2. The Hegemony of New Critical Modernism
Henry James on Joseph Conrad
New Critical Point of View
If Miller's writing disrupts symbolic readings, it wrecks similar havoc upon analyses of point of view that seek to integrate the text as a figure for the mind of its creator, its narrator(s), or its reader. With the New Critical turn, "point of view," a long-standing tool of both critical and novelistic practice, was called upon to do more than discriminate between the narratives of authors and their personae. Dating at least from Fielding's effort to wrestle the genre from Richardson, this bifurcation in the novel's form, which divides the novel between omniscient and first person narration, reached an apotheosis in Henry James's "balloons of consciousness." But to deal with Conrad's and Faulkner's tales within tales, point of view was resurrected, brought once more to the interpretive center of the novel to lead a form of critical afterlife. Characters might be treated as authors. No longer were they, like Richardson's Pamela, seeking to express a merely personal experience in the world. Experience remained personal, but the character/narrator expressed an experience of the world. Each could be analyzed as would-be omniscient narrators, struggling for the distance from which to command a totalized worldview. Consciousness, this time the mind of the character/narrator in place of the omniscient author, could remain at the interpretive apex of narrative, standing as the constructed symbolic unity of what Miller called narrative's "welter of criss-crossed tracks".
Of course, this "solution," which underwrote the continued examination of the text as a self-contained work of art, could create problems of its own. When mobilized to handle Conrad or Faulkner, New Criticism could use point of view to subdue the narrative parts but the narrative whole presented further complications. Insofar as the omniscient author's withdrawal from the text was the necessary precondition of the full emergence of his creature, the unreliable narrator, the leap from part to whole remained more speculative than analytical. Henry James' commentary in "The New Novel" upon Conrad's use of point of view sets the stage for much of New Criticism's permutations:
What shall we most call Mr. Conrad's method accordingly but his attempt to clarify quand meme--ridden as he has been, we perceive at the end of fifty pages of "Chance," by such a danger of steeping his matter in perfect eventual obscuration as we recall no other artist's consenting to with an equal grace. This grace, which presently comes over us as the sign of the whole business, is Mr. Conrad's gallantry itself, and the shortest account of the rest of the connection for our present purpose is that his gallantry is thus his success. It literally strikes us that his volume sets in motion more than anything else a drama in which his own system and his combined eccentricities of recital represent the protagonist in face of powers leagued against it, and of which the dénouement gives us the system fighting in triumph, though with its back desperately to the wall, and laying the powers piled up at its feet. This frankly has been our spectacle, our suspense and our thrill; with the one flaw on the roundness of it all the fact that the predicament was not imposed rather than invoked, was not the effect of a challenge from without, but that of a mystic impulse from within.
James paints Conrad as the absent God of "Chance": the prime mover who withdraws once the creatures of his creation have been set in motion, and allows this "system" of partially knowing recitations to do battle with the "powers leagued against it," the powers of darkness and "obscuration." James finds the formal structure of "Chance" admirable, but makes clear that the sum of the parts does not constitute an aesthetic whole. The clarity and "roundness of it all" depends upon the presence of Conrad's "grace" as "the sign of the whole business." The unity of the work of art obtains outside the "combined eccentricities" of the text proper, in an authorial point of view which casts the formal structure of the alienated text as the "protagonist" in a gallant, dramatic struggle with its separate voices and material. But, as James' theological language insinuates, it is by no means certain that such an omniscient authorial point of view presides over this drama: like God, the absent, prime mover, Conrad's authority, though absolutely necessary to demonstrate the integrity of the dramatic whole, must be inferred from the integrity of the dramatic whole. Is evil a part of God's plan or a refutation of God's existence or goodness? Are the lapses and contradictions between the narrators' stories a part of the Conrad's design or evidence of a failure of conception and execution? These questions are unanswerable in an objective analysis of the text. Thus, James turns the whole question of the unity of the text on its head with the admission that whether an authorial point of view exists or not, this "frankly has been our spectacle, our suspense, our thrill." The aesthetic unity of the text requires the supplement of an authorial point of view, which in turn requires the supplement of the reader's point of view. In this way, James lays out the ground uneasily cohabited by T. S. Eliot's ideals of "impersonal" craftsmanship and I. A. Richard's theory of "more completely involved" response.
These two apparently conflictual "points of view" upon the text are bound in mutual dependence. Earlier this point was made with specific attention to the symbolic organization of the text. Here, the same argument recurs but with respect to more generalized possibilities of textual structure. Eliot's ideal of craftsmanship is as predicated upon the perceptibility of structural integrity as Richards' theory of response is reliant upon the fully crafted art object to hone response. Richards is explicit on this point. I quote at greater length from the passage cited earlier:
In this case the effects we are considering depend only upon the kind and degree of organization which is given to the experiences. If it is at the level of our own best attempts or above it (but not so far above it as to be out of reach) we are refreshed. But if our own organization is broken down, forced to a cruder, a more wasteful level, we are depressed and temporarily incapacitated, not only locally but generally. It is when what we are offered, and inveigled into accepting, is only slightly inferior to our own developed capacity, so that it is no easy matter to see what is wrong, that the effect is the greatest.
The two points of view--authorial and readerly--not only depend upon each other, but what seems to slip through their mutual give and take is the fact that both axiomatically rest upon the structural integrity of the self-contained work of art, which only point of view can complete. Thus arises the "mystic impulse from within" that James identifies as the "one flaw in the roundness of it all." James finds nothing in Conrad's material--the story he seeks to tell, the characters he seeks to render--that demands placing the author and the spectator/reader in the "predicament" of cheering on the victory of a formal structure that seems to spring from nowhere. James, of course, speaks as a master dialectician of point of view, but, in essence, he accords himself the prerogative of every novelist and invokes the meta-fiction of the novel to challenge "Mr. Conrad's" formal innovations. Coherent authorial point of view and "provisions" for the reader are the necessary but not sufficient conditions for clarity and "roundness" in the literary work. Form must also be "the effect of a challenge from without," from the material, from the characters--from history. Otherwise, the mere demand for form, for form in the abstract, is a "mystic impulse."