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Leonard Moss. The Craft of Conrad.

Leonard Moss. The Craft of Conrad.

Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2011. 139 pp.

ISBN: 9780739139912.

Given its focus on evaluating technique, Leonard Moss's The Craft of Conrad is reminiscent of the author's 1967 study of Arthur Miller. Indeed, Moss's recent book might have been published at least half a century ago: it contains close readings of primary texts, focuses on aesthetic unity and the contributing elements of paradox, irony, ambiguity, and metaphor, while reminding readers that form and content are indivisible. An inherently New Critical or formalist work is not in itself problematic, of course; there is room for all modes of reading, even or perhaps especially for those that are no longer fashionable. But if one wanted to reassert the importance of a specific interpretative practice attached to a specific period or movement in the history of literary criticism, the work would have to be especially strong; one would need to be transparently self-conscious and reflective about one's methodology, and explicit about the value of returning--perhaps with a new awareness, given everything that has happened since--to this way of reading. Apart from the book's more superficial shortcomings--clumsy citations and numerous typographical errors, including some incorrect pagination in the index--Moss's book ends up exposing the limitations rather than the enduring value of the critical approach it advocates.

Moss opens his introduction by briefly situating Conrad in relation to the history of Western literature: following the Athenian playwrights and Shakespeare, Conrad dramatizes the paradoxes that structure masculine identity. Moss writes, "In his most powerful fiction, Conrad adapted an ancient story format that traces the degradation of a noble but shadowy standard by an individual desperately trying to enact it" (xiii). Conrad's particular challenge, given his philosophical preoccupation with paradox, the fact that he wrote not plays but imaginative prose, and his situation as a turn-of-the-century writer influenced by his nineteenth-century forbears, was to resist using explication or commentary, to rely instead on suggestive images, dialogue, and narrative structure to make his point. Moss's point is that one must evaluate Conrad's strategies against Conrad's self-professed aim in the Preface, which was to make his readers "hear," "feel," and "see" (1) In other words, Moss orients his assessment with the familiar distinction between showing and telling: while Conrad was a "superb craftsman," he sometimes "indulged his formidable talent for commentary" to a fault; that is, "he sometimes tells more than he shows" (xiii). In short, Moss promises to examine where "reflection and analysis" emerge as innovative aspects of Conrad's art, and where they become excessive or intrusive (xiv). Missing here is an account of the study's critical context. We need more than a list (provided in the endnotes) of critical studies and articles that take up literary craft in general or in Conrad specifically. In addition, a more specific discussion about the construction of masculine identity might have been helpful, if only to lay the groundwork for examining where paradox (or its absence) in Conrad's fiction subverts or reinforces socio-cultural ideals. However, Moss's focus is not on ideology or making constructs transparent; rather, he reads the conflicts that structure masculine identity as exemplary of human nature in an attempt to identify where Conrad's "determination to elucidate this 'invisible truth' sometimes displaced artistic criteria" (23).

In chapter 1, '"The Test of Manliness,'" Moss identifies and explores three different character types (Moss uses the term "stereotypes") found in six works spanning Conrad's career. These types are defined by how Conrad's male protagonists respond when human or natural elements challenge their ideals of masculine excellence: they emerge from their tests either in a state of "moral triumph, or inconclusive suspension between contrary reactions, or integration" (2). Moss discusses the first and third character types before delving into the tragic outcomes of the second. Moral triumph belongs to Typhoons Captain MacWhirr, whose brief, factual enunciations reflect a straightforward disposition. Given MacWhirr's limited speech, Conrad must use an articulate omniscient narrator to convey the severity of the storm and the integrity of the captain who endures it, but at times the narrator lapses into overstatement, a sign of Conrad's overcompensation for MacWhirr's reticence. More complex characters demand more complex rhetorical strategies: for example, Marlow in "Youth" embodies contrasting themes and perspectives, unlike MacWhirr, who remains "monolithic." Moss observes, however, that at this early point in Conrad's career he "fails to fill in the space between [...] the evolutionary movement from inviolable 'egoism' to cynical resignation or constructive reevaluation" (8). The story leaves us with Marlow's "unresolved double vision," a claim that establishes "Youth" as an early template for Conrad's late-career novella, The Shadow-Line, where the narrative sequence and rhetorics uccessfully convey a shift from youthful idealism to disillusion, ending in a hard-won integration of ideals and reality (15). Conrad turns to the "interrogative sentence" to dramatize rather than explain away the captain-narrator's psychological journey: "In short, he swims in a sea of insecurity, reacting to challenge with doubt as well as assertiveness. [....] His questions mirror his panicky attempt to escape permanent moral perplexity" (14). The chapter ends with a reading of Conrad's "ambivalent outcast," one who is self-consciously riven and thus more complex than MacWhirr, but unable to reconcile his noble ideals with the vices such ideals inevitably constellate. Moss attends to Conrad's dramatization rather than explanation of "self-defeat" in two short stories ("Karain" and "The Lagoon") and An Outcast of the Islands. Recalling his approach to the inarticulate MacWhirr, Moss demonstrates how in Outcast Willems's truncated speech reflects the protagonist's tragic, and ultimately fatal, inability to make sense of his inner conflict or crisis. Moss again shows where Conrad's commentary supports his protagonist's rhetoric, and where it is occasionally excessive.

