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Conrad's Accusative Case: Romanization, Changing Loyalties, and Switching Scripts.

A much-cited letter to his friend R. B. Cunninghame Graham from May 1st 1898 finds Joseph Conrad characteristically complaining about his work: "Wrist bad again, baby ill, wife frightened, damned worry about my work and about other things, a fit of such stupidity that I could not think out a single sentence--excuses enough in all conscience, since I am not the master but the slave of the peripeties and accidents (generally beastly) of existence" (Collected Letters, 2, 59). Besides the characteristic Conradian difficulty in "think(ing) out a single sentence," this letter is also famously revealing for sharing Conrad's views on the Spanish-American war in a series of reflections, beginning with "By all means Viva l'Espana!!!!" echoing his friend's pro-Spanish sympathies, while lamenting the possibility that "the Latin race" may be doomed: "Will the certain issue of that struggle awaken the Latin race to the sense of its dangerous position? Will it be any good if they did awaken? ... But, perhaps, the race is doomed? It would be a pity. It would narrow life, it would destroy a whole side of it which had its morality and was always picturesque and at times inspiring" (60). Each twist and turn in Conrad's phrasing here betrays layers of satire and irony, all very much shaped by the person to whom the letter is addressed; but also, at each level, linking Conrad's difficulty in "think(ing) out a single sentence" with the global shift in perspective precipitated by the Spanish-American war. As a number of critics have noted, this letter anticipates the sudden shift in perspective that will allow Conrad to abandon the plot of The Rescue (probably uppermost in his mind when he writes of "damned worry about my work") and turn to the plot of Nostromo (condensed into the thought that what others may celebrate in an American victory over the Spanish [shouting 'Fiat Lux'] "will be only the reflected light of a silver dollar and no sanctimonious pretence will make it resemble the real sunshine"). (1) The phrase "the Latin race" in this letter is meant, of course, ironically; but with so trenchant an irony that its racism cuts almost all ways--with and against the racialized myths (and racialized ethos) of both northern and southern European stereotypes. Underlying this formula, "the Latin race," I want to suggest we might also glimpse a Conradian insight into the fate of Latin letters. Indeed, more than mere insight, we might discern Conrad's long-standing and thoroughly crafted ironic practice of exploiting the unpredictable effects of transcribing, transliterating, and translating English using latin letters: a romanization constantly scripting and also constantly betraying any attempt to master the English language. The switching of plot-scripts--from The Rescue to Nostromo--reflects the way the Conradian trope of betrayal emerges from this constant process of transcription, transliteration, and translation involved in the romanization of English.

The paper proposes to outline this Conradian problem of romanization by tracking down the most elementary narrative unit of betrayal in Conrad. In Conrad's fiction, solidarities are usually premised on betrayal: Razumov's betrayal of Haldin; Lingard's betrayal of his Malay Bugis friends Hassim and Immada; Jim's betrayal (on the Patna and then again at Patusan); the betrayal of "he whom the English called Nostromo" (Nostromo, 29). Betrayal seems to be the crux of Conrad's characters and plots. My concern here, though, is less with character, or plot. What interests me is how betrayal works at the micro-narrative level--at the level of minute lexical effects that shape those overall features of character and plot. The aim is to find a micro-narrative explanation for how Conradian narrative precipitates a radical switching of global perspectives that makes his work so relevant for our times.

The underlying argument is that Conradian betrayal is connected with the process of converting scripts into romanized print form. This may be evident at the level of character in the case of Under Western Eyes, where the psychological intensity of Razumov's conflicted experience of solidarity and betrayal is rendered by the narrator's exaggerated emphasis on a switching between Cyrillic script and Romanized English print, switching between the Russian script of Razumov's diary and its English transcription and translation. A rather different example of switching loyalties and switching scripts--at the level of plot, rather than character--may be found in the historical plotting of the Lingard or Malay trilogy according to the economic and political rivalry between Lingard and Abdulla, registered at key moments in terms of a rival switching between Arabic and Roman scripts and scriptures. And the whole of the trilogy, beginning with the romanized Malay words that open Almayer's Folly ("Kaspar! Makan!"), coincides historically with the global ascendancy of romanized print form over Arabic script--a global switching of scripts from the use of Arabic to the use of the roman alphabet in writing Malay.

