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Joseph Conrad and Popular Culture by Stephen Donovan (auth.)

By Stephen Donovan (auth.)

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9 More than just evidence of his acquaintance with specific visual entertainments, such references are integral components of a literary project whose purpose Conrad expressly defined as ‘stimulating vision in the reader’ (CL 1: 381). At one level, these entertainments supplied him with convenient analogies if not the actual inspiration for psychological experiences that he sought to convey to the reader, as when Razumov, guilt-ridden at having betrayed his fellow student Haldin and oppressed with surveillance by ‘[t]he eye of the social revolution’, momentarily hallucinates that he is seeing the eyes of General T—— and Privy-Councillor Mikulin hanging in the air ‘like a vivid detail in a dissolving view of two heads’ (UWE 222).

Indeed, it is scarcely an exaggeration to describe this period as witness to a revolution in the sprawling assortment of phenomena that some media historians now term visual culture. Apart from brief periods of political unrest in 1888–89 and 1912–14, the urban crowd became increasingly synonymous with choreographed manifestations of national and imperial pride, large-scale exhibitions and fairs, and sensational publicity stunts. Professional football and cycling emerged as mass spectator sports, the construction of leisure attractions such as zoos and aquaria proceeded apace, and grand displays of organized pageantry came into vogue.

Like Eliot and Proust, Conrad was acutely sensible of these historic changes in the realm of spectacle and visual entertainment. In his short story ‘Il Conde’, a Neapolitan crowd promenades beneath electric street lamps ‘as if in a bath of some radiant and tenuous fluid’ (SS 277); and in his late novel Chance London’s nocturnal illumination stands as an emblem of the fractured urban consciousness that, having enabled a swindler to defraud an entire nation, threatens to intrude upon the stolid maritime world of Captain Anthony: ‘The night of the town with its strings of lights, rigid, and crossed like a net of flames, thrown over the sombre immensity of walls, closed round him, with its artificial brilliance overhung by an emphatic blackness, its unnatural animation of a restless, overdriven humanity’ (257).

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