Ethical Limits and confession in Conrad's Under Western Eyes and "Poland Revisited".
The opening confession, testifying that the text that follows is a record of a confession authored by Razumov, is paradoxical in its form however. The narrator's signature, a gesture of responsibility before the law, also refuses responsibility before the law. The English narrator performs an act that at once guarantees, assumes, and produces authority--signing--to claim his lack of authority, intimating a tension and even discontinuity between witnessing and truth. By framing the narrative to follow, a true "story of Russia," in this way, Conrad suspends the novel between responsibility and irresponsibility, and truth and fiction. This is exemplary of how confession operates throughout Under Western Eyes. It is an exercise in regulating even as it reveals the madness that structures the novel from within.
In this essay, I explore how two of Conrad's later works employ confession to manage the crisis of being haunted by revolutionary and colonial pasts, while also challenging this endeavor in their formal staging. By subjecting confession not merely to criticism, but critique in the Kantian sense, (1) these writings question an act generally enlisted to provide both narrative closure and moral redemption. Such an analysis of Conrad's elaboration of confession illuminates the genealogy of a discursive form that persists beyond the modernist moment, as Peter Brooks has shown, and comes increasingly to dominate literary, political, and cultural narratives throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first century. Confession as a historical and literary phenomenon, then, did not end with the modernists, or for that matter with Augustine, Rousseau, or Dostoevsky before them, signaling a predicament internal to its narrative mechanism, an inherent perversion of its law of enunciation. This internal perversion, marks a problem of bringing things to an end--no small issue, for in confession lies the hope tot only of discovering hidden truths of personal and historical pasts, but in achieving expiation for them, setting the moral balance right. Secular confessions inherit principles of both juridico-legal and religious traditions that attempt to redress wrongs of the past, calling them to closure. And Conrad's writings shed light on epistemological and ethical limits of these traditions and their iterations in literary, political, and popular culture.
To unravel confession's difficult relationship with epistemology as well as ethics. I examine Under Western Eyes in juxtaposition with Conrad's personal testimony "Poland Revisited," from 1915. Reading these works together elucidates the significance of confession in Conrad's writing and interrogates the conventional bisecting of Conrad's oeuvre into early and later phases. Considering narrative confession, that is, suggests how a novel that does not thematize imperialism as Heart of Darkness, Nostromo, or Lord Jim do can nevertheless remain shaped by it. Under Western Eyes is not generally considered a novel of imperialism, but rather one of what Eloise Knapp Hay calls the "political novels," representing, as Christopher GoGwilt sees it, the shift in Conrad's oeuvre from the map of empire to the map of Europe, and from colonial conquest and adventure to the internal betrayals of the European state, What seems to recede in this shift is the ethico-political conflict centering the earlier works, the contaminating effects of exchange between colonizing and indigenous subjects that render the imperial figure other to himself, compromising the distinction between enlightenment and darkness. Examing confession in "Poland Revisited" and Under Western Eyes, however, complicates this bifurcation of Conrad's writing, suggesting that although the later works turn away from the map of empire and inward to the map of Europe, the scandal of contamination has not been resolved, but displaced from a thematic to a formal register. (2) In "Poland Revisited," confessional form articulates how coloniality and revolution are intimately connected in Conrad's work and life. In Under Western Eyes, the effect of coloniality on the staging of responsibility we find in "Poland Revisited" informs the narrative; exploring the effects of revolution on the staging of responsibility, the novel lays bare the ethical limits of the confessional form.
My analysis begins with the later work and proceeds to the earlier one. Reading the minor text first helps us understand how the novel, a confession in its own right according to Conrad, tries and fails to come to terms with an unresolved colonial past. Although "Poland Revisited" is a personal testimony, I examine this autobiographical piece not with the primary aim of revealing aspects of Conrad's life, but rather to show how confession follows its own laws, generating rhetorical effects that remain outside the confessant's control. The essay demonstrates not only that confession persists in Conrad's work, but why it does.
Double Thought in "Poland Revisited"
Through narrative tactics that worry the limits between truth and lie, revelation and concealment, and intentional and unintentional speech, "Poland Revisited" situates confession as a both an epistemological and ethico-political problem. Such instability results because, while Conrad uses confession to address an earlier time, that specific moment has not entirely settled into the past. The historical conditions under which Conrad writes the essay and the political issues it broaches are those 'Under Western Eyes calibrates four years earlier--namely, attacks on state power, the rise of what Benedict Anderson calls official nationalisms practiced by empires over their colonies, and popular and anticolonial nationalisms in Eastern Europe. These conditions are linked to unresolved aspects of Conrad's own personal history: "Poland Revisited" is haunted by an absent figure, Conrad's father, a Polish nationalist whose specter stalls Conrad's movement from Poland to Britain and his attempt to return to Britain once in Poland. Geoffrey Galt Harpham argues that "Conrad registered not just the similarity of family and nation, father and Fatherland, but their near identity, and he did so at the moment of his father's funeral" (33), and the essay leads to the site of his father's funeral, supporting Harpham's observation that Poland remains a disruptive presence in Conrad's writing in genera1. (3) In this memoir, it generates confessions while interrupting them, inducing a predicament of "double thought."
