Jeremy Hawthorn. Sexuality and the Erotic in the Fiction of Joseph Conrad.
Jeremy Hawthorn's new book is based on the assumption that with a few recent exceptions, Conrad's fiction has been read too innocently, and that it is time to look at it otherwise. This innocence is largely the effect of the critical commonplace whereby Conrad was unsympathetic to, and ignorant of women, (1) that he could therefore not write well about sexuality and the erotic.
If we confine these issues to relationships between the sexes, it remains true that Conrad cannot be called a bold explorer like D. H. Lawrence or even Virginia Woolf, his modernist fellow writers. The force of this book, however, is that it widens the scope and provides ample evidence that the sexual and related modes of erotic enjoyment far exceed the realm of biological sex or of codified gender relations. The erotic being defined as "the biological sexual drive expressed in and mediated through the socially and culturally specific," it follows that the whole field of human activities is invested with libidinal energy wherever the divisions between the powered and the disempowered are concerned (9). That Conrad should nowadays be mostly read as a political writer makes this book all the more relevant: the constant interpenetration of private sexuality and public life is manifest in the works of a writer who was undoubtedly aware of the distinction between sex and gender. Hawthorn's method of historicizing our understanding of sexuality, and refusing to examine the sexual and erotic moments in isolation, therefore makes perfect sense--as well as the decision to overlook the chronology of publication.
As soon as the reader has got hold of this essential thread, the pattern unfolds itself very clearly, served as always by Hawthorn's inimitable style, which allies pedagogical talent with powerful critical insight. If it soon becomes evident that matters like passion and lust are far from marginal in Conrad's fiction, we may then legitimately wonder why it differs so much from the works of D. H. Lawrence: Hawthorn convinces us when he claims that it is a question of artistic vision, a sense of mankind's existential confinement. Conrad obviously does not try to find a solution to the deadlock of gender relations which no sexual revolution will cure. Instead, sexuality becomes "the arena in which the exercise of power is subjected to a most rigorous critique" (Hawthorn 156).
The first chapter, "Closeted Characters and Cloistered Critics in 'I1 Conde,' Lord Jim, The Shadow Line, and Victory" uses a relatively neglected short work as a pretext leading to the larger works. Scrupulously tracing the critical history of "Il Conde" (1908), Hawthorn follows in the wake of the more recent trend suggesting that the Count is no innocent man of fine feeling, that the outraging experience he goes through is the effect of his sexual interest in good-looking Italian young men. A suggestive parallel is drawn with sexual subplots in Henry James, with the difference, however, that Conrad quickly takes us outside the life of the Victorian salon. As usual, Hawthorn amply relies on solid textual evidence; taking "I1 Conde" as a point of departure, he draws connections with the other works through telltale motifs like "Nice young men," "Bachelors, suicides and gold watches," and "[t]he case of the effeminate captains" (34, 38, 41). The method of intertextual tracking makes it clear that the desire of an older man for an adolescent or younger man is far from being a rare feature, and that Conrad's male narrators are not innocent figures in the carpet (Hawthorn 37). On the basis of a comparison with Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, Hawthorn singles out the strategy of displacement whereby an overtly homosexual character is used "to mask the homoerotic nature of a relationship between two ostensibly heterosexual characters" (44). Thus, in The Shadow-Line the homoerotic is relegated in the margins of the tale--the Sailors' Home--so that the relationship between the captain and Ransome will be presented as sexually chaste. We may also infer that for similar reasons, when the overt figure of the homosexual voices an obsessive hatred of women--like the satanic Mrs. Jones in Victory--such hatred will conveniently be subdued in the heterosexual field.
The modes of displacement associated to the homoerotic also come as a starting point to track other inconspicuous yet original erotic elements. The second chapter turns to patterns of the erotic and the exotic in An Outcast of the Islands and Heart of Darkness. Sex starts in the forest, a highly eroticized wilderness where rut and rot chime together. As in Lawrence and Woolf again, the enjoyment of natural beauty is never far from the horror of death and decay at its sources. The characteristic Conradian feature, here, is that heterosexual passion is permeated with sadomasochistic features distributed along unexpected lines. The consummation of desire is often equivalent with the tentacular forest-woman's ingestion of the European male. An early work like An Outcast of the Islands already problematizes the cliche of the exotic as the taming of the Oriental Other (Hawthorn 69). Heart of Darkness goes further into challenging Orientalist stereotypes: here, colonialist ideology and sexual politics mingle in sophisticated ways that undermine the semblances of European control. The strength of this chapter also lies in the way in which Hawthorn isolates another recurrent feature in this writhing sexuality: "it is usually being observed, not indulged in, by the voyeuristic but impotent European male" (69).
