- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 12, 2005

JOSEPH CONRAD: HIS MORAL VISION

By George A. Panichas

Mercer University, $35.00, 165 pages

REVIEWED BY JAMES E. PERSON JR.

Iconoclastic literary critic H. L. Mencken admired the Polish-born English novelist Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) for both his immense skill as a storyteller and his allegedly amoral worldview. While the Sage of Baltimore believed “Conrad at his feeblest is still vastly ahead of most other story-tellers at their best,” he also wrote that the hallmark of Conrad’s better-known works is “a wholesale negation of all morals.” But for all his brilliance in so much, Mencken was wrong about Conrad’s vision of morals and their importance.

The author of such classics of English literature as “Lord Jim” (1900), “Nostromo” (1904) and “Victory” (1915), Conrad had a pessimistic view of humanity, but his fiction also reflects an intense fascination with, and concern for, man as a moral agent. A Roman Catholic by birth and a pronounced humanist all his life, Conrad recurrently examines how people cope with guilt and the searing knowledge of their own ethical failings.

Mr. Panichas, a distinguished literary scholar and an authority on the works of Conrad, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Simone Weil and D. H. Lawrence, ably tackles this aspect of a true literary master’s fiction in “Joseph Conrad: His Moral Vision.”

He demonstrates convincingly that Conrad’s body of fiction is permeated by “the moral imagination.” This is not a form of imagination that turns every work of fiction into “a story with a lesson.” Rather, the moral imagination is a term Mr. Panichas has borrowed from a man he deeply admires, the late conservative man of letters Russell Kirk, who had in turn borrowed it from British statesman Edmund Burke. In his book “Enemies of the Permanent Things” (1969), Kirk defined the moral imagination as “man’s power to perceive ethical truth, abiding law, in the seeming chaos of many events. Without the moral imagination, man would live merely day to day, or rather moment to moment, as dogs do. It is the strange faculty — inexplicable if men are assumed to have an animal nature only — of discerning greatness, justice, and order, beyond the bars of appetite and self-interest.”

Delving with sure critical discernment into Conrad’s better-known works of fiction, Mr. Panichas demonstrates that Conrad was far from disdainful of moral issues. For example, the author skillfully shows that transcendent life principles and values are strongly evident in “Nostromo” and wield discriminatory power in the unfolding plot of the novel. A work centering upon the dire effects of avarice at a South America silver mine, “Nostromo” shows Conrad at the peak of his powers, scrutinizing a question articulated by Mr. Panichas’s mentor, F. R. Leavis, distinguished scholarly force at Cambridge University during the mid-20th century, and champion of “moral earnestness” in literature: “What do men live for — what kind of motive force or radical attitude can give life meaning or direction?”

In the case of “Nostromo,” Conrad’s greatest and darkest novel, the author illuminates the truth that while faith dies, the need for faith remains. Mr. Panichas places “Nostromo” on “the highest plain of world literature, of mythopoeic fiction that, like Herman Melville’s ‘Moby Dick,’ or Fyodor Dostoevsky’s ‘The Brothers Karamazov,’ or, in more recent times, D. H. Lawrence’s ‘Women in Love,’ imparts a planetary vision that passes beyond the confines of time and place, of language itself, and contemplates man and history. That vision transfigures into moral contemplation of life and history, and of the quest for ultimate reality and truth.” Mr. Panichas adds, “A modern novelist who attains this artistic process, as does Conrad in ‘Nostromo,’ inevitably shares in the tradition of our great ancient poets who perceive what is fundamental in human beings.”

Mr. Panichas’s interpretation of “Nostromo” is a highlight in this essay collection. He provides sure-handed, informed and informative readings of several other Conrad works as well: “The Secret Agent,” “Lord Jim,” “Victory,” “Under Western Eyes,” “Chance” and “The Rover.” Even readers unfamiliar with these novels can follow and comprehend the plot developments, key characters and well-considered interpretations Mr. Panichas brings to these works. This reviewer hopes that someday the author of “Joseph Conrad: His Moral Vision” will provide a similar examination of the work for which Conrad is perhaps best known among lay readers of the rising generation, “Heart of Darkness.”

In a review published in 1912, Mencken claimed that Conrad’s work “penetrates to the central fact of human existence — the fact, to wit, that life is meaningless, that it has no purpose, that its so-called lessons are balderdash.” Conrad indeed had doubts about the purpose of life, but as Mr. Panichas convincingly demonstrates in this invaluable addition to Conrad studies, his fiction grapples earnestly with the great moral questions that are at the heart of all great literature.

James E. Person Jr. is the author of the recently published biography “Earl Hamner: From Walton’s Mountain to Tomorrow” (Cumberland House).

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