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Turning Nothing into Something: The Victorious Alchemy of Victory.

A work of Conrad's late fiction, Victory stands at the heart of a critical controversy, eliciting harsh condemnation as well as admiring praise. (1) As John G. Peters writes: "Perhaps no other work of Conrad's has engendered such differing responses" (102), ranging from Albert Guerard's contention that "the time has come to drop Victory from the Conrad canon" (275) to Frederick Karl's view of the novel as "one of Conrad's greatest achievements, perhaps just below Nostromo, Heart of Darkness, and Lord Jim, but on a level with The Secret Agent and Under Western Eyes" (23). That those critics should try to place Victory in the Conradian canon points to the central role it plays, and that their opinions should be so opposed pertains, as I will try to show, to the very essence of this function. As for the tensions to be found within the novel, which have been considered as evidence for Conrad's declining art--the tension between melodrama and realism, objective and subjective points of view--they are also an index of the novel's very special position in Conrad's works. Among those tensions, that between the title and the very last word of the novel--namely "victory" and "nothing"--appears particularly striking, and may provide a key to an understanding of the novel. The tension is underlined by Conrad himself who, in his "Note to the First Edition," hints at the superimposition of the title--the first word that meets the reader's eye--with the last: "The last word of this novel was written on 29 May 1914. And that last word was the single word of the title" ("Author's Note" 5). How can "victory" be reconciled with "nothingness"; how can it be an apt title for a novel where the female protagonist is wounded to death and the protagonist commits suicide? Here again, Conrad's notes prove helpful: "'Victory' was the last word I had written in peace-time. It was the last literary thought that had occurred to me before the doors of the Temple of Janus flying open with a crash shook the minds, the hearts, the consciences of men all over the world" (5; my emphasis). The victory appears as a literary one and, furthermore, one cannot but notice that the reference to the oncoming war is made through the allusion to Janus, the Roman two-faced god of boundaries; indeed, the gates of his temple were opened at both ends in times of war. Although indirectly, this may tell us something of the logic and nature of the tensions in the text which could be but two sides of the same coin. The coal/diamond metaphor with which the novel opens alerts us to the Janus-faced, anamorphic nature of an object which alternately presents us with its bright or somber face, what Lacan, in Le Seminaire de Tangoisse, calls agalma and palea, the glittering object of beauty and the waste, the refuse. My contention is that Lena's ambivalent victory, "her tremendous victory, capturing the very sting of death in the service of love" (Conrad, Victory 346) is what makes the ongoing transformation between horror and beauty possible. Thanks to her, "nothing" can be turned into the little something of literature. Far from betraying overindulgence in the romantic and melodramatic themes, the attention paid to this female character, a character whom many critics have seen as lacking substance and reality, touches on the very essence of literature, the void that makes fiction, good fiction, possible. Lena's victory is Conrad's, for it courageously unveils the essential nothingness with which Conrad's art grapples, a radical Otherness which only a woman could represent.

Since this paper will be resorting to Lacanian theory, it will be useful to clarify a few concepts that will be used as a basis for my argument. The radical Otherness I am referring to is a place where the desire and identity of a subject originate. It is linked to the Real, the third term of Lacan's three registers, (2) the other two being the Imaginary (the ego, the image we identify with) and the Symbolic (the socio-linguistic arrangements in which the subject is placed as a signifier in a chain of signifiers). As such, the Other is unknowable, at once close and unfathomable, a provocative enigma, and is strongly linked to desire. For Lacan, "desire is desire of the Other," governed by the unconscious and fated to remain unfulfilled, for it exceeds the need expressed in the demand. This impossibility of bringing desires to satisfying ends fuels the dynamic libidinal economy, although the subject keeps looking for the static, stable thing that would fill the lack. It is necessary for this lack to remain a void, and Lacan uses the object a, "the object cause of desire" which is a spectral, virtual construct, to show the forever inadequate and unsatisfactory substitutes that come to incarnate this object a. The object a can therefore appear as a dynamic void in the structure of the unconscious. It is also double-sided, as stated above: as fantasy empirical object of desire, it is agalma, and as object cause of desire it is palea, for it is related to jouissance. Indeed, if desire is bound to be frustrated, drifting ever onward from one object to the next, the drive gets its satisfaction from the very repetition of the libidinal circling around the forever vanishing point of the unattainable. It is this perverse enjoyment which Lacan calls jouissance. This jouissance is inaccessible and lost to the speaking subject, who cannot accommodate it, and it can only return sporadically in inassimilable traumatic limit experiences. It also returns indirectly in literary texts, in their poetics which testifies to the unconscious forces at work in the text. Because it cannot be digested undiluted, it can only transpire in between the lines. According to Barthes, "From ancient times to the efforts of our avant-garde, literature has been concerned to represent something. What? I will put it crudely: the real. The real is not representable, and it is because men ceaselessly try to represent it by words that there is a history of literature. That real is not representable but only demonstrable [...] with Lacan, as the impossible, that which is unattainable and escapes discourse" (Barthes 36).

