UTP author Alexia Hannis offers Aristotelian analyses of Joseph Conrad’s letters, essays, and four works of fiction in The Discerning Narrator. Read the full Q&A about her book below:
1. Tell us about when the idea for writing this book first came to fruition. Is there a story behind it? How did this topic get fleshed out?
The idea for this book emerged from a casual conversation that took place just after my doctoral defense on Joseph Conrad’s Aristotelian roots. My supervisor said he was interested in a passing comment I’d made – which was that Conrad was continuously “working through” something in his fiction. I wanted to make this idea an explicit, rather than merely implicit, part of my work on Conrad – to write a book that would focus on how Aristotle could become a lens on what Conrad was “working through” in his fiction from its inception. In rewriting the book, I re-structured everything around Aristotle’s concept of “discernment” or compassionate judgement – so I could use this idea to shed light on the gradual formation of a uniquely compassionate yet rational narrative voice and outlook in Conrad’s oeuvre. In looking at the formation of the discerning narrator in Conrad’s letters, essays, and especially his fiction, I could show how he invites us to admire characters who can see more deeply or fully than others because of their active engagement in the world. The novels make us see that these character-narrators such as Charles Marlow possess a higher knowledge of nature and human nature while being deeply human – neither god nor beast, as Aristotle would have it. The humanity of these admirable character-narrators comes through in Conrad’s art – his brilliant, implicitly ethical use of the frame narrative: he embeds these figures in the action, making us see them from a distance at times, which adds a kind of instability or contingency to their voices so that the narrators don’t harden into moralizing abstractions. In giving us these deeply admirable yet fully alive human characters who, in Conrad’s words, “make us see” (however imperfectly), Conrad shows what literature can offer us even when, in his view, rapid modernization means people may forget to ask questions about what it means to live truly fulfilling rather than merely efficient lives. This aspect of his critique of modernity and implicit affirmation of literature seem to me to be both increasingly relevant and powerfully consolatory.
2. What was the most challenging aspect of this project?
It was challenging to balance everything. It is always challenging to work on Conrad because he is such an elusive writer: a powerful aspect of his art was his resistance to abstract ideas – and while Aristotle’s outlook on ethics as necessarily grounded in experience rather than formulas really works with Conrad’s interest in “action” and experience and particularity, I had to be very careful not to impose ideas onto Conrad when reading his work through a philosophical lens. Having worked closely with the essays and letters I was intent on writing a book that would reveal at least a dimension of Conrad’s thinking and outlook rather than a reading that would do something that would go against what I’d learned from studying his works about his dislike of abstraction, and his critical view of philosophy. I didn’t want to end up forcing his works into a rigid philosophical frame.
3. What was the most surprising thing you found/discovered in your research process for this book? (while reading Conrad’s letters and writings… etc?)
I was surprised to discover the extent of Aristotle’s influence on intellectuals and education in Poland – that there is a long history, culminating at the start of the sixteenth century when Aristotle became the foundation of learning in Cracow, in many fields of study. Conrad’s education, and how it surfaces in his works, is a fascinating subject that my book only touches on in the introduction, but which would be worth pursuing. I was also very surprised at how clearly Conrad critiques modern technology – especially that of the steamship – as an expression of a mistaken outlook on “chance” in nature and human nature: his point was that if we focus on eradicating chance and uncertainty, we give away the possibility of individual agency. I think what really surprised me here was how clearly and powerfully and concretely Conrad’s words from over a century ago seem to be speaking to us – to our own time.
4. What was your experience working with the editor/editors of this book?
From start to finish, my experience with the editors was wonderful. I felt supported at the outset and later when the acquisitions editor changed. The editors found incredibly discerning external readers; their generous feedback was very inspiring. In the final stages of the project, the managing editor was very well-organized and a clear communicator. When you’re engaged in what is in some ways a stressful process with so many pieces and stages you want the lines of communication to be kept open. Everyone at the press was quick to respond to questions and always helpful. Most importantly, the process at UTP was so thorough that each time I passed through a stage or overcame a hurdle, I developed more confidence in my work, and I left incredibly proud that I was published by a prestigious and rigorous press! I couldn’t have hoped for a better experience, especially for a first book.