J. M. Coetzee's theorization of "double thought" as an abyssal structure without end helps illuminate the problems that attend confession when Conrad mobilizes it to manage the ambivalence toward imperialism his work enacts. "Poland Revisited" doesn't state this ambivalence directly, but rather, formally indexes it by disturbing the essay's itinerary, the journey to the space-time of Conrad's childhood and to the clashing laws of a father who symbolized struggle against colonial power and an uncle who accommodated it. The work's detours insinuate a resistance to the very confessional mode it adopts, as if Conrad at once must and cannot employ confession to touch this subject. This simultaneous demand and refusal indicate what Dostoevsky names and Coetzee analyzes as double thought, "a potentially infinite regression" (282) driven by contradictory desires. Coetzee describes this frequent predicament of confessional writing as "the doubling back of thought that undermines the integrity of the will to confess by detecting behind it a will to deceive, and behind the detection of this second motive a third motive (a wish to be admired for one's candor), and so on." Double thought threatens the project of confession, to achieve absolution and closure, liberation from the oppression of a known truth, but also from a hidden truth. In the secular literary tradition, what calls to be confessed is both a truth known to the confessant and one not known, and double thought thwarts the confessant's efforts to reveal this unknown truth. This truth can only emerge ironically, as a discrepancy between a confession's statement and performance; it "slips out in strange associations, false rationalizations, gaps, contradictions." In "Poland Revisited," the known truth is that Conrad has entirely separated himself from his Polish past, while the unknown truth is itself twofold, that this past has not separated itself from him, and rather than enabling him to leave that past behind, confession only fixes him to it more fully. The work's ironic detours--"strange associations, false rationalizations, gaps, contradictions"--unfurl a double thought compelled by a confrontation with anticolonial nationalism in the figure of the unmourned father.
The essay announces itself as a search for a hidden truth sealed away in Poland, and as an attempt to resolve a discontinuity within the self produced by a break with the past. In this way, the essay parallels the journey. Conrad describes the latter as an archaeological expedition, a recovery of a moment sedimented into an internal archive that has become foreign to him. The instituting and sealing of this archive from conscious memory is closely connected to the life and death of his father, for it was in Cracow, he tells us, "where I spent with my father the last eighteenth months of his life" and "began to understand things, form affections, lay up a store of memories and a fund of sensations with which I was to break violently by throwing myself into an unrelated existence. It was like the experience of another world" (117). His journey aims to discover whether imagination is betraying "shadows in my youth," to "test the reality of my past," but the memoir hints that this task will prove challenging and discomfiting by framing both separation from and the effort to reconnect with the past in terms of violence. To return to Poland means not so much making peace with the past as conquering it, the journey likened to "the invasion of a tribe."
Another signal. that confession's attempt to establish knowledge and accomplish ethical and narrative closure remains a struggle, and of a gap between truths stated and truths performed, emerges in the essay's structure and sequencing, which imply that, as the narrator of Heart of Darkness puts it, "the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze" (9). Divided into four parts, the piece only belatedly fulfills the promise of its title, delaying the titular revisitation of Poland until part four. This delay--the circuitous forays into an ever-retreating past through a slow regression in time, even as readers move forward in narrative space--mirrors the voyage itself, which, Is Conrad characterizes it, "would have something of a migratory character" (117). His characterization here is quite an understatement. The Conrads embark on a route that makes the journey thirty-six times longer than necessary. And foregoing an expedient passage seems especially odd, because Conrad declares his desire to begin this long-awaited journey so intense that it blinds him to the danger brewing throughout Europe. Explaining the current deferral of "this Polish journey which for so many years had been before us in a state of a project full of colour and promise but always retreating, elusive, like an enticing mirage" (119), he places responsibility on his wife, who chooses this passage. Conrad agrees to her request, because it offers an "air of adventure in better keeping with the romantic feeling of this Polish journey," but aspects of the piece hint at other reasons for the "migratory character" of both journey and essay. Again, the sequencing betrays the expectations prompted by the title, but it also mimics the anxieties of betrayal that organize both this work and Under Western Eyes, along with so much of Conrad's other work, as Ian Watt has demonstrated. Unwittingly, it seems, in part one, Conrad intimates why the essay delays reaching its destination, recounting that the journey will land him "in a country house in the neighborhood of Cracow, but within the Russian frontier" (117). He does not mention that this topos condenses the tension structuring his early life--the different allegiances of his father and uncle to the Russian state--but the essay's destination nonetheless gestures at what remains unstated: contradictory attitudes toward anticolonial insurgency producing a crisis of memory.
While both the journey and the essay are intended to gain possession over Poland and his unresolved past. Conrad becomes possessed by both, and in place of closure what results is the abyssal logic of double thought, initiated by a transposition from confession to excuse. Conrad is detained in Poland as a consequence of instability and violence on the continent, and he is detained in the essay by the confessional form. Deferring the trip and the projected redemption of the past, the narrative also disrupts the work by sliding continuously from confession, a mode directed toward truth-revelation, to excuse, a mode directed toward self-exculpation. (4) Indeed, "Poland Revisited" originates with an excuse, "I have never believed in political assassination as a means to an end, and least of all in assassination of the dynastic order" (114), seeking to justify events it recalls, including Conrad's decision to allow himself and his family to travel into Eastern Europe on the brink of World War I. It is partly his increasing references to guilt and innocence that code this statement as an excuse, rather than mere explanation. Echoing sentiments uttered by Under Western Eyes's English narrator, Conrad claims that "it fitted with my ethical sense that an act cruel and absurd should be also useless" (115). Conrad excuses himself by citing ideological presuppositions that prevent him from reading the signs of future disturbances in Europe's political stability, but only a few sentences later he excuses himself for an entirely unrelated reason: "There was no man capable of forming a judgment who attended so little to the march of events as I did at that time," he asserts, because "my mind was fixed on my own affairs, not because they were in a bad posture, but because of their fascinating, holiday-promising aspect." Making the need to exculpate himself for leading his family into Poland on the verge of war even clearer, Conrad then twice describes his desires to revisit Poland as "innocent," redundantly insisting that "whatever sinister passions were heaving under its splendid and complex surface, I was too agitated by a simple and innocent desire of my own to notice the signs, or interpret them correctly. The most innocent of passions will take the edge off one's judgment" (116).