Betrayal emerges from something much more complicated and more interesting than a simple alignment of identity, plot-setting, or language with one or other of the "scripts" in question--Cyrillic, Roman, or Arabic. To the extent that these narratives turn on a switching between these "scriptworlds" (to borrow David Damrosch's useful term), it is still very much an open question as to how Conrad's narratives plot the loyalties of their characters, their imagined communities, and their readers, too, in relation to these various scripts. The rivalry between the Malay-Arabic and European-Roman "scriptworlds" invoked by the Lingard trilogy, for example, leaves an irony that may be ideologically even more unresolved today than it was in Conrad's time. While the novel-sequence itself is written and printed in roman script, the story (the fabula, as Viktor Shklovsky puts it, distinguishing the story from the way it is organized by the syuzhet or plot2) is more invested in the Malay-Arabic "scriptworld" of titles like "Rajah Laut," Lingard's title (King of the Sea).

One thing these examples already suggest is that Conradian betrayal surfaces around a particular kind of "switching of scripts" that might more precisely be described as "romanization"--the romanization of Malay (in the case of the Malay trilogy), the romanization of Russian (in the case of Under Western Eyes). Romanization--here, and more generally--may seem to highlight the process of imposing one kind of script, the Roman alphabet, to the exclusion of others (like Arabic or Cyrillic). For Conrad, though, with a keen sense of the differences within and between romanized writing systems (for example, between Polish and English), romanization is itself an ongoing and indeed peculiarly unstable process of switching scripts.

Perhaps the most revealing, if also cryptic and abbreviated instance of a switching of loyalties and switching of scripts in Conrad is switching from the Polish "K" to the English "C" in the writing of his own authorial signature. This Conradian "K"-effect is surely overdetermined, psychologically and politically, as David Smith noted some time ago. My current project wants to link this signature mark, the "semiotics" of Conrad's initial letters, to the wider linguistic, literary, and historical context of romanization over the turn of the century. Other famous examples in transnational literary modernism include the "K" in Kafka's work and the "Q" in Lu Xun's "The Real Story of Ah-Q," two very different examples of the aesthetic timing and spacing of the prestige of roman letters within a global comparative context. The one (Kafka's "K") stands at the intersection of German, Czech, Yiddish and Hebrew, along the linguistic faultlines of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. (3) The other (Lu Xun's "Q") is situated within a Chinese "scriptworld" undergoing a particularly volatile set of linguistic, social, and political reforms. (4)

Although I cannot pursue this comparative argument fully here, there is a common micro-narrative element to all of these very different examples and this is the elementary unit of narrative I am tracking in Conrad. In all of them, the roman letter carries an accusative charge--an accusation of betrayal unpredictably attached to the switching of scripts on which romanization is premised. The upper case "Q" in "The Real Story of Ah-Q" has typically been read as Lu Xun's critique of Chinese self-abnegation, the mark of an effacement of Chinese character both in identity and in script: so, the use of the roman letter as accusative (a graphic betrayal of Chinese-ness in multiple senses that need not detain us here). (5) According to Agamben's reading of The Trial, Kafka's "K," too, is a self-accusative mark, albeit in a different context: "In Roman trials ..., slander [calumnia, in old Latin kalumnia] represented a threat so grave for the administration of justice that the false accuser was punished by marking his forehead with the letter K (the initial of kalumniator, slanderer).... By calling our attention to the fact that Kafka had studied the history of Roman law while he was preparing for the legal profession, Stimilli suggests that K. does not stand ... for Kafka, but for slander [kalumnia]." (5) The accusative case of the roman letter for Conrad, I want to suggest, may have elements in common with the graphic betrayal of Chinese identity in the case of Ah-Q and elements in comment with the self-accusation Agamben finds in Kafka's "K." Arguably, in fact, Conrad's "K" is still more revealing in combining both the accusation from outside the "scriptworld" of romanized print (as with Lu Xun) and from within (as with Kafka).

