The University Bookman


Volume 44, Number 2 (Winter 2006)

Literature As Moral Meditation

Joseph Conrad: His Moral Vision
by George A. Panichas.
Mercer University Press, (Macon, Georgia) 165 pp., $35.00 cloth, 2005.

Terry H. Pickett

book cover imageOnce again in this new volume, Joseph Conrad: His Moral Vision, George A. Panichas has demonstrated what he means when calling literary criticism “the reverent discipline.” Thirty years ago, Panichas published an essay collection with precisely that title, which argued that reverence might be an appropriate response to the splendid mysteries of existence, mysteries such as literary genius. Such an approach did not render itself, or Panichas, to the radical literary sensibility that now dominates criticism. In that earlier collection Panichas wrote of a “metaphysics of art” that explores what he believes is “[o]ne of the ironies of the modern age…”, that, namely, “imaginative artists have nourished and sustained the relevance of metaphysics, in the face of, even in defiance of, the style of the times.” Thus does Panichas capture succinctly the terrible spectacle of modern nihilism in its rage against the persistence of meaning that insightful readers can still discover in great works of literature.

For Panichas, the critic’s purpose is to “speak to the reader and not to the constructors of an agenda.” In this new study, Panichas shows how Conrad’s works have withstood the assaults of critics who, with all their analytic antics, could not dismantle or subvert the intricacies and subtlety of his moral vision. He returns to the texts themselves, focusing on only certain of Conrad’s novels, revering the “autonomy of each novel…so as to ascertain and interpret its moral locale and place it in the geography of Conrad’s moral imagination.” Conrad’s novels “explore and make known” a geography where “the physical and metaphysical regions of intellect and emotion intersect and interconnect.” Finally here, as in all his work, Panichas “strives to restore the old humanist tools of criticism that enable one to transcend the relativistic and ideological productions devised by today’s intellectuals and technicians who reject the spiritual components of culture and character.”

The most superb example of Panichas’s critical craft among the seven essays is his exploration of Lord Jim (1900), a novel that was once a standard work in freshmen survey courses of British Literature. Within twenty pages Panichas guides the reader through the outward events of Jim’s life and their relation to the dynamic moral complexion of his struggle to reconcile his persistent illusions with the demands of objective reality. In the process we see how Conrad universalizes a particular life. His tale depicts an Everyman struggling “to ferret out his true moral identity,” condemned, nevertheless, in the end not simply to fail but in failing to cause inadvertent suffering in the lives of those attached to him.

It should be no surprise that the contemporary critical sensibility is offended by such works as Conrad’s, for these stories do not portray an emancipatory progression in which the protagonist is delivered from the constrictions of corrupt conditions through heroic effort; neither does it portray hopeless failure. The novels show that evil is very real; its agency is the dark landscape of the human heart. Conrad inhabits his tales with motley figures for whom meaning itself has become the act of inflicting pain. Where Jim finally errs is in his inability to recognize the evil of these practical nihilists, preferring instead his own romantic fancy that all human nature can be edified if not redeemed by sheer force of good will. It is a fatal mistake.

In Conrad’s fiction no one emerges from dramatic conflict to stand on an elevated plain of concord as sovereign anthropos; nor are his characters devoured by malevolent conditions through no fault of their own. These works cannot be read as either epics of self-deliverance or ghoulish sallies into decadent grotesqueries that mark an ubiquitous corruption. They are instead that stuff of ancient literature, presenting normative portraits of man seeking, in the thicket of contrary conditions, entangled in the deceits of his own illusions while maneuvering among his diverse and contrary peers, to discern meaning.

 In a chapter devoted to The Secret Agent (1907) Panichas portrays the malevolent careers of those “odious human beings” who have dedicated themselves to the promotion of social upheaval and revolution, a lesson that bears repeating now. Here is evil incarnate, or, as Panichas writes, Conrad “reveals the chaos in life that honors no value, no principle, no virtue, no tradition.” On the other hand, evil is not always initially intentional, as is clear in Nostromo (1904), a work in which the moral scope is turned upon action that miscarries because the original intentions lacked moral content. In this tale the cast of characters, in seeking a meaning to which they can devote their lives, choose futile pursuits. The final harvest is, therefore, a senseless melange of destinies unfulfilled and hopes dashed.

Panichas boldly rescues novels that have been rejected by modern critics who failed to uncover the more profound implications of the works. There is, for instance, Under Western Eyes (1911), which has been lambasted for shoddy structure and inadequate character development. Here Panichas shows us how Conrad aims to “register suffering and guilt in relation to moral crime, as well as to present…the moral aspect of the confusion that conduces disorder in both the outer world and the individual soul”:

The Secret Agent portrays the death of the soul: it is a novel in which a rhythm of disintegration affects all levels of human meaning and action. In Under Western Eyes ratification of the soul is achieved by a rhythm of ascent.

What seemed inadequate structure to some critics is, according to Panichas, necessary to encompass the impact of the confusion that crime produces, form thus reflecting substance and serving in its character to articulate the moral import of the work.

A rhythm of ascent can also be misconstrued as shallow optimism, particularly if the work has enjoyed great commercial success, as was the case with Chance (1913). With this story of a young woman who is the victim of rank exploitation, Conrad contributes to a tradition that has yielded more than its share of fluff. In this Post-Edwardian story Conrad effects a transformation from moral darkness to moral lucidity. For Panichas this work is a tale in which “the possibility of love slowly transcending both cruel absence of love and the loss of the soul…” is “caused by human beings who harbor ‘unprincipled notions….” Here Panichas locates the center of Conrad’s moral concern as “…not about life-answers but about the limits of life-understanding.” Since “things are sometimes different from what they look,” the moral significance in fiction is not necessarily apparent, not even with a close reading. It is indeed hardly surprising, in view of the twentieth century dominance of a tradition of immoralism in western literature, to find even overtly Christian writers crafting fiction that is morally ambiguous.

Panichas’s final chapter is a consideration of The Rover (1923), Conrad’s last complete novel and the work which he believes completes the moral pattern of Conrad’s vision as a novelist. The story is set during the French Revolution and provides Conrad ample opportunity to demonstrate in the character of certain revolutionary enthusiasts the danger he believes they pose for human order. Panichas dismisses the critics who see in the work only “sentimental and flabbily romantic” material. These charges were levelled by D. H. Lawrence and others who had assumed that Conrad had surrendered to a world-weary nihilism. In fact “there is no diminishment of artistic vision, or of the values and principles that impelled and shaped Conrad’s achievement.” At the heart of the story is the protagonist’s “renewed sense of responsibility.” The novel celebrates the virtues of loyalty and good courage that defy “the disenchantment that lurks in every day of a strenuous life.” Panichas finds that Conrad’s characterization powerfully elucidates “loyalty to the old verities” that is “rooted in a humaneness that is never compromised.” Such is the restorative quality in the destiny of those who faithful unto death uphold the ordered relationships that are sustained by intentional benevolence. It is moreover this very order that constitutes and then delineates for us the moral geography in which we must seek and find meaning, sometimes prompted by the kind and graceful wisdom of guides like George Panichas, savant teachers who have our best interest at heart.

Terry H. Pickett is Professor of German and Director of the German and Critical Language Programs at Samford University (Birmingham, Alabama). He is a professor emeritus at the University of Alabama and his most recent book is titled Inventing Nations: Justifications of Authority in the Modern World (Greenwood, 1996).

Posted: March 21, 2007

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