These excuses fail to exculpate the confessant, a. failure disclosed through Conrad's excessive protests of innocence. Comparing the past framed as excuse to the past represented elsewhere illustrates the weakness of these protestations and the memoir's contradictions. Conrad claims he overlooks the violence of the present and future because he turns toward a past absent of violence, "the past that one can not suspect and Mistrust, the shadowy and unquestionable moral possession, the darkest struggles of which wear a halo of glory and peace" (116), but the depiction of the past Conrad goes forth hesitantly and circuitously to encounter in Poland troubles this statement. Although the "holiday-promising" aspect of the journey allegedly diverts his attention from the imminent geopolitical conflict, his description of the journey's commencement implies a different cause for distraction. His companions were
looking forward to a voyage in space whereas I felt more and more plainly that what I had started on was a journey in time, into the past; a fearful enough prospect for the most consistent, but to him who had not known how to preserve against his impulses the order and continuity of his life--so that at times it presented itself to his conscience as a series of betrayals--still more dreadful. (120)
Here again, the essay undermines Conrad's encomia to a peaceful, hallowed Polish past and his anticipation of an "enticing" journey. When Conrad finally arrives in Poland, he relives a time of anticolonial revolt led by his father, and painful memories of witnessing his father's death; it is a homeland from which Conrad has violently "thrown" himself. Participating in the processes of double thought, his persistent excuses fold back on themselves, inculpating the confessant more than exculpating him.
If "Poland Revisited" enacts double thought as an abyssal structure animated by shame, what Coetzee sees as a crucial element in any confession, it nonetheless calls into question Coetzee's understanding of the relation of shame to self-consciousness. For Coetzee, double thought operates through the concealing of truth, which generates shame, which generates more confession, which generates shame, which generates more confession, ad infinitum:
Either the confessant was aware of the deeper truth but was concealing it, in which case he was deceiving his confessor; or, he was not aware of the deeper truth (though now he acknowledges it), in which case his competence as a confessant is in question: what was being offered as his secret, the coin of his confession, was not the real secret, was false coin, and a de facto deception has occurred, which is fresh cause for confession. (273)
At question in Conrad's memoir, however, is not primarily whether the confessant acknowledges the "deeper truth" about his desire to return to Poland (thus endangering his family) or conceals it and thereby deceives his readers. Rather, in question is whether the confession acknowledges this truth without its author's knowledge. (5) "Poland Revisited" indicates that an unknown truth can be acknowledged to the confessor--or reader--without the confessant's awareness of this acknowledgment. The sharp distinction between truth and lie, acknowledgment and concealment, is undone by what Coetzee himself indentifies as the "ironic confession," the confession that says more or other than what the confessant intends to say, for example, though elisions. Here, acknowledgment emerges indirectly, through the narrative production of this other truth, or truth of the other within the self, constituted as much by absences as by what the confession presents or states directly.
In "Poland Revisited," shame about what remains unknown generates in a proliferation of confessions that never own up to a "deeper truth" except obliquely, impeding the essay's progression toward closure through narrative evasions and a tropological movement by which Conrad at once refuses to take responsibility for his actions while simultaneously taking responsibility for them as an other. He admits shame only ironically, acknowledging the truth about his motives both to return to Poland and to confess his desires in this memoir. If we accept the OED's definition of shame as "the painful emotion arising from the consciousness of something dishonouring, ridiculous, or indecorous in one's own conduct or circumstances"--as a matter of being "conscious of something"--then as regards Conrad's text, "shame" is a term without a proper referent. It cannot be understood as a reaction to an act of the conscious self. Wanting to return to Poland to find respite from ghosts of those he has betrayed might be defined as "selfish," because it endangers others, but also as "selfless," operating beyond the limits of the conscious self, constituting a kind of double thought. Such double thought is evident, for example, when revelation and concealment are collapsed in a single utterance, folded together in the mixed meanings of "consciousness," as desire is simultaneously expressed and repudiated: "All unconscious of going towards the very scenes of war," Conrad confides, "I carried off in my eye this tiny fragment of Great Britain" (119). (6)
Ultimately, this catachrestic staging of shame and double thought forestalls the closure sought by both journey and essay. The last section doesn't resolve the split between the two Conrads, but rather offers only a final act of doubling and expropriation, returning once again to the spectral, revolutionary father haunting the piece. In terms of narrative plotting this section proves unfulfilling, recounting Conrad's Polish past in a mere three pages. In those three pages Conrad discusses witnessing his father's death in terms that suggest a desire for absolution that remains unfulfilled. About to enter Poland, Conrad comments, "Each of us is a fascinating spectacle to himself, and I had to watch my own personality returning from another world, as it were, to revisit the glimpses of old moons" (131), and in Cracow, the uncanny doubling continues as, oscillating between first- and third-person, the narrative renders him as both specter and spectacle: with a perspectival shift that situates Conrad as an other to both the Polish language and national identity, a police officer "turned his head to look at the grizzled foreigner holding forth in. a strange tongue."