"Romanization" effects a switching of loyalties and switching of scripts less at the level of plot (mythos) or character (ethos) than at the level of lexis as Aristotle puts it in The Poetics (at the level of the letter, the word, or the phrase ["diction" is sometimes how Aristotle's "lexis" gets translated]). (6) In turning to this micro-narrative level of the text, I should emphasize, it may never be possible to separate those other parts of narrative--plot and character--along with the even larger, macro-narrative elements (genre, ideology, history). Yet what Conrad himself in the 1898 letter to Cunninghame Graham calls the "peripeties and accidents" of life pivot on minute turns of phrasing and wording that link the smallest of lexical effects to the sort of transformation in global political and historical perspective precipitated by Conradian betrayal.

Some of the places where the lexical effects of romanization are most powerfully felt are moments of address--naming--naming of just about any kind, but perhaps especially pejorative, racializing, or downright racist naming: (reading out the name of the "nigger" of the Narcissus; reading Marlows name: "Marlow, at least I think that's how he spelled his name" (Youth, 3); "Mistah Kurtz--he dead" (Youth, 150); "They call him ... Tuan Jim here. As you may say Lord Jim" (Lord Jim, 367); " 'Our excellent Senor Mitchell';" or, "he whom the English called Nostromo." (Nostromo, 29) It is in this sort of naming (always a kind of misnaming) and very often with an implicit, oblique accusative charge that we might find the elementary principle of Conradian betrayal registering effects of romanization at the micro-narrative level of lexis. My hypothesis is that the most elementary narrative unit of Conradian betrayal is the accusative case (7)--the performative act of naming which, through the switching of scripts involved with romanization, generates a profoundly unstable switching of loyalties.

Consider the cases of "Tuan Jim" and "Nostromo." These offer rather different examples of romanization. I choose them not only as exemplary cases of the accusative, but also because each illuminates how Conrad's narrative projects as a whole are generated by the effects of such lexical switching: both, together, stage Conrad's imaginative turn away from the Malay trilogy (what's registered already in the letter from 1898)--a switching from the Malay scene of The Rescue to the Latin American scene of Nostromo.

In its first appearance in Lord Jim the phrase "They called him Tuan Jim" may not appear to carry the accusative charge of betrayal. It seems accusative only in the grammatical sense. This descriptive narrative act extends to the rest of the sentence, providing a standard case of romanization in the word "Tuan": transcribed from spoken Malay, transliterated from Malay Arabic script, and then translated into the English word "Lord"--"Tuan Jim: as one might say Lord Jim." Linguistically, and philologically speaking, each of these three features of romanization entails a different kind of lexical operation, a different kind of switching of script. Transcription renders the spoken Malay word "Tuan" in the romanized English print. Transliteration converts the way "Tuan" would be written in Arabic (or Jawi) script into roman letters. Translation goes a step further, translating a word from one "scriptworld" to another--from the Malay to the English "scriptworld" of titles and entitlement. The way these three forms of switching to roman letters interact is, in fact, quite complex; but theoretically at any rate, the romanized form of "Tuan Jim" offers a standard instance of romanization. Indeed, the Oxford English Dictionary makes this so, citing the passage in its definition of "Tuan" as a Malay word adopted into English (in the 1933 Supplement).

The exaggerated translation, or mistranslation, from "Tuan" to "Lord" is anything but a simple example, and the O.E.D.'s definition of the word "Tuan" presents an even more complicated picture by citing from another Conrad text, Almayer's Folly (the first appearance of the word "Tuan" in Conrad's published work). I've discussed this example elsewhere, but here I want to emphasize that "Tuan" as a form of address--as a form of the accusative case-has deep roots in the lexical formation of Conrad's texts and to do it justice we would need to go back to the primal scene of that first example (which would take us back to the first romanized print Malay words of Almayer's Folly). The romanization of "Tuan Jim" in some senses is surely related to the romance of the Lingard trilogy, and to its switching between the Malay "scriptworld" of Lingard's romance with Hassim and Immada and the English "scriptworld" of the romance with Edith Travers. In that sense, "Tuan"--like "Rajah Laut"--registers a switching between the different "scriptworlds" of romanized print and Arabic Malay titles on which the fable of Lingard's prestige precariously depends.

