Joseph Conrad: His Moral Vision, by George A. Panichas. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 2005. 165 pp. $35 cloth.
This study of Joseph Conrad is welcome both for its perceptive readings of Conrad’s great novels and for its demonstration of the quality and depth of insights possible when the humanistic tradition in criticism is not merely continued but renewed by a critic with the literary sensitivity and moral seriousness of George Panichas. He vindicates what he calls “the old humanist tools of criticism” in employing his critical skills for the sake of “clarity and enlargement of understanding.” Believing, with earlier exemplars of the humanistic tradition like Matthew Arnold, Irving Babbitt and Lionel Trilling, that “literary interpretation is at its maximum free of dogma,” Panichas does not make use of Conrad to promote his own philosophy or political agenda. Panichas hopes that his analysis of Conrad’s fiction will “reclaim and reactivate the moral essences of art, exclusive of a philosophy of morality,” a necessary qualification, given his insistence that Conrad’s “imaginative art cannot simply or finally be reduced to morality.” The project of Joseph Conrad: His Moral Vision thus depends on both a recognition of the power of “the moral imagination” as revealed in great works of art and a concomitant recognition that the authority of the literary critic derives from the ability to provide “forms of encouragement that light the reader’s way through the text” (xvi)—not from any theory, no matter how all-encompassing its claims. These twin recognitions provide perhaps the only convincing answer to the questions about literary criticism raised by Plato in his brief but searching early dialogue, the Ion.
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