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La Négation

Stéphanie Bonnefille
Sébastien Salbayre

Poétique et esthétique : de la négation au négatif

Negation in Conrad

Peter Vernon


This paper investigates Conrad’s distrust of language, which will lead us on to his attempt to get behind or beyond language. I shall be concentrating on the specific case of Lord Jim, but will be making reference also to Heart of Darkness, Nostromo, and Victory. I will conclude with some observations on the power of Negation in Conrad’s writing which will, for his isolated protagonists, in extremity, be seen as the final move of liberation, which, under these extreme circumstances, connects his protagonists to all men

Texte intégral

The tremendous power of the negative is the energy of thought, the pure T.
(Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit)

1In a conference dedicated to the subject of Negativity, it behoves me first to say what I am not going to do; from there I will go on to speak of Conrad's distrust of language. This will lead us on to Conrad's attempt to get behind or beyond language. I shall be concentrating on the specific case of Lord Jim, but will be making reference also to Heart of Darkness, Nostromo, and Victory. I will conclude with some observations on the power of Negation in Conrad's writing which will, for his isolated protagonists, in extremity, be seen as the final move of liberation, which, under these extreme circumstances, connects his protagonists to all men. Needless to say, these conclusions are hesitant, indeed Marlowesque, for I have the sense that in Conrad's world we are all looking through a glass darkly.

  • 1 The best account of Conrad's early years will be found in Zdzislaw Najda, Joseph Conrad: A Chronic (...)

2Why is there something rather than nothing? asks St. Augustine, and Bartleby says: “On the whole I'd rather not”; in paper on Negation in Conrad, then, it might be apposite to begin with what I am not going to do, rather like some latter-day member of Dickens's “Office of Circumlocution ”. To do the job of explaining Conrad and negation properly, I would have to take some time to review his family history with particular reference to the Korzeniowskis (his father's side) and the Bobrowskis (his mother's side), his political and social background, his life from a gun-runner in Marseilles to Master Mariner in the British Merchant Navy to professional novelist.1 We will have to take all this as read, and simply remind ourselves that English was his third language, after Polish and French, and that he learned it as an adult in order to pass the various exams in the British Merchant Marine. His use of English is extraordinary, for he developed an unmistakable voice (perhaps only comparable to Faulkner and Nabokov in the twentieth century) whereby you can pick out a Conrad sentence, unmistakably, from a thousand others. Michael Wood has described Nabokov's English in a phrase that we can adapt to Conrad: “Loss reconstrued as memory” (Wood, p. 2). Both these Eastern European writers share this reconstruing of loss and, more importantly, more deeply, they share a loss of their own native languages, which must be the deepest loss any writer can imagine. It is not surprising then, that, for a variety of reasons Conrad distrusted language to communicate. In a typically modernist way, he is uneasy with words, he does not trust words to do what he wants them to do-I shall return to this in a moment. Likewise, we shall have to take as read the complex narrative structure of Lord Jim, with Marlow as some kind of latter-day Ancient Mariner, continuously telling the tale of Lord Jim “many times, in distant parts of the world” (LJ p. 24) on the verandah of some Eastern Hotel. We shall have to ignore for the moment the implausibility of a narrative of three hundred pages being given orally over one evening's tale.

3However, we do need to recall the double quest in Lord Jim because the quest for the'truth'in Lord Jim emerges, essentially, from the Negative. First, we have the official inquest and second, Marlow's private inquest: an inquest that is meandering, complex, and anachronic. The official inquiry answers (how could it not?) the superficial “How” of Jim's shameful jump. In answering the “How” of Jim's action, the inquiry fulfils what Jameson calls “The vice of Anglo-American empiricism [which] lies indeed in its stubborn will to isolate the object in question from everything else, whether it be a material thing, an ‘event’ in Wittgenstein's sense, a word, a sentence, or a ‘meaning’” (Jameson, 23). Whereas Marlow's inquiry tries (and fails) to answer the “fundamental Why” of the same action (LJ 38, 165). Though perhaps it enables the reader to arrive at a hesitant judgement.