Chapter 2, "Secondary Characters and Primary Images," is bifurcated, leaving the reader to wonder why Moss didn't include his analysis of secondary characters in '"The Test of Manliness"' and devote an entire chapter to imagery (a formidable topic when it comes to Conrad's craft). However, Moss loosely ties together secondary characters and imagery by emphasizing how they make "visible" the main characters' inner conflicts; both aspects allow Conrad to show rather than merely tell (25). Moss again comments in general on Conrad's Western heritage before identifying Conrad's supporting characters with five traditional stereotypes: "the fatherly guide"; "the ambiguous ally" and "the questionable collaborator"; "the fatal, faithful female"; and "the opportunist" (25-32). This chapter is beneficial in drawing our attention to the purpose and effects of possibly overlooked figures in Conrad's oeuvre: we learn how supporting characters "reinforce and contrast," and thus enhance, the protagonist's attributes and development (32). However, the chapter glosses over Conrad's ironic treatment of the "self-sufficiency, unyielding determination, and legitimate self-righteousness" that Moss sees affirmed in Outcast's Lingard (a father figure), missing an opportunity to address how the text undermines the traditional categories within which Moss operates (27). Moss does gesture towards such subversive potential in his brief look at one of Conrad's "fatal, faithful females" (30). We read, for example, that Outcast's Aissa is "a stereotypical female unusually gifted with masculine courage" and that "she functions as a double foil to Willems: her animal force caters to his sensuality while her memory of boldness stands out against his passivity and hysteria" (31). And yet, just when Moss's analysis starts to get interesting, he moves on to the next type, Conrad's "opportunist." On the other hand, while the transition to the section on imagery is a bit stilted, the discussion itself is compellingly detailed.

Tracing complex patterns of associations between imagery, characters, and ideas, Moss delivers close readings of the under-recognized "auditory effects" (sound and silence) and the more prevalent "visual illusions" (light and darkness), in Conrad's fiction. Here, Moss helps readers to recognize contrasting juxtapositions of sound and silence in Typhoon and The Shadow-Line (the cacophony of the storm is the threat in the former, while sound is tied to deliverance in the latter novella). Moss then considers how sound and silence in Outcast dramatize "human ambivalence" (36) before shifting to visual imagery--including everyday objects, and light and darkness--as expressions of characters' situations and internal states. Moss argues that Conrad's use of light and darkness falls into three groups: "clear-cut competition," "unnatural" conversion, and "confused coexistence" (38). We come to see how Conrad inverts conventional associations with light and darkness in "Karain" and "The Lagoon," and how light and darkness merge to reflect the indeterminacy and elusiveness of identity.

