Conrad’s Stylistic ‘Mistiness’



Before attempting to relate a specific aspect of Conraďs narrative method to contemporary painting, I should like to examine briefly the intermedia connections that have interested critics until now. The question of Conrad’s stylistic affiliation to Impressionism and the degree to which his own literary innovations may have drawn upon techniques developed by that school of painters did, in fact, stimulate considerable critical interest, as well as critical puzzlement, during his lifetime. And the evidence supporting such affinities might indeed seem to be strong. Ford Madox Ford, his friend and close literary collaborator, affirmed categorically that Conrad acknowledged the indebtedness, describing him as a writer ‘who avowed himself impressionist’.1 But as Eloise Knapp Hay has warned, even if Ford’s report is correct — and Ford candidly admits to lapses of memory in his reminiscence of their partnership, as well as to an occasional confusing of his own and Conraďs views — the avowal remains problematic, as the implications and connotations of the term ‘impressionist’ at the turn of the century were by no means identical with those current in our own day.2


Human Head Native Woman Interest Critic Stylistic Innovation Colonial Administrator 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Notes and References

  1. 1.
    Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Conrad: a personal remembrance (London, 1924), p. 6. Ford’s 1913 essay ‘On Impressionism’ was an earlier and briefer application of the term to Conrad’s fiction. It is reprinted inGoogle Scholar
  2. Frank MacShane (ed.), Critical Writings of Ford Madox Tord (Lincoln, 1964), p. 37. Until 1914 Ford was still writing under his original name, Hueffer, but to avoid confusion I have used throughout the name by which he is best known.Google Scholar
  3. 2.
    Eloise Knapp Hay, ‘Impressionism Limited’ in Norman Sherry (ed.), Joseph Conrad: a commemoration (London, 1979), pp. 54–64. Ford acknowledged his own unreliability as a historian, declaring in the Preface to his Personal Remembrance that factual errors discovered after its composition were left uncorrected in the text in order not to spoil its validity as a private impression. He also admitted later in the work (p. 198) that in certain areas ‘the writer’s memory is not absolutely clear as to the points on which he and Conrad were agreed’.Google Scholar
  4. 3.
    As late as 1923 Ezra Pound still used that older view of Impressionist painting as reproducing external appearances to attack Ford’s inappropriate transfer of its principles to the medium of literature: ‘Nearly everything he says applies to things seen. It is the exact rendering of the visible image, the cabbage field seen, France seen from the cliffs.’ Criterion 1 (January, 1923), p. 146. For the suggestion that Ford’s own novel The Good Soldier derives from the Impressionist painters, see Michael Levenson, Modernism and the Tate of Individuality: character and novelistic form from Conrad to Woolf (Cambridge, 1991), p. 102.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. 7.
    Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Conrad: a personal remembrance (London, 1924), p. 182. The lacunas are in the original. For the development of the allied movement, seeGoogle Scholar
  6. Maria E. Kronegger, Literary Impressionism (New Haven, 1973).Google Scholar
  7. 8.
    Joseph Warren Beach, The Twentieth Century Novel: studies in technique (New York, 1960), pp. 337–65. His reservation about the applicability of the term appears on p. 383.Google Scholar
  8. 9.
