TESTIMONY ON TRIAL: CONRAD, JAMES, AND THE CONTEST FOR MODERNISM by BRIAN ARTESE, Reviewed by Joyce Wexler
 

TESTIMONY ON TRIAL: CONRAD, JAMES, AND THE CONTEST FOR MODERNISM
By BRIAN ARTESE
(Toronto, January 2012) 208 pp.
Reviewed by Joyce Wexler on 2012-11-19.

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Brian Artese is like the clear-eyed child in the fable of the emperor's new clothes. Watching a parade of critics bow to the reigning heuristic of narratology, he shouts no, the tale matters more than the teller. Whether the narrator is omniscient or limited, third person or first person, stories describe the world. Why is it, he asks, that we no longer pay attention to what a person or a character actually says? To answer this question, he shows how psychology and philosophy have undermined the credibility of explicit statements and how sensational journalism has cheapened eye-witness accounts. Artese wants to defend testimony as a valid source of knowledge about events, thoughts, and feelings. A character's statements in a novel are like a witness's testimony in a courtroom--an individual account that can be impugned or corroborated by others. However partial a single perspective may be, multiple perspectives expand our field of vision. We may not know everything, but even if "transcendent comprehension" is unattainable (125), we can know enough to make reliable judgments. Since Henry James and Joseph Conrad are exemplary cases for narratology, Artese defiantly argues that their fiction reveals the value of testimony.

Artese's primary target is the epistemological skepticism of narratology, and he does not hesitate to challenge its fundamental principles: "Mieke Bal's categorical assertion that 'character-bound' narration 'brings about bias and limitation,' for instance, is understood by narratology to be an inevitable, logical consequence of the structural mechanics of 'focalization'" (146). Similarly, he notes, poststructuralists such as Lyotard assume that testimony is inevitably "biased, or 'interested,' or sees only 'one side' of the event in question" (8). Resisting Gerard Genette's taxonomy of narrative forms, Artese wryly suggests:

If Molly's discourse had been introduced in Ulysses as a radically freeform entry in her diary, we would no longer be allowed to call it an unadulterated glimpse into her mind, even if its text were identical to the final chapter of the novel as it exists now. It would take only the minute addition of a single set of quotation marks at the beginning and end of the chapter to mark the discourse as testimony, and thus transform it from something immediate and emancipated into a fallen 'narrating instance.' (40)

Artese blames narratology's distrust of testimony for misconceptions of James, Conrad, and modernism in general. Undue attention to Marlow's embedded narration, he argues, has cast modernism "as a retreat from the real and a champion of relativism" (33). This consensus rests, he writes, "on long-refined conclusions of narrative theory. . . about the implications of 'embedded,' surrogate narrators" (106).

Although narratologists claim that narrative point of view always has epistemological significance, Artese observes that they rely on twentieth-century texts to illustrate the "abjection of personal testimony" (40). But the history of the English novel, he contends, reflects the decline of confidence in explicit meaning. The "psychologism" of the eighteenth-century novel sprang from the rhetorical contrast between social discourse and private thoughts. Thus Robinson Crusoe and Clarissa present themselves as "the true testimony of a potential neighbor--the personal account of a historical contemporary, not distant in time or space, no matter if the narrative itself is exotic" (10), and their "rigorous testimonial structures are what made the novel what it was" (10). Their "testimony" was confined to private letters or diaries, and the contrast with their public statements imbued private confession with the authority of truth (11). Thus readers learned to trust what the text represented as unspoken thoughts. "Although this logic is partly underwritten by what I have been calling a contract of comprehension," Artese explains, "its assumption that testimony communicates an altered, 'filtered' reproduction of the truth can also be traced to this psychologism, this a posteriori conclusion about 'human nature' and its inevitable self-interest, that was the very engine of the eighteenth-century novel" (77). As the convention of epistolary confession came to seem implausible, omniscient narrators took over the job of reporting what was thought as well as what was said so that readers could assess a character's sincerity. When omniscience in turn also came to seem artificial, Flaubert and others attempted to penetrate the minds of their characters through free indirect discourse. James used Flaubert's strictures on point of view to define the "art of the novel," and narratology built a theory on this formal element.