The third chapter delineates the "erotics of cruelty" in "A Smile of Fortune," "The Planter of Malata," The Secret Agent, Victory, and "Freya of the Seven Isles" (77). The strong element of sadomasochistic enjoyment at the core of the fundamental Conradian fantasy permeates both private and public spheres, as well as the more ambivalent area of textual enjoyment. The chapter begins with a study of "A Smile of Fortune" (1911)--an exotic "seriocomic romance" that indeed gains a lot in being read against the larger English background of the Jack the Ripper murders of autumn 1888 (80). Hawthorn draws a masterful tableau of the relationships between the captain and Alice, who is attractive to him as long as she shows contempt and fear, arousing impulses that are the source of perverse satisfaction for both partners. It seems, however, that the romantic without the ambivalent exercise of power cannot be erotic, which explains why the feminized captain severs the strange bond once Alice begins to manifest genuine interest in him (86). Hawthorn acutely observes that it is less a question of setting homosexuality and heterosexuality in a binary way than of pointing out unconventional/concealed modes of satisfaction. The story provides an excellent ground to support the claim that Conrad's writing is at its best when it challenges the distribution of gender roles and identities on the "natural" basis of sex (Hawthorn 94). If "The Planter of Malata" is a less successful story, it may well be due to the fact that it relies too much on the stereotyped language of melodrama, which allots unproblematic, symbolic places to male and female partners.
Conrad's fiction, then, tells more about human sexuality when there seems to be nothing programmatic in the desire of its men and women. The case of Victory lays bare the disturbing fact that the structural violence in the relation between the sexes is far from being restricted to the evil characters. Besides, the desirability of our love objects seems proportionate to their position on the scale of power introduced by issues of class, race, and culture. The chapter traces the pervasiveness of cruelty in socio-symbolic relations in The Secret Agent, where Winnie Verloc uses the pretense of marital love to gain social protection for those she loves. The quasi-incestuous bed of compassion shared in childhood with her idiot brother Stevie was a refuge against their father's cruelty. On the socioeconomic level, philanthropy rapidly gives way to the "lust-fuelled desire" to purge the world from those who are nondesirable, because weaker--the least that can be said here is that we owe to Conrad one of the clearest depictions of what lies at the back of utopias based on the desire to do good (Hawthorn 113). The present reader, however, would not follow Hawthorn when he focuses on the erotic, sadomasochistic game between husband and wife: if the affinity between the Verlocs is unmistakable, Conrad's handling of irony and point of view, however, directs our sympathies towards Mrs. Verloc, to whom the book has been overtly dedicated. Is not Winnie raised to the status of a tragic heroine arousing terror and pity, all the more enduring in the reader's mind as her tragedy cannot lead to any cathartic purgation of passion?
Hawthorn excels in showing how this pattern of cruelty exceeds the boundaries of the story to invade the field of narrative discourse. A suggestive link is drawn with the violence done by Conrad to his characters, which often hurt the sensitivity and conventional expectations of his readers. "Freya of the Seven Isles" is a good case in point to show how Conrad seems all too willing to sacrifice sexual passion between young, desiring protagonists at the hands of some cruel, sadistic, and voyeuristic father figure. Not only does the game of voyeurism/exhibitionism, sadism/masochism undercut the naive reader's desire for simple happiness, but through the process of narrative transference, the "baton of erotically charged cruelty" is also handed over from writer to reader (Hawthorn 130).
The voyeuristic film under which human passions seem congealed in this story extends to the whole narrative structure of The Shadow Line and Under Western Eyes, explored by the fourth chapter: here, the position of disempowered voyeur is overtly linked to the telling and receiving of narratives. As in Lord Jim, and thanks to textual strategies of displacement onto the world of natural objects or cultural artifacts, "an act of symbolic heterosexual consummation is observed rather than experienced" (Hawthorn 138). The Conradian ship, often depicted as female, carries a particular erotic charge, but in Tile Shadow Line the least that can be said is that the expected act does not come off. The ship is "at one and the same time like women and barred to women," by a detour that allows the captain to confirm his manliness at very little cost (Hawthorn 132).
Conrad's actually attractive women are often endowed with masculine features that produce sexual excitement in the masochistic male observer. Under Western Eyes self-consciously transposes such issues to the narrating and reading acts. The teacher of languages comes at the end of a long line of narrator-voyeur figures initiated by Marlow, the passive observer of the lives of others. But here the narrator most clearly appears as the one deriving sexual gratification from looking, rather than from shared sexual activity. If Nathalie Haldin is an appealing mix of masculine femininity to her desexualized teacher, what is crucial, however, is that the eyes of impotence should be Western. The novel best conjoins sexual and textual politics when it offers a recognition of "the human sterility of the look of power" cut off from intimacy (Hawthorn 151): another good lesson for the reader, and also for the Conradian critic who is reminded that intimacy with the text--the constant and dominant quality of the present book--is in the end much more creative than the sense of exterior cultural or critical superiority. We must thank Jeremy Hawthorn for this new achievement: he has succeeded in making us read Conrad both more intimately and more knowingly.
Jones, Susan. Conrad and Women. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999.
Universite Lumiere-Lyon 2
(1.) A view usefully deconstructed by Susan Jones, Conrad.
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2009|
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