    Ramon Fernandez, ‘L’Art de Conrad’, Nouvelle Revue française, 12 (1924), 732. Quotations are from the translation by Charles Owen inGoogle Scholar
  9. Robert W. Stallman (ed.), The Art of Joseph Conrad: a critical symposium (East Lansing, 1960), pp. 8–13. Ian Watt examines this aspect in his Conrad in the Nineteenth Century (Berkeley, 1981), pp. 179–80.Google Scholar
  10. Bruce Johnson, ‘Conrad’s Impressionism and Watt’s “Delayed Decoding”’, in Ross C. Murfin (ed.), Conrad Revisited: essays for the eighties (Alabama, 1984), p. 51, questions Watt’s hesitation concerning the indebtedness to Impressionism, claiming that Conrad’s descriptions reflect its subjectivism, echoing Laforgue’s definition of that art form in 1883 as attempting to capture what the eye sees in its natural or primitive state, before the intervention of intellectual or conventional associations.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Aaron Scharf, Art and Photography (New York, 1983), pp. 165f. He notes (p. 89) that it was Corot who first adopted into painting the blurring ‘halation’ effect of photography produced both by the movement of objects within the scene and, on the negative, by the encroachment of light areas upon the periphery of adjacent darker sections, the Impressionists taking up the technique from him. The account of the attempt to use magnesium flash is byGoogle Scholar
  12. Adolphe Julien, Fantin-Latour… sa vie et ses amitiés (Paris, 1909), p. 155, quoted in Scharf, Art and Photography, op. cit., p. 62.Google Scholar
  13. 12.
    The interchangeability of the terms ‘impressionism’ and ‘symbolism’ in this period is discussed in Richard Shiff, Cézanne and the End of Impressionism (Chicago, 1984), p. 40f.Google Scholar
  14. 13.
    John Rewald, Post-Impressionism: from Van Gogh to Gauguin (New York, 1956), p. 150.Google Scholar
  15. 16.
    Watt, Conrad, op. cit., pp. 198–9. Donald C. Yelton, Mimesis and Metaphor: an inquiry into the genesis and scope of Conrad’s symbolic imagery (Mouton, 1967), connects Conrad with literary symbolism, of which he regards Flaubert as the main representative.Google Scholar
  16. 17.
    Michael Fried, ‘Almayer’s Face: on “Impressionism” in Conrad, Crane, and Norris’, Critical Inquiry (Autumn, 1990), pp. 193–236. See also Donald R. Benson, ‘Impressionist Painting and the Problem of Conrad’s Atmosphere’, Mosaic, 22 (1989), 29, which attributes the fictional mistiness to Impressionism, and the discussion in Critical Inquiry, Winter 1992, pp. 387–410.Google Scholar
  17. 18.
    E. M. Forster, Abinger Harvest (London, 1945), pp. 134–5. The review originally appeared in 1921 in The Nation and the Athenaeum, and was subsequently reprinted in shortened form in the above collection.Google Scholar
  18. 19.
    F. R. Leavis, The Great Tradition: a study of the English Novel (New York, 1954), pp. 211–20. For the persistence of this view in subsequent criticism, compare, in addition to the critics discussed below,Google Scholar
  19. H. M. Daleski, Joseph Conrad: the way of dispossession (London, 1977), p. 65.Google Scholar
  20. Albert J. Guerard, Conrad the Novelist (Cambridge, Mass., 1958) attributed the ‘fumbling’ adjectives in this story, which he also disliked, to the dream element of Conrad’s journey into his inner self.Google Scholar
  21. 20.
    Edward W. Said, Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography (Cambridge, Mass., 1968), p. 4. Said argued that the source of Conrad’s guilt was a personal history filled with shameful things ranging from his ‘desertion of his Polish heritage to the seemingly capricious abandonment of his sea life’ (p. 98). But that latter charge ignores the fact that the advent of steamships was making obsolete the sailing vessels for which Conrad had received his master’s certificate, and that he had experienced a long period of unemployment and loss of income before reaching his decision to change careers. In fact he continued to seek berths long after he became a published author, as Ian Watt notes (Watt, Conrad, op. cit., pp. 16–19). And as regards Said’s attribution of Conrad’s ‘guilt’ to his desertion of his homeland, Avrom Fleishman has countered that in his Conrad’s Politics: community and anarchy in the fiction of Joseph Conrad (Baltimore, 1968), which offers an illuminating analysis of the historical facts, noting that Conrad’s family, as land-owning gentry in a section of the Ukraine only temporarily under Polish rule, was entirely alienated from the peasant nationalist movement, and that Conrad himself had been embarrassed at the ineptitude of his father’s political activities.Google Scholar
  22. 21.