Axel Heyst, following in the steps of his father's ascetic philosophy, first seems to refuse to be a slave to the libidinal economy of desire, and therefore to refuse incompleteness. Being one with the universe indeed avoids any further painful striving. Even though his rescuing Lena, moving towards the Other, appears as a breach in this philosophy, the Other soon turns into the Same. In the novel, two always seems to be subsumed under one, as I show in what follows. However, Lena's nothingness is of a different nature than Heyst's, and her death opens up a void that cannot be bridged. The third part of this essay will show how this void is that around which fiction is built, the empty space that makes the circulation of meanings possible and that turns coal into a multi-faceted diamond.


Among the many nicknames given to the enigmatic Axel Heyst is "Number One," a name which echoes that of Samburan as "the No. 1 coaling station of the company" (Conrad, Victory 21), as though the man had become one with the "Round Island" to which he "sticks," as Schomberg says (37), although the coal mine has closed and everything is gone. What binds Heyst to the island is his father's inheritance, most of all the books of philosophy the latter has written and bequeathed him. To Davidson's enquiries, Heyst answers: "'I remain in possession here'" (37), or again: "'I am keeping hold,'" which elicits Davidson's pointed remark: "'In fact, you have nothing worth holding on to, Heyst'" (38). Indeed, it is "nothing" that Heyst holds on to, having assimilated his father's nihilist philosophy--described by Yannick Le Boulicaut as "Schopenhauerian Buddhism" (67)--and advice not to form any tie and to withdraw from any contact with the world and from any form of action, thereby avoiding the restlessness of desire and the incompleteness it breeds. This nothing has somehow crystallized and become solid; it fills in the gap of desire and condemns him to inertia. From the very first page, and regularly in the novel, Heyst's paralysis is insisted upon; his inertia even contaminates his surroundings: "the tepid shallow sea; a passionless offshoot of the great waters which embrace the continents of this globe," "the monotony of the inanimate brooding sunshine of the tropics," down to the "indolent volcano" (Conrad, Victory 19), a silent company the glow of which echoes Heyst's cigar. When the reader is first introduced to Heyst, he is isolated in the plenitude of his round island, under the light of the full moon, without reading or speaking, fearing the bites of mosquitoes, the bite of the Real (3) on the integrity of his body. Much later in the novel, as his and Lena's quietness is threatened by the impending arrival of the three villains on the island, he stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the very possibility of any intrusion from the horror of the Real that may break the perfect circle in which he has taken refuge and, with dramatic irony, he tries to reassure Lena, who knows better: "'Nothing can break in on us here'" (193; my emphasis). The dramatic irony is doubled as Heyst has striven to close up the breach opened by the enigma of the Other with the "nothing" of his father's philosophy, and it is "nothing" as embodied by the three villains that will eventually break in. The explanation he gives Davidson of this philosophy, which he has made his, also resorts to the image of the bite: "'The world is a bad dog. It will bite you if you give it a chance; but I think that here we can safely defy the fates'" (59).

Even during his time as a wanderer, before his meeting with Morrison, when "he drifts without ever catching on to anything" (88), Heyst remains within the confines of an enchanted circle whose spell cannot be broken: (4)
   Roughly speaking, a circle with a radius of eight hundred miles
   drawn round a point in North Borneo was then in his case a magic
   circle. It just touched Manila, and he had been seen there. It just
   touched Saigon, and he was likewise seen there once. Perhaps these
   were his attempts to break out. If so, they were failures. It must
   have been an unbreakable enchantment. (21-22; my emphasis)

Later, the magic circle is replaced by the Tropical Belt Coal Company, with Samburan, the Round Island, as the center of a web of routes, as figured on the map of the prospectus meant to advertise the company to the shareholders. However alluring the star-shaped map may be, evil-minded Schomberg is the only one who sees through appearances to the truth of Heyst's entreprise: "he can't throw any of his coal-dust in my eyes. There's nothing in it. Why there can't be anything in it" (36). The fullness of the circle comes to stand in the place of the emptiness of the zero, depriving the latter of its dynamic function. Schomberg's prophecies eventually become true as the Company goes into liquidation and all activity is stopped. We may note that as long as coal is extracted from the island, Heyst proves unusually energetic, running the business with efficiency, circulating the coal through the various islands; but such animation comes to an end when any further hollowing out of the mountain is impossible. The heap of unsold coal at the end of the wharf thus appears as an unwanted object that is no longer taken in the chain of desire and is a desolate signal of the deathly island where Heyst has chosen to stay: "The gigantic and funeral blackboard sign of the Tropical Belt Coal Co, still emerging from a wild growth of bushes like an inscription stuck above a grave figured by the tall heap of unsold coal at the shore end if [sic] that wharf, added to the general desolation" (48). Living among the ruins of a once-flourishing factory, Heyst chooses to abide by a nothingness that has become incarnate in the landscape. Agalma has turned into palea, and Heyst remains riveted to this decay which becomes part of himself, a self which, he then feels, has no lack. Heyst is indeed both a nihilist and a utopist, the strange combination actually proceeding from the same belief in a possible totality, as the anecdote about the origin of one of his many nicknames--the utopist--ironically shows:

