The New Compass: A Critical Review



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Christianity and Criticism


Barrie Mencher



“I have to say that as a Christian I see no need to add anything to what Conrad says to take Heyst as an answer to prayer in both cases, and angelic in the strictest biblical sense of a messenger and agent of the divine.”

Ian Robinson, “Conrad’s Belief in Victory (The New Compass 2 [December 2003]) 


            But why need we know what our critic thinks about the literal truth or otherwise of the fictional character’s role in the novel, whether that is, if the novel were real-life, he would consider Heyst to be, literally, an angel?  Interesting as it might be to know our critic’s private opinions, can they be any more relevant to our understanding of his criticism than if the novelist himself were to include in his narrative an interjection to the effect that he, too, was a Christian, or not a Christian, or whatever?  In point of fact, the novel of course leaves the question open, as it would have to do, not being itself a portion of sacred scripture.  Even if Heyst were part of that “touch of allegory” (more like a firm pressure, I should say), his being, in the novel, literally an angel and the answer to a prayer wouldn’t help close that question.  The novel is quite clear: the world as pictured in Victory is, unfamiliar in many senses as it might be to us, the world as pictured by a mind that, intensely gripped by the struggle between moral good and moral evil, and tempted by the idea that evil can be evaded by a sort of fastidious personal detachment from participating in that world (refraining from “action”), is a mind that retains, throughout the novel (whatever it might do in another context and at another time), its freedom from creedal commitment.  Not to respect that independence by a claim that we know better what the man means seems to me an example of the dark side of “belief.”


            For me, what is most striking about Victory is the conversion of Heyst’s unbelief, not in God or Jesus Christ or in any other creed, but in Life, to its opposite: “Ah, Davidson, woe to the man whose heart has not learned while young to hope, to love, and to put its trust in life!”  And that belief reminds me much more strongly of what I find in D.H. Lawrence (and Leavis) than in the New Testament; and I notice that Mr. Robinson does not include Lawrence’s name, with those of Conrad and James as the “latest novelist(s) of Christendom.”  So be it.  But Conrad and James and Lawrence do seem to me to belong to the great tradition.


            Heyst’s virtues: his charity towards Morrison, his salvation of Lena, not to mention his friendship with Davidson and his impeccable good manners, which are themselves an expression of his genuine refinement (his respect for others as well as a technique, which fails, for avoiding “action”) are not especially Christian, yet Mr. Robinson writes “Heyst the skeptic is unable to resist the temptation of his Christian impulses.”  This is absurd.  Even if one chooses to say, as I do not, that “there is a path from pity towards loving one’s neighbour as oneself,” the Christian will know that that injunction is not sui generis Christian.  Mr. Robinson well says “I have to emphasize how theological Conrad’s treatment of this theme (victory) is, and that this is the way his inspiration developed.”  He then cites “the Christ-like self-sacrificing love of Lena.”  What, other than the capacity to risk her life out of love for Heyst, which is a love perhaps best defined by the words “with my body I thee worship,” is this love?  Surely Mr. Robinson’s is a most extravagant claim.  Christ’s sacrifice amounted to much more than that; nor, incidentally, was Lena’s death inevitable, being shot by mistake, though Mr. Jones would probably have been pleased with the accident.  Heyst’s being a good man (Christ died for sinners, after all), and Lena having learnt about sin at Sunday school hardly qualifies her heroic death to be described as Christ-like.  “Theological” seems to me to be a big word for Mr. Robinson to use for Conrad’s treatment of his theme, despite the allegorical framework of the story.  What I am suggesting is that, rather than giving the novel a distinctive Christian message, this framework serves an aesthetic rather than a religious purpose.  Whilst it recalls to our minds certain biblical conceptions, which enhance what Mr. Robinson calls the “comedy” and intensify the drama, it introduces a metaphysical dimension which deepens our awareness of the unfolding horror, being indeed that of sin and death.  But the framework remains, I think, external to the novel’s underlying conception, as though the writer were playing, though not facetiously with the metaphysical ideas, to impress the actual moral idea upon us.  The inspiration of the novel is, I would say, moral rather than religious, unless you can call the intensity of the author’s moral concern itself religious, though not specifically Christian.  Heyst in any case dies by his own hand, having created a kind of Hindu funeral pyre of his bungalow, consumed together with his beloved “wife.”  No Christian would do that and no Christian novelist would refer to it with the neutrality or even admiration that Conrad does.


