Moments of inspiration often happen to people when they least expect them: relaxing after dinner, or feverishly studying to get into grad school. As it happens, flashes of mental lightning struck novelist Joseph Conrad and newly minted Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts professor Julie Napolin, at just those moments, respectively. And neither life was ever the same.
This month, Napolin was awarded the Bruce Harkness Young Scholar Prize by the Joseph Conrad Society of America for her essay “‘A Sinister Resonance’: Vibration, Sound, and the Birth of Conrad’s Marlow.” The piece, like much of Napolin’s work, deals with the peculiar way an author interacts with sound and audio technology. She’s particularly interested in how authors let sound introduce elements of subjectivity, ethics, and aesthetics into their work that representations of vision often lack. This investigation into the representation of sound is also the subject of her courses at Lang. Since arriving in the Fall of 2012, she’s taught on sound in film and digital media art, about its role in modern literature in general (in a class enticingly called “Audiotopias”) and, of course, about sound in the work of Joseph Conrad which she will teach this semester in Literary Studies. Also as a newly appointed Associate Director of the Digital Faulkner project based at University of Virginia, she is helping to build a digital humanities initiative between programs at Lang, and mainly via sound.
Napolin’s award-winning work, soon to be published in the journal qui parle, looks at a transformational moment in Conrad’s life. In the very late 1800s, he was just beginning his career as an author before he had secured his place in the canon with Heart of Darkness. Despite having a few successful books under his belt, he still felt he was being misunderstood. His novels, set in what would have been exotic locales to his Victorian British audience, tended to be described as adventure stories, which he thought inaccurate. Socially, he was having trouble moving in the artistic circles of British society in which he felt he belonged. And at the most basic level, Conrad, born in Poland (and originally named Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski) thought his British colleagues had trouble understanding him when he spoke English, his third language.
So, he was in a particularly unsettled place, and looking for solutions to a whole host of vexing personal and professional problems, when, relaxing after dinner one evening, while on a trip to Scotland in 1898, he was introduced to the phonograph. “Talk about the secret of the universe, and the nonexistence of, so-called, matter,” he wrote about the evening in a letter. “The secret of the universe is in the existence of horizontal waves whose varied vibrations are at the bottom of all states of consciousness.”
“I argue that this idea of vibration provided a way for him to think about reaching his audience in a very physical way,” Napolin recently explained. “His literary technique changed from then on. Basically I posit this is the genesis of his narrator Marlow. Vibrations being a way and resonance being a way that Marlow is often described.”
This journey, using sound as means to personal and professional fulfillment, mirrors Napolin’s own story. As an undergraduate at Hampshire College, she was playing in bands and working in college radio. She was obviously interested in sound, but as she applied to graduate programs in both musicology and literature, she was unsure of exactly what direction to take. Then, while attending graduate school at Berkeley, she read Heart of Darkness.
“I thought it was the most incredible piece of literature I had ever read,” she said. “It totally changed my intellectual trajectory. It’s rich with sounds and noises and music and voices. I started doing preliminary research and found that very little had been said about the acoustics of this novel. Because of my background in music, I thought I could bring something really original to this book.”
The Joseph Conrad Society of America agree. In awarding Napolin the Harkness Prize, they have placed her on a short list of modernist thinkers who help set the scholarship agenda. “It lets me know that I’m on the right track,” Napolin says. “Because my work is not mainstream at all. It’s very different, and very out there. So to have gotten an award from the establishment, the people who’ve really been at the center of Conrad studies for decades, for them to say, “What you’re doing is really exciting,” gives me just the push I need to keep going forward with these strange ideas.”