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Wexler’s “Violence in a Secular Age: Conrad’s Solution” Essay

Wexler’s “Violence in a Secular Age: Conrad’s Solution” Joyce Wexler, in her essay “Writing About Violence in a Secular Age: Conrad’s Solution,” states that twentieth-century writers claimed contemporary violence was inexpressible. Such violent acts were justified in the past, but became a dilemma, a “crisis of belief,” in the late nineteenth-century. The dilemma became present in the works of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and other works of the time. Upon the opening of this essay, Joyce Wexler mentions a variety of works from the likes of James Joyce and T.S. Eliot to exemplify that many twentieth-century writers claim that acts of violence in their times were “not only unimaginable but inexpressible.” Wexler states that such atrocities were not new in the world. In the past, such violence was justified, ignored, or just not made known to the public. Wexler asks, “How can violence be made known?” The answer was simple: symbolism. Wexler goes in to explain Roman Jakobson’s definition of symbolism, which is a simple graph: the horizontal axis is syntax and the vertical axis is semantics. Jakobson’s model helps to clarify the relationship between realism and symbolism in Heart of Darkness. Wexler’s example is the character Marlow’s first spoken words, “And this also,” said Marlow suddenly, “has been one of the dark places of the earth.” This quote illustrates how symbolism constructs meaning by making events of the present into a pattern. Wexler goes on to state that Conrad provides signals of symbolism within descriptions of “historically plausible events in overlapping patterns and discourses.” In the text, Marlow speaks with the accuracy of an official report, but with the next sentence, changes into something of symbolic meaning. Wexler’s next paragraph deals with the “provocative source of symbolism in Conrad’s novel.” She defends this by stating, “Realistic descriptions of an extreme event fail to convey its impact, yet symbolic representations seem to evade or mitigate its gravity,” as exemplified with Marlow’s astonishment when he first sees Kurtz’s house. In the scene, Marlow’s reaction shows how everyday objects can become symbolic (how the doorknobs are actually skulls and are more than ornamental). In the next section of her essay, Wexler references to philosopher Charles Taylor’s book, A Secular Age.

She states that “Taylor defines secularism not as the absence of belief but as the surplus of beliefs.” Such a statement changed the function of symbolism as Wexler seen it, “while the language of theology and metaphysics…employ symbolism, the meaning of their symbols is constrained by foundational ideas and beliefs.” Meanings reproduce without limit. Taylor observes the ambiguity of private symbols after the First World War and finds that the war drained people of personal religious beliefs and brought about a “sense of uncertainty, of disbelief.” Heart of Darkness proves such much earlier than the First World War, in 1899. In the next section, Wexler goes to describe the weaknesses of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. First, Wexler goes to Ian Watt and his suggestion that the indeterminacy of Marlow’s uncertainty of Kurtz’s last words is the weakness of the narrative. Watt writes, “Heart of Darkness… belongs to a specifically symbolic tradition of fiction, and it is the only one of Conrad’s novels which does.” He recognizes that Conrad’s symbolism is a response to the intellectual crisis of the late nineteenth-century. Wexler also references to Chinua Achebe and his argument that the most dissentious charge of Heart of Darkness is the racist undertones littered throughout the text. According to Wexler, Achebe references specific passages but does not rely upon it for his arguments, but instead targets symbolic elements that referrers to realistic events, people, and places. Achebe believes that the violence within the text is not a symbol of crisis but historical fact. Conrad proves this to Achebe through a combination of description and symbolic patters that parallel other times and places at the same time.

Wexler concludes her essay by restating that Heart of Darkness is full of symbolic detail that is an evasion of reality and that “Conrad achieved his political purpose.” He put out the realities of African occupation, the atrocities that were happening in colonial Africa. The acts of violence there were unimaginable and Heart of Darkness describes them without attempting to explain them. While Joyce Wexler’s essay is long (roughly twenty pages in length), it relies heavily upon arguments already made by others. Wexler lengthily quotes and explains the views of the novel from authors such as Ian Watt, Chinua Achebe, and Fredric Jameson, with just a short summary of her own opinion on whether or not the beliefs are justified. When she is not quoting from another author’s viewpoint of the novel, she is quoting and summarizing someone else’s work that relates to the author’s she is quoting, such as Charles Taylor, Patrick Brantlinger, F.
R. Leavis, and Arthur Symon.

The majority of this essay was summary and explanation, offering little to no personal interpretation. There were few references to the actual text, as well. The thesis (violence), as I see it, comes late in the essay. I feel as if Wexler didn’t contribute her own opinion on her topic of secularism within Heart of Darkness, but merely summarized other views. This essay would have been better served if Wexler chose to retitle her essay into something involving symbolism and ambiguity, instead of violence. The majority of the essay is spent on symbolism and ambiguity rather than the topic of violence. In fact, other than the first few paragraphs, violence isn’t really discussed again until page nine of the essay. “Conrad’s solution,” as per the title, was mentioned and discussed only briefly. Despite being heavily referenced and quoted, Wexler does a good job explaining the viewpoints of the authors she quotes (the only strong point in this essay), but she does not always relate it back to the text specifically for examples. A few times when she does reference the text explicitly, it seems disconnected from the rest of the essay, such as the quoted paragraph under the quote about personal motives on page six. In conclusion, while lengthy and well quoted, the downfall of this particular essay is that it relies little on person interpretation and is mostly summary of other author’s essays on the topic. I feel that Wexler does not adequately describe her title and topic sentence, nor have a personal opinion on the matter. This essay would have served better to focus on symbolic meanings and ambiguities within Heart of Darkness rather than “violence in a secular age.”

Work Cited
Wexler, Joyce. “Writing About Violence in a Secular Age: Conrad’s Solution.” Editorial.Project MUSE. West Chester University, 2012. Web. 02 Dec. 2012. <http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/college_literature/v039/39.2.wexler.html>.


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