Yet "Tuan" is not precisely a title like "Rajah." It is, indeed, precisely not a title like Rajah. Late in the novel, when Cornelius is egging on Gentleman Brown, the first seemingly neutral phrase comes to be fully charged with insinuation and accusation--"They call him," said Cornelius scornfully, 'Tuan Jim here. As you may say Lord Jim'" (Lord Jim, 367). The way "Tuan" works as a lexical switchword in this moment of Lord Jim is not so much to effect a switching of loyalties between two different "scriptworlds," the way Lingard's title ("Rajah Laut") works. Neither Cornelius nor Gentleman Brown, whom he is addressing (nor for that matter Marlow, who is narrating the dialogic exchange), has any kind of loyalty, solidarity, or affiliation with the kind of "scriptworld" of Malay sovereignty and power Lingard shows in relation to his title "Rajah Laut." Cornelius's explanation of Jim's "title" still rehearses that romanized transcription, transliteration, and translation of the Malay word "Tuan" given at the beginning of the novel, but here the accusative charge in Cornelius's "scornful" explanation discounts the significance of Jim's being called "Tuan," turning the term into an exaggerated title of prestige (Lord, king) that clearly has no sort of connection to the kind of formal respect marked by Lingard's title.

The lexical effect of "tuan" is actually closer to the sort of switching within the "scriptworld" of roman letters that I briefly alluded to in referring to the "K" effect of Conrad's authorial signature. It is closer to what we might rather call the romanization of the Latin-American scriptworld that occurs with "Our excellent Senor Mitchell"--or, indeed "he whom the English called Nostromo." Cornelius's accusative address to Gentleman Brown and his motley creole crew is arguably a part of that radical switching of global perspectives (of loyalties and scripts) that occurs when Conrad abandons the Malay "scriptworld" of the Lingard trilogy and turns to the "Latin" "scriptworld" of Nostromo. In the letter of May 1898, this is registered in Conrad's switching from addressing Cunninghame Graham with the Arabic invocations "Istaghfir Allah! O! Sheik Mohammed!" to--"Viva l'Espana!!!!"

The lexical effect of "Tuan"--as revealed in Cornelius's accusative utterance--is to break the illusion of any kind of faithful, reliable, or trustworthy fit between identity and script, ethos and character, lexicon and "scriptworld." If the Lingard trilogy is premised on the attempt to measure Lingard's character against the Malay ethos of his title "Rajah Laut," Lord Jim widens considerably the gap between title and character. In this respect, it reveals what happens when Conrad switches from his Malay-speaking to his Spanish-American speaking fictions. The first (especially in The Rescue) opposes Malay-Arabic and English-Roman "scriptworlds" as opposing ethos, religion, culture, and identity. With Nostromo, a subtler, more unsettling switching takes place between two different, but overlapping roman scripts. So, on the very first page of the novel the italicized estancias breaks the roman font of the page to establish a fictive register of difference between the medium of English roman print and the italicized Spanish lexicon of its imagined Latin American community. "Tuan Jim" looks toward the lexical effects of this kind of romanization of romanization. This romanization intensifies and unsettles the gap between lexicon and scriptworld required to sustain the fiction of any Conradian English framing of a non-English-speaking world. Or rather: romanization reveals how this gap has been, all along, generative of the Conradian narrative. It helps pinpoint that small hinge, or break between lexis and ethos, between speech-pattern (as captured in writing) and character or temperament that plots the fable of identity whose betrayal generates those sudden twists and turns ("peripities and accidents," as Conrad puts it) in the Conradian text. At the micro-narrative level, this is what erupts in the accusative cases of Conradian naming and betrayal.