4We also need to recall that everything in Lord Jim is given: the facts are announced, but the significance of those facts is infinitely delayed. For example, the ugly fact of Jim's jump is there from the beginning—it is never in doubt: but it takes the whole novel to develop the significance of that jump, and in fact its significance can never be told. A very brief example of something given and later re-signified will exemplify this: early on, Marlow introduces us to what he calls “the inquiry thing, the yellow dog thing” (25); the reader of course recuperates this as cowardice (as indeed does Jim), who believes that he has been insulted when he hears the words: “look at that wretched cur?” Jim is ready to punch Marlow, but the latter points out some pages later that in fact there is a yellow dog in the courthouse: what had seemed to be metaphoric (a metaphor which Marlow's narrative lures us into, for the mimesis does not mention yellow, but wretched), in fact turns out to be métonymic: it remains in the real.

5Likewise, we will have to pass over what could be the subject for another paper, which is Conrad's use of adjectival clusters, often tripartite and almost invariably in the negative. Some of those taking prefixes are: Inscrutable, Impenetrable, Impossible, Innumerable, Invisible, Inexplicable, Inconceivable, Implacable, Ineffable; whilst some of those taking suffixes are: Pitiless, Formless, Faithless, Reckless, etc. Again, one example will have to suffice: “the light of the moon:... has all the dispassionateness of a disembodied soul, and something of inconceivable mystery” (LJ, p. 148, my elision). This is the true Conradian voice, instantly recognisable amongst a thousand sentences.

6But to return to our argument, for many and varied reasons Conrad expressed over and over again his distrust of language. Here are just two short examples:

Life knows us not and we do not know life-we don't even know our own thoughts.
Half the words we use have no meaning whatever and of the other half each man understands each word after the fashion of his own folly and conceit. Faith is a myth
And beliefs shift like mists on the shore: thoughts vanish: words once pronounced, die:
And the memory of yesterday is as shadowy as the hope of tomorrow. (Letters)

All is illusion-the words written, the mind at which they are aimed, the truth they are intended to express, the hands that will hold the paper, the eyes that will glance at the lines. Every image floats vaguely in a sea of doubt — and the doubt itself is lost in an unexpected universe of incertitudes. (Letters)

7Over and over again in Conrad's work, one finds the same notion of the incapacity of words to communicate.

8Conrad, as I am sure you know, always placed his protagonists (exclusively masculine-the marginal, yet very significant role of women might be the subject of yet another paper) in extremity. In terms of isolation, exile, danger and loss. It would be tedious to attempt an exhaustive list, but obvious examples are Heyst in Victory, Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, and the extraordinary pages devoted to Decoud on the Golfo del Placido in Nostromo:

Like a man lost in slumber, he heard nothing, he saw nothing. Even his hand held before his face did not exist for his eyes. The change from the agitation, the passions and the dangers, from the sights and sounds of the shore, was so complete that it would have resembled death had it not been for the survival of his thoughts. In this foretaste of eternal peace they floated vivid and light, like the unearthly clear dreams of earthly things that may haunt the souls freed by death from the misty atmosphere of regrets and hopes. Decoud shook himself, shuddered a bit, though the air that drifted past him was warm. He had the strongest sensation of his soul having just returned into his body from the circumambient darkness in which land, sea, sky, the mountains, and the rocks were as if they had not been. (N., p. 220, my underlining)

9In all, there are some twelve pages of this, some of the greatest writing in the language, devoted entirely to-nothing! It is not surprising that Decoud, enduring several weeks of this nothingness, should commit suicide. As I suggested, one could continue the list of Conrad's isolated protagonists for some time.

