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Co-Editors of Outposts of Progress Pay Tribute to Konstantin Sofianos at UCT

Christine Emmett, Gail Fincham, Jon Geidt, Hedley Twidle and Kate Burling

On a cold winter’s evening, a small group of English academics gathered for a somber yet engaging occasion. The launch of Outposts of Progress: Joseph Conrad, Modernism and Post-colonialism, edited by Gail Fincham, Jeremy Hawthorn and Jakob Lothe, was bittersweet. Each person on the panel shared their touching and amusing memories of Konstantin Sofianos, a brilliant young UCT academic who passed away this year after a battle with cancer. Sofianos’ father was present in the audience.

Sofianos’ essay is included in the collection, which emerged from an international conference on the work of Joseph Conrad held at Stellenbosch’s Goedgedacht conference centre in 2011. Sofianos assisted Gail Fincham and her team in organising the event.

Konstantin SofianosOutposts of ProgressThe Centre for African Studies. This fitting spot is part of the landscape where, first as a student and later as a lecturer, Sofianos acquired and generously shared his love of language and literature with students and colleagues.

His partner, Christine Emmett, commenced the evening with her tribute. She conveyed Sofianos’ delight at being included in this collection of essays, sharing how much it had meant to him. She spoke of his remarkable devotion to his work and confessed to wondering at times whether he wasn’t just a “very charming bullshitter” because the width and depth of his knowledge and reading was “so striking as to be slightly suspect!”

Jon Geidt recalled being tremendously impressed upon meeting Sofianos. “His brains were obviously quite outstanding,” he said. He read this letter from Jakob Lothe, of the University of Oslo:

Dear Friends and colleagues,

Thank you for attending the launch of this book. As one of its three editors I am delighted that the volume has now been published. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to Konstantin Sofianos, whom this launch honours. He was an invaluable conference assistant at Goedgedacht in 2011, and his paper ‘Victory, Music and the World of Finance’ now makes a strikingly original contribution to this volume.

It is important for me to mention that the origins of this book are inseparable from the University of Cape Town, where Jeremy and I were privileged to work in the spring term of 2010, and where in 2011 Gail arranged a splendid conference whose papers formed early versions of the volume.

We hope that Outposts of Progress will prove a resource not just in Conrad studies, but also for scholars working in the fields of postcolonial studies, modernist studies, and studies of narrative fiction.

The reason we express this hope is that the volume presents readers with a range of issues that demonstrate the significance of Conrad’s fiction in the twenty-first century. Not just underscoring Conrad’s seminal contribution to modernism and his central, if controversial, position within postcolonial literature, this book also demonstrates the continued relevance of his work.

This relevance includes a sense of urgency embedded in, and prompted by, the fictional texts by Conrad discussed in this volume. Essentially ethical, this kind of urgency is inseparable from, and generated by, a complex aesthetics of form. Sadly, there are many developments in the world today (also here in Europe) that seem to support Conrad’s rather bleak view, including his skepticism about human beings’ ability, and willingness, to cooperate in order to deal with pressing problems and challenges that confront us.

One such challenge is the need to distribute the earth’s wealth more justly and evenly; a different yet related challenge is that of saving the planet from human beings’ attempt to destroy it. If solidarity with the poor is a significant facet of Conrad’s ethics, the ecological dimension of his fiction will prove increasingly important as the twenty-first century progresses.

With best wishes from Oslo,

Geidt then read the reflection by Jeremy Hawthorn, in Trondheim, Norway:

Our pleasure in seeing Outposts of Progress published is, alas, qualified by the sadness we all feel as a result of the tragic death of our fellow contributor Konstantin Sofianos. We derive some comfort from the knowledge that he was pleased to have his contribution included in the book, and from the warm memory of his company and his contributions at the conference from which the idea of the book emerged.

A book. Those who are of the same age as the book’s editors will for many years have taken the words of Ecclesiastes as self-evident: “of making many books there is no end”. And yet it seems such making may be facing an end, as more and more of the book’s functions are taken over by electronic media and the internet. The academic book, and especially the academic book in the humanities, seems especially vulnerable today, to the extent that it is approaching the status of “threatened species”.