The memoir's final attempts to achieve absolution and closure are blocked, also, by the simultaneous exposure and denial of shame. In Poland, Conrad represents his lack of shame, with a shame that prompts the need for more excuses. Remembering his father's death, he writes,
I looked forward to what was coming with an incredulous terror. I turned my eyes from it, sometimes with success: and yet all the time I had an awful sensation of the inevitable. I had also movements of revolt which stripped off of some of my simple trust in the government of the universe. But when the inevitable entered the sick room and the white door was thrown wide open I don't think I found a single tear to shed. I have a suspicion that the Canon's housekeeper looked upon me as the most callous little wretch on earth. (134)
Shame is confessed and not confessed at once, as Conrad's assertion that he did not feel shame for his dry eyes is belied by his need to repeat the exposure of shamelessness. This first exposure is thus repeated in his representation of the funeral: "The day of the funeral came in due course. And all the generous 'Youth of the Schools: the grave Senate of the University, the delegations of the Trade-guilds might have obtained (if they cared) de visu evidence of the callousness of the little wretch." It is as though, like Rousseau, who spectacularizes his shameful behavior in the famous stolen ribbon episode of The Confessions, Conrad finds pleasure in its exposure, a pleasure that cannot be directly confessed but only displaced. Such a relentless logic of shame and exposure heralds confession's endlessness, its failure to produce absolution! (6)
These passages also fail to suture the gap between the past and present for another reason--not Conrad's announced conscious refusal to mourn, but rather an unannounced, unconscious failure. Depicting his reaction to his father's death as a "revolt" and a loss of "trust in the government of the universe"--in the language of politics, not sentiment--his phrases reveal a failed mourning, a melancholic identification. (7) Rather than releasing him from, this specter, his words reflect his identification with his father, the dead revolutionary, as Conrad incorporates the father through his metaphors of political resistance. The memoir thus culminates not in the coming to consciousness of the loss of the father--not with a cure for self-splitting--but rather in a melancholic identification that is at the same time a self-othering, an unconscious insertion within the self of the other by whom it is interminably haunted. In this sense, the confession "ends" without really ending. (8)
In "Poland Revisited" confession thus cannot accomplish either of its aims. It neither makes known a truth unknown, nor does it solve the discontinuity within the self, overcoming those feelings that Conrad has betrayed his past. 'With this in mind, I turn to examine confession in Under Western Eyes, a work connected to another historical trauma, intimately related to the colonial past of Poland--revolution in Russia.
Incalculable and Contaminating Confessions in Under Western Eyes
It is well known that Under Western Eyes constitutes a traumatic confession of its author, as attested by his letters and the effects its composition had on his literary output at the time as well as his mental health. The writing process was torturous and interrupted, and resulted in a hiatus in which Conrad was compelled to write yet another text of expropriation and doubling, The Secret Sharer. The narrative effects of returning to the subject of revolution, and the ambivalent allegiances to his father and uncle, have been discussed by critics who read Under We stern Eyes as an allegory of biographical trauma (Humphries and Paccaud), and readers have also investigated how witnessing is complicated by its special form, the framing device (Hay, Henrickson, Kaplan, Dolin, and Fincham). But for the most part we haven't attended to the central role confession plays in its articulation of the limits of witnessing. One important exception here is Keith Carabine's work, which examines how confession in the novel encodes the autobiographical crisis of Conrad as a subject split by his father's Messianic nationalism and his uncle's critical view of it. Carabine argues that confession as practiced by Razumov, whom he interprets as a double for the author, stands as Conrad's attempt to manage the trauma of his past as a colonial subject and the son of a patriot and revolutionary. "Confession serves his effort to 'discourse' with his Polish 'shades,' and to build up 'a resting place for his remembered sensations to the end they should cease haunting him in all their force'" (18). The confessions in Under Western Eyes do not "promise conversion" (25), Carabine argues, as does confession in the Augustinian tradition. And, crucially, he suggests that Conrad stresses that confession, being composed of words, '"the great foes of reality,'" finally remains "'incoherent.'" It cannot guarantee refuge from those ghosts.
Carabine's argument is important, though, addressing only those forms of writing explicitly circumscribed as confessions, it doesn't consider how confession fragments, multiplies, and disseminates, indeed, how it organizes the entire narrative. (10) Nor does it consider how confession is interlocutory in its spectrality and thus poses problems for interpretation. But Under Western Eyes insists that confession occurs between an addressor and addressee, demanding interpretation and response. More than a discourse of truth-recovery, therefore, it is also a discourse of ethics--generating scenes of responsibility to an other, a person or a past. Confession in the novel, that is, enacts what Andrew Michael Roberts sees in Conrad's writings as a shift from a moral code of behavior based in the sovereign subject to an ethics of uncodifiable, unprogrammatic responsibility to the other by a subject that is not an ipse, or self.
As in "Poland Revisited," confession proves endless in Under Western Eyes, but, going beyond the essay, it also elaborates both how the Russian revolution makes visible impasses of responsibility underlying juridico-legal and Christological traditions of confession, and how testimonial language creates an underived responsibility to another. Conrad's novel thus explores in the context of the revolution issues of responsibility examined in other contexts by Jacques Derrida. Derrida argues that certain traditions of Western politics and religion rely on the autonomous, intending subject as the basis of definitions of moral decision, obscuring the aporia of responsibility that haunts them (Gift 24). That aporia is that the subject must ground moral decision and responsibility, but cannot, in part because decisions and responses are situated in language. Language, as testimony, separates the subject from herself and leaves her words (or gestures) open to effects that cannot be calculated. Testimony discloses that "decision and responsibility are always of the other. They always come back or come down to the other, from the other, even if it is the other in me" (Adieu 23). In its representation of the Russian revolutionary's confession, Under Western Eyes elaborates this impasse of responsibility
Formulating an ethical agency marked by divided attitudes toward revolution, the novel counterposes two models of responsibility. One model of responsibility emerges through the revolutionary's confession, debased as mystical and irrational, while the other emerges through Razumov's confessions, which rehearse the vaunted "Western" rationalism of both juridico-legal and Christian traditions. But by portraying revolutionary confession as a crisis of contamination--foiling the absolution of the exorcism the past promised by Christological and legal confessions--the novel challenges the plot's consolidation of a morality based in the subject of reason. The text's framing authority, the English narrator or "Western eyes," assumes reason as specifically Western, although, as Christopher GoGwilt has shown, the novel attacks the foundations of the "Western" its narrator insists upon, illustrating that it is a term without a stable historical, cultural, or political essence against which the Russian can be measured or defined. (11) That the voice through which these rational confessions are uttered is a Russian who is also described at times as English likewise implies the precariousness of the divisions among "Western" reason and the racialized "Russian character" the narrator insists upon. What is crucial is that revolution occasions a responsibility at odds with autonomy and rationality, two values which--although they of course do not belong either to some "Russian" or "Western" character--the narrator labors to identify with the West. Formally privileging in its construal of ethical agency what its English narrator condemns, mystical revolutionary testimony, Under Western Eyes relays the inability of this novel-confession to exorcise Conrad's "Polish shades."