Nostromo, as a name, of course involves more than any seemingly simple alternation between the italicized Spanish and the roman font of English. Captain Mitchell's English "mispronunciation" translates the Italian term for "bos'n" into a heroic epithet adopted by various linguistic communities--a crossing of at least English, Italian, and Spanish entirely characteristic of the novel's romanization of "Latin" American titles. Giorgio Viola's formulation--"he whom the English called Nostromo" (Nostromo, 29)--suggests the sense in which the hybrid Anglo-Italian carries an accusative charge, something made even clearer in his wife's implication that the name of "our Nostromo" encodes a constitutive betrayal of his own people: "He would take a name that is properly no word from them" (Nostromo, 23). The name knits together solidarity and conflict into a trope of Conradian betrayal legible at all levels--plot, character, and diction. Its own peculiar problem of transcription, transliteration, and translation (none of these are easily explained) reveals how the craft of Conrad's English has always depended on an ongoing romanization--or latinization, or Latin Americanization--that opens English romanized print form to a whole range of shifting national, political, racial, historical, and geopolitical loyalities.

The romanized "scriptworld" of Conrad's fiction has always been premised on a switching within as well as between scriptworlds. The Oceanic Steam Navigation Company's imposition of Roman names and Roman gods offers an almost classical instance: "Their names, the names of all mythology, became the household words of a coast that had never been ruled by the gods of Olympus. The Juno ... the Saturn ... the Ganymede ... the Cerberus" (Nostromo, 9-10). These "gods of Olympus" have already undergone a transformation from Greek to Latin scripts, a classical switching of "worldscripts" so deeply engrained within the English invocation of "all mythology," the names evoke a long historical displacement and forgetting--multiple conflicts, solidarities, and betrayals--involved in the break between Greek and Latin "worldscripts." The names of these steamships reveal a constitutive doubling and tripling of "scriptworlds." And as with the evocation of just about all the names of Conrad's ships, like the Judea of "Youth: A Narrative" and the Patna of Lord Jim, too--their roman lettering betrays perspectival shifts in global cultural and political loyalties. As with ship names, so with titles--in a gesture reminiscent of Conrad's May 1898 letter to Cunninghame Graham, Giorgio Viola's political solidarities are signaled (twice) by invoking an Arabic scriptworld: 'the Garibaldino' (as Mohammedans are called after their prophet)" (Nostromo, 16); and "He, Giorgio, had reached the rank of ensign--alferez." The italicized "alferez" provides a sort of algorithm for this romanization of romanization, where the switching between two scriptworlds will almost always involve a third: here, the Arabic underwriting the italicized Spanish title of the English text. What all these cases of the accusative have in common is a process of romanization that implicates multiple "scriptworlds" in an unpredictable switching of loyalties and switching of scripts.

The accusative case might now be reformulated to emphasize the various principles of romanization we see at work in Lord Jim and Nostromo. This micro-narrative lexical effect depends, first, on romanization in the sense of switching from one "scriptworld" to another--on display in the romanization of Malay titles and the plot of the Lingard trilogy's displacement, abandonment, and betrayal of an Arabic "scriptworld" of sovereignty, power, and identity. It depends also, however, on a switching within and between different roman scripts. This form of romanization reveals a roman "scriptworld" premised on its own displacement, abandonment, and betrayal. All the accusative cases of naming (beginning with Mrs Almayer's opening call to dinner and extending to the long list of titles and names of Conrad's ships and men) point to a much more complex switching of scripts (and loyalties) than any switching between two supposedly self-contained "scriptworlds." So, for example, the romanized Malay that inaugurates Conrad's literary career is premised on a switching between many more "scriptworlds" than just the Arabic and the Roman (behind the opening address of Almayer's Folly and behind each of that novel's uses of the word "Tuan" there's also a switching between at least Buginese, Javanese, and Chinese "scriptworlds."). All these Conradian cases of the accusative case reveal a constant process of transcription, transliteration, and translation opening all words, all worlds, and all of Conrad's texts to a perspectival switching of loyalties and switching of scripts, the ceaseless work of roman print form betraying its own other "scriptworlds."




Agamben, Giorgio. Nudities. Trans. David Kishik and Stefan Pedatella. Stanford: Stan ford University Press, 2011.