Turning with that finished courtesy of attitude, movement, voice, which was his obvious characteristic, he had said with delicate playfulness:
   "Come along and quench your thirst with us Mr X?"

      Perhaps that was it. A man who could propose, even playfully, to
   quench the thirst of old X must have been a utopist, a pursuer of
   chimaeras. (23)

The wharf itself being placed where the sea slightly bites into the land may, however, be seen as reminder that such assuaging of lack, such completeness is but an illusion. The round island is not a perfect circle; it has a "slight indentation" known as "Black Diamond Bay," at the edge of which Davidson first spots the white figure of Heyst. In spite of his efforts, Heyst cannot completely deny the lack within himself, a lack that may have drawn him to stand for a while at the water's edge, though without signaling, and which drives him to forsake for a while his nihilism and become involved with others:
   But apparently Heyst was not a hermit by temperament. The sight of
   his kind was not invincibly odious to him. We must believe this,
   since for some reason or other he did come out from his retreat for
   a while. Perhaps it was only to see whether there were any letters
   for him at the Tesmans. I don't know. No one knows. But this
   re-appearance shows that his detachment from the world was not
   complete. And incompleteness of any sort leads to trouble. (40)

It is indeed this incompleteness, to which all subjects are fated, which creates a space for desire and initiates movement. It is probably no coincidence if, as Davidson conjectures, this move towards the other is initiated by a yearning for letters, (5) which, unlike journals or diaries, are not self-contained but exist only through the implied presence of an other. It seems that Heyst is longing to find the missing half that could make him complete. This is at the origin of his rescuing Lena and taking her to live with him on his desolate island, this move somehow repeating his first involvement with Captain Morrison. Heyst's involvement with Morrison is linked to his seeing him as a kind of substitute father-figure (both Heyst's father and Morrison die in England (6)). As for Lena, she can be seen as the feminine half meant to complete the masculine self. To her question about lack--"'What more do you want from me?'"--he can only answer with his wish for totality: "'The Impossible--I suppose [...]. [...]: Nothing less. And it isn't because I think little of what I've got already. Oh, no! It is because I think so much of this possession of mine that I can't have it complete enough. I know it's unreasonable. You can't hold back anything--by now'" (181). It is as though Heyst wished for the reunion of the feminine and the masculine into the original pre-lapsarian androgynous being postulated by some religious traditions. (7) However, as he is well aware such union is impossible. Heyst's seeming to equate Lena as an object of desire with "the impossible" and "nothing less" points to his propensity to regard nothingness not as lack (nothing less seems to mean that not anything should be withdrawn) but as something solid that may come in excess to fill in the lack. Desire for the Other is part of a longing for lost unity and for completeness.

Heyst's conception of desire therefore somehow denies the Other's otherness and becomes desire for the Same. Heyst's seeming openness to the Other, through his rescuing Morrison and Lena, is in part due to the similarities they share with him. Both Heyst and Morrison are, in their own ways, "queer chap[s]" (87), and Lena is as lonely and unattached as her rescuer. All appear as enigmas to others. Besides, if Heyst first takes up the classical role of the knight saving the damsel-in-distress, (8) gender difference soon becomes blurred, as Heyst's passivity, in spite of his manly appearance, gives him a feminine quality, while Lena's taking things into her own hands to defend Heyst from the three villains and holding the dagger turns her into a phallic woman. As Veronique Pauly writes, "Gender distinctions thus collapse and differences seem to coalesce, as if men and women were allotropic states of the same essence. The novel presents us with feminine men and brave women who act when their men prove unable to" (150). Pauly convincingly argues that the novel also blurs racial differences. According to Leslie Heywood, the deconstruction of difference that dissolves into sameness affects all kinds of levels in Victory: "as in perhaps none of the other 'major' novels, Conrad pushes oppositional questions of facts and fictions, male and female, realism and romance to their logical extensions, pushes them so far in fact that each tips into its opposite, thereby destroying the opposition" (17). The narrative as a whole seems to take up the taming of otherness into similarity, turning heterogeneity into homogeneity, for many pairs are to be found in the novel, each character having somehow his or her reverse mirror-image. (9) Two in Victory always seems to fall back into one. Mladen Dolar writes, "if philosophy has thus espoused the slogan of the Other it has done so in order to establish a dimension that would be able to break the spell of One, in particular its complicity with totality, with forming a whole. There is a hidden propensity of One to form a whole, to encompass multiplicity and heterogeneity within a single first principle" (2). I argue that in Victory, it is Lena who eventually proves the radical Other: her victory is to open a chasm which, in Dolar's words, makes it possible to "escap[e] from the circle, or the ban of One" (2).