Confession drives the novel, instituting and impelling both the diegetic and extradiegetic narratives. The act of translating Razumov's confession initiates the English language teacher's narrative, which details both the events in the confession and the narrator's digressions and commentaries about it. The event that sets the diegetic narrative in motion is another confession, the revolutionary Victor Victorovich Haldin's confession to Razumov of the assassination of a Russian head of state. And Haldin's confession produces the disturbance that shapes the work on linguistic, formal, and ideological levels: contamination by another and a splitting of the self, which requires yet more confession to be resolved.
Subjecting confession to an abyssal process of self-othering, the novel homologically prefigures the confession shaped by anti-colonialism, "Poland Revisited," while depicting as irrational a discourse connected to revolution. Haldin's confessing to the symbolic decapitation of the imperial and autocratic state obstructs closure by forcing the narrative trajectory of Razumov's contamination, expropriation, and betrayal of and by another. The revolutionary's confession figures Russia itself, described excessively by the English narrator as mystical, spectral, and irrational, and, as Haldin associates Razumov with Englishness (he is "collected--cool as a cucumber. A regular Englishman" ), the confession takes Razumov prisoner, provoking more confession while precluding the possibility of bringing confession to an end, rendering the home unhomely by separating confessor/confessant Razumov from himself Haldin's confession dislocates spatially mapped interiors and exteriors that define the physiological self and the home; harboring the revolutionary's confession is "harbouring a pestilential disease ... a subtle pest that would convert earth into a hell" (24). Razumov concedes, "The corpse hanging round his neck would be nearly as fatal as the living man. Nothing short of complete annihilation, would do. And that was impossible." This leads to the question, "What then? Must one kill oneself to escape this visitation?" Resisting parasitism, the incorporation of a foreign body who will eventually consume its host, is perhaps possible only through suicide or by confessing in turn to Haldin's confession--yet this seems impossible, for Razumov had not even "the refuge of confidence. To whom could he go with this tale--in all this great, great land?"
The text at first provides an answer to this question. But while Razumov confesses to the police and Prince K to eradicate the contamination of the revolutionary's confession, this backfires, and the consequence is a proliferation of confessions that overtake the text, spurring a narrative struggle between a theory of responsibility the novel connects to reason, and another it ties to revolutionary irrationality. Confessing to Haldin's confession of the assassination imposes the need for yet another confession confession to the betrayal of Haldin's confidence, which sets off new confessions in its turn. Yet even as the novel continually employs confession to cure Razumov's haunting and redeem him from betrayal, it questions why it engages in this performance anyway. The language of juridico-legal reason asks whether the betrayal that induces these confessions really occurs in the first place. The discrepancy between statements uttered in the idiom of rationality and the performance of confession as unrelenting self-entrapment structures the novel's depiction of the foundations of responsibility, and thus ethical agency. The formal contest between juridico-legal reason and Christological confessions on the one hand, and the mysticism of Russian revolutionary confessions on the other, marks a struggle between an. articulation of responsibility centered in the autonomous subject and responsibility as an incalculable effect of language that displaces the subject.
The novel employs juridico-legal reasoning to manage the contamination of the revolutionary's confession not only through confession but, first, through an imagined trial. As his name implies, Razumov functions as the voice of reason, the capacity with which lie confronts Haldin's confession in that imagined trial, where he argues to himself that confessing to the police will not amount to betraying Haldin. The text spotlights the organizing term of "Poland Revisited"; "Betray. A great word. What is betrayal? They talk of a man betraying his country, his friends, his sweetheart. There must be a moral bond first" (28). Here, Razumov casts himself as witness on the stand, playing prosecution and defense also, as he examines and cross-examines himself by delivering a series of syllogistic questions and answers:
All a man can betray is his conscience. And how is my conscience engaged here; by what bond of common faith, of common conviction, am I obliged to let that fanatical idiot drag me down with him? On the contrary. ... What can the prejudice of the world reproach me with? Have I provoked his confidence? No! Have I by a single word, look, or gesture given him reason to suppose that I accepted his trust in me? No! (28)
According to this reasoning, because no bond existed before the confession, and Haldin's confession cannot institute a bond, he bears no responsibility to Haldin and thus cannot betray him.
