Joseph Conrad and the Uses of Influence


British / American

M Nezam-Mafi (Brown University)

Even among the modernists with whom he is frequently grouped, Joseph Conrad, the Polish-born former mariner who, in his third language, reinvented himself as a British novelist, is a singularly resonant and deeply fraught figure. Conrad’s biography and work anticipate both the figure and the preoccupations of the transnational and transcultural artist. In a 1906 letter, Henry James wrote to Conrad, “No one has known – for intellectual use – the things you know.” How Conrad rendered what he “knew” is critical to literary developments of the last century. Much of the scholarship on Conrad, however, has focused on his impressionism or, more controversially, on his view of imperialism. Was he, in his partial sympathy for subjugated people, and his attacks upon colonialism, an anti-imperialist? Or did he, by aestheticizing racial tropes, perpetuate imperialist stereotypes? Although Ian Watts and Harold Bloom respectively have alluded to the “Romantic and Victorian elements” in Conrad’s fiction and to his enduring appeal to writers of the 1920s and 1930s, Conrad’s inspirations and influence have received much less scholarly attention. As we approach the centenary of Conrad’s death, this panel seeks to contextualize his fiction by examining the “use” Conrad made of writers such as James, Flaubert, Dostoyevsky and others to define his own aesthetic practices, and how other writers (Chinua Achebe, T. S. Eliot, V. S. Naipaul, Evelyn Waugh, etc.) and filmmakers (Patrice Chéreau, Francis Ford Coppola, Mark Peploe, Orson Welles, etc.) have used Conrad’s work. Papers may address Conrad’s novels or short stories, the critical controversies about Conrad’s work, or how Conrad’s fiction has been reinterpreted, revised, or repudiated by other artists.

The Anglo-Pole Conrad remains immensely relevant in an increasingly interconnected world of hyphenated and fluid identities. Because of his interest in liminality, subjectivity, and cross-cultural traffic and conflict, Conrad’s themes, tropes, and even idioms remain embedded in modernist and post-colonial literature. But Conrad’s foreshadowing of modern alienation--what Harold Bloom calls the “cosmos” of a later generation of writers--should not obscure, Ian Watts has argued, the “Romantic and Victorian elements” in Conrad’s vision. This panel, then, by examining Conrad’s inspirations and influence, seeks to move beyond the binaries in Conradian scholarship and thus to analyze a neglected aspect of his art.