    James Guetti, The Limits of Metaphor: a study of Melville, Conrad, and Faulkner (Ithaca, 1967), especially pp. 46f. Bruce Johnson, Conrad’s Models of Mind (Minneapolis, 1971), in an existentialist reading, sees Conrad’s inability to articulate (p. 71) as reflecting the white man’s distancing from a nature that has become incomprehensible to him, while it remains intelligible to the natives who form an organic part of it. But there is no indication in Conrad’s story that the latter, even though they live in the jungle, are in any real sense capable of comprehending its profound mystery.Google Scholar
  23. Allon White, The Uses of Obscurity: the fiction of early modernism (London, 1981), pp. 108–29, attributes the enigmatic quality of Conrad’s writings to the attenuation of form and feature in the descriptions, the effacing of boundary limits, which produces a haziness of imaginative as well as spatial parameters.Google Scholar
  24. 22.
    J. Hillis Miller ‘Heart of Darkness Revisiteď in Murfin, Conrad Revisited, op. cit., pp. 31f. For a further deconstructionist reading, see Arnold Krupat, ‘Antonymy, Language, and Value in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness’, Missouri Review, 3 (1979), 63, who argues that the story conveys the futility of truth-seeking.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. 23.
    Daphna Erdinast-Vulcan, Joseph Conrad and the Modern Temper (Oxford, 1991), pp. 86f. The Christian allusions in the story are examined inCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Joan E. Steiner, ‘Modern Pharisees and False Apostles: ironic New Testament parallels in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness’, Nineteenth Century Fiction, 37 (1982), 75.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. 24.
    Jerry Wasserman, ‘Narrative Presence: the illusion of language in Heart of Darkness’, in Ted Billy (ed.), Critical Essays on Joseph Conrad (Boston, 1987), pp. 102f.Google Scholar
  28. 25.
    Wilhelm Worringer, Abstraction and Empathy: a contribution to the psychology of style (New York, 1963, orig. 1908). For a discussion of this point, cf.Google Scholar
  29. Joseph Frank, The Widening Gyre: crisis and mastery in modern art (New Brunswick, 1963), pp. 51f. The Alberti quotation is from his De aedificatoria of 1452. Linda Nochlin, Realism (New York, 1976), pp. 40f., also examines the relationship between that art form and scientific empiricism. In this instance too, Ford’s comment on Conrad’s aims is unreliable, when he insists that he and Conrad employed a simple, colloquial style, and that their chief masters were Flaubert and Maupassant (Ford, Joseph Conrad, op. cit., pp. 195–6). While that statement may hold true for Ford, it certainly does not apply to Conrad, asGoogle Scholar
  30. Thomas C. Moser pointed out in The Life in the Fiction of Ford Madox Ford (Princeton, 1980), pp. 151f.Google Scholar
  31. 27.
    Although Gauguin declined to formulate his aesthetic theory in writing, he dominated the café discussions of the group, which supported him enthusiastically and regarded his 1893 exhibition as a manifesto of its ideas. Albert Aurier’s important essay on the movement, in the Mercure de France (March 1891), was based largely upon remarks by Gauguin culled from these informal meetings. Cf. Georges Boudaille, Gauguin (London, 1964), p. 194.Google Scholar
  32. 28.
    Julia Kristeva, ‘Giotto’s Joy’ in Leon S. Roudicz (ed.), Desire and Language (New York, 1980).Google Scholar
  33. 29.
    Norman Bryson (ed.), Calligram: essays in new art history from France (Cambridge, 1988), especially pp. xxvi–xxviii.Google Scholar
  34. 30.
    Alfred Haddon, Evolution in Art (London, 1895), especially pp. 317–18. The classic study of this aspect, originally published in 1938, is stillGoogle Scholar
  35. Robert Goldwater, Primitivism in Modern Art (New York, 1967).Google Scholar
  36. 33.
    Cf. Jill Lloyd, German Expressionism: -primitivism and modernity (New Haven, 1991), which examines certain aspects of this validation of primitive art in the West.Google Scholar
  37. 34.
