Nostromo and Negative Longing

Philosophy and Literature 46 (2):369-397 (2023)
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In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:Nostromo and Negative LongingDaniel BrudneyWhat, as the upshot of this exhibition of human motive and attitude, do we feel Conrad himself to endorse? What are his positives? It is easier to say what he rejects or criticizes.—F. R. Leavis, The Great Tradition1IWriters, playwrights, filmmakers have often seen their work as political. In this essay I discuss one way in which a narrative might be political. My proof text will be Joseph Conrad's novel Nostromo.2Let's start by noting several ways in which a narrative might criticize the present.(1). It highlights a shortcoming, say, an injustice, of the present.(2). It shows the possibility of a different and better society, usually inhabited by people with a different and better psychology.(3). It shows nothing positive, and yet it elicits a desire for a radically different and radically better future, that is, for something very different from the present.The first option divides into:(1a) The narrative shows a particular injustice, the sort of thing that concrete institutional change might eliminate or ameliorate. There are plenty of examples of (1a): Uncle Tom's Cabin, The Jungle, the movie Dirty Pretty Things. We could debate how far particular instances are propaganda, journalism, or "literature," and what difference these categories might make. Here, I merely note that narrative is capable of pointing to, making palpable, evoking outrage at, this or that particular injustice. Narrative will rarely tell us the best way to fix the injustice ("There ought to be a law" merely begins that conversation), but it can convince us that a particular injustice exists and needs to be addressed. [End Page 369](1b) The narrative shows what is wrong with something more general: a pervasive social institution, such as the market, imperialism (of one or another kind), some general pattern of social feeling and conduct. Many classic works do this, such as Middlemarch and Madame Bovary. Of course, precisely because such works criticize large and pervasive phenomena, they usually do not point to any specific solution. They say, "This (something fairly general) is bad."When we move to narratives that try to present better worlds, things get more complicated. We can see the issue by noting a distinction in (2) and between (2) and (3). With (2a), we are in the realm of what John Rawls calls a "realistic utopia."3 This is supposed to be (i) sufficiently specifiable, in terms of, say, principles of distribution, a conception of the person, and a conception of justification; that is, in terms of several central organizing ideas. It is also supposed to be (ii) sufficiently realistic in terms of the moral psychology needed for its instantiation. Rawls often talks of full compliance in his well-ordered society, but for that society to be sufficiently realistic, the psychology of its citizens must merely be a sufficiently real possibility in the sufficiently near future to generate sufficient compliance to make for sufficient stability.Call a realistic utopia realizably realistic if (I) the better angels of our nature upon which it calls are sufficiently like our actual nature to be plausible in the relatively near term, and (II) it does not require too often the instantiation of those better angels. The contrast is to (2b), a realistic utopia that is unrealizably realistic because although it satisfies (I) it does not satisfy (II): it is too dependent on the more or less constant instantiation of those better angels. It assumes that "can implies will" even though in real life the inference often fails.4 Still, such a society remains "realistic" since it is possible for us always to instantiate those better angels.With (3), condition (i) is not satisfied. The issue is not that we cannot or that we believe human beings will not realize something specifiable in terms of institutions and citizen psychology. It is that we have only a vague and primarily negative understanding of what we want. It is substantially (perhaps entirely) a political via negativa. And so (ii) cannot be known to be satisfied.The distinction between (2a) (and maybe also [2b]) on the one hand, and (3) on the other, tracks two ways...

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Daniel Brudney
University of Chicago

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