Out of Character: Modernism, Vitalism, Psychic Life

Out of Character: Modernism, Vitalism, Psychic Life

Out of Character: Modernism, Vitalism, Psychic Life

Out of Character: Modernism, Vitalism, Psychic Life

Synopsis

"Characters" are those fictive beings in novels whose coherent patterns of behavior make them credible as people. "Character" is also used to refer to the capacity-or incapacity-of individuals to sustain core principles. When characters are inconsistent, they risk coming across as dangerous or immoral, not to mention unconvincing. But what is behind our culture's esteem for unwavering consistency? Out of Character examines literary characters who defy our culture's models of personal integrity. It argues that modernist writers Henry James, Gertrude Stein, and T. S. Eliot drew inspiration from vitalism as a way of reinventing the means of depicting people in fiction and poetry. Rather than regarding a rigid character as something that inoculates us against the shifting tides of circumstance, these writers insist on the ethical necessity of forming improvisational, dynamic social relationships. Charting the literary impact of William James, Charles Darwin, Friedrich Nietzsche, and, in particular, Henri Bergson, this book contends that vitalist understandings of psychology, affect, and perception led to new situational and relational definitions of selfhood. As Moses demonstrates, the modernists stirred by these vital life lessons give us a sense of what psychic life looks like at its most intricate, complex, and unpredictable.

Excerpt

Nature hates calculators; her methods are saltatory and impulsive. Man lives by
pulses; our organic movements are such; and the chemical and ethereal agents are
undulatory and alternate; and the mind goes antagonizing on, and never prospers
but by fits.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Experience”

This book offers a series of case studies that challenge the axiom that moral integrity requires faithfulness to one’s established beliefs and ideals. We are often told that we fail to be true to ourselves if we violate our convictions. The schemas connecting our organic coherence as individuals and our moral agency to the bonds we have established with a determining past are everywhere present in our culture. Thus, when individuals depart from a set of avowed principles or act out of harmony with an established demeanor, they risk censure or, at a minimum, misunderstanding. Indeed, the very concept of character has encouraged us to accept that people have an identity and a dominant set of traits whose core structures they violate not only at their peril but also at the peril of the social order at large. In literary terms, the word “character” carries many of these assumptions, conjuring up fictive beings in novels whose presumed regularity and occasional flights of unpredictability allow us to assess them as people. At least as long as there has been such a thing as literary character, and increasingly in the contractual and legal stipulations of modern commercial culture, people’s personal commitments and their organic coherence have been seen as an index of their moral integrity. What is behind this esteem for consistency? What is it meant to protect us from? It may be a strategy of resistance to a world in flux, but one that has tended to consolidate against any necessary risk of change. This ideal of consistency has built into it a certain obstructive hostility to relationality itself. And the ideal has infiltrated literary and moral conceptions of character to such a degree that it is quite difficult to disentangle assumptions about reliability and constancy from our methodological approaches to character.

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