    William Rubin (ed.), ‘Primitivism’ in Twentieth-century Art: affinity of the tribal and the modern (Boston, 1984), 1:7. Rubin notes correctly that although the term ‘primitivism’ was originally pejorative, it has, as Claude Levy-Strauss has argued in his Structural Anthropology (London, 1963), pp. 101–2, by now lost such associations in the general recognition that tribal craftsmen displayed a genius for invention that often outdistanced the achievements of other nations.Google Scholar
  38. 35.
    There are useful collections of reviews and comments representing the English response to the French school in Kate Flint (ed.), Impressionism in England: the critical reception (London, 1984) andGoogle Scholar
  39. J. B. Bullen (ed.), Post-Impressionists in England (London, 1988).Google Scholar
  40. S. K. Tillyard, The Impact of Modernism 1900–1920 (London, 1988), connects the English response to Post-Impressionism with criteria already established by the Arts and Crafts Movement. There are studies of the British painters who followed the French lead inGoogle Scholar
  41. Simon Watney, English Post-Impressionism (London, 1980), andGoogle Scholar
  42. Laura Wortley, British Impressionism: a garden of bright images (London, 1988).Google Scholar
  43. 36.
    Chinua Achabe, ‘An Image of Africa: racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness’, The Massachusetts Review, 18 (1977), 782.Google Scholar
  44. 37.
    Marianna Torgovnick, Gone Primitive: savage intellects, modern lives (Chicago, 1990), especially pp. 152f.Google Scholar
  45. 39.
    Joseph Conrad, An Outcast of the Islands (New York, 1964), p. 155.Google Scholar
  46. 40.
    Paul Gauguin, The Intimate Journals (orig. 1903), trans. Van Wyck Brooks (London, 1930), quotations from pp. 128, 125, 143, 175. E. D. Morel, King Leopold’s Rule in Africa (London, 1904) records, among other instances of ruthless mutilation, the widespread practice of amputating the hands of innocent blacks in order to provide ‘evidence’ that bullets expended in casual game hunting had been used to suppress ‘rebels’. SeeGoogle Scholar
  47. Andrea White, Joseph Conrad and the Adventure Tradition: constructing and deconstructing the imperial subject (Cambridge, 1993).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. 41.
    Hoxey N. Fairchild, The Noble Savage: a study in Romantic naturalism (New York, 1963).Google Scholar
  49. 42.
    James Hunt, ‘On the Negro’s Place in Nature’, his presidential address published in the Memoirs of the Anthropological Society of 1863, 1:164. The quotations from the Society debate are recorded in George W. Stocking, Jr, Victorian Anthropology (New York, 1987), p. 251, which offers a valuable overview of the shift from evolutionism to relativism within nineteenth-century anthropology. The quotation from John Lubbock is from his Prehistoric Times, as illustrated by Ancient Remains, and the Manners and Customs of Modern Savages (London, 1865), pp. 410–16, while Edward Burnett Tylor developed his relativist viewpoint in Primitive Culture: researches in the development of mythology, philosophy, religion, language, art and custom (London, 1873). On this point, see alsoGoogle Scholar
  50. John W. Griffith, Joseph Conrad and the Anthropological Dilemma (Oxford, 1995), especially pp. 179f.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. 43.
    J. W. Burrow, Evolution and Society: a study in Victorian social theory (Cambridge, 1966), especially pp. 245f.Google Scholar
  52. 44.
    On the relationship between Conrad and Malinowski, see James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture: twentieth century ethnography, literature, and art (Cambridge, Mass., 1988), pp. 92–114, andGoogle Scholar
  53. David Richards, Masks of Difference: cultural representations in literature, anthropology, and art (Cambridge, 1994), pp. 191f. Frazer’s approach and its impact on the twentieth century will be examined in more detail in the following chapter.Google Scholar
  54. 45.
    Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: an introduction (Minneapolis, 1983), especially pp. 601f.;Google Scholar
  55. Richard Rorty, The Consequences of Pragmatism (Minneapolis, 1982), p. 92.Google Scholar
  56. 46.