If both Lena and Heyst are associated with nothingness, Lena's nothingness is of an altogether different nature from Heyst's. It is indeed a pliable nothingness that can be fashioned according to the desire of the other, while Heyst's has crystallized, blocking any relationship with the other. Thus she can tell Heyst, as well as Ricardo, though for different reasons, "'I'll be anything you like,'" where anything is empty enough to accommodate the meanings of "everything" and "nothing." Her very existence depends on the other, as she tells Heyst: "'You know, it seems to me, somehow, that if you were to stop thinking of me I shouldn't be in the world at all!' [....] '[...] I can only be what you think I am'" (Conrad, Victory 162-63). The insubstantiality of her character, which has been pointed out by many critics and often deemed as a flaw in Conrad's narrative, (10) may also be read as infinite plasticity. It is commonly observed that no consistent physical description of Lena is given; she therefore seems to exist only as an object of the male gaze, an impression corroborated by Conrad's oft-quoted statement in the "Author's Note": "If of all the personages involved in the 'mystery of Samburan' I have lived longest with Heyst (or with him I call Heyst) it was at her, whom I call Lena, that I have looked the longest and with a most sustained attention" (12). Although she disagrees with this interpretation of Lena, placing it in the wider context of Conrad's deconstruction of an unproblematic reality, Leslie Heywood writes:
   The differing impressions rendered by that gaze serve as just one
   instance of the relativity of perspective that makes "facts" so
   problematic. Throughout the text Lena has too many meanings and so
   ends up having no meaning at all. [....] [T]here is no "fact" of
   Lena, [...] she exists as she is named, as she is imaged, as she is
   created. And the fact that her names, images and interpretations of
   her "being" are contradictory make her overdetermined in a way that
   she cannot strictly be said to have a "meaning" at all. (6-8)

The picture Conrad gives of Lena, even though it is ironic since he eventually turns her into a stronger character than Heyst, can only appear distasteful to any feminist. Heywood describes her as "a blank slate men write their impressions on" (8), and Pauly argues that in Victory, "the discourse on women is at times so outrageously chauvinistic that it can only be read as parody" (146). Heywood's analysis is similar when she writes, "Conrad's text seems to posit a definition of 'Woman' that is conventional enough to infuriate any feminist reader" (9), an argument she illustrates with this quote from the novel: "In the intimacy of their life her grey, unabashed gaze forced upon him the sensation of something inexplicable reposing within her; stupidity or inspiration, weakness or force--or simply an abysmal emptiness, reserving itself even in the moments of complete surrender" (Conrad, Victory 164). Heywood argues that "It is the indeterminacy of the opposition--more than or less than, stupid or inspiring--that constitutes her as something rather than nothing, as if without difference there would be no being, but rather some frightening kind of void" (9). My own line of argument is that, precisely because she cannot be pinned down by this either/or dichotomy, remaining "a script in an unknown language, or even, yet more simply mysterious; like any writing to the illiterate" (Conrad, Victory 191), or again, "a piece of writing which he [Heyst] is unable to decipher, but which may be big with some revelation" (191), Lena embodies that "frightening void," that "abysmal emptiness" any good writer needs, at some point, to grapple with. She is the enigma that stands at the heart of the text and allows it to work as a literary text, as poetry which, according to Lacan, is "effet de sens mais aussi bien effet de trou" (11) (Le Seminaire, livre 24, 74). About Lena, Heywood writes, "Through too much she becomes nothing, through nothing she becomes too much" (14), an apt definition for interpretative ambivalence which Marcus Andre Vieira, taking up Lacan's analysis, explains thus: "Interpretative ambivalence is rather an opening to absence of meaning than to meaning in excess" (2).12 It is no coincidence if Heyst falls in love with her voice, no matter what she says, as he tells her by way of reassurance:
   "What could I ever talk to you about?"

      "Don't let it trouble you," Heyst said. "Your voice is enough.
   I am in love with it, whatever it says." (85)

The voice both exceeds and lacks meaning and may be seen as the poetic voice of the text, that which opens it to the Other and gives it its literariness. The fact that Lena should play the violin in Zangiacomo's orchestra could point to the importance of emptiness to the poetic voice, as the void within the body of the instrument is what allows it to produce sound.

