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

book cover imageOnce again in this new volume, Joseph Conrad: His Moral
, 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
inwhich 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
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
(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 thatConrad’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