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Art, Language, and Invisible Truth: A Reappraisal of Conrad's Preface

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posted on 2017-05-17, 11:22 authored by Mark Stockdale
Joseph Conrad's famous Preface to his third novel, The Nigger of the “Narcissus”, is probably the most discussed of his "non-fictional" writings. Much Conrad criticism has long been divided over whether the Preface's terms of seeing and visibility deserve the emphasis which they have sometimes been given in reading the fiction, and whether this early, bold outline of a kind of aesthetic theory (the closest we come to such in Conrad), is even applicable to what he achieved in his major works. Such arguments, surprisingly, seem to ignore the fact that Conrad was a writer for whom it became increasingly necessary, as his vision took shape, to render justice to the invisible. It is my contention here, however, that this interest in invisibility may be detected already in the Preface's oft-cited passages, couched in terms which parallel those of more strictly "theoretical" accounts given by Romanticism, Idealism, Postmodernism and other "isms,” which, while anathema to Conrad, align with his individual artistic credo. In the Preface, Conrad writes, "art may be defined as a single-minded attempt to render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe, by bringing to light the truth, manifold and one, underlying its every aspect." The stated premise that "truth" is something which can be brought to light by art is one which implies that this truth is not an immediately apparent aspect of the visible universe, but something which must be uncovered from beneath its changing phenomena. Conrad suggests that truth is a hidden dimension of reality, whose visible phenomena constitute a surface which must be penetrated in order to bring this hidden dimension to human awareness. Considerable critical attention has been given to the nature and definition of Conrad's "truth" in the celebrated Preface. Ian Watt reads the Preface as differentiating the artist's concern with "the inward contemplation of the general and enduring nature of human experience" from "practical and contingent truths." J. Hillis Miller writes that "Conrad's truth is the exact opposite of precise images and events." If truth is something "underlying" or "inward" and the opposite of the visible, of the "aspects of matter and the facts of life,” for Conrad this truth is something which is also inseparable from the visible.


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