By invoking the juridical condition that a betrayal must be founded on a promise, and indicating it has not been met, the scene of Haldin's confession supports this rational argument based upon legal conceptualization of responsibility. After Haldin confesses the assassination to Razumov, he makes a request to his reluctant host: "Confidence" (14). Despite an exchange that might suggest Razumov agrees to honor this request, he never clearly promises to do so. After Haldin asks Razumov to help him vanish by keeping his secret and carrying a message to the peasant Ziemianitch, a narrative digression into Razumov's mental theater follows, detailing the punitive consequences and misery to befall him if caught and concluding with Razumov's summation that "he hated the man [Haldin] (16). Thus, when immediately after this interior monologue Razumov assures Haldin, "Yes, of course I will go. You must give me precise directions, and for the rest--depend on me," the text refuses to verify that this is a promise. Indeed, the passages preceding this imply that this utterance seems motivated mainly by Razumov's desire to keep Haldin in his rooms in case he decides to hand him over to the authorities. Leaving the status of the promise unresolved, the novel apparently allows for Razumov's model of responsibility grounded in reason.
Paradoxically, however, by portraying Razumov's reasoning as sound, confirming that he is not morally bound to and therefore cannot logically betray Haldin, the novel accords the revolutionary's confession all the more power by virtue of its irrational, mystical qualities, thus challenging this rational, legalistic notion of responsibility. Because the text does not determine whether Razumov promises, even implying that perhaps Razumov's response is composed of empty words, Razumov can, irrationally, neither keep Haldin's confession to himself nor give it up. More irrationally, the confession holds him captive, enforcing its double-bind even after he decides to turn Haldin in, by compelling him, for example, to confess this betrayal/non-betrayal to Haldin himself, "to pour out a full confession in passionate words that would stir the whole being of that man to its innermost depths; that would end in embraces and tears" (29). Feinting with the mystical power of the confession, rationality attempts to mitigate Razumov's responsibility but fails, because confession elicits from the confessor a performative utterance whose power is not controlled by, but rather controls the one who speaks it. (12) This elicitation marks the narrative power of revolutionary confession, whose force adheres in its capacity to produce an incalculable effect--the bond that compels Razumov's compelled confession.
Staging the operations of this power, the novel imagines responsibility as quite different than the concept of ethical agency founded on rationalism, intention, and free will, and it thus resists characterological readings of moral decision-making. Here, responsibility emerges through "irrational" revolutionary confession as the language of the other, the other of reason and the autonomous subject. Haldin's confession functions to separate ethics from volition and responsibility from conscious decision by severing language from authorial control and intent, revealing the aporia of responsibility juridico-legal discourses dissimulate. It functions as a contract that binds confessant to confessor without the latter's will or consciousness, indebting Razumov without waiting for him to countersign, except through a language that exceeds, even thwarts, intention. Readers have often addressed the question of responsibility through a subject-centered examination of Razumov's actions and "moral character," but the staging of responsibility as an incalculable effect of revolutionary confession renders the question of "moral character" moot. (13) In Under Western Eyes the ethical is not a matter of choice, rational decision, or utility, but a bind to the other beyond self-knowledge and intent.
The irrational confession's power generates the multiplication of Razumov's own confessions. These appear as quasi-sacred, quasi-secular counter-strikes against this bind to the other, illustrating how religious and juridical discourses founder when they parry with the revolutionary confession's enforcement of responsibility. By mapping the Christian onto the juridical tradition through the formal orchestration of Razumov's confessions, the novel discloses that the apparently opposed "Western" secular and religious domains in fact share compatible notions of responsibility. If juridical confession's stated goal is to reveal a truth, Christian confession's goal is expiation, and superimposing the religious onto the secular thus generates a modulation in Razumov's narrative from confession to excuse, which, as "Poland Revisited" suggests, can only postpone the closure and unification of the self confession sets out to accomplish.
Razumov's confessions to the police collocate secular and religious protocols of testimony, implying that their aim is not truth but exculpation. When he first confesses to harboring Haldin, Razumov confesses to a god-like figure rather than an ordinary police officer or Tsarist bureaucrat, whom the novel dismiss as inadequate. Bestowing a transcendent power in a patriarch of the state, the closest thing to (and unbeknownst to him, in actual fact) Razumov's own father--"There were no Razumovs belonging to him anywhere. His closest parentage was defined in the statement that he was a Russian" (8)--the text depicts the confessor through appositions that move increasingly toward that figure: he is "a senator, a dignitary, a great personage, the very man--He!" (30). Although the text builds up tension as Razumov searches for a confessor with the power to provide redemption from the haunting past, when he finally enters the palace of Prince K, is admitted into his room, and is on the verge of delivering his statement, the confession itself appears only as a lapse: "Though he saw the Prince looking at him with black displeasure," the "lucidity of his mind, of which he was very conscious, gave him an extraordinary assurance. He was not asked to sit down. Half an hour later they appeared in the hall together" (31). Typically for Conrad the confession is never narrated but occurs "off-stage," behind closed doors in a time and space from which readers are barred, intimating a theological context in which confession "occurs" in the self-enclosed, shadowy enclave that marks and separates private communion and communication from public. As this religious mise-en-scene indicates, Razumov confesses in order to right wrongs and neutralize guilt through expiation by the all-powerful, in this case not God but the all-powerful is the state.
By retrospectively revealing that Razumov strategically edits his confession, the novel makes explicit that his testimony to the state operates within Christian confession's programmatic logic of expiation. The same rehearsal of anticipation and then lapse framing Razumov's confession to Prince K repeats in part four when Razumov is called before the law in the form of Councilor Mikulin. Because the confession in the scene cited above occurs off-stage, readers don't learn what exactly or how much Razumov revealed. Did he reveal to Prince K that Haldin confessed, and that he is complicit in Haldin's attempted escape because he carried the revolutionary's message to the peasant, and that he killed Ziemianitch? Or did he censor these parts of the story just as the narrative censors the confession by locating it off-stage. Only later do we learn that Razumov has not admitted his complicity. This retrospective revelation signals that his confession aims not at disinterested truth-production but at self-exoneration. By accusing Haldin, Razumov excuses himself.
