Rethinking Joseph Conrad’s Concepts of Community
London: Bloomsbury, 2017
Hardcover. vii+186 p. ISBN 978-1474250023. £80
Reviewed by Richard Niland
University of Strathclyde
Kaoru Yamamoto’s Rethinking Joseph Conrad’s Concepts of Community : Strange Fraternity (Bloomsbury) offers a reading of Conrad’s works that initiates a dialogue with Jean-Luc Nancy and, in passing, thinkers such as Hannah Arendt, Jacques Derrida, Cathy Caruth and Nicholas Royle, as a means of exploring selected texts from Conrad’s early and late career. This is undertaken in the service of scrutinising the writer’s engagement with concepts of individual and community in some of his most celebrated fiction, and also of redeeming later works that have received relatively limited critical attention. Incorporating discussions of texts that themselves make up something of a strange fraternity in their apparent randomness, Yamamoto isolates The Nigger of the “Narcissus”, Heart of Darkness, “The Secret Sharer”, “The Duel”, “The Warrior’s Soul”, The Arrow of Gold and The Rover as pertinent to the analysis, in which Jean-Luc Nancy’s The Inoperative Community (1986) and On Being Singular Plural (2000) are turned to repeatedly for theoretical and critical direction.
One of the issues Yamamoto seeks to address here is how interrelated ideas of self and being as they connect to individuality and community have formed understandings of the shape of Conrad’s career. This career has commonly been viewed as one of achievement and decline, an idea captured in the title of Thomas Moser’s seminal study from the 1950s. In other words, early Conrad has been lauded because it explores the individual and subjectivity in richly imagined geographical and moral contexts, not to mention with sophisticated stylistic innovation and method, while later Conrad has been maligned because it fails to do what early Conrad does, with only a handful of his later works, such as The Shadow-Line, being highly regarded, and only then because they host the best elements of early Conrad amidst their manifest weaknesses. For Yamamoto, this reveals “the haunting tenacity of the subject-centred paradigm in Conrad criticism” , against which this book takes a stand and seeks to offer a corrective.
To launch this endeavour Yamamoto nails her colours firmly to the mast of Jean-Luc Nancy, before turning to The Nigger of the “Narcissus” as a means of demonstrating the “indissociability of singularity from plurality” , and from this point the study offers a variation through contemporary theory on longstanding aesthetic problems of the one and the many and of the whole and the parts. Examining a novella stylistically concerned with the presentation of individual and communal voices amongst the crew of the Narcissus, Yamamoto turns to the subject of aurality in an exploration of facets of Conrad’s early style. The chapter suggests that while the deaf and seemingly marginal Wamibo from The Nigger of the “Narcissus” ultimately might not be able to hear the chimes at midnight, he can nevertheless read the writing on the wall in terms of awareness of his place amidst history and community, with the aural elements of the text illustrating Conrad’s stylistic effort to complicate associations of vision and speech with being, selfhood and individuality. Aurality is connected to a receptivity that plays against the singular nature of individuality often voiced through the power of speech, instead placing it as embedded and responsive in its own absorptive plurality. In piratical terms, the thrust of the argument here puts it that each individual piece of eight is invariably a piece of a larger eight.
However, while drawing profitably on Nancy’s thought for establishing the framework of the enquiry, and while frequently paying detailed attention to Conrad’s language, Yamamoto’s determination to cling to iterations of how Conrad’s work confirms Nancy’s ideas ends up limiting the study, particularly in stylistic and rhetorical terms, and additionally in areas that might have been enriched by some more concrete contextual political analysis. Given the overtly delineated composition of the crew of the Narcissus, the historical and political importance of the singularly plural in the context of the national make-up of Great Britain and Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries goes largely unexamined. In place of an analysis of, say, the plural singularity of the London of The Secret Agent in later sections of the book, Yamamoto’s rather singular focus on formulations from Nancy’s thought runs the risk of echoing Captain Flint from Treasure Island, parroting some portentous phrases and frequently returning to gnomic utterances in relation to Conrad’s fiction. Thus, and keeping with the aural focus of the chapter on The Nigger of the “Narcissus”, we are told that in Conrad’s best-known work that “Marlow’s acoustic penetration into the heart of darkness opens a possible space of plurality that does not necessarily mean multiplication or addition of an individual subject but rather a strange community” . By the time the chapter on Heart of Darkness concludes with further reflections on Marlow’s ear, some of which forge intriguing connections to The Nigger of the “Narcissus”, we hear the critical penny drop, so to speak, as Marlow, inevitably, summons a “being singular and plural alike” .
As the book develops, a number of the chapters leap rather quickly from text to text, such as interrogations of The Nigger of the “Narcissus” and The Rescue, in the interests of juxtaposing early and late Conrad, while elsewhere pausing to examine “The Secret Sharer” in terms of Derrida and Hospitality. The later chapters offer some useful commentary on lesser-examined texts such as “The Warrior’s Soul”, and Conrad is seen to dramatise “The impossibility of the separation of the individual from the collective” , something explored in Conrad’s writing in the context of 19th-century thought by critics such as Avrom Fleishmann and Ian Watt. The historical focus of the later chapters of the book illustrates that it wants to have its cake and eat it too: history is both kept at a distance in the early chapters because it leads us into the apparent naivety of referential history, but also it fills out elements of the chapters on the historical novels The Rover and Suspense in a rather conventional manner. Finally, Yamamoto moves on to examine the plasticity of The Arrow of Gold in terms of “an art of Palpitation” , again directing attention to sensory elements beyond the purview of vision and speech and relating these to the concerns of the earlier, more celebrated fiction. All considered, the terms of the analysis in the book laudably seek to chart new seas in reading an eclectic range of Conradian texts, but in part owing to the brevity of the volume, and in part due to some of the theoretical cables by which it is anchored, the discussion doesn’t quite manage to get loose of its moorings and sail out of port.
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