Even the fact that "Lena" is the name given to her by Heyst, a naming process she herself calls for, should not necessarily be seen as submission to Adamic naming, but rather as the opening of a third dimension which evades traditional dichotomies and introduces true difference. As she tells Heyst, she has no name proper, and Alma/Magdalen, with their implied meanings of virgin/whore, are names that have been imposed on her and reproduce the long-established binary male vision of women: "They have named me Alma. I don't know why. Silly name! Magdalen too. It doesn't matter; you can call me by whatever name you choose. Yes, you give me a name. Think of one you would like the sound of. Something quite new" (84). And indeed Lena, the name Heyst comes up with, is new, a combination of Magdalen and Alma, yet neither, and utterly devoid of meaning, the result of "several experimental essays in combining detached letters and loose syllables" (162). Like Lena herself, it both exceeds and lacks meaning. This brings us close to Lacan and the influence Buddhism had on his theory, specifically a form of Buddhism that includes some philosophical principles of Taoism. Indeed, Lao Tzu, the Chinese founder of Taoism, defines "the Way" (a translation of the word Tao) as: "that which is without a name, and yet can be named" (Laurent 15). (13) In an article devoted to Lacan's seminar Lituraterre centered on the letter, Eric Laurent mentions the regular conversations Lacan had with Francois Cheng (14) on the Chinese classical thinkers that helped him elaborate his notion of the "littoral" as that which separates yet holds together two heterogeneous fields. Lacan's neologism, Lituraterre, brings together two words with a distinct etymology; littoral (from the latin litura) and letter (from the latin litera): the letter then is the littoral between the center and the absence. It is devoid of meaning and therefore cannot be decoded, though it invites constant deciphering. The name Lena is the result of this meaningless combination of detached letters which resists interpretation. Moreover, Cheng and Lacan came to seeing "le vide median"--close to Lacan's littoral--as that which corresponds to the Tao, holding together "that which is without a name and that which can be named" (Laurent 15), and to the number three for Lao-Tzu, beyond the traditional binary opposition between yin and yang. Lena can therefore be interpreted as embodying this "vide-median" (Laurent 16), the radical Other, the two which cannot be absorbed into one. Mladen Dolar writes, "there is an irreducible two, an irreducible gap between the One and the Other, and the unconscious, at its minimal, presents the figure of two that are not merged into one" (5). According to Dolar, for the other to be truly Other, that is, to escape the structural necessity of the pair as the Janus-face of the same, it must present "the slide of contingency within the well-ordered system" (5): (15)

The first perspective [that of the contrasted pair] hinges on necessity, ruled by differentiality, which is what makes linguistics possible. The second perspective hinges on contingent similarities and cracks and is the nightmare of linguistics, because its logic is quirky and unpredictable; it pertains to what Lacan called linguisterie and lalangue; It pertains also to what Alfred Jarry of Le roi Ubu, called pataphysics, the science opposed to metaphysics that deals with the exception, the contingent, the non-universal. (Dolar 5)

Lena's death appears as such contingency as she is hit by the bullet that was destined for Ricardo. The reason why this death should be a victory defies logic, all the more so as Conrad leaves us in doubt as to Heyst's understanding of her sacrifice. If it is possible to talk of victory, the victory should be linked with Lena's creation of a hole that cannot be filled and erased. Her death, which accelerates action and triggers a chain of events, appears as the enigma at the heart of the novel that calls for and resists interpretation. It is the radical antidote against what was her besetting fear when she first met Heyst: "'And I am here,' she finished, 'with no one to care if I make a hole in the water the next chance I get or not'" (77). The hole her death bores will not be closed over by the water, unlike the figure of Heyst or the ruins of the mine absorbed by the jungle:
   He marched into the long grass and vanished--all but the top of his
   white cork helmet, which seemed to swim in a green sea. Then, that
   too disappeared, as if it had sunk into the living depths of the
   tropical vegetation, which is more jealous of men's conquests than
   the ocean, and which was about to close over the last vestiges of
   the liquidated Tropical Belt Coal Company--A. Heyst, manager in the
   East. (38)

Lena's death allows no such erasure, as is testified to by the attitude of Davidson and Heyst who remain fascinated, "looking mournfully at the little black hole of the gunshot under the swelling fair breast of a dazzling and as if sacred whiteness" (346).

