For Joseph Conrad, the struggle between good and evil in the human soul was a permanent reality, a reality one might prefer to avoid, or try to sublimate, but one that nobody who has lived long can absolutely deny.

Joseph Conrad: His Moral Vision, by George A. Panichas (165 pages, Mercer University Press, 2005)

In his 2005 critical achievement, George A. Panichas, the longtime editor of Modern Age, examines seven novels of Joseph Conrad: Lord Jim, Under Western Eyes, Nostromo, The Secret Agent, Chance, Victory, and The Rover. He endeavors to explain Conrad’s response in these fictions to man’s perpetual struggle against the constraints of the human condition. Panichas illuminates the novels’ sympathy for “common mortals” who “must endure,” as Conrad put it, “the load of gifts from heaven: the curse of facts and the blessings of illusions, the bitterness of wisdom and the deceptive consolation of folly.” In fine, Panichas attempts to renew interest in Conrad’s moral imagination.

The moral imagination, as Panichas understands it, is the sine qua non of a long rhetorical tradition extending from Aristotle and Horace through Sidney and Johnson to the leaders of the New Humanism, Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More. This tradition of moralist critics, including Panichas, holds that literature should instruct as well as delight. Issuing in a unified vision of nature and man’s place in it, the moral imagination is the power of ethical perception exercised in poetry and art. Works of the moral imagination fashion forth images of the good, the beautiful, and the honorable; embody the cardinal and supernatural virtues; and give flesh to the seven deadly sins. In brief, they make the unseen seeable. Like the divine natural law, the moral imagination is impressed in the soul by the hand of Providence. But like the soul, which remains submerged in every human being, the individual moral imagination depends for full realization on civilization. Reciprocally, and as surely as Western culture begins with the Iliad, civilization depends for its preservation on the collective moral imagination of civilized individuals.

Panichas sees the moral imagination in contradistinction to the idyllic and diabolic imaginations, which Babbitt and T.S. Eliot have identified and elaborated. Unlike the moral imagination, which espouses creed and custom and incorporates a sense of obligation to and respect for the past, the idyllic imagination ridicules dogma, rejects old manners, and rejoices in defying duty and convention. And while the moral imagination uplifts the soul to a truth that ennobles the human situation, the diabolic searches out the perverse and delights in the subhuman.

In Conrad’s fictive meditations on man’s fate are to be found, as Panichas shows, some of the most profound insights into the idyllic and diabolic imaginations. The latter is embodied in one Conradian antagonist after another. Take the sinister hotelkeeper in Victory, for instance. William Schomberg is a born despiser of the good, which he desires to thwart by any means at his disposal. Like all of Conrad’s “devils,” Schomberg is “bent on the destruction of life and spirit,” writes Panichas, “and of all norms of law and morals.” Although Conrad’s attitude toward diabolical personages—what Panichas calls “Nietzsche’s great despisers”—is unequivocally condemnatory, his delineation of the idyllic imagination is ambiguous, for the idyllic imagination informs the ethical life of the romantic but well-meaning protagonist of Lord Jim as much as it determines the radical politics of the menacing Russian revolutionists in Under Western Eyes.

This ambiguity notwithstanding, one thing is clear: While Conrad could suffer a young romantic, he had neither patience nor sympathy for idyllic revolutionists, to whom he opposed noble-minded men of prudence and restraint. Conrad judged that in a true revolution, as opposed to a mere dynastic change or an institutional reformation, principled individuals tend naturally to recoil, even those whose ideas have precipitated the revolutionary movement. Honorable men and women are not “the leaders of a revolution,” he maintained. They “are its victims: the victims of disgust, of disenchantment—often of remorse.” For the revolutionary movement, more often than not, “passes away from them and falls into the hands of fanatics and shams,” as Panichas inserts perspicaciously. (For proof of this one need only read Citizens, Simon Schama’s important chronicle of the French Revolution.) “Hopes grotesquely betrayed, ideals caricatured—that,” said Conrad, “is the definition of revolution.”