Zooming in on his defining examples, Artese attacks the "antitestimonial ideology" that dominates criticism of James and Conrad (26). Arguing that critics manufacture their own ambiguities when they write about James's fiction, Artese claims that James believes in the possibility of accurate testimony. Even when his characters fail to see what is before their eyes, they tell us something reliable: "For James, testimonial narration has no other purpose than to exhibit a character's utter failure to interpret and know the world around him" (94). Artese insists that James makes it clear that the governess in Turn of the Screw sees nothing except the phantasms of her repressed desire, yet narratologists dwell on the possibility that she actually sees apparitions: "the critical tradition persists in treating this repression as if it might not exist, as if the text is ambiguous about the ghosts as a diegetic reality" (152). But for Artese this is a "phantom ambiguity" (152).

He finds something similar in studies of Conrad, where "embrace of subjectivity and this retreat inward" are "in fact critical phantasms" (26). Tracing this epistemological position from Henry James to Fredric Jameson, Artese audaciously claims that it "exists, in reality, only through the operation of the critic" (30). While Jameson considers "writing in general . . . an obstacle to comprehension" (42), and finds Conrad in particular positing "the relativity of individual monads" (30), Artese does not find evidence for either claim in Lord Jim. "Is there," he asks, "any fact about Jim's 'story' or his description of the Patna that Conrad leaves in question?" Artese reminds us of Marlow's observation that there "was no incertitude as to facts" (30), adding that "all the novel's questions. . . would have remained questions without Marlow's participation" (31). Marlow studies how various people judge Jim's behavior. "The true object of Conrad's inquiry in chapter four," writes Artese, "is not Jim, but the imaginary comprehension that renders the statement of the witness inadequate, because perspectival, and possibly corrupt, because biased" (47). While Conrad shows that courtroom testimony fails to explain Jim, the personal testimony of Jim's many friends and acquaintances builds a complex account of what happened and why. Conrad thus attempts "to reach beyond moral absolutism, 'beyond the competency of a court of inquiry,' as Marlow says, for a means of evaluating its subject. . ." (131). According to Conrad, Artese writes, "there really is something in novelistic example that creates a better ground for moral evaluation than precept" (132). Therefore, instead of scrutinizing the novel's shifts in narrative point of view, Artese analyzes the information furnished by its characters.

Having cleared the field, Artese re-positions James and Conrad between the sentimental novel and sensational journalism. Both writers were determined to portray the individual speaking "as a testifier as opposed to a confessor," maintaining a "personal reserve" rather than pretending to full comprehension (12). But they were also reacting against the use of narrative conventions in journalists' eye-witness reports. James and Conrad wanted to distinguish their art from newspaper stories because they were competing with journalists to represent contemporary life. Despite their differing models of narration--detached for James and engaged for Conrad--both authors maintain the boundary between public testimony and private thoughts:

The confrontation between these authors over the final dispensation of a narrative comprehension, seemingly a purely literary problem, is in fact inextricable from a controversy about representing the social landscape. It is a debate over which authorities, if any, ought to remain outside the investigative frame. (49-50)

For Artese, the authors' interest in the relation between narrative and the world involves much more than the problem of point of view. Experience matters. "In the ability to report that he has seen with his 'own eyes,'" writes Artese, "a narrator confirms his successful penetration into what had once been veiled, and thus into truth. The truth of his 'seeing it' confirms the truth of what he will write about it. With the sequence 'I have seen, it is true,' James's investigators, like Herodotus, ensure that 'no separation is made between saying and seeing'" (58). This positivist view of narrative's capacity to convey experience is informed by Artese's critique of poststructural criticism and justified by his original readings of James and Conrad.