The fact that Lena dies holding the knife she has managed to steal from Ricardo, and that the mock-courting scene which enables her to get hold of that knife should take place right under the oval portrait of Heyst's father, in the room where all his books are kept, may be interpreted as her desire to sever the tie between Heyst and his father, to replace the solid paralyzing and deathly nothingness of his nihilist philosophy with another type of nothingness, a dynamic and creative void which is radically Other, and for which she stands in the novel. She regards Ricardo's dagger as "the spoil of vanquished death" (346) and tries to extend it to Heyst. Though Heyst does not take it, he does remove Lena's body into another room and will eventually set fire to the house, burning his father's books in the process. Lena's victory is that she eventually reveals that "we have to include the void as 'the other half,' 'the missing half' of firm being" (Dolar 10). Her last words to Heyst disclose that, paradoxically, her insubstantial and shadowy being is precisely what makes her unique and Other:
   "Who else could have done this for you?" she whispered gloriously.

      "No one in the world," he answered her in a murmur of
   unconcealed despair. (347)

If Lena can infuriate feminists, it is inasmuch as she embodies Lacan's controversial statement that "The Woman doesn't exist," as Dolar explicates:
   The Other lacks, it doesn't exist, it has no ontological
   consistency on its own, it marks the persistence of a difference
   that eludes the series of signifying differences and cannot be
   captured by them. Consequently, it would follow that the Other, as
   "the Other sex," doesn't exist either, and this is indeed the
   consequence drawn by Lacan's notorious dictum, which caused so much
   havoc, that "The Woman doesn't exist." If the Other is the Other
   sex, the conclusion inevitably follows--but the trouble is that
   nonexistence doesn't make the Other vanish, it doesn't amount to
   zero. Something is proclaimed not to exist--the Other, the Woman--but
   that doesn't mean it has disappeared. Of this non-existence
   something stubbornly persists. (6)

And indeed, something stubbornly persists: the "nothing" on which the novel ends, and which underlies Davidson's report:

"And then, your Excellency, I went away. There was nothing to be done there."

"Clearly," assented the Excellency.

Davidson, thoughtful, seemed to weigh the matter in his mind, and then murmured with placid sadness:

"Nothing!" (350)

Nothing to be done, and indeed, it is this nothing which needs to be done, and worked with, done into the little something of literature. It is a triumphant nothing that makes literary creation possible.


The place Lena manages to hollow out appears as the void at the heart of creation, the void around which something can be shaped, as illustrated by Lacan's metaphor of the potter's vase in L'Ethique de la psychanalyse, in which he talks about courtly love:

The vase is an object made to represent the existence of a void at the center of the Real which is called Das Ding--the potter creates the vase around this void with his own hand, [...] ex nihilo, out of the hole. There is an identity between the modeling of the signifier and the introduction in the Real of a void, a hollow. (Lacan, Le Seminaire, livre 7, 146) (16)

Conrad is the potter who shapes his novel around Lena, the void. This void therefore does not jeopardize the structure of the work of art, but on the contrary pertains to this structure. It both institutes a radical Other and holds together what is totally heterogeneous. It is also the empty space without which there can be no circulation of meanings. This takes us back to the map on the prospectus meant to advertise the Tropical Belt Coal Company with Samburan at its center:
   We admired greatly the map which accompanied them for the
   edification of the shareholders. On it Samburan was represented as
   the central spot of the Eastern Hemisphere with its name engraved
   in enormous Capitals. Heavy lines radiated from it in all
   directions through the tropics, figuring a mysterious and effective
   star; lines of influence or lines of distance, or something of that
   sort. (35)

This center needs to be hollowed out, like the mountain, for the circulation of goods and meanings to take place. Veronique Pauly aptly draws attention to the metafictional dimension of this map as a representation of the novel itself which "invites the reader to reflect on the 'lines of influence' and 'lines of distance'--again another variation of the coal-diamond motif--that connects this novel to all the preconstructed patterns it evokes," patterns which, as with Lena's overdetermination, "fail to structure the text" (145). I would argue that if none of these patterns can actually structure the text which never quite fits in any category, be it in terms of gender, genre, or point of view, they yet form the numerous facets of the diamond/star with their shimmering reflections, and the structural emptiness represented by Lena is precisely what allows the reader to circulate among these various patterns, and play with the veils of fiction without being completely allowed to forget that behind the veils lies nothing. The inconsistencies often pointed out in Victory may therefore be the tears in the veil, as Conrad, in this particular novel, is intent on dealing with the matrix of his work, the void that makes creation possible. One cannot fail to notice that the shape of the "mysterious and effective star" featured by the map is echoed in another metafictional metaphor, as Pauly points out, the spider web evoked by Schomberg to allude to Heyst-the-spider's predatory nature. The spider's web includes the void as an essential part of its very structure, and its shape may recall the facets of a diamond. In Buddhism, it is traditionally associated with Maya, the veil of illusion that figures the beauty of creation, a positive vision completely at odds with Heyst's father's "Schopenhauerian Buddhism." With its multiple facets that catch the light and dazzle, the diamond is another metafictional representation of the work of art as an object of beauty, especially when we bear in mind that what allows the diamond to shine is the cutting, the shaping of the stone by the artist-jeweller, just as the writer's style is his cut in the language, the unique way he allows the bite of the Real to leave a trace in his language, and which is only made possible by the recognition of the void and of the radical heterogeneity of the Other.

