Prosaic Desires: Modernist Knowing, Boredom, Laughter and Anticipation

Prosaic Desires: Modernist Knowing, Boredom, Laughter and Anticipation

Prosaic Desires: Modernist Knowing, Boredom, Laughter and Anticipation

Prosaic Desires: Modernist Knowing, Boredom, Laughter and Anticipation

Synopsis

Exploring a variety of everyday human longings as they arise in modernist fiction, this book poses a direct challenge to psychoanalytic accounts that characterize desire as sexual or powerful.

Using continental philosophy as its framework, Prosaic Desires contends that human longing is as endless in kind as it is in manifestation. It reads Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Heidegger, but relies primarily on the thinking of Emmanuel Levinas, who radically argues that the self is defined by an endless longing for the other. Extending Levinasian theory, Prosaic Desires locates desire-driven shifts from the self to other in modernist literature. These banal longings lie within the poles of sexuality and power and include the desire to know and escape boredom, as well as risibility and anticipation. Authors include Joyce, Woolf, Stein, and Beckett, all of whom discernibly move away from self-absorbed, grand narratives toward other-based, evanescent longings. Central to their writings is the conflicted relationship between daily, finite experience and the limitlessness possibility of human desire.

Excerpt

To begin: two disastrous tales of desires neither prosaic nor strictly modernist. Both arise in lesser- known novels by Thomas Hardy, books dedicated to an examination and excoriation of the most prevalent desires of Victorian fiction, namely, social mobility and love. The first is Hardy’s The Hand of Ethelberta (1876), which centers on Ethelberta Chickerel, one of ten children born to a butler. While working as a governess, Ethelberta marries into the wealthy family she works for, but loses her husband to fatal illness on their honeymoon. Under agreement that she never publicize her humble origins, she is taken under the wing of her new mother- in- law, who disapproves of Ethelberta’s published poetry and so bequeaths her only the lease of a London residence at her death. Ever enterprising, Ethelberta feigns nobility in this residence, hires her siblings as staff, and determines to find a husband who will support her family in the style to which she would like them to become accustomed, although they appear quite blissfully impoverished. The rest of the novel is consumed with the pursuit by various aspirants to Ethelberta’s beautiful, and beautifully played, hand; Hardy busies himself throughout satirizing the transparencies of lower- and upper- class aspiration. Amidst the all- pervading longing for success, Ethelberta stands out as a figure “with a white round neck as firm as a fort,” in possession of a gift of self- command so powerful as to make her life distinctly uncomfortable, if undeniably interesting (63). So authoritative is Ethelberta that her sister conflates her with Providence, claiming, “Berta will never let us come to want” (411). Ethelberta is the living embodiment of a very deific wilfulness.

In Ethelberta’s view, the human will supersedes any so- called natural force, so that even “the question of getting into love or not is a matter of will” (74). Her eventual attraction to an aged viscount – one Lord Mountclere – grows in proportion to her burgeoning awareness that he intends to yield to her every desire. Ethelberta perceives marriage . . .

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