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Agata Szczeszak-Brewer. Empire and Pilgrimage in Conrad and Joyce.

Agata Szczeszak-Brewer. Empire and Pilgrimage in Conrad and Joyce. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2010. 202 pp. ISBN: 9780813035390.

Several studies addressing jointly the works of Joseph Conrad and James Joyce have been published over the last few years, shedding light on the thematic similarities as well as aesthetic and ideological connections between these two influential modernist writers. Empire and Pilgrimage follows in this rich critical tradition from which it draws and expands, adding a fruitful and welcome dimension to the debates. It shows convincingly how these two authors, who endured similar experiences of exile and deracination, also shared key thematic concerns, including the grand narrative, fragmentation and paralysis, pilgrimage and search for meaning, and imperial ideology that they both question and often destabilize. Its focus on the understudied topic of empire and pilgrimage, in particular, gives this study a fresh, original flavor, likely to inspire further research on the topics of the sacred, cosmogony, and pilgrimage in Conrad's and Joyce's writings.

Empire and Pilgrimage is a concise, illuminating book, written in a clear, accessible style, and adopts a methodology that is interdisciplinary in scope, tapping into the fields of epistemology, deconstruction, and postcolonial and psychoanalytic theories. It offers a rich canvas of the notion of pilgrimage, drawing widely from the works of Zygmunt Bauman, Michel de Certeau, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and Homi Bhabha to demonstrate that the writings of Conrad and Joyce not only are pervaded with pilgrims of various shades and statures (strollers, vagabonds, tourists, players), but also enact cogent epistemological, aesthetic, and ideological quests central to modernist aesthetics. Through the prism of pilgrimage, which operates as a structuring principle, the book discusses a host of important concepts and issues--empire, race and nation, maps or cartography, the sacred and the profane, order and chaos, cosmogony--which are also central to the very imperial ideology that Joyce and Conrad represent and question in their fiction. It unearths the complex power structures of empire and the myths and sacred ethos which propel them, drawing attention to "the inherent relationship between imperialism and the atavistic drive toward the sacred" (4), a connection, which, as Szczeszak-Brewer demonstrates persuasively, is present in Conrad's and Joyce's fiction and rests upon rigid, arbitrary binaries. These dichotomies, she argues, come from the conviction that the West is the epistemic center from which light and progress would spread across the world. The West undoubtedly projected itself as the ontological and cognitive fulcrum of the world and assumed political and symbolic control over non-Westerners, as chapter one argues; yet Szczezak-Brewer would have been well to add that the West also perceived itself as the human norm, which led the colonizers to define the colonized mostly as low, degenerate species, waiting for the white man to lift them up culturally and racially. This sense of racial supremacy, as set forth in the introduction and sustained throughout the monograph, led arbitrarily to strict racial codifications which cast the colonized as inferior and confined to the periphery of empire. This view, widespread among critics of empire, is certainly worthwhile and valid, yet in practice the colonial codifications of race were not as inflexible and categorical as this study suggests. Indeed, within the overall colonial racial structure, a whole gamut of sub-racial categories was introduced to distinguish between the colonized populations themselves, who were usually divided into distinct categories and classified according to an evolutionary ladder that ranked some natives, those usually deemed closer to the Western human norm, higher than the other ethnic groups. The British, for example, considered their Indian subjects massively inferior; at the same time, for strategic political interests, they deftly distinguished the "warlike" Sikhs and Pathans from the Bengalis, whom they deemed effeminate and thus lower than the former ethnic groups. The French, too, acted similarly in Algeria, ranking the fair-skinned, industrious Kabyles higher than the allegedly lazy, dogmatic Arabs.

