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.footnote1 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.footnote2 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.

There is always a better account: better because more closely specified, more historical, that is, and materialist. The undoubted crisis in Conrad’s work is in one sense inevitably linguistic—after all, it is writing, which is done in language—but its dynamic and characteristic textual figures emerge from a quite specific cultural and institutional context of literary practice. Conrad was not merely ‘a worker in prose’ or a maker of ‘art’, as he was prone to say.footnote3 He was not, indeed, a teller of ‘tales’, however insistently his subtitles lodge that claim on his behalf. The longer and shorter printed narratives that constitute his literary achievement belong, inescapably, to the world of the novel. That is the locus of Conrad’s crisis as a writer, which worked itself out in a distinctive and paradoxical literary practice. The characteristic forms and strategies of his narratives (including the shorter fictions, which in this perspective are not different in kind) are shaped by an impulse to abolish the novelistic, or at least outwit it.

For the younger Thomas Mann, the novel, or ‘literature’, was the cultural epitome of modernity, as distinct from poetry and music, which sheltered the superior values of tradition.footnote4 Walter Benjamin, in a classic essay, likewise emphasized the essential modernity of the novel, defining it by contrast with the anterior narrative form of the oral ‘tale’. The storyteller, he wrote,

takes what he tells from experience—his own or that reported by others. And he in turn makes it the experience of those who are listening to his tale. The novelist has isolated himself. The birthplace of the novel is the solitary individual, who is no longer able to express himself by giving examples of his most important concerns, is himself uncounselled, and cannot counsel others. To write a novel means to carry the incommensurable to extremes in the representation of human life.footnote5

This is manifestly relevant to Conrad, but, paradoxically, perhaps too close, for critical purposes, to his own constant theme of isolation: with only a little alteration, he might have written these sentences himself, or put them in the mouth of his best-known fictional storyteller, Charley Marlow. It will be more helpful to develop Benjamin’s insight in other, less psychologistic terms.

Two general historical conditions detach the novel irrevocably from the world of the tale. The first is institutional, involving a change in the social relations of narration. Storytelling as a form presupposes a basic community of values binding teller and audience: shared intuitions of what is interesting, intelligible, pleasing or repugnant, fitting or not. Indeed, being oral, it depends on the actual co-presence of the two: the moral affinity is confirmed in time and space. Novelistic narrative, in contrast, is mediated as printed text for the market. Both the physical and the cultural supports of the tale fall away. Writing is temporally prior to reading, which, like writing, is now privatized, and practically variable in a way that listening is not. The audience is not only privatized; unknowable to the writer at work, it is also, in principle, unknown in its cultural disposition. Thus, the social relationship that grounds and is fertilized by the tale is cancelled; in a technical term from linguistics, novelistic communication lacks the long-familiar ‘phatic’ guarantee.footnote6

The second condition is strictly cultural. The shared values that stabilize the tale as institution may or may not be officially sanctioned, but they are in any case customary, matters of inherited common sense and virtue, whose continuing authority is itself a positive value. This is the world of ‘wisdom’, from which the novel takes its leave, irreverently even if not in revolt. The tonal dominant in novelistic culture, which has always been predominantly realist, is contrastingly critical and secular. As Mann understood, the novel is the prose of ‘civilization’ and the Enlightenment. Its cosmology is godless, even where its ethics remain scriptural. Ordinary believers may recoil from lewd representations, but far from entertaining miracles and evidence of inspiration in their fictional reading, they feel cheated by the intrusion of even purely mundane improbability. Dispositions that find easy articulation in poetry are inhibited in the culture of the novel, for which the currency and prestige of the human sciences are a historical given, welcome or not. Pragmatically at least, what finally counts as valid is some idea of rational knowledge.