In "Styles of Insight," the third and shortest chapter, Moss brings together the terms he defines in chapters one and two to address Conrad's unique style in "The Secret Sharer" and The Shadow-Line, and Heart of Darkness. Moss looks to these seminal texts as examples of Conrad's response to the problem of portraying "insight," that is, the internal worlds of Conrad's characters, and the author's own emotions, thoughts, and ideas. Moss opens the chapter by classifying aspects of Conrad's style as "subjective (implicit, inward, emotional), objective (concrete, physical, factual), and abstract (discursive, conceptual, generalized)" (49). All three styles are informed by the literary strategies with which Moss's readers are now familiar: narrative structure (especially the "challenge-response progression"), the role of supporting characters (the five stereotypes), and imagery (objects, sounds, and visual allusions). At the outset, the chapter seems bogged down by classifications and categories, but Moss's interpretative efforts are clear. We learn that the subjective style prevails in "The Secret Sharer," just as it does in The Shadow-Line. In the former work, Conrad meets the challenge of conveying insight--that is, how "Leggatt serves the captain as model [sic] of a dual potential that embraces nightmare to achieve confirmation" (51)--by focusing on the protagonist's first-person perceptions, emphasizing the first mate's rigidity to indirectly show the protagonist's flexibility, and using paradoxical imagery to imply the protagonist's emotional turmoil before he emerges triumphant. Finally, "indeterminate images are resolved by a triumphant discursive ending [...] after measuring the 'secret' dimensions of integrity" (54). "The Secret Sharer" dramatizes an encounter with a form of darkness (embodied by Leggatt, the fugitive-murderer), but inner conflict resolves into "adaptive insight," recalling

The Shadow-Line (60). Heart of Darkness offers no such resolution: "Marlow struggles mightily to explain but achieves only limited success in a heroic struggle to evaluate and adapt to the shadowy authority of 'derangement'" (63). Moss demonstrates how Conrad manages in this exemplary work to communicate elusive, shadowy truths without relying on generalizations. Here we read about Conrad's virtuoso deployment of paradoxical narrative structure, incongruous secondary characters, images, and sounds. Most readers won't discover in Moss's analysis a new way of reading the novella, but he does offer a language for explaining precisely why it is an unqualified stylistic success.

Chapter 4, "The Social Focus," addresses Conrad's portrayal of "communal ambivalence" at sea in The Nigger of the "Narcissus" and on land in Nostromo (76). The most interesting part of this chapter is Moss's critique of commentary and analysis in both novels. In "Narcissus," Conrad deploys an internal, literate narrator to bring together a diverse array of relatively inarticulate characters, with mixed results, according to Moss. On the one hand, the narrator makes sense of his fellow seamen's confused iterations, but this means that, on the other hand, the narrator ends up speaking for rather than with the community to which he purportedly belongs. Although the narrator can be effective in describing the crew's collective, conflicted emotional responses to Wait, "[h]is elegant prose [mostly] magnifies his distance from the principal subjects and subordinates their unruly energy" (67). There is much potential here for a discussion of the ethical or thematic implications of this observation, but Moss's focus is on artistry. He points out where the narrative is most successful: when the sailors are allowed to speak for themselves, we see Conrad's impressive use of dramatic irony; his characters are most deeply human when they are allowed to speak without an awareness of the full meaning or "implications" of what they say (67). Moss finds in Nostromo similar examples of intrusive or overwhelming commentary where characters, narrative sequencing, and imagery should have been left alone to communicate ideas and emotions. Along this line of thought, the novel's main weakness appears to lie with the historical and political analyses delivered by a variety of speakers (from Don Jose Avellanos, Martin Decoud, Charles Gould, and Father Roman, for example). Moss argues that characters' extended discursive accounts in Nostromo take up too much space, distracting us from their flawed humanity and the related, paradoxical precariousness of community. Conrad is at his best, writes Moss, when he combines his characters' strengths with their unconscious failures of interpretation, perception, and comprehension. All of these claims fit well with Moss's thesis; however, his analysis of Nostromo points to the limitations of assessing fiction according to the "show; don't tell" dictum. Nostromo's historical and political commentaries are not necessarily "a regrettable excess" (90) but might be considered essential to the work's historical and political scope. One brief comment in this chapter, intended, no doubt, to show a balanced perspective and anticipate objections to his analysis, suggests that Moss may have had doubts about his own critique: "this is not to deride a measured exercise of 'self-conscious' interpretation; most writers find it indispensable" (78). Instead of rather rigidly following the pattern of analysis--praising poetic suggestiveness while criticizing prosaic explicitness--the entire discussion should have entered on the symmetry or synonymous quality of Nostromos form and content: "The artistic problem facing the author corresponds to the political problem facing the citizens of Costaguana: how to blend divergent perspectives into a coherent whole without imposing a dictatorial voice" (86).

