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CONRAD’S INCONCEIVABLE HISTORY
It is an old commonplace that modernist art is, among other things, reflexive, drawn more or less strongly to explore the material element of its existence—pigment, say, or language.  This essay appears under a different title in Franco Moretti, ed., The Novel, 2 vols, Princeton 2006. Copyright: Princeton University Press. With the so-called linguistic turn in the human sciences, and specifically the literary criticism of the past forty years, the commonplace has rejuvenated itself, and pressed its interpretive claims with corresponding energy and confidence across an ever-wider field of literary history. Thus it is that in recent decades Joseph Conrad too has come to be read as yet another exemplary modern, as questioning of his medium, with its delphic promises of sincerity and truth, as of human motives. There is a good deal to explore here, as Edward Said has shown, in an early and distinguished contribution to this critical discussion.  Edward Said, ‘Conrad: The Presentation of Narrative’, in The World, the Text and the Critic, Cambridge, ma 1983, pp. 90–110. However, there is also an attendant danger. The interpretive appeal to ‘language’, conceived just so abstractly, settles rather little. The more often and more widely it is reiterated, the less it explains.
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