Aristotle. On The Art of Poetry. Trans. S. H. Butcher. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1981.

Conrad, Joseph. The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad. Volume 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983

Conrad, Joseph. The Collected Works. 26 Vols. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Page, 1926.

Damrosch, David. "Scriptworlds: Writing Systems and the Formation of World Literature." Modern Language Quarterly 68: 2 (June 2007): 195-219.

GoGwilt, Christopher. The Invention of the West: Joseph Conrad and the Double-Mapping of Europe and Empire. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995.

Lovell, Julia. Introduction. The Real Story of Ah-Q and Other Tales of China.

Lu, Xun. The Real Story of Ah-Q and Other Tales of China: The Complete Fiction of Lu Xun. Trans. Julia Lovell. London: Penguin, 2009.

Meyers, Jeffrey. Ed. The Craft of Literary Biography. London: Macmillan, 1985.

Murray, James A. H. et. al. A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles [O.E.D.]. 13 Vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [1884-1928, Supplement, 1933], 1933.

Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Shih, Shu-Mei. The Lure of the Modern: Writing Modernism in Semicolonial China, 1917 1937. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

Shklovsky, Viktor. Theory of Prose. Trans. Benjamin Sher. Dalkey Archives, 2009.

Smith, David. R. "The Hidden Narrative: the K in Conrad." In Joseph Conrad's Under Western Eyes: Beginnings, Revisions, Final Forms. Ed. David R. Smith. Hamden: Archon Books, 1991.

Tsu, Jing. Sound and Script in Chinese Diaspora. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010.

Watts, Cedric. Ed. Joseph Conrad's Letters to R. B. Cunninghame Graham. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969.

Yildiz, Yasemin. Beyond the Mother Tongue: the Postmonolingual Condition. Fordham: Fordham University Press, 2012.


(1.) For discussion of Conrad's turn from The Rescue to Nostromo see, inter alia, Frederick Karl, Joseph Conrad (in Meyers, ed., The Craft of Literary Biography), 81; and my The Invention of the West, 216.

(2.) See Viktor Shklovsky, Theory of Prose, pp. 170.

(3.) See Yasemin Yildiz's discussion of Kafka in Beyond the Mother Tongue, 30-66.

(4.) See Shu-Mei Shih, The Lure of the Modern and Jing Tsu, Sound and Script.

(5.) See Julia Lovell's Introduction to Lu Xun, The Real Story of Ah-Q, xxii.

(6.) Giorgio Agamben, "K" in Nudities, 13.

(7.) Aristotle, On the Art of Poetry, 10-11 (sections 1449-1551).

(8.) In using this grammatical term to call attention to a minute lexical effect of romanization in Conrad's texts, I am deliberately choosing a felicitous mistake in the transcription from Greek to Roman grammatical constructs. As the O.E.D. helpfully notes:
   The formation of classical Latin accusativus rests upon a
   misinterpretation of Hellenistic Greek [phrase omitted] 'of or
   relating to that which is caused or effected (ancient Greek [phrase
   omitted])', designating the case of the effect, or thing directly
   affected by verbal agency, but misinterpreted by the Latin
   grammarians as '(the case) of accusing' (< ancient Greek [phrase
   omitted] to accuse).

In most respects, of course, English, as an "uninflected" language, has no "accusative" case--except in the sense of referring generally to the object of a transitive verb. Yet beside the fact that English still has vestiges of inflected forms, the lexical effects I'm trying to draw attention to in Conrad's texts--effects of "romanization"--are very likely to have the traces from inflected languages. And it is that break in the transcription, transliteration, and translation effected by romanization that I want to mark--what better term, then, to use, than a technical term, a grammatical term, which itself betrays the mark of this break in the transliteration from Greek to Latin. And indeed both senses--both the Greek sense of effect and the Latin sense of accusation--seem applicable to that micro-narrative lexical effect which, seeming to follow elementary grammatical rules of language, in fact betrays a fundamental distortion, diversion, or estrangement of grammar, language, and form that occurs in the crossing over between (at least two) different linguistic, literary, and cultural systems.
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Date:Mar 22, 2014
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