10But I want, in the short time available, to concentrate today on Negation in Lord Jim. Conrad wrote, just after concluding the novel, that even though he believed the book to be a catastrophic failure (which was his usual response to his own finished writing): “The Outcast is a heap of sand, the Nigger a splash of water, Jim a lump of clay. A stone, I suppose will be my gift to the impatient mankind—before I get drowned in mud to which even my supreme struggles won't give a simulacrum of life.” (Letters, 12.11.1900). Nevertheless, he wrote, in the same letter, that he had been “satanically ambitious”. And it is precisely the nature of Conrad's Satanic Ambition that I want to examine today. For the nature of this ambition, at its heart, is the negation of language itself. An impossible attempt to go beyond or behind language to get at the pure thingness (the ‘quiddity’, in Hopkins's term). It is no wonder that he defines his ambition as Satanic (he could equally well have said Godlike), for in so writing, he takes on Hamlet itself. It has frequently been remarked that Stein rephrases Hamlet's question of “To be or not to be...” in terms of “How to be” (LJ, p. 128). But the question I want to try to answer today lies beyond that simple equation. Rather, it is that Jim, “Sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought” (Hamlet, III, i, 84), is trapped by forms of language. Only when language itself is negated can he act. With language, he has always been thwarted from action. The node of the novel, in structural terms, is Jim's jump from what he believes is the sinking Pilgrim ship, the Patna. In narrating to Marlow, who filters Jim's narration to his listeners, Jim says of this culminating moment (which is at once the cause of his disgrace, and the motor which will create his victory): “‘I had jumped...’ He checked himself, averted his gaze.... ‘It seems,’ he added” (LJ, p. 69). The complex hesitations, the move from the preterite into the pluperfect, the elisions, the avoidance of gaze—all go to show Jim's action as a non-action (as far as he is concerned, it something HE did not do, it was not his authentic self, it was ‘Not I’).

11Conrad, through the writing of Lord Jim, shows himself to have distrusted language in the sense of telling a story, a fable, a romance. Jim has been brought up on light, romantic novels, and has, from an early age, believed himself destined for heroic adventure. However, when the time comes for heroic action, he is impeded by his very idea of himself: “It is all in being ready [he says], I wasn't; not-not then” (p. 52); and we note again the Hamlet overtones of:

If it be now,
'tis not to come, if it be not to come, it will be now ;
it be not now, yet it will come-the readiness is all.
(Hamlet V, ii, 220-22)

12In The MS. of Heart of Darkness, there is a passage germane to our argument: “The best of them [Roman invaders of Britain] didn't get up pretty fictions about it” (Quoted in Hawthorn, p. 8, my underlining). Conrad hated the journalistic misuse or loose use of words and of course Conrad distrusts eloquence, which is Kurtz's over-riding ability in Heart of Darkness; the result of which, we recall, is an eloquent, philanthropic pamphlet on which he has, finally, scrawled the words: “Exterminate all the brutes” (HD, 84). “This was the unbounded power of eloquence – of words – of burning noble words” (HD, 83). In Heart of Darkness, however, Marlow finds something which is “unmistakably real”: a book entitled “An Inquiry into some points of Seamanship” (HD, p. 65). In contrast to Kurtz's eloquence (which of course we never hear), Marlow cries for “rivets” (HD, p. 51). In Lord Jim, he speaks of “the language of facts” and then goes on to speak of this language of facts as “often more enigmatic than the craftiest arrangement of words” (LJ, p. 201). We have then in both Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim a contradistinction between eloquent fictions and the real. Marlow tells his listeners, at one point, that he could be eloquent: “it is not my words I mistrust, but your minds” (LJ, 136).

13Conrad's problem, and indeed ours, is that the same tools-language, syntax, semantics-create both the fictions and the language of facts. He distrusts words, just as he is desperate for them to be performative. Here he is, again in Last Essays, where he is contrasting officers engaged in talk compared with men, active sailors who are engaged in active service. The sailor's words are: “full of sense, of meaning, and single-minded purpose; enquiries, information, orders, reports. Words, too. But words in direct relation to things and facts, with the feeling at the back of it all of the correct foresight that planned and of the determination which carries on the protective work” (Quoted in Hawthorn, p. 10). Apart, then, from the performative language of mariners (“reef the fore-top-gallants”, “steer NNW”, etc.), Conrad, though he was a professional novelist, nevertheless profoundly distrusted the very tools that went into the making of his novels.