In the face of such a threat we are pleased that the thirteen essays included in Outposts of Progress are gathered together in the same volume, rather than scattered in a range of different journals. Having them together allows us to explore connections between them, and makes it possible to consider the different ways in which the word “progress” applies both to the time and the places of Joseph Conrad – especially the place of Africa – and to our own time and places. Revisiting this book as a reader rather than an editor I found that some of the most interesting elements were in the gaps between chapters, in the way the explorations of one writer dove-tailed with, qualified, or questioned the arguments of another.

For us as for Conrad, “progress” is a word of which we have learned to be suspicious. And yet for those of us located outside the African continent, the history of South Africa since apartheid is proof that whatever the problems and the setbacks, the world – or at least parts of it – can be made better. Reading these thirteen essays again I was again and again reminded of all that has indeed got better since Conrad’s ‘An Outpost of Progress’ was first published. Without being smug or complacent, we should perhaps allow this fact to register more often than we do.

The quotation from Ecclesastes continues: “… and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” Editing a book can have its wearinesses, and the two European-based editors are most grateful to Gail Fincham for having taken (appropriately, for an African!) the lion’s share of this weariness. Gail’s inspired idea to hold our conference at the Goedgedacht Trust Olive Farm, meant that contributors and editors had wonderful memories to sustain them through the fleshly weariness of writing and editing essays. If in spite of some sombre topics a vein of optimism runs through this book, this may well be ascribed in part to the optimism for South Africa that the achievements of Goedgedacht inspire. I raise my metaphorical glass to Gail and to Goedgedacht!

Jeremy Hawthorn

Gail Fincham honoured Sofianos’ memory by recalling how infectious his joy was. She said that in the process of reading, writing and teaching he reinvigorated all he met. “Talking to students in the quadrangle outside our building, or emerging from the African Studies library where he had just found new material on Olive Schreiner, or posing trenchant questions at a staff seminar, Konstantin was always passionately engaged, making us aware of how privileged we are to be academics,” she said.

Hedley Twidle reflected on Sofianos’ contribution to Outposts of Progress in a deliberate, thoughtful and profound manner. He wound together the multiple threads of music and economics, knotting together reflections on Edward Said and Albert Camus, praising the depth and breadth of Sofianos’ remarkable intelligence. Twidle concluded by saying how much he missed Sofianos’ incredible dedication. “I think of so many times when I wish I could discuss something with him, when I know only he would be the person who would know what I’m talking about, and would know far more than I did about it,” Twidle said.

Finally, Kate Burling addressed the gathering. She remembered a hilarious scene at the “no-tech” Goedgedacht venue where she and Sofianos were charged with the responsibility of soothing the frayed nerves of 30 or so international delegates who discovered they were without internet access.

She said, “Initially, the thought of not being able ‘to connect’ over the coming three days caused mayhem. For 12 hours people played out scenes of fine Conradian irony, anxiously enquiring of each other ‘Can we connect?’ ‘Are you connected?’ or declaring miserably ‘I’m cut off from everything’, ‘I can’t get through to anybody …’ An Indian delegate from the ultra-connected city of Mumbai – whose paper on EM Forster and Conrad was titled ‘Only Connect’ – looked particularly woebegone. But just as Konstantin and I were reconciled to ferrying delegates back and forth to the nearest internet café – about 20km away – the panic began to vapourise into a kind of reckless, delighted air of truancy. Here we all were then, with nothing to do but talk to each other.”

The presentations of Emmett, Twidle, Burling and Fincham will be posted on this website in the weeks to come.

(Note from Liesl Jobson, who tweeted live the event: This was one of those events when twitter reporting in no way served the multi-faceted complexity, wit and elegance of the topic under discussion nor the deep attention the speakers brought to the conversation! At best it renders the topic disconnected, which has a Conradian echo. At worst is reduces to nonsense the articulate finesse of those whose intellects went into service of a book that took years to write.)

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Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Kelwyn Sole</a>
    Kelwyn Sole
    October 17th, 2015 @10:27 #

    SA intellectual and academic life is much the poorer for his passing.


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