Panichas emphasizes the irreducibility of Conrad’s moral imagination to simplistic or absolute categories. At the same time, however, he represents it as an edifying index of universal human types and tendencies. Conrad may “not manifest an explicitly religious imagination,” Panichas concedes. But just as much as a Dante or a Dostoevsky, he discloses “moral and eternal verities insofar as he ventures beyond the temporal veil in his exploration of the interiors of existence.” At the heart of Conrad’s moral imagination was a belief, says Panichas, “that, in the human soul, good and evil are forever struggling.” For Conrad, the struggle was a permanent reality, as Panichas’s exegesis underscores in its parts and in its whole, a reality one might prefer to avoid, or try to subliminate, but one that nobody who has lived long can absolutely deny.

Insights of the kind one derives from reading Joseph Conrad will not please the deconstructionist. Nor will they appeal to the new historicists, the intellectual heirs of Marxist ideologue Fredric Jameson who insist on viewing every literary work as a product of its time. For Panichas seeks in Conrad’s fiction a significance understood only in metaphysical or theological terms. Ultimately, he is guilty of “killing time,” to appropriate the phraseology of one of Jameson’s descendants, who, in his reading of Heart of Darkness as fact rather than an allegory of the soul, charges Conrad with unwittingly perpetuating the horror of imperialism by locating truths about man in an “atemporal realm.” Indeed, the critical discourse comprising Joseph Conrad is chronologically homicidal, insofar as it rejects the relativistic tenets of the new historicism and views history in the light of eternity.

In contrast to the sophists of postmodernism, the author of Joseph Conrad “stands,” as the distinguished literary critic Austin Warren has remarked, “for man’s recognition of his dual citizenship in church and state, society visible and invisible, for man’s recognition that all we are we owe; that we do not, and cannot, begin ab ovo and de novo but are heirs to a great inheritance of tradition and wisdom, represented in the West by our joint indebtedness to the Greek philosophers, the Hebrew prophets, and the Christian Saints.” Panichas’s concerns have long been those of a dissident critic working to conserve this inheritance by expounding its formulations in what W.B. Yeats refers to as the “monuments of unageing intellect.”

For nearly half a century Panichas has stood undauntedly against “the deformed ideologies” of “a disordered, fragmented, and uncentered Zeitgeist” that have overwhelmed the literary critic and made him a “captive and a conduit of the nihilism that besets society and culture.” In the context of literary studies, Panichas’s has been an ongoing effort to countermand “the hubristic litterateurs, who would gladly erase the ‘dignity of man,’ and, concomitantly, the dignity of literature.”

The hubristic litterateurs are legion in academia. Under their misguidance, today’s typical college student no longer takes seriously the sapient figures of the past under whose influence Conrad and the greatest of modern authors have written. Instead of being made “at home in the society of the noble dead,” as Paul Elmer More observed, students are routinely dragged “through the slums of sociology.” Moreover, they are told that one kind of experience is as valuable as another when it comes to reading, that one better “relates” to a poem or piece of fiction when one brings to it one’s personal experience, no matter how provincial. There may be some truth in this, but if students mistake the half-truth for the whole, they may fail to see that there is more to reading books than relating to them on a personal level.

One must wonder with Panichas, a latter-day conservator of what is timeless, time-tested, and time-honored, why anybody would continue to promote such self-centered attitudes toward reading in the face of rapid cultural ignorance, when students grow ever less conversant with the seminal works that have shaped the best minds of their ancestors. What students ought to be bringing to literature with the help of their teachers are experiences of a philosophical kind, of the sort Panichas brings to “the country of Joseph Conrad’s moral imagination.” Without some prior experience with Dante or Plato, for example, no one can fully appreciate a classic like Heart of Darkness, which borrows many of its themes and symbols from the former’s Inferno and from the latter’s allegory of the cave.

Joseph Conrad affirms that the greatest of writers “awaken us to both human and universal values that too often tend to be hidden or unheeded.” Forgetting such values could have dire consequences with respect to the ethical life. The book’s dedicatee, Panichas’s inspiring friend Russell Kirk, clearly thought so: “A people who have forgotten Homer and Plato and Virgil and Dante and Shakespeare and Cervantes and Johnson presently find themselves in personal and social difficulties.” In truth, they find themselves languishing in a state of ontological decadence; unaware of who, what, and where they are; descending, in Edmund Burke’s words, from the “world of reason, and order, and peace, and virtue, and fruitful penitence into the antagonist world of madness, discord, vice, confusion, and unavailing sorrow.”

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The featured image of Joseph Conrad is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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