Pilgrimage and Empire is divided into two parts: the first is devoted to cosmogony and the second to pilgrimage, two themes which, as this study thoroughly shows, are central to the imperial ideology which Conrad and Joyce interrogate in their fiction. The six chapters composing these two sections teem with useful information and insightful analyses of the topic of pilgrimage as it unravels within the bounds of the colonial spaces and ideologies through which the characters rove in their search for meaning and self-identification. The first chapter, which deals with cosmogony and colonialism, is by far the most original section of the book and offers compelling observations of the ways in which Conrad and Joyce in their political writing and fiction expose the intricate connections "between the driving forces behind colonization and the primitive theories of cosmogony and to atavistic residues in the official colonial discourse" (18). The argument here is mostly persuasive and demonstrates finely the extent to which colonial ideology "served as a residue for archaic cosmogonic systems underlying the ethno- and logocentric drive to contain the world" (18). This urge to transform chaos into cosmos has, according to Agata Szczeszak-Brewer, paved the way for the colonization of foreign lands through what the colonizers saw as a sacred act of creation; a crucial performative act which entailed filling the world's dark voids with light and meaning bestowed from the radiant epistemic center of the earth--the West (19). This chapter also reveals how both authors, while exploring the realm of cosmogony and the sacred, the cosmos and chaos, around which articulates the colonial civilizing mission, subvert numerous ideological and symbolic categories, including such distinctions as self and other, the profane and sacred, chaos and cosmos, and similar dichotomies which are central to hegemonic power structures, colonialist and anti-colonialist alike. The argument that the sacred served as a justification for the colonial enterprise, which is central to this chapter and to the book at large, is interesting and the analysis is thorough and compelling. However, it needs to be qualified, if only because this mystic drive is not characteristic only of the nineteenth-century version of imperialism with which Joyce and Conrad grapple, but goes far back in history, to the very incipient stage of imperialism in the Americas in the fifteenth century. Worth mentioning as well in this respect is the fact that the colonial propensity toward the sacred and the Christian mission of turning overseas chaos into order always worked in tandem with capitalist and acquisitive drives. The neglect of this crucial connection between religion and capitalism in relation to pilgrimage, cosmogony, and the sacred is the soft spot of this otherwise rich and insightful chapter; and curiously so, since several books addressing this theme, unmentioned in this study, have been published over the last few years. Stephen Ross's Conrad and Empire, Terry Collits's Postcolonial Conrad, and Amar Acheraiou's Rethinking Postcolonialism, to name a few, offer useful examinations of the intricate relations between religion, capitalism, and empire.

The second chapter, focused on Conrad's pilgrims in Heart of Darkness and Nostromo, provides a good summary of the ways in which Conrad's characters negotiate their encounters with the colonized lands, highlighting the feeling of both fascination and abhorrence, of awe and loss they experience in front of the primitive formless chaos of Africa and "wild, treacherous, and inaccessible Costaguana" (Szczeszak-Brewer 37). It discusses Conrad's "false gods of imperialism," showing how "the New European invaders re-enact cosmogony not with the use of deadly weapons, like the Spanish conquistadores before them, but with the American dollars provided by Holroyd" (41). While the discussion of Heart of Darkness merely rehearses well-known views and critical commentaries on this novella, the examination of Nostromo provides numerous original insights, in particular, the rise of money to a cosmogonic power. As everyone knows, money and religion went hand-in-hand from the very outset of the colonial adventure in the Americas, and in Nostromo Conrad refers clearly to capitalism as "the religion of silver and iron" (Conrad 71) which, in the context of South America, marks what came to be called the new imperialism. This chapter tackles persuasively Conrad's treatment of this important issue, drawing attention to his critique of the empire's deification of capital and its elevation to an ordering and civilizing agent whose power equates to that of God. Much of the discussion here is finely conducted and compelling, even though the overall argument might have gained in depth and sharpness by paying closer attention to the rise of this new imperialism at the turn of the century embodied by Holroyd, and the broader historical context of the United States' colonial penetration of South America propelled by the new messianic zeal.

The third chapter, dealing with Joyce's works, is rich and strong and discusses his handling of cosmogonic discourse and the sacred, addressed in the first two chapters. Through close textual examinations of characters like The Citizen and Leopold Bloom, it demonstrates that in Ulysses Joyce, through the use of the carnivalesque and "versatile themes and narrative strategies" (82), questions the cosmogonic drive fuelling the colonial ideology, as well as anti-colonial attempts to recover national identity, thus calling into question the cosmogonic drive which prompts the two ideologies. It further argues that, while exposing "the atavistic desire to reach the sacred through appropriation of cosmos in imperial enterprises" (54), Joyce, like Conrad, "criticizes the marriage between the national and religious fervor" and the "messianic zeal" as well as "fear of racial contamination" shared by colonialist and nationalist ideologies (71). Joyce's mordant critique is expressed through an ironic treatment of his characters' outbursts of national pride, most notably The Citizen whose nationalist rhetoric, as Szczeszak-Brewer rightly states, "reiterates the same colonial divisions between chaos and cosmos, sacred and profane, same and other, leaving no discursive space for non-sectarian voices" (72). One may further argue here that it is, in fact, not just "discursive space" that The Citizen denies to the non-sectarian voices but the very presence of any radical Other (non-Irish, non-Catholic) in the cosmic center he projects in his nationalist rhetoric, a cosmogonic center which proves paradoxically far more rigid and exclusionary than that of empire itself since, unlike the imperial cosmos which allows into its realm the colonized as inferior species, The Citizen does not envision at all the presence of any radical otherness in his would-be cosmogonic center, not even as a low, degenerate entity.