With chapter 5, "The First Novel and the Best Novel," the book returns to its premise that Conrad is at his best when he portrays tragic heroism, "the trial of masculine competence endured by an ambivalent character neither 'scoundrel' nor paragon but something of both" (91). Moss states that The Secret Agent, Under Western Eyes, and Victory are weak because they center on detached rather than morally conflicted characters, and that while Almayers Folly lacks the ethical complexity present in Conrad's strongest achievements, it also bears traces of what would become Conrad's "best writing" (92). Thus a clear-eyed approach to Almayers Folly as a formative text will help us to appreciate Conrad's achievements, especially Lord Jim. Almayer is an "amoral schemer" (92), a "one-track intriguer" (93), and a "banal egoist" (96); from this simplistic protagonist unfolds a narrative that lacks the coherence of Conrad's subsequent achievement, An Outcast of the Islands. Almayer is focused only on becoming wealthy and powerful, and experiences only emotional, not moral, tumult. Moss argues that Conrad compensates for Almayer's superficiality with a rich array of supporting characters, from Lakamba and Babalatchi, to the self-righteous Lingard, to Mrs. Almayer, Taminah, Nina, and Dain. Apparently, Conrad found these characters more worthy of his attention than the protagonist, especially Nina and Dain whose love story ends up dominating the narrative and "compromising] the novel's unity" (96). Here Moss could have looked to Dain for the complexity that Almayer lacks. After all, it is Dain who comes to experience the tragic conflict between his commitment to Nina and to heroic action or, put differently, between personal and political goods. But Moss's preoccupation with the individual work's unity prevents him from thinking about the possible significance of the text's asymmetry and its larger context. When we keep in mind that Almayers Folly, though written first, is the third and concluding story of the "Malay Trilogy" (with An Outcast of the Islands and The Rescue), perhaps Dain and Nina's displacement of Almayer is structurally and symbolically effective. The celebration of Lord Jim that follows does represent the scope and depth of the novel, but this section is somehow anti-climactic. Moss lays out the novel's multi-faceted plot; its central question stemming from the ambiguous meaning of Jim's death; its array of "six negative and six positive secondary characters who symbolize the paradox" of Jim's idealism (106); its invocation of Marlow, the one character who "comes closest to grasping" that "evil is the inevitable escort of virtue"; and its suggestive use of light and darkness (109). Moss has a talent for pithy, eloquent descriptions: Marlow "does not condemn the cohabitation of a longing for immortal perfection with an inclination to destroy or corrupt it--contraries that seem irreconcilable yet comprise the frustrating, vivifying venture undertaken by the human species" (111). All of this would serve as a very clear, solid introduction to the novel, and Moss's enthusiasm would encourage new students or inexperienced readers to study Conrad. However, advanced readers and scholars probably won't find anything here that enhances or alters their understanding of Lord Jim.

The Craft of Conrad covers an impressive range of Conrad's fiction, and there is something to be admired in an author who unapologetically quotes primary texts almost to excess, and writes freely from his own direct engagement with literature. Moreover, Moss's jargon-free prose is definitely appealing, and novice English majors will discover a clear introduction to literary analysis here. But Moss's work is not as refreshing as he must have intended it to be. In his conclusion, Moss presents his book as a remedy for critics' prevailing tendency to reduce art to ideas and subordinate literary studies to other disciplines such as history and philosophy. This assessment, however, comes across as a dubious personal opinion rather than a valid claim, because he eschews conversing with other critics and scholars, apart from some material in the endnotes and some irritable remarks about what he believes to be a common overestimation of The Secret Agent's merits. Perhaps Moss's few, vague comments about Conrad's Western heritage reflect his intuition that his study is rather confining. In any case, although he aims to show Conrad's artful representation of indeterminacy--an idea that has philosophical implications--for the most part the book, in its remarkably consistent avoidance of "biographical, historical, philosophical, psychological, and ethical" fields (117), is increasingly flat and repetitive. That is to say, The Craft of Conrad inadvertently shows the pitfalls of retreating from the rich, multifarious world of scholarship and theory to write in intellectual isolation.


Humber College


(1.) Moss attributes a passage from Conrad's famous Preface to the Nigger of the "Narcissus," to Marlow in Lord Jim, but I was unable to access the pertinent edition of the novel (Robert B. Heilman, ed., Holt & Winston, 1957) to properly document this odd error.
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Author:Hannis, Alexia
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2015
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