The final point I wish to make concerns the position of Victory in the Conrad canon. Peter Mallios reveals that the first American edition of Victory contained a map similar to that on the prospectus, "a genuine map depicting the trail of Conrad's works" (151), as if, Pauly says, "Victory could give the reader access to the whole of Conrad's fiction" (145). Since Victory, as has been noticed by many commentators, (17) is saturated unlike any other Conradian novel with intertextual and intratextual references, we may wonder whether Victory does not point indeed to the empty center around which Conrad's fiction and other writers' fiction revolve. It allows the free circulation of references, what Claude Maisonnat calls "a de-territorializing and re-territorializing process": "Indeed what does the intertextual game consist in, if not the deterritorialization of a hypotext that is immediately re-territorialized in the hypertext, and thus recirculated in the endlessly shifting construction of meaning?" (114). Like its female protagonist, Victory holds a very special and difficult position in Conrad's fiction, which may account for the contrasting responses it has elicited. It remains an enigma, overdetermined and thus resisting interpretation, defying critical assessments.

Heywood's argument is that in Victory, Conrad collapses oppositions:
   with each opposition on the levels of plot, theme, character,
   ideology, theology, philosophy, and whatever else the text could be
   said to enact, there is the tendency for each opposition to become
   so extreme, to push so far into its logical limit that the
   opposition itself collapses. It becomes its opposite, clearing a
   space (perhaps Nietzsche's "empty space"?) or instituting a blank
   within which some other logic than absolute difference begins to
   work. (16)

While I agree that in Victory traditional oppositions are proved to be but instances of the same, and that in their stead appears an empty space, I argue that the new logic instituted is that of radical difference, the difference of the Other that can never be harnessed to the logic of totality. It is this radical Otherness at the heart of the work of art which, I contend, allows the multi-faceted diamond of Conrad's fiction to shine. If Victory provides no easy reading, it must certainly have been no easy victory for Conrad, and yet the nothing he grapples with is what gives, through the marvelous work of the artist, the little something of literature on which we stake our hopes, as Mladen Dolar says: "Ultimately, the two, the two of the Other, the Other that doesn't exist but nevertheless insists, the two would be the division between one and den--not something, not nothing, not one, not being. Enough to stake our hopes on? The object of our perseverance" (11). Lena's nothingness, her radical Otherness, thus stands for this persistent hope at the heart of Conrad's works.


(1.) A version of this essay was presented at the 39th Annual International Conference of the Joseph Conrad Society (UK), Rome, July 2013.

(2.) For Lacan, these are the three fundamental dimensions of psychical subjectivity.

(3.) The fear of being bitten, according to Lacan, is linked with that of being devoured, and this questions the Other's desire, a supposedly all-powerful Other whose imagined jouissance threatens the self's integrity.

(4.) The very presence of the verb "break" in the examples quoted corroborates my interpretation of Heyst refusing any form of breach in the perfect circle he has created.

(5.) From the very start, Heyst is presented in connection with letters: he is "a ready letter-writer" and makes his entree in the world of business thanks to "letters of introduction--and modest letters of credit, too" (21). In her paper at the Rome conference in 2013, Yael Levin also pointed out this insistence on presenting Heyst as a letter-writer, and convincingly argued that this made him a figure of the artist, torn between writing and action, between his father's influence and Lena's.

(6.) Morrison's very name, a combination of the Latin mori (to die) and son, can be said to bear the deadly influence Heyst's father's philosophy has on his son.

(7.) The existence of a pre-lapsarian androgynous being is notably posited by Jakob Boehme, a German Christian mystic who influenced many writers and philosophers, including Schopenhauer.

(8.) Both with Morrison and Lena, Heyst appears as a protective father-figure. He is first attracted to Lena's girlish body, and the young girl, having lost her own father, may well find a father-figure in the middle-aged man.

(9.) Baron Heyst finds his evil alter ego in Gentleman Jones; both men supposedly perish at their own hands, Heyst through fire, Jones through water. Schomberg's remark when Heyst is no longer seen, "'I hope the fellow did not go and drown himself'" (37), contributes to this perception of sameness between two apparently opposed characters. Claude Maisonnat sees Jones's intrusion on the island as the return of the repressed, the intrusion of the monstrous Other in him. Lena and Ricardo, both attending Heyst and Jones respectively and yet choosing to act and take things in their own hands, are another such pair, as are to some extent Wang and Pedro. Even Captain Davidson whose "placidity" the text keeps insisting upon can be seen as a double to Heyst with his distant gentlemanly manners.

