chapter  5
Romance and Reification: Plot Construction and Ideological Closure in Joseph Conrad
Pages 77

Nothing is more alien to the windless closure of high naturalism than the works of Joseph Conrad. Perhaps for that very reason, even after eighty years, his place is still unstable, undecidable, and his work unclassifiable, spilling out of high literature into light reading and romance, reclaiming great areas of diversion and distraction by the most demanding practice of style and ecriture alike, floating uncertainly somewhere in between Proust and Robert Louis Stevenson. Conrad marks, indeed, a strategic fault line in the emergence of contemporary narrative, a place from which the structure of twentieth-century literary and cultural institutions becomes visible as it could not be in the heterogeneity of Balzacian registers, nor even in the discontinuities of the paradigms which furnish materials for what is an increasingly unified narrative apparatus in Gissing. In Conrad we can sense the emergence not merely of what will be contemporary modernism (itself now become a literary institution), but also, still tangibly juxtaposed with it, of what will variously be called popular culture or mass

culture, the commercialized cultural discourse of what, in late capitalism, is often described as a media society. This emergence is most dramatically registered by what most readers have felt as a tangible "break" in the narrative of Lord Jim,1 a qualitative shift and diminution of narrative intensity as we pass from the story of the Patna and the intricate and prototextual search for the "truth" of the scandal of the abandoned ship, to that more linear account of Jim's later career in Patusan, which, a virtual paradigm of romance as such, comes before us as the prototype of the various "degraded" subgenres into which mass culture will be articulated (adventure story, gothic, science fiction, bestseller, detective story, and the like). But this institutional heterogeneity-not merely a shift between two narrative paradigms, nor even a disparity between two types of narration or narrative organization, but a shift between two distinct cultural spaces, that of "high" culture and that of mass culture-is not the only gap or discontinuity that Lord Jim symptomatically betrays. Indeed, we will have occasion to isolate the stylistic practice of this work as a virtually autonomous "instance" in its own right, standing in tension or contradiction with the book's various narrative instances or levels-just as we will insist on the repressed space of a world of work and history and of protopolitical conflict which may in this respect be seen as the trace and the remnant of the content of an older realism, now displaced and effectively marginalized by the emergent modernist discourse. The paradigm of formal history which must now be presupposed is thus evidently more complex than the framework of a movement from Balzacian realism to high realism with which we have previously worked. Schematically, it may be described as a structural breakdown of the older realisms, from which emerges not modernism alone, but rather two literary and cultural structures, dialectically interrelated and necessarily presupposing each other for any adequate analysis: these now find

themselves positioned in the distinct and generally incompatible spaces of the institutions of high literature and what the Frankfurt School conveniently termed the "culture industry," that is, the apparatuses for the production of "popular" or mass culture.2 That this last is a new term may be dramatically demonstrated by the situation of Balzac, a writer, if one likes, of "best sellers," but for whom this designation is anachronistic insofar as no contradiction is yet felt in his time between the production of best sellers and the production of what will later come to be thought of as "high" literature.