chapter  5
11 Pages

Spatial stories: Joseph Conrad and James Joyce


In ‘Geography and Some Explorers’, Joseph Conrad famously gives his account of the three phases of European geography (Conrad: 1926). This account focuses on cartography and exploration. First there was the ‘fabulous phase’ of medieval cartography (1926a: 4), the phase of ‘circumstantially extravagant speculation’ (p. 30), where the blank spaces of the maps were crowded ‘with pictures of strange pageants, strange trees, strange beasts’, and the maps themselves showed ‘theoretically conceived continents’, ‘imaginary kingdoms’ and regions ‘haunted by unicorns’ or ‘inhabited by men with reversed feet, or eyes in the middle of their breasts’ (p. 3). This phase ended with the ‘discovery of the New World’ (p. 6). The Conquistadores introduced the second phase of ‘geography militant’ (p. 8), ‘the geography of open spaces and wide horizons’ (p. 18). Conrad presents this phase in terms of the ‘acquisitive spirit’ gradually giving way to the ‘scientific’ (p. 14). This scientific ‘search for truth’ also impacted on cartography: mapmaking, as Conrad saw it, no longer indulged in fanciful speculation, but registered both ‘the hard-won knowledge’ and ‘the geographical ignorance of its time’ (p. 19). It was prepared to leave blank spaces to be filled by future knowledge. Modern geography, ‘geography triumphant’ (p. 13), by contrast, represents for Conrad something of a pyrrhic victory. It produces and contemplates the comprehensively mapped world evoked in another late essay, ‘Travel’. Here Conrad observes that ‘the days of heroic travel are gone’: the earth is ‘girt about with cables’ and presently, he predicts, ‘there will be no backyard left in the heart of Central Africa that has not been peeped into by some person more or less commissioned for the purpose’ (1926a: 129). The triumph of exploration has combined with new systems of communication and the Enlightenment dream of complete knowledge has ended in a nightmare of surveillance. Explorers have given way to tourists, like those glimpsed briefly in the Malabar Hotel in Lord Jim. Even worse, the narrator of Victory suggests, we are all ‘encamped’ in the modern age ‘like bewildered travellers in a garish, unrestful hotel’ – deracinated, anxious observers of a spectacle we cannot understand (Conrad 1924: 3).