When he is summoned by another authority, the need to confess, to attain relief from the haunting, is thus redoubled, but this second confession again aims at exoneration, again compounding the haunting, the need to confess. The distinction between secular and Christian discourses, but also reason itself, breaks against the revolutionary's confession. Initially. Razumov rejects the possibility of confessing to Mikulin that he has withheld information pertaining to de P's assassination, namely, that he served as Haldin's envoy and then killed the peasant. The language of rationalization converts counterfactuality to truth. "Confess! To what? 'I have been speaking to him with the greatest openness,' he said to himself with perfect truth. 'What else could I tell him? That I have undertaken to carry a message to that brute Ziemianitch? Establish a false complicity and destroy what chance of safety I have won for nothing?--what folly'" (219). If it is a false complicity to which he would confess, RaZUMOV need not return to Councilor Mikulin. Once again, however, the rational explanation falters against the revolutionary's confession. Following this. reasonable refusal to wager against safety, the haunting intensifies: "nothing but Haldin--everywhere Haldin: a moral spectre infinitely more effective than any visible apparition of the dead" (220-21). When the Councilor summons him. Razumov therefore responds with "eagerness," for "Mikulin was the only person on earth to whom Razumov could talk, taking the Haldin adventure for granted" (224). The novel primes readers for a revelation, a confession to the murder that will quiet his tormentor: "Mr. Razumov, certain of relief, went to meet Councillor Mikulin with the eagerness of a pursued person welcoming any sort of shelter." But it frustrates that expectation in the next sentence: "This much said, there is no need to tell anything more of that first interview and of the several others."
The double-mapping of the Christian and juridical suggests that the purpose of Razumov's confessions to the state is not primarily to make known a truth but to make peace with the past and gain redemption. But this project fails: the confessions do not end here. Razumov is compelled to produce still more confessions--the novel's final confessions to Haldin's sister and to the revolutionaries. Razumov seeks out Natalia to confess to betraying Haldin because "there is no one anywhere in the whole great world 1 could go to. ... Do you conceive the desolation of the thought--no one--to--go--to?" (259). Confessing to Natalia is not enough, however, and he must also eventually confess to the revolutionaries.
These climactic confessions represent the last chance for the expiation and narrative closure the confessions to the state do not provide, but the way they are conducted compromises that closure. At its conclusion, that is, the novel underwrites the irrational model of responsibility articulated through the revolutionary confession. Governed by Christian discourses of responsibility, the closing confessions would represent the narrative triumph of the rational and juridical: Razumov finally appears to uncover the hidden truth and take responsibility for betraying Haldin, thus exorcising the haunting revolutionary specter. But, finally, these confessions are ironic, mobilizing the same tactics of evasion that structure the final scenes of "Poland Revisited." As Razumov states one thing and performs another, the achievements of his final confessions prove illusory, and ultimately the novel rejects concepts of responsibility aligned with reason, which the English narrator connects with "the West."
Razumov's confession to Natalia appears to take place but never actually does. Through interruptions of sentences, clauses, ideas, and voice, the novel frames Razumov's confession in the mode of fiction, a "tale" and "story" that merely might have happened. Like Conrad at the end of "Poland Revisited," Razumov does not identify himself as the subject or agent of the events, but refers to himself as another, in the third person. "Suppose that the real betrayer of your brother," Razumov proposes, "suppose that he was a young man, educated, an intellectual worker, thoughtful, a man your brother might have trusted lightly, perhaps. ... But there's a whole story there" (259). When Natalia demands to know this story, the text continues to double Razumov, positioning him as the confessor of the tale he "confesses" without confessing. "I have heard it," he tells her, "there is a staircase in it, and even phantoms, but that does not matter if a man always serves something greater than himself--the idea. I wonder who is the greatest victim in that tale?" When Natalia again demands "the story!" an ellipsis follows, one that would seem extraordinary if this device did not appear so regularly whenever a confession is about to emerge. Razumov responds, "There is no more to tell! ... It ends here--on this very spot.' He pressed a denunciatory finger to his breast with force, and became perfectly still" (260).
Razumov's confession ends without ever having begun. Not only is the story excised, but through the use of the frame and the grammatical voice, responsibility for the events is evaded. Situated as the climactic revelation, this "confession" culminates once again in the frustration of expectation. As if to underline that confession has not revealed the final truth, the novel has Razumov leave the scene veiled from sight, literally and figuratively. "Something, extreme astonishment perhaps, dimmed my eyes, so that he seemed to vanish before he moved" (261), the English narrator, who witnesses this scene, relates, and he then expresses with shock to Natalia, "That miserable wretch has carried off your veil!"
Just as this confession fails to produce the truth, it also fails to exculpate Razumov, as the next confession attests. After Natalia, Razumov confesses to the revolutionaries. This is not a choice: "he stopped, thinking over the form of his confession, and found it suddenly, unavoidably suggested by the fateful evening of his life" (267). Here again, in the midst of confessing, Razumov positions himself as confessor, framing events in third-person narration: "Am I to tell you, of the feelings of that student, sought out in his obscure solitude, and menaced by the complicity forced upon him?" (268) he asks the crowd of revolutionaries, excusing himself as the victim of "forced complicity," without however, naming himself as that student victim. After he recounts that "the student went to General himself, and said, 'I have the man who killed de P locked up in my room, Victor Haldin, a student like myself," the response of the crowd reveals that the testimony has not been received as confession; it demands that Razumov "name him!" Responding to the crowd's demand, he cries "haven't you all understood that I am that man?" Although he eventually names himself as the student, he has already interrupted the act of confessing by describing the actions in the third person, and then not until later claiming responsibility for them. It is no surprise that even after this belated acknowledgement, the revolutionaries wonder whether or not a confession has occurred: "But this is a confession!' uttered ... somebody in a desperate shriek" (269).