14At a number of key moments in Lord Jim, language breaks down into silence. (Another whole article could be devoted to aposiopœsis, the rhetorical gesture most characteristic of Jim's speech, but I shall return to this in a moment.) Marlow repeatedly says that he cannot see Jim clearly and that he cannot relate his story. Jim is seen through shifting rents in a thick fog (49): “I am fated never to see him clearly” (134, 146). And perhaps most strikingly: “it is impossible to see him clearly” (201). Marlow, early on in the novel, says that the whole secret of sea-craft could be told in one short sentence (31) and-since this might be seen as one of the moral centres of the book, it is very significant that in fact he does not tell it. The two native steersmen, who stay on the Patna (whereas the entire European crew have jumped), can give no reason to the Official Inquiry for their decision to remain: one “says he thought nothing”, the other says they received no order to leave the helm (62), while the French Lieutenant cannot put into words why he behaves honourably (90-91); and there are many other examples, including Jim himself-but, as I said, we will come to him in a moment. For our purposes, in the heart of the novel, Marlow goes to visit Stein as a patient visits a consultant in human kind. Stein, in the most famous passage in the novel, says that mankind must submit itself to the destructive element and that he will tell Marlow “How to be”. Needless to say he does not!

15With a hasty swish swish of his slippers he loomed up in the ring of faint light, and suddenly appeared in the bright circle of the lamp. His extended hand aimed at my breast like a pistol; his deepset eyes seemed to piece through me, but his twitching lips uttered no word, and the austere exaltation of a certitude seen in the dusk vanished from his face. The hand that had been pointing at my breast fell, and by-and-by, coming a step nearer, he laid it gently on my shoulder. There were things he said mournfully, that perhaps could never be told, only he had lived so much alone that sometimes he forgot-he forgot. The light had destroyed the assurance which had inspired him in the distant shadows. He sat down and, with both elbows on the desk, rubbed his forehead. 'And yet it is true-it is true. In the destructive element immerse.'... He spoke in a subdued tone, without looking at me, one hand on each side of his face. 'That was the way to follow the dream, and again to follow the dream-and so- ewig-usque ad finem...'The whisper of his conviction seemed to open before me a vast and uncertain expanse, as of a crepuscular horizon on a plain at dawn-or was it perchance, at the coming of the night? One had not the courage to decide; but it was a charming and deceptive light, throwing the impalpable poesy of its dimness over pitfalls-over graves. His life had begun in sacrifice, in enthusiasm for generous ideas; he had travelled very far, on various ways, on strange paths, and whatever he followed it had been without faltering, and therefore without shame and without regret. In so far he was right. That was the way no doubt. Yet for all that the great plain on which men wander amongst graves and pitfalls remained very desolate under the impalpable poesy of its crepuscular light, overshadowed in the centre, circled with a bright edge as if surrounded by an abyss full of flames. When at last I broke the silence it was to express the opinion that no one could be more romantic than himself. (LJ, pp. 129-30).

