Visions That Are Metaphysically Infused
Visions metaphysically infused
often leave observers most confused,
but their reports, although of course confusing,
should be considered as amusing
by those who who do not take them
seriously, and for sense mistake them,
which unfortunately those without
a sense of humor do, without a sense of doubt.
Kate Symondsen, a researcher in late nineteenth century and twentieth century literature, reviewing Victory by Joseph Conrad, The Selected Letters of Joseph Conrad and Joseph Conrad Among the Anarchists by David Mulry, Professor of English, Arts and Humanities at the Coastal College of Georgia in “Hearts of blankness: Joseph Conrad: Polish, French writer of 'idealist English literature,” TLS, 1/6/17, writes:
There is no shame in admitting that reading Joseph Conrad is a challenge. Despite canonizing him as one of four great writers who defined English literature, F. R. Leavis complained of Conrad’s “insistence on inexpressible and incomprehensible mystery”. Instead of the Victorian preference for pellucid – almost pedantic – hardened detail, mist shrouds and encircles Conrad’s fiction. His narratives move seamlessly, almost imperceptibly, between different perspectives and voices. Dramatic scenes – explosions, collisions, shipwrecks, gunshots – are experienced as sensorial derangements, as they “happen”. We only come to understand what exactly has happened after the event. Conventionally held opposites collide, elide and even exchange in what Conrad refers to as “the incomprehensible alliance of irreconcilable antagonisms”. He makes it impossible to fix to any one understanding, or to see anything directly.
According to Leavis, Conrad’s incomprehensibility tended to “muffle” rather than “magnify”. But his metaphysically infused, hazy vision inexhaustibly fascinates readers. The abysses, the darkness and the unspeakable horror that pervade so much of his writing are strangely productive. They are not impenetrable; rather, the chasm-like quality of “what isn’t said” creates a space to be filled by the reader. The recent Penguin Classics edition of Victory celebrates the multivalency that Conrad’s mystery provokes. When it was first published in 1915, Victory proved very popular. For some, though, this popular appeal was a major failing of the work. William Lyon Phelps voiced his distaste, writing that the story “reads as though it were intended to gain for its author a wider audience, as though he had tried to write in a ‘popular’ manner. Despite many fine passages of description, it is poor stuff”. Some felt weathered by the melodrama, or patronized by the heavy-handed allegory; others were disappointed by the scant characterization. It is one of the few instances where Conrad tackles what many consider his weakest subject, romantic love. In Joseph Conrad: A Life (2007), Zdzislaw Najder suggests that Conrad generally steered clear of this because he was anxious that it would detract from his other “weightier” concerns. There is something discomfiting about the romantic strain of Victory, as the protagonist Axel Heyst’s philosophical anxieties jostle with the novel’s other “identity”, as a psychological thriller.
David Mulry's response on 1/13/17:
Thanks for your note, and for the thoughtful response to the Synondson review. I hadn't known it was being reviewed there, so that was a pleasant surprise. The fact that you were prompted to write your own poem in response, was even more pleasant.
Thanks for sharing your intricate word play and wry humor.
Best regards, David