By the end of the nineteenth-century, the dissemination of information in newspapers and the journalist's appropriation of eye-witness testimony made the novelist's task urgent. Artese quotes Conrad's assessment: "'In this age of knowledge, . . . our sympathetic imagination, to which alone we can look for the ultimate triumph of concord and justice, remains strangely impervious to information, however correctly and even picturesquely conveyed'" (48). Artese's goal is to restore the importance of information. Disregarding chronology, he reads Lord Jim (1899-1900) in light of newspaper coverage of the investigation of the Titanic disaster of 1912, and he concludes by reading Heart of Darkness as a response to Henry Morgan Stanley's account of his search for Livingstone (How I Found Livingstone [1872]). Both texts, Artese shows, illustrate the tension between "testimony and an anonymous authority to which the masters of public discourse increasingly appeal" (8).

Pulled in two directions, Conrad leans toward personal rather than public discourse. While the authority of journalism flows from the anonymous voice of the newspaper as an institution, the authority of testimony springs from an identifiable witness. Lord Jim uses testimony to measure the distance between narrative and facts. In contrast to documentary and physical evidence, Artese notes, testimony risks seeming theatrical and biased (21). Comparing Lord Jim to Conrad's comments on the Titanic inquest, Artese argues that the novel expresses Conrad's "anxiety about the contamination of the literary" (21): "If we leave behind such externally imposed tropes of epistemological 'degeneration,' so curiously reserved only for instances of embedding and letter-writing in modernist literature, what emerges in a novel like Lord Jim is not a helpless mourning of lost comprehension, but an assertion of testimony in a culture of anonymous authority" (45).

By reading Heart of Darkness beside Stanley's dispatches from Africa, Artese shows how each narrative exemplifies the epistemological status of eye-witness testimony: "On either side of the Atlantic," writes Artese, "newspapers repeatedly described Stanley's reportage as on par with 'the best of all romance writing'" (162). Stanley claimed the authority of the "travel-writing witness" who knew "how to infuse testimony with narrative drama, and to bolster it with what the eighteenth century called 'probability'" (162). Using the personal voice of fiction instead of the anonymous tone of newspapers, Stanley not only made his experiences vivid and exciting, but also stamped them with the rhetoric of truth.

While Stanley is the only witness in his dispatches, however, Conrad sets the voice of Marlow against other voices. Like narratologists, Artese recognizes the importance of Marlow but rejects the usual interpretation of his function, which is that it embodies "'a nostalgia for a situation in which a more immediate communion between writer and public would be possible'" (Mark Conroy, qtd. 106). By contrast, Artese views Marlow's testimony as a solution to the dilemma of having to choose between private confession and first-person journalism: "Conrad forces us to ask how one might lay 'one's soul more or less bared to the world' without the posture of confession or self-justification that was once indispensable to autobiography" (107). For Artese, then, Marlow affirms the value of public testimony, even while showing how difficult it is: "Marlow's great service is not in settling the question of whom Conrad's narrator would represent, but in concretizing the representational condition of all attestation" (122). By means of Marlow, Conrad steers between the embarrassments of confession and the simplifications of journalism. Marlow as envoy, Artese writes, "enables the positive alternative: testimony without confession and interpretation without a totalized comprehension" (122). Marlow thus enacts the search for truth. Lord Jim, Artese notes, "underscores Marlow's 'opacity' not to portray the tragic inaccessibility of truth, but to keep in view the testimonial condition that is necessarily truth's milieu" (129). And truth is not merely subjective; it encompasses knowledge of others. Marlow, Artese concludes, "accomplishes precisely what the traditional sentimental novel could not--a sympathetic representation of other minds and other lives without enforcing confession or personal transparency" (109).

In fiction as well as in other kinds of writing, Artese believes, narrative can represent truth. To think otherwise undermines the value of literature as a source of knowledge about reality. Weaving his argument through critical and literary texts, Artese challenges the theory and practice of narratology by questioning its terminology, its skepticism, and its validity. He strips away the intricately embroidered claims of narratology to reveal the naked testimony of the text. Testimony may not state the whole truth, but it can be true enough.

Joyce Wexler is Professor of English at Loyola University Chicago.


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