The Entrapments of Form: Cruelty and Modern Literature

The Entrapments of Form: Cruelty and Modern Literature

The Entrapments of Form: Cruelty and Modern Literature

The Entrapments of Form: Cruelty and Modern Literature

Synopsis

Arguing that cruelty acquires a new meaning in modernity, The Entrapments of Form follows its evolution through exchanges between French and American literature over the contradictions of Enlightenment (slavery, genocide, libertine aristocratic privilege). Catherine Toal traces Edgar Allan Poe's influence on the Sadean legacy, Melville's fictional dramatization of Tocqueville, and Henry James's response to the aesthetic of his French contemporaries, including Flaubert. The result is not simply a work that provides close readings of key literary texts of the nineteenth century-Benito Cereno, The Turn of the Screw, Maldoror-but one that shows how in this era cruelty develops a specific narrative structure, one that is confirmed by the manner of its negation in twentieth-century philosophy. The final chapters address this shift: the postwar French reception of Sade and the relationship between American cultural theory and the rhetoric of the so-called war on terror.

Excerpt

In remarks on his manifestos for the theater, Antonin Artaud complained that “when I said the word ‘cruelty,’ everyone immediately took it to mean ‘blood.’” His protest contains a brief history of his chosen term. Firstly, the supposed misunderstandings of his intention carry etymological echoes. Clément Rosset reminds us that “cruor, from which crudelis (cruel) is derived, as well as crudus (raw, undigested, indigestible) designates flayed and bleeding flesh.” As Artaud’s synonym suggests, cruelty can also denote a state or condition, one predicated at the very least on an analogy with physical suffering. the speech act Artaud performs at the same time alludes to the extreme violence—and the dyad of victim and perpetrator—often inextricable from cruelty. His criticism of the wantonness of the audience conjures up the relish assumed to attend its infliction. Claiming the position of injured party, Artaud effects a polemical reversal characteristic of the word’s deployment: initially “everyone” believed he meant “blood”— now, he retaliates. Finally, his very attempt to maneuver the noun toward a new meaning sketches the possibility of an abstract usage, but alongside this, the stubborn, perhaps ineradicable persistence of a corporeal overtone.

If we ask where “cruelty” originated, the answer, reverberating with a well-known proverb, is Rome. This response refers not only to the linguistic provenance of our English word, but emerges from the relative infrequency of cognates in Ancient Greek poetry and prose. Neither does an evocation of Rome refer merely to the inherited image of an imperium famed for spectacles combining fatal . . .

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