After this confession, Razumov declares himself liberated: "'I beg you to observe,' he said, already on the landing, 'that I had only to hold my tongue. Today, of all days since I came amongst you, I was made safe, and today I made myself free from falsehood, from remorse--independent of every single human being on this earth'" (270). But the novel's conclusion tells another story. The revolutionaries beat his head, he loses his hearing, and he is consequently hit by a tramcar and left, finally, "crippled, ill, getting weaker every day" (278).
Confession fails to secure closure; there is no peace with anticolonial specters in "Poland Revisited" or, in Under Western Eyes, with revolutionary ones. In the novel's failure, however, lies a success not necessarily intended by its author. In formally privileging the discourse it thematically denounces--spectral confession, associated with Russia and acts of revolution--the novel offers a critique of Christological and juridico-legal confession as modes employed to erase the past, to exorcise the alterity that haunts. By elaborating the endlessness of responsibility to the other that occurs in and through language, and by demonstrating that testimony places witnesses in debt to others beyond choice or conscious control, Under Western Eyes articulates an ethics more difficult to regulate, and thus more demanding, than either the secular or religious models can calculate.
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(1.) That is they explore the conditions of possibility of the act itself.
(2.) Ian Watt, Zdzislaw Najder, Edward Said, Keith Carabine, Geoffrey Galt Harpham, Andrzej Busza, and others have argued that the form of Conrad's work was shaped partly by his ambivalent relationship to colonialism. The son of Polish anticolonial nationalists, he was raised from a young age by an uncle critical of his parents' Messianic nationalism and revolutionary principles. His mother Ewa died when he was seven, leaving him very close first to his Either, Apollo Korzeniowski, and later to his uncle, Tadeusz Bobrowski, who became Conrad's guardian after his father's death in 1869.
(3.) In the Lacanian terms Harpham deploys, it evades the symbolic order, and is relegated to the real.
(4.) 0n this relationship between confession and excuse, see de Man.
(5.) Coetzee's parenthetical aside, "though he now acknowledges it," and his identification of a confession as a "false coin" compromise his otherwise careful argument about truth, deception, and shame. Because Coetzee does not define what it means to "acknowledge" the truth, and conflates he with counter-truth uttered by an unwitting subject, his otherwise radical reading of confession conserves the history of a philosophical dualism between testimony and perjury, truth and lie. On this subject see Derrida. "History of the Lie."
(6.) This passage supports Paul de Man's claim that "excuse occurs within an epistemological twilight zone between knowing and not knowing" (286).
(7.) In elaborating this logic, Coetzee cites de Man's view that "each new stage in the unveiling suggests a deeper shame, a greater impossibility to reveal, and a greater satisfaction in outwitting this impossibility" (267), and makes reference to de Man's reading of Rousseau's shame: de Man argues that "what Rousseau really wanted ... was the public scene of exposure which he actually gets."
(8.) My argument here departs from Harpham's. The difference in our readings is that Harpham, focusing on Conrad's depiction of the funeral not in "Poland Revisited," but in A Personal Recond, sees Conrad both accomplishing mourning of the father and at the same time producing a substitute: "With his functional bipaternity, Conrad was able to mourn one father and settle into an ongoing, largely epistolary quarrel that lasted well into adulthood, with another" (34).
(9.) Maria Torok, working from Freud's theorization of mourning and melancholia, calls this psycho-linguistic event the melancholic incorporation of the "exquisite corpse," an act that manifests itself verbally. For Freud, instead of introjecting the loss, or decathecting from the object, the melancholic incorporates it; according to Abraham and Torok, the melancholic identifies with this internal foreigner in the torsions of enunciations, for example through metaphors.
(10.) Thomas J. Cousineau and Andrew Long also examine confession in the novel, but do not treat its displacement and generalization throughout the text.
(11.) GoGwilt argues that the "West" functions as cliche, and that rather than "the threats of Russian messianism or revolutionary internationalism," it is the English narrator's limited vision that shakes the foundations of a proposed "immediately recognizable national, racial, or ethnic identity" (170). While I agree that the novel certainly troubles the idea of the West as a trans-historical, culturally, politically, and socially coherent entity, I am also arguing that the text invokes linguistic and rhetorical devices--especially confession--that deflect and struggle against the values the narrator (problematically) sutures to this "West," specifically reason. More than the narrator's limited vision, it is the textual effects of the Russian revolutionary's confession that opens an alternative, extra-humanistic elaboration of the ethics of testimony.
(12.) On the distinction between performative and constative, between illocutionary and perlocutionary acts, see J. L. Austin. Conrad's novel questions the principles structuring Austin's theory of the performative, which maintains that this form of utterance does not describe an existing reality but institutes a new reality or set of social, legal, or political arrangements. For Austin, a performative speech act must be "serious," for example not produced in the world of fiction, and it must be animated by authorial intention. By contrast, Conrad's fictional world leaves in abeyance whether the performative is animated by intention, and moreover relates that this performative produces effects that lie outside of the speaker's attempts to institute a new reality. The utterance instead generates a reality that was not calculated by the speaker, and yet cannot be reduced to an "infelicitous" performative act either.
(13.) For such subject-centered examinations see Avrom Fleishman, Man-Sik Lee, Jil Larson, and Sung Ryol Kim. In contrast, like Andrew Michael Roberts and Yael Levin, I find in Conrad's writing an understanding of the ethical that questions the domination or centrality of the subject.
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|Title Annotation:||Joseph Conrad|
|Publication:||Twentieth Century Literature|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2013|
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