The fourth chapter is distinct from the previous chapters, in both scope and insight. It provides a theoretical overview of the concept of pilgrimage and belabors a set of themes and views covered extensively in the introduction and previous chapters, "the relationship between imperialism and the drive toward the sacred, the mythical boundaries of chaos and cosmos, cosmos is the center, the realm of being and meaning" (87). While the typology of pilgrims provided in this section is useful, the chapter as a whole is crippled with repetition and comes as a hiatus, all the more so as the reader expects such theoretical overview at the beginning of the book, not at this stage of the discussion. Also, unlike the other chapters, this one is prone to sweeping, unsubstantiated generalizations, such as: "some--like Conrad and Joyce--accepted and utilized in their texts the feared instability of signifiers, fragmentation and chaos. In their texts mythical allusions and patterns often emphasize and even celebrate disorderliness and complexity of human experience" (94); or, "Conrad and Joyce escape the lure of clear-cut classification, and they do not confine their characters to the role of a pilgrim on an uninterrupted path toward the center" (90). More problematic still in this chapter is the very notion of the "subaltern pilgrim" (90). Szczeszak-Brewer argues "because Conrad and Joyce, and many of the characters in their fiction belonged to the subaltern stratum in many respects (ethnicity, race, gender, class, and mental development), their emergence in the liminal space is potentially formative, even if they do not manage to reach their destination" (96). A few pages further she writes: "the subaltern remain in their disadvantaged position" (106). What is a subaltern? Who is a subaltern here? Are all Conrad's and Joyce's wanderers or pilgrims really subaltern? Can we, for example, persuasively consider Jim profoundly subaltern, as suggested in this chapter? After roaming from port to port, doesn't he finally emerge as the lord of Patusan and enjoy the comfortable position of a supreme imperial subject?

The fifth chapter examines Heart of Darkness and The Secret Agent, focusing on Conrad's "ghostly nomads" (99) who "embark on a pilgrimage to enlightenment and redemption, but these goals are elusive" (100). While the arguments on the pilgrimages of the harlequin, Kurtz, and Jim are insightful, the discussion of The Secret Agent is certainly the most compelling part of this chapter. Szczeszak-Brewer provides a rich cartography of pilgrims and original insights into the theme of pilgrimage in this novel, showing convincingly how "Conrad molded all of his characters in The Secret Agent as pilgrims. Some members of the establishment, some renegades against it, they are engaged in a perpetual act of walking, pursuing goals which are "sometimes clearly defined [...], but sometimes they resemble an ideological fantasy" (116-17). All these characters, she argues, fail in their attempts to reach the telos, and some, like Stevie, even lack any ultimate goal, which is "very symptomatic of the way Conrad portrays the modern quest," (109) as well as the "spiritual sterility of modern society" (116-17).

Chapter six is centered on Joyce's Ulysses, with occasional references to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Finnegans Wake, and offers a rich analysis of the motif of pilgrimage in these works. Through the examination of characters such as Stephen and Leopold Bloom, it highlights "the plight of the displaced self and the Sisyphean quest for meaning" (118). Here, Szczeszak-Brewer argues rightly that Joyce, through his references to pilgrims, "conflates the Bible and Odyssey, the Hebraic and the Hellenic, with himself" (120). This is an interesting point and deserves special mention, if only because Ulysses is itself a narrative and ideological palimpsest. To expand this argument, one may state that, via pilgrims such as Leopold Bloom, Joyce also conflates ancient and modern imperialism; in "The Cyclops" he not only establishes analogies between the Roman and British empires, but also draws parallels between the British colonization of Ireland and the Egyptian subjection of the ancient Israelites, a crucial historical connection which makes Bloom (an Irish citizen of Jewish descent) stand for the portrait of the colonized par excellence, a modern Irish colonial subject and an ancient colonised Israelite. By establishing this continuum between ancient and modern imperialism, Joyce both connects colonial ideology back to its source and questions the very essence of colonization and the myths and motifs which fuelled it, including the motif of pilgrimage as "a drive toward the sacred" (123). In the closing pages, the chapter elaborates on the pilgrims' failure to reach the telos, arguing that this failure, shared by Conrad's and Joyce's characters, is inevitable, since these pilgrims "either have to accept the absence of form and keep pursuing the empty center, or find solutions to make their lives easier, to transform themselves into strollers, vagabonds, tourists, or players" (147). Either way, these unsuccessful pilgrims remain dangling creatures, often strangers to themselves and to others.


Montreal, Canada.


Conrad, Joseph. Nostromo. J.M. Dent, 1947.
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Author:Acheraiou, Amar
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2015
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