Monday, April 17, 2006

Week 12, Conrad

The Anglo-American Modernists, Myth, and the Social Value of Poetry

On Modern Literature.

Yeats and Eliot employ myth to reconstruct a sense of community. For all its elitism, the Anglo-American High Modernist movement has a pragmatic emphasis: myth is thought to reinvest diffuse groups with a sense of continuity and belonging. It is dangerous when misused, but Joyce, Eliot, Yeats, and others are conscious of their activity as directed and constructive. They are also wary of simply repeating their romantic predecessors, who offered salvation by means of imagination and poetic language suffused with the power of Christian metaphysics, and of their Victorian predecessors, some of whose social theories centered on sage-writing (Carlyle), utility (Mill), and the Classics as a repository of calm and reflection (Arnold). With the Modernists, we get myth and poetic language without directly metaphysical claims, social vision (usually) without Carlylean thundering or Arnoldian faith in the past as a steadying influence on the present, or the State as an entity transcending class limitations. We see instead a hectic tearing up and refashioning of old myths and the making of new ones. Tension pervades the enterprise of rendering the present intelligible.

The main Modernist version of literary criticism—New Critical formalism, shows this tension as well. When Brooks argues that “a poem should not mean, but be,” he imports a measure of Kantian disinterestedness back into the realm of art, as if the author or maker had no political or social axes to grind, at least none that haven’t been thoroughly transformed and folded into the work of art in a sustainable manner. This kind of art, like Kant’s aesthetic judgments about beautiful objects in nature or in the artist’s studio, is purposive without taking on any definite purpose. With the New Criticism, the magic of romantic imagination gives way to claims of almost mythic proportions about the objective status of the text, which is taken as an entity, an organic unity in its own right. A critic such as Brooks can invest poetry with much of what Coleridge said the symbol could do, but without necessarily accepting that author’s theological notion of the sign.

Both High Modernist art and criticism, we should note, amount to an indirect defense of art, and in that way we can link them to a long tradition of “defenses of poetry.” Myth as an agent of building continuity is one part of the defense, and the claim of objective status for poetry and other kinds of art is another, not unrelated to the Symbolists’ raising of the Word to the status of an alternate reality keeping at bay or frustrating the ravaging influences of modern life—industry, technology, capitalist market ideology, urban living, nationalism, etc.

So we can see the work of artists like Joyce, Yeats, Eliot, Pound, and others as linked to past defenses of artistic integrity and value. We can say that Modern Art’s defiant “I am” is not entirely dissimilar to romantic arrogation of authority as the “unacknowledged legislators of mankind” or “bringers of the whole soul of man into activity” or “the rock of defense for human nature.” For that matter, they are not entirely divorced from Pater and Wilde’s aestheticist exaltation of life as art, or the Symbolists’ claims that the poetic Word constitutes an alternate reality to the sordid and mechanical one we see around us. Perhaps, as Raymond Williams suggests, the defiant tone of literary manifestos from the nineteenth century to the present stems from a deep threat of marginalization, or, in our own time, a kind of commodification and dissemination that may also amount to the marginalization of art’s value to any given community. The Romantics and Victorians responded to perceived threats against intelligibility and social coherence by science and technology, urbanization, and confrontation with “other” cultures. They responded, that is, to what they considered threats to the fundamental sense of personal identity and collective belonging.

But as the complexity and self-reflectiveness of Modernist handling of myth shows, there’s no going back to a simpler time, no utopian escape. Yeats, unlike Carlyle, isn’t trying straightforwardly to “recycle” the authoritarian past, even if his politics aren’t exactly progressive.

Notes on Conrad’s ‘‘Heart of Darkness’’

This text shows us another element of Modernism’s handling of myth, the stuff of past beliefs. Modern art, in Howe and Trilling’s formulation, distrusts narratives about civilization itself. And in ‘‘Heart of Darkness,’’ Conrad casts a cold eye upon the European doctrine of enlightened imperium—a dominant myth of the era, believed in by many well-intentioned people with evangelical fervor. Conrad was part of the “Scramble for Africa” that begin late in the nineteenth century; like Marlow, he was a boat captain who steamed around Africa for a time in the 1890’s. And he’s writing at the turn of the century, the heart of that scramble for imperial domination of Africa and other continents by European powers. This effort had, of course, been going on for centuries, but it intensified in the mid-nineteenth century with David Livingstone’s triple creed of “commerce, civilization, Christianity” as what must be delivered to the supposedly benighted “dark peoples of the earth.” Bringing its religion and cultural values (as well as profiting from other people’s natural environment) became much of Europe’s task late in the nineteenth century, especially with the intensification of European nationalism that was to culminate in World War I.

Marlow, with his Paterian “imaginative sense of fact” and keen interest (at least upon reflection after his adventure) in psychology and sensibility over brute event, is at once attracted to and yet repelled by the fine rhetoric of improvement spoken by Kurtz and the Belgian company for whom he collects ivory. Kurtz has been swallowed up by the “Heart of Darkness.” His will-to-civilization gets swallowed up along with him, and Marlow himself almost succumbs along with the hero of the progress-narrative or myth of late-Victorian times. The so-called “forest primeval” and its allegedly primitive inhabitants help the frame narrator strip away belief in this dominant C19 myth, one meant to renew a tired European civilization with bold forays into earth’s unknown regions.

Criticims of Conrad. As critics such as Chinua Achebe point out, it’s by no means certain that Conrad, in dropping the “White Man’s Burden” narrative, has swept clean the cobwebs of European mythology, stripping away the film of familiarity or cleansing the doors of perception that must open out to a new era. ‘‘Heart of Darkness’’ does its work by perpetuating a virulent counter-myth: the myth of primitive humanity in Africa, the dangerous yet fascinating journey into a land and a human heart before time. Civilized humanity, perhaps, needs to lose itself (or at least risk losing itself) in order to return to itself in higher form: it all sounds suspiciously Hegelian. Instead, perhaps what we are presented with is self-reassurance masquerading as self-disgust: as Achebe argues, what most horrifies Marlow (or Conrad, in his rather bald formulation) is that there is some sense of kinship between the “primitive” African and the “advanced” European. The text in this sense is a descent into a racialized Underworld, with Marlow as a Dantean figure. What kind of genuine insight can come from this sort of literary journey? Achebe and others would ask. How different is it from Carlyle’s racist thundering about “Quashee’s” fondness for unearned pumpkin (see his “Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question”), and the consequent need to suppress black resentment before it spreads? Questioning one myth by propagating another—what is the upshot of that maneuver?

I would be careful, then, not to allegorize or abstract from the racial dimensions of Conrad’s story or to draw from it only a generalized claim about the modern author’s wariness in the face of any claims for human dignity, progress, etc., whatsoever. This is to handle the story with kid gloves, but not necessarily with a clean conscience. Ignore such problems and you end up perpetuating the text’s ideology. ‘‘Heart of Darkness’’ is in its way a brilliant work, a masterpiece of literary style, but we shouldn’t remain blind to the criticisms that Achebe has leveled against Conrad.