16This, as virtually all commentators have said, is the moral centre of Lord Jim. Life as a dream, the necessity of following the dream and submitting oneself to the destructive element. Prima facie, this sounds like good advice (rather like those moral touchstones of Work, Restraint and Truth in Heart of Darkness), but, like those exploded values, so this advice would seem on closer inspection to be more than a little dubious. The first and most obvious thing to note about this passage is its polyglot nature. The language of transmission is English (of a tortured nature, particularly in the dialogue,), and it carries both German and Latin words of great resonance: Ewig leading to Ewigheit we can find in some of the most glorious music-Beethoven's Ninth Symphony setting to music Schiller's “Ode to Joy”, Haydn's “Creation” and Brahms's “Ein Deutches Requium”, for example. Whilst “Usque ad finem”, should we consult Crudden's Concordance, will clue us into numerous references to Christ, in terms of one who has triumphed over death, and who promises us the same reward, if we follow his works unto the end. We would not be wrong, I think, in perceiving Jim as a Christ-Type and, therefore, a Hamlet-type. Jim, like Christ, sacrifices his life for an ideal; he is despised and rejected of men (that is, Western Men—for he is highly regarded in Patusan), he resists temptations of the flesh, his opportunity is always veiled, his end is a victory over death, and he holds power over the nation of Patusan. The second thing to notice is the way in which the written English of Stein's voice is wavering and repetitive, whilst Marlow's reaction, his reception of that voice, is extraordinarily inchoate. Stein repeats “true”, “dream” and “again follow the dream”, whereas Marlow's reaction is a piling up of uncertainties and oxymorons which develops extreme tension and therefore creates enormous transparencies for our interpretation. For example, to take just two consecutive sentences, Marlow speaks of “The whisper of his conviction” although normally, conviction is boldly and clearly stated. He continues with: “Seemed to open before me” which is marked by hesitation, intuition, and lack of clarity. For Marlow, Stein's conviction opens onto: “A vast and uncertain expanse”: enormous, but unclear, the negatively expressed space is given in a latinate vocabulary “expanse” which is the most abstract word in English for area or space, deriving from New Latin expansum = the heavens. Marlow becomes more rhetorical: “as of” seems to be a transforming metaphor, but resists the transformation it remains on the metonymic, not metaphoric level. The seeming transformation leads to: “a crepuscular plain at dawn” which gives us a radical oxymoron-twilight/dawnlight. While,“—or was it perchance” gives us a triple hesitation (including the dash), and marks a possible withdrawal from the dawn light, and leads to: “at the coming of the night”, a markedly poetic register (not nightfall) and is marked by personification. Further hesitation is found in: “one had not the courage to decide”: the one is seemingly objective, but is actually inclusive (Jim is “one of us”)-and why has one not the courage to decide? Marlow begins his conclusion to Stein's conviction with: “But it was a charming and deceptive light”: “But” looks like a shifter, but it does not seem to shift. Meanwhile, “Charming and deceptive” is unusually tricky: where you expect a shifter (for “charming” is not usually yoked to “deceptive”), you have, in fact, a conjunction. In brief, the “and” and the “but” are displaced. Marlow concludes that Stein's vision has the effect of “Throwing the impalpable poesy of its dimness over pitfalls-over graves”. Marlow's language here is a very highly wrought, poetic language marked by assonance, alliteration, and internal rhyme. The whole thing is repeated with variations to the end of the paragraph. In short, the more one analyses this highly wrought, poetic language (and there are frequent examples in the novel of this kind of writing), the more it reveals its falsity. Stein as moral centre is exploded and made absurd (his slippers go “swish, swish”, his twitching lips utter no words, and the seemingly declarative hand falls) just as those abstract virtues in Heart of Darkness:-when pushed to extremity, supposedly certain truths are seen to collapse into meaninglessness.

17In contrast to Stein and Marlow, Jim's language is basic and often incoherent. As I suggested earlier, it is marked by Aposiopcesis (language breakdown under emotional stress) which, as you will probably know derives from the Greek aposiōpaein, meaning “to be totally silent”. On being told by Marlow that Stein has found a position for him on Patusan, he expresses himself as follows: “I'll show yet... I'll... I'm ready for any confounded thing... I've been dreaming of it... Jove! Get out of this. Jove! This is luck at last... You wait. I'll”. And so he breaks off. It is no wonder that Marlow, irritated with Jim for the one and only time, refers to “these vapourings” (p. 142). On taking leave of Marlow for the last time, Jim is once again incoherent: “No. I can't say-enough. Never.” (198), and his very last words to Marlow are: “Tell them... No-nothing” (199). The last we hear of him, from beyond the grave, are the scribbled words Marlow encloses to “the privileged man”: “An awful thing has happened... I must now at once...” (202). As I said earlier, given Conrad's narrative method of announcement of fact, but delay in significance, it is going to take another fifty pages until we can be put into the position of understanding Jim's action. But I have not time here to document Marlow's meanderings. Suffice it to say that Jim goes willingly to his death. Like Hamlet, he is finally ready. Like Hamlet, who succeeds in his revenge by simultaneously sacrificing himself, so Jim regains his honour: he is victorious, at the moment of his death. He casts “a proud unflinching glance. Then with his hand over his lips he fell forward, dead” (p. 246). Again, like Hamlet, “The rest is silence” (V, ii, 358).

