than any other in the series (David Copperfield, for example, only gets 38). The general consensus in these comments is interesting, in that it’s anti-Achebean; that is, it doesn’t accept the view famously put forward by Chinua Achebe that Conrad shows himself in this work to be a “bloody racist”. Rather it takes the searing-indictment-of-colonialism line, or else the ahistorical allegory-for-human-condition line. Both, obviously, are likely to produce reactions more favourable to the novel than the bloody-racist view. These were the views critiqued by Achebe, but they have evidently recovered and remain the dominant readings.

The searing-indictment-of-colonialism line is one that I have always found it difficult to get behind. That wasn’t how it struck me on my first reading of the novel many years ago, and it still doesn’t strike me that way. One key passage is often quoted:

The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea — something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to. . .

This passage is quoted by a poster calling himself “lurgee” on the Guardian page linked above; for the poster, it shows how Marlowe “understands the hollowness of the idea [of colonialism]”. To me, it shows the exact opposite – finishing on the idea of redemption for colonialism, even though it’s admitted to be very unpleasant in practice. I think that HoD, in short, can be seen as more or less an indictment of the practice of colonialism (or a specific practice, even), while remaining a defence of the idea. What I find objectionable in this is that it reads to me like Conrad’s message is that the idea always trumps the practice/ reality. That’s what the closing scene with the Intended is about: the practice/ reality of colonialism in the Congo is painted as horrendous, but even so, Marlow insists that the idea must be protected by the lie to the intended. Here I think Conrad is very Carlylean indeed. Carlyle’s central idea was of the importance of faith, as opposed to material reality:

Faith is properly the one thing needful; how, with it, Martyrs, otherwise weak, can cheefully endure the shame and the cross; and without it, Worldlings puke up their sick existence, by suicide, in the midst of luxury. (Sartor Resartus)

One can also draw a line here to Slavoj Žižek’s definition of ideology, as being related to the as if. The ideologist doesn’t really believe, but acts as if he/ she does. In a cynical, post-theological world, it is through the as-if ideologists that ideology is saved (The Sublime Object of Ideology). And this is Marlow: he doesn’t believe – in fact, he knows he’s speaking untruthfully – but he feels that the beautiful illusion should be perpetuated, even though it’s a mask for exploitation. The pretence of belief is still better than the admission that it’s all a sham. It’s the ideology of the cynic – the dominant form of ideology in contemporary society, according to Žižek. In this, the book really does reveal a “modernist” consciousness.

This probably begs the key point that separates searing-indictment readers from bloody-racist readers: Marlow. How do we read Marlow? Searing-indictmenters will see Marlow as your prototypically modernist unreliable narrator; bloody-racisters will see him as an avatar for Conrad himself. I tend to the latter view.  The term “unreliable narrator” originates with Wayne Booth, who wrote:

For lack of better terms, I have called a narrator reliable when he speaks for or acts in accordance with the norms of the work (which is to say, the implied author’s norms), unreliable when he does not. (The Rhetoric of Fiction)

Are the norms of HoD different from those espoused by Marlow? The provisional and blog post-ish nature of this analysis (so-called) will be clear when I say that I don’t remember any point in the narrative where this is apparent. There is no narrative outside Marlow bar the framing narrative, which is only a tiny proportion of the word count, and which provides little direct reflection on Marlow. But, then again, what description it does provide of Marlow is patently admiring, not to say worshipful. Think of the visual description:

Marlow sat cross-legged right aft, leaning against the mizzen-mast. He had sunken cheeks, a yellow complexion, a straight back, an ascetic aspect, and, with his arms dropped, the palms of hands outwards, resembled an idol.

There’s a definite sense in the descriptions of Marlow that’s he’s being presented as some sort of sage, a holder of mysterious knowledge beyond the ken of the frame narrator. So if Marlow doesn’t overtly reveal any unreliability, and the frame narrator paints Marlow in rather heroic colours, the only possible way to see Marlow as unreliable is by using the concept of irony.

Irony, quoth the OED, is: “[t]he expression of one’s meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect”. If one sees Conrad as being very ironic indeed throughout HoD, one can say that Marlow is unreliable. But is HoD as ironic as all that? There are moments of irony, certainly, perhaps even a persistent strain of irony, but to see Marlow as unreliable, one would have to posit HoD as being almost totally and wholly ironic because a) almost the whole book is seen through Marlow and b) Marlow is overtly reliable: he’s knowledgeable, articulate, evidently competent at his job, respected by the only other consciousness we’re given access to (the frame narrator).  I’m not inclined to read HoD as being that weighted with irony, and I would suggest that a knowledge of Conrad’s life and politics very much supports the Marlow-is-reliable position (which in turn tends to, I would suggest, undermine or at least complicate the searing-indictment reading).


Biographical readings of literature aren’t really fashionable in academia. One could blame the whole postmodernist author-is-dead-Barthes-Foucault thing for this, but in any case, using the author’s life or personality to explain his work is more associated with biography these days than with literary criticism. But I think it can’t be ignored. As a reader (as opposed to a student of literature), I have always tended to look to the biographies of writers I’m interested in to complement and clarify my reading of their work. And knowledge of Conrad makes it clear that Marlow served for him as a kind of idealized self. Idealized above all in the fact of his being English, for Conrad was above all things an Anglophile. This should be remembered when assessing the attitude to colonialism in HoD. In the text of the story itslelf, Conrad differentiates sharply between British imperialist practice and all the other kinds:

 [A] large shining map, marked with all the colors of a rainbow. There was a vast amount of red [the colour denoting colonies of Britain]—good to see at any time, because one knows that some real work is done in there, a deuce of a lot of blue, a little green, smears of orange, and, on the East Coast, a purple patch, to show where the jolly pioneers of progress drink the jolly lager-beer.