    Cf. Paul Gauguin, Noa, Noa, translated by O. F. Theis (New York, 1920), p. 74 and passim.Google Scholar
  57. 47.
    J. P. Richter (ed.), The Literary Works of Leonardo da Vinci (London, 1939), 1:150.Google Scholar
  58. 48.
    Diverses Choses (1896–97), an unpublished manuscript by Gauguin, quoted in Herschel B. Chipp, Theories of Modern Art (Berkeley, 1968), p. 66.Google Scholar
  59. 50.
    Letter to Fontainas, March 1899, in John Rewald (ed.), Letters to Ambroise Vollard and André Fontainas (San Francisco, 1943), p. 22.Google Scholar
  60. 52.
    Albert J. Guerard, Conrad the Novelist (Cambridge, Mass., 1958).Google Scholar
  61. 54.
    For the frequency of Christian themes in his work, see Ziva Amishai-Maisels, Gauguin’s Religious Themes (New York, 1985), pp. 2f.Google Scholar
  62. 55.
    Cf. Richard Bettell and Peter Zegers, ‘The Final Years’, in The Art of Paul Gauguin (Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 1988), pp. 409–10.Google Scholar
  63. 58.
    Michael Levenson, Modernism and the Fate of Individuality, especially the opening chapter. See also Karl Miller, Doubles: studies in literary history (Oxford, 1985).Google Scholar
  64. 59.
    Cf. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punishment: the birth of the prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (London, 1977), andGoogle Scholar
  65. Jacques Lacan, Ecrits: a selection (London, 1977), as well as his The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis (London, 1977).Google Scholar
  66. 60.
    Jules Huret, ‘Paul Gauguin devant ses tableaux’, Echo de Paris (23 February 1891), and Gauguin’s letter dated 16 November 1889 in Maurice Malingue (ed.), Lettres de Gauguin à sa Femme et à ses Amis (Paris, 1946), p. 177.Google Scholar
  67. 61.
    In a letter dated 8 December 1892, in Malingue, Lettres de Gauguin à sa Femme, op. cit., p. 236. The tradition on which the painting relies is discussed in Jehanne Teilhet-Fisk, Paradise Reviewed: an interpretation of Gauguin’s Polynesian symbolism (Ann Arbor, 1983), pp. 62–72, andGoogle Scholar
  68. Michael Hoog, Paul Gauguin: life and work (New York, 1987).Google Scholar
  69. 62.
    Dorothy Hammond and Alta Jablow, The Myth of Africa (New York, 1977), p. 94. Although in a minority among anthropologists,Google Scholar
  70. W. Arens, The Man-Eating Myth (New York, 1979), suggests that cannibalism never existed at all, whileGoogle Scholar
  71. Peggy R. Sanday, Divine Hunger: cannibalism as a cultural system (Cambridge, 1986), assumes it to have been a very rare phenomenon. Montaigne made a point similar to Gauguin’s in his essay ‘Of Cannibals’: Essays of Montaigne, trans. Charles Cotton (New York, 1947), p. 72. Conrad’s reference to eating warriors legitimately slain in warfare, as opposed to innocent victims, occurs on p. 103.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. 67.
    Emily Dickinson, The Complete Poems, ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Boston, 1960), pp. 506–7.Google Scholar
  73. 71.
    Letter to Richard Curie dated 24 April 1922, in Richard Curie (ed.), Conrad to a Friend: 150 selected letters from Joseph Conrad to Richard Curie (London, 1928), p. 113.Google Scholar
  74. 73.
    While my book was already in press, Daniel R. Schwarz’s study, Reconfiguring Modernism (New York, 1997) appeared, with the interesting suggestion that Conrad may have read Gauguin’s Noa Noa before writing The Heart of Darkness and with an exploration of possible influences upon the novel. I regret that the book reached me too late for the insertion of any fuller acknowledgment.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Murray Roston 2000

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Bar Ilan UniversityRamat GanIsrael

Personalised recommendations