18In the time remaining, let me attempt some brief, hesitant, not to say Marlowesque conclusions to all of this. The difficulty is, of course, that we cannot fall into the trap of British Empiricism here: we cannot isolate the object in question from everything else in relation to it. Conrad, in attempting to bring us to that Hamletesque point, “that bourne from which no traveller returns” (the Hamlet references are explicit in Marlow's letter, as are the external narrator's description of “the privileged man's” reception of the letter, U, pp. 200-01), is forced to use language in order to get beyond language. Jameson, quoting Nietzsche, expresses our problem very well: “We have to cease to think if we refuse to do it in the prison-house of language; for we cannot reach further than the doubt which asks whether the limit we see is really a limit...” (Jameson, p. i). Jim is “one of us”, Marlow's brother, a sinner a straggler, he has been wounded and thus has a slight limp (handled very subtly throughout the novel by Conrad), he has been “shamefully tried” (66), he is “under a cloud”. In short, he is an exemplary Everyman figure. In his exile to Patusan, Marlow assures his listeners, Jim has achieved a supreme victory.

19In the narrative transition that marks the move into the final act of the drama of Lord Jim, Marlow writes to “the privileged man” that he has tried to “make an intelligible picture” (203), but he quickly has to withdraw from that ekphrasis, as he has to withdraw from any claim to see Jim clearly. What Marlow is left with is simply the loss of his younger, sinful, over-reaching brother: “It's difficult to believe he will never come. I shall never hear his voice again, nor shall I see his smooth tan-and-pink face with a white line on the forehead, and the youthful eyes darkened by excitement to a profound, unfathomable blue” (204). (This, it seems, is exactly that “Loss reconstrued as memory” to which we referred earlier). Marlow turns away from his own picture and returns to his own, more comfortable, world: “I had turned away from the picture and was going back to the world where events move, men change, light flickers, life flows in a clear stream no matter whether over mud or over stones I wasn't going to dive into it; I would have enough to do to keep my head above the surface” (196). The reference to Stein's advice earlier is obvious. As I have suggested, Jim has gone beyond Marlow, and we have to do the same if we are to try to understand. Marlow has been granted a vision of the heart of the matter, but it is too much for him: “For a moment I had a view of the world that seemed to wear a vast and dismal aspect of disorder... But still-it was only for a moment: I went back into my shell directly. One must-don't you know?-though I seemed to have lost all my words in the chaos of dark thoughts I had contemplated for a second or two beyond the pale” (186).

20Marlow, as we have seen, will not dive, and Jim has exiled himself to a place as remote “as a star of the fifth magnitude” (132). Slavoj Žižek writes usefully about this move away from reality: “it is not possible to pass directly from the purely ‘animal soul’ immersed in its natural life-world to ‘normal subjectivity’ dwelling in its symbolic universe-the vanishing mediator between the two is the ‘mad’ gesture of radical withdrawal from reality that opens up the space for its symbolic re-constitution” (“The Abyss of Freedom”). It seems to me that this captures Jim's existential position very well, and not simply Jim's, but most of Conrad's protagonists in extremity. This “gesture of radical withdrawal” is also Kurtz paddling back up the river in a dugout canoe (HD, p. 57). It is what keeps “Enchanted Heyst” (V, p. 4) on Samburan, having “done with facts” (V, p. 24); and of course it is absolutely central to Jim's reconstituting his life alone on Patusan, where, Marlow tells us, he has dealings only with himself (LJ, p. 201), and where he fulfills the “call of his exalted egoism” (p. 246). What Zizek, after Hegel, calls “absolute self-regarding negativity” (Phenomenology of the Spirit).