            Mr. Robinson purports to show, not only that Conrad’s “treatment” is theological, but “that this is the way his inspiration developed.”  I can’t say I am quite sure what he means by the latter desideratum, but his examination of the novel goes on to note a series of Christian/ theological issues, like references to Heyst’s angelic attributes, the nature of miracles, and that Lena and Heyst are both “steadily allusive” to the scriptures.  Now Lena is certainly a good deal closer to what is ordinarily meant by a “Christian,” to the Christian doctrine shall we say, than is Heyst.  He, as the son of his philosopher father, has conscientiously rejected it, but Lena thinks her irregular relationship with Heyst makes her a sinner.  As for him, he is sublimely confident that he is not, which he asserts “before Heaven.”  Lucky man!  Mr. Robinson shares his confidence in what I would call a very modern spirit.  I have already given my opinion of the allegorical overlay that follows in the examination.


            Now it seems to me that Lena is indeed the Christian of the book, and quite properly a sinner, who, because she is a Christian, suffers for her sins, while Heyst rambles blindly through the world doing, now and again, nevertheless, the right thing.  Of course, he is into the bargain a very attractive man, as an officer and a gentleman should be, let alone a Swedish baron; but he is manifestly of the world, a man whose retreat from the world can be seen as a gentlemanly eccentricity.  If Mr. Robinson had simply said “God seems to have chosen such a man as His instrument,” we could have taken that as meaning that there is such a thing as good and evil in the world, and that now and again a good man or woman stands up to resist the evil.  Which could be said without confessing to any particular creed, just as, I believe, Heyst’s “before heaven” is meant non-creedaly.  But Mr. Robinson, like the rest of us, including Conrad, can’t help finding Heyst a more interesting character than Lena, because perhaps of his intelligence, but, speaking for myself, I should say because of his gentlemanly charm which rises in the end to heroism and self-sacrifice.  Mr. Robinson labels this as Christian.  I consider that a liberty.   Similarly, “Heyst is not an ‘infidel,’ as in that now quaint Victorian terminology Morrison denies himself to be: he only thinks he is.”  This reminds me of the Mormon practice of baptizing one’s “infidel” ancestors whose names they discover in genealogical tables.  All it amounts to saying is that Heyst is a good man, who defies evil but fails to save the woman he loves from it.  Upon which, finding he has nothing else to live for, he sets fire to his own house in which her body lies and dies with her.  Well, yes, that is the action of a man whose love was genuine, probably.  But the action of a Christian?


            Of course, Lawrence’s dictum, from which Mr. Robinson derives the liberty to shut his ears to what the author says and pay attention only to what he finds in the tale, is sound; but there are two lessons we might draw from that: (1) That it would be best for the critic to stick to his criticism and stop filling our ears with wise Christian saws, like “God does move in a mysterious way His wonders to perform,” or “for them that have ears to hear,” or “all things work together for good to them that love God,” etc.  This is Christian criticism in the sense of preaching by means of defiant reiteration; and (2) There is no guarantee that, if you listen only to the tale, you will hear what it really says.  Of course, Mr. Robinson knows that as a first principle, but does he not think that to keep insisting on his own Christian belief is not likely to distract some of his readers from the possible truth of his criticism itself?


            Finally, Mr. Robinson advises us to savour this “packed” novel and to take it slowly.  Perhaps he has in mind something like those “strange high-sounding phrases whose implications are deliberately left unclear” (C.B. Cox), though not as a subject for pejorative criticism, as Leavis used to say.  Next time I read the novel I hope to pay more attention to them myself, but I certainly found myself floundering through them in the long dialogue between Heyst and Lena which is clearly meant to establish their love, or at any rate to articulate it.  But perhaps it doesn’t matter what they mean: it is clearly a language of love of some sort, spoken by a reticent, scrupulous man and a fairly inarticulate, cautious woman intellectually out of her depth.  Then there is the cat-like Ricardo.  Our author can barely mention him without reiterating his various cat-like features and characteristics, not to speak of that “hairy” brute that is Pedro (for whom I personally feel sorry).  Nevertheless, even if yet another reading doesn’t redeem some of the seeming blemishes, I rejoice to concur with Mr. Robinson that “at the last it becomes gripping and painfully moving.”  Unlike him, on this reading I did not cry but I did have a lump in my throat, whether a true sign of the book’s merit or of my approaching old age I do not know.  But I cannot resist the urge to shout from the rooftops the joy I experienced in reading Part One of the novel.  I felt I was reading a prose version of Shakespeare’s sensuous dramatic poetry at its most intense: “that power which embodies feeling and animates matter” (Johnson).  It was especially welcome as I had just thrown aside the work of a famous novelist of the 1960s, which had rendered me very sick at heart.






Mencher, Barrie. “Christianity and Criticism: A Reply to Ian Robinson on Conrad’s Victory. The New Compass: A Critical Review 3 (June 2004) <>