(10.) Cf. Jocelyn Baines: "Lena has no dimensions at all; she is a shadow, the least convincing of any of Conrad's important women" (Baines 397).

(11.) An approximate translation could be: "as much an effect of the hole as an effect of meaning."

(12.) My translation. The original reads: "Lequivoque interpretative est bien plutot une ouverture au pas de sens qu'au trop de sens."

(13.) My translation. The original reads: "la voie en tant quelle est ce qui est sans nom, et qui peut tout de meme se nommer" This passage, according to Eric Laurent, had particularly struck Lacan.

(14.) Francois Cheng had just published an essay on Chinese painting entitled Le Vide et le plein (Seuil, 1977).

(15.) It could be argued that Heyst's insistence on his not being able to buy her out (as he had with Morrison's brig), and the ensuing necessity to rob her, points to Lena being Other, outside the chain of exchange. She can only be robbed, just as the Real is what escapes the signifying logic, circulates undercover and is contingent, resisting any fixed terms of exchange and communication.

(16.) My translation. The original reads: "[le vase =] un objet fait pour representer lexistence du vide au centre du reel qui s'appelle la Chose--le potier [...] cree le vase autour de ce vide avec sa main, [...] ex nihilo, a partir du trou.--il y a identite entre le faconnement du signifiant et l'introduction dans le reel d'une beance, d'un trou."

(17.) Cf. Veronique Pauly, Claude Maisonnat, Myrtle Hooper, Owen Knowles, Cedric Watts, Paul Kirschner, Yves Hervouet, Zdzislaw Najder ...


Baines, Jocelyn. Joseph Conrad: A Critical Biography. McGraw-Hill, 1960.

Barthes, Roland, and Richard Howard. "Lecture: In Inauguration of the Chair of Literary Semiology, College De France, January 7, 1977." Oxford Literary Review, vol. 4, no. 1, 1979, pp. 31-44.

Conrad, Joseph. Victory: An Island Tale, 1915, Cambridge University Press, 2015.

--. "Author's Note." Victory: An Island Tale, 1915, Cambridge University Press, 2015, pp. 7-13.

Dolar, Mladen. "One Divides into Two," /one-divides-into-two.

Guerard, Albert. Conrad the Novelist. Harvard University Press, 1958.

Heywood, Leslie. "The Unreadable Text: Conrad and 'The Enigma of Woman' in Victory," Conradiana, vol. 26, no. 1, 1994, pp. 3-19.

Hooper, Myrtle. "'And I am Here': Lena's Victory and the 'World Itself Come to Pay a Visit.'" L'Epoque conradienne, vol. 24, Pulim, 1998, pp. 25-43.

Karl, Frederick R. "Victory: Its Origin and Development." Conradiana, vol. 15, no. 1, 1983, pp. 23-51.

Lacan, Jacques. Le Seminaire, livre 7, l'ethique de la psychanalyse (1956-1960). Paris: Seuil, 1986.

--. Le Seminaire, livre 10, l'angoisse. Paris: Seuil, 2004.

--. Le Seminaire, livre 24, l'insu que sait de l'une-bevue s'aile a mourre (1976-1977).

Ornicar no.12/13, Decembre 1977; no. 14, Paques 1978; no. 15, Ete 1978.

Laurent, Eric. "Les paradigms de la jouissance." La Cause freudienne, no. 43, October 1999, pp. 1-22.

Le Boulicaut, Yannick. "L'Eden perdu dans Tomorrow et Victory." L'Epoque conradienne, vol. 24, 1998, pp. 65-73.

Maisonnat, Claude. "De-territoralizing the Authorial Voice, Re-territoralizing the Textual Voice in Victory." L'Epoque conradienne, vol. 36, 2010, pp. 107-21.

Mallios, Peter Lancelot. "Declaring Victory: Towards Conrad's Poetics of Democracy." Conradiana, vol. 35, no. 3, 2003, pp. 145-83.

Pauly, Veronique. "Lines of Influence and Lines of Distance: Over-determination and Incompleteness in Victory." L'Epoque conradienne, vol. 34, 2008, pp. 142-54.

Peters, John G. The Cambridge Introduction to Joseph Conrad. Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Vieira, Marcus Andre. "L'interpretation, l'equivoque et la poesie." La Lettre Mensuelle de L'ecf, Paris, vol. 139, 1995, pp. 6-9.


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Author:Delesalle-Nancey, Catherine
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Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Dec 22, 2015
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