Ethics and Aesthetics in European Modernist Literature: From the Sublime to the Uncanny

Ethics and Aesthetics in European Modernist Literature: From the Sublime to the Uncanny

Ethics and Aesthetics in European Modernist Literature: From the Sublime to the Uncanny

Ethics and Aesthetics in European Modernist Literature: From the Sublime to the Uncanny

Synopsis

David Ellison's book is an ambitious presentation of the aesthetic and ethical dimensions of Modernist literature. The author brings together philosophical, theoretical, and literary texts ranging over a century and a half of intellectual history--from Kant and Kierkegaard to Freud and Woolf. His study reveals how the struggle between aesthetic and ethical issues characterizes each of them. He combines the insights of philosophical conceptualization, narratology, and psychoanalytic theory to illuminate the historical passage from the sublime to the uncanny during the 150-year period between 1790-1940.

Excerpt

This book is an investigation into the historical origins and textual practice of European literary Modernism. My study does not extend to Spanish modernismo, but limits itself to the interpretation of selected writings from the cultural spaces of France, England, and Germany, including locations which, in their own individual ways, were in Germany's philosophical and literary orbit from the mid-nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries — Kierkegaard's Copenhagen and Kafka's Prague. My project is, at one level, comparative in the classical sense of that term, in that I pursue the categories of the sublime (das Erhabene) and the uncanny (Unheimlichkeit) across national borders, in the belief that the transition from the first to the second of these terms is a determining factor in the movement from Romanticism to Modernism. At the same time, however, the mode of my pursuit is not that of traditional intellectual history, in which individual texts are mustered to exemplify the general concepts under investigation, but rather the reverse: I begin and always remain with individual texts and find, within them, the points of emergence of the sublime and the uncanny, those areas that are inhabited or haunted by these categories.

Both the sublime, in its Kantian definition, and the uncanny as theorized by Freud via E. T. A. Hoffmann, are hybrid notions in that they are built upon the complex mixture and interplay of the aesthetic and the ethical. Whereas both Kant and Kierkegaard, in their stylistically diverse ways, set the aesthetic against the ethical as separate, cordoned-off areas equal in philosophical importance but dangerous to the integrity of each other's territory, imaginative writers from the period of German Romanticirony through what we call high Modernism have found it impossible not to break down the barriers separating the two heterogeneous domains. I shall be arguing that Modernist literature, from its earliest origins in the convoluted arabesques of Romantic irony, is the textual space in which uncanniness is both feared and desired, at times . . .

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