Real work is equated with British colonialism, and British colonialism alone. So for the first readers of HoD, on its serialization in Blackwood’s, there is an indication that their own feelings of patriotism are not being challenged – indeed, they’re being in this passage strengthened by the force of the contrast with all of the Bad Imperialism that’s going on among the continental powers. And this was pretty much exactly Conrad’s own view. Speaking of the Boers of South Africa, he wrote:  “They have no idea of liberty, which can only be found under the British flag all over the world”  (Meyer , Joseph Conrad [Kindle], p. 81). In terms of Anglophilia, its hard to disentangle Conrad’s politics from his personal ambitions and his attempts to fit in. His friend and sometime colloborator Ford Madox Ford noted that “[his] ambition was to be taken for – to be! – an English country gentleman of the time of Lord Palmerston” (Meyer, p. 128). Conrad never fully played the role in real life: his accent always gave him away; his pronunciation was frequently way off. But in fiction he managed it through Marlow, who Meyer sees as the author’s “alter-ego” (p. 190). Marlow was urbane and wise, restrained and understated in a gentlemanly fashion, and above all English.

So, at least, I have always seen the character, and reading Conrad’s biography has, for me, confirmed it. Biography always forms a part of my methodology for interpreting literary works. The work is not a freestanding entity, but was always created by a particular individual with particular experiences, ideals, prejudices, circumstances and what not. And when you bear that in mind for HoD, the savage-indictment line doesn’t really hold up, or is at best half the story.


On watching the first 6 minutes of Heart of Darkness (Nicholas Roeg, 1994)

I have been reading Conrad’s Heart of Darkness recently, and have of course watched the much-admired semi-adaptation of the novella, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979). I also took a peek at the lesser known adaptation from 1994, directed by Nicholas Roeg, a noted filmmaker in his own right for works like Walkabout, Don’t Look Now and The Man Who Fell to Earth. Roeg’s HoD is not too readily available, but it has been uploaded onto YouTube in small segments, only the first of which I have watched, six minutes in which Marlow is introduced, sitting in a boat engaging in a conversation with an emissary of “the Company”, identified as a lawyer, come to collect Kurtz’s papers, which Marlow refuses to give him. The framing device for the film, then, is not Marlow telling a story to some sailor chums as in Conrad, but, it would appear, to the Company Lawyer. The dialogue for this opening scene is taken partly from Marlow’s preliminaries to his story in Conrad, and partly from the scene related towards the end of the novella between Marlow and the Lawyer.

Company Lawyer Guy raises a toast to Empire-building

What is interesting is the way some of Marlow’s dialogue is given to the Lawyer. This is a man of advanced years, stiff and respectable looking, stocky, ponderous in his movements, with a starched collar (played by Peter Vaughan). He is a quintessential, stereotypical Victorian man of business. He is also, somewhat improbably, drinking wine from a glass while on the boat talking to Marlow. The drinking of wine signifies his gluttony, his devotion to sensual gratification; his clothes and appearance signify his unthinking conservatism and lack of imagination; his lip-pursing while Marlow talks of the evils of colonialism illustrates his unsympathetic nature. In these opening minutes, we are given one of the most famous speeches from the novella:

It’s just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale. The conquest of the earth mostly means the taking it away from those with different skin tone, slightly flatter noses than ourselves. Not a pretty thing when you look into it too deeply.

That’s all, just those lines. Another part of the speech is, in fact, given to the Lawyer, a paean to the Romans: “A brave lot they must have been”, he concludes. It is in response to this that Marlow counters with the conquest/ robbery with violence analogy. Those familiar with the novella will note that after making this analogy, Marlow makes a very important qualification: “What redeems it is the idea only” etc. This part of the speech is left out.

By choosing which thoughts of Marlow’s can be retained, which must be removed, and which displaced onto an obviously demonized representative of corrupt authority, Roeg’s HoD does something a lot of adaptations of classic texts of recent times do. The thinking behind it goes, I believe, something like this: “Conrad was a great writer and Heart of Darkness is a great book – everyone knows that. Therefore he must have had properly liberal and progressive political views, as only moral and ideological correctness is consistent with classic literature”.

Thus Conrad’s irresolvable ambiguities are ironed out, and anything questionable is A) left out or B) communicated in an obviously disapproving way that also implies Conrad disapproved of it.  This is a feature of popular discourse on what it considers classic literature: ambiguity is not an appropriate feature, unmistakeably liberal politics are. With this reading we’re back in the pre-Achebean days of HoD criticism – not that I remember those days but if Achebe is correct then the work was discussed without reference to its colonialist sympathies. Not that I’m advocating a wholly Achebean reading, either. The text isn’t really reducible to any single reading.

This is a subject that has struck me in my studies of adaptations of Victorian writers like Dickens, Gaskell, etc. It seems adapters and their audiences are constantly looking for ways to read these writers as liberal-progressives, even radicals. I’ve recently been looking at Gaskell in some depth, and would describe her as a conservative and paternalist writer; yet adaptations are constantly trying to rewrite her politics. Conrad is politically a more complex case than Gaskell, but all of these writers function similarly in popular discourse: it seems that current popular discourse can’t gets its head around the notion of great literature and conservative and even reactionary politics, so, rather than adapting possibly not great literature with the right politics, it attributes the right politics to the ready-established greats, and adapts them through that lens. This is made abundantly clear in adaptations of relevant works. This is surely something that warrants study in the near future. What I have written here is not very original observation, perhaps, but it has not been fully dealt with, either.

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