21In one of the few metalepses in Heart of Darkness Marlow breaks off to comment on his tale: “... No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one's existence, that which makes its truth, its meaning-its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream-alone...” (HD, p. 50). Yet, no matter how isolated Kurtz, Heyst, Decoud, Jim are, Conrad's point, surely, is that in our isolation, in extremity, we are all in the same condition, and “not one of us” Marlow says, “is safe” (LJ, p. 30). Our isolation and the chaos in the universe terrifies Marlow, as we have seen: “I went back into my shell directly. One must-don't you know?” (LJ, 186). But what Conrad allows us to see, beyond Marlow, is that Jim is “one of us” in a much larger sense than we might have at first expected. He is one of us in his sinful condition, and also in his triumphant redemption. Like Heyst's father in Victory: “With what strange serenity mingled with terrors, had that man [Heyst's father] considered the universal nothingness! He had plunged into it headlong, perhaps to render death, the answer that faced one at every enquiry, more supportable” (V, p. 181). The normal man (Marlow, for example), will choose to put their heads back in: “To the unknown force of negation [men] prefer the miserably tumbled bed of their servitude” (V, p. 181).

  • 2 Novalis “Das Algemeine Brouillon” probably via Carlyle's On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in (...)
  • 3 I am grateful to Jack Pier for his careful reading of this paper.

22All of Conrad's texts treat of the human condition as shameful and guilt-ridden, and they also show us how human freedom and dignity (and now I am following Vincent Deary) are snatched from materialism. “Courage and fidelity are asserted in the face of awful contingency. “However,” Deary writes, “at the heart of this ‘materialist’ system lies something profoundly odd: an indescribable nothing that is simultaneously the subject's ‘real core’ and the ineffable beyond of the phenomenal world; a nothing that can never be described, only evoked by its predicates; the immaterial font of freedom” (TLS, 16.07.2004, p. 25). One final point: in being “one of us” in the way I have attempted to define it, Jim is thus also the exemplum of the other: “To say ‘you’ [Levinas writes] is the primary act of Saying. All saying is direct discourse or a part of direct discourse. Saying is that rectitude from me to you, the directness of the face-to-face, directness of the encounter par excellence...” (Levinas, p. 93). It is certain that with all this in mind, Conrad's epigraph from Novalis2 to Lord Jim takes on extra resonance: “It is certain my Conviction gains infinitely, the moment another soul will believe in it”. This, then, in a move back to Hegel, “is the tremendous power of the negative”: it allows the Subject, the Real and the Act to become identical. This is Jim's final realisation that “[he] must now at once...” The readiness is all, and the rest is silence.3



Conrad Joseph, Heart of Darkness, 1899, London, Penguin, 1995 [Referred in text as HD].

———, Lord Jim, 1900, New York, Norton, 1996 [In text as LJ].

———, Nostromo, 1904, London, Penguin, 1975 [In text as N].

———, Victory, 1915, New York, Doubleday, 1957 [In text as V].

Deary Vincent, “News From Elsewhere”, Review of Žižek, TLS 16.07.2004, p. 25.

Hawthorn Jeremy, Joseph Conrad: Language and Fictional Self Consciousness, London, Edward Arnold, 1979.

Jameson Frederic, The Prison-House of Language, Princeton, NJ, Princeton UP, 1974.

Levinas Emmanuel, Alterity and Transcendence, New York, Columbia UP, 1999.

Najda Zdzislaw, Conrad in Perspective, Cambridge UP, 1997.

———, Joseph Conrad: A Chronicle, Cambridge UP, 1983.

Shakespeare William, Hamlet, The Riverside Shakespeare, 2nd Edition, 1992.

žižek Slavoj and Glyn Daly, Conversations with Žižek, London, Polity, 2004.


1 The best account of Conrad's early years will be found in Zdzislaw Najda, Joseph Conrad: A Chronicle.

2 Novalis “Das Algemeine Brouillon” probably via Carlyle's On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in Hisory (1841). Conrad reuses the sentence in Personal Record (1912). (LJ notes Moser, p. 5).

3 I am grateful to Jack Pier for his careful reading of this paper.


Following a career with the United Nations in New York and, for sixteen years, serving as British Council Professor in various countries, Peter Vernon, since 1991, has taught British and American Literature at the University of Tours. He has published some twenty-five articles, and recently edited and introduced Seeing Things (GRAAT 28), and L'Allusion et L'Accès (GRAAT 31). He is an elected Fellow of The English Association

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