Mobile Home: Pragmatism and the Hamlet

By Evans, David H. | The Mississippi Quarterly, Summer-Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

Mobile Home: Pragmatism and the Hamlet


Evans, David H., The Mississippi Quarterly


THE REINSTATEMENT OF PRAGMATISM, ESPECIALLY THAT VERSION associated with William James, as an essential factor in the development of the culture of American modernism is by now well underway. (1) Rather than debating the causes of this increased interest, one might better wonder why the preeminent intellectual movement in America in the first part of the twentieth century had been forgotten in the first place, and why it played so small a role in the standard critical narratives of the career of modernism. There are, no doubt, many reasons for this, ranging from the eagerness of some of the most influential literary modernists to shake the domestic dust from their feet as quickly as possible and to assimilate themselves to grander European traditions to the fact that the establishment of modernist works in the academy in the years after World War II happened to take place at a time when the intellectual and political mood had become distinctly hostile to pragmatism's supposed amoral instrumentalism. It has, seemingly, required a revival of pragmatic ideas, this time with a self-proclaimedly postmodern cast, to remind us of a pragmatism that was a fundamental element of modernism all along.

Hitherto, however, the primary beneficiaries of this development have largely been writers who, like Gertrude Stein, were either directly connected with William James, or who, like Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, and T. S. Eliot, were part of an intellectual network of which Harvard in the first decade of the century was the vital center. Modernists whose geographic and philosophical proximity to that center is less obvious, on the other hand, have been somewhat neglected. I want to respond to that neglect by arguing that pragmatism provides an equally essential context for the understanding of America's greatest modernist novelist, William Faulkner, by way of a consideration of his most pragmatic novel, The Hamlet.

A pragmatic approach to Faulkner opens up promising possibilities of interpretation for two reasons, epistemological and cultural. In the first place, pragmatism's redefinition of truth poses a challenge to what could be broadly described as the hermeneutic bias of most received versions of the modernist project, the assumption that what united the collective enterprise of artists and thinkers was a commitment to dis-covery, of penetrating the surface of threadbare custom or unexamined convention to a deeper reality which only the sufficiently strenuous and radical investigator of the new age was capable of bearing. (2) In this sense, hermeneutic modernism, despite the revolutionary rhetoric that generally accompanied it, did not really represent a break with the fundamental opposition that had defined the European philosophical tradition--the division of surface and depth, of appearance and reality, of opinion and truth. What constitutes pragmatism's originality is its circumvention of that opposition by what William James called a new "conception of truth," which defines truth not in terms of the discovery of an object by a subject, but rather as a human process whose relative success or failure is to be measured by the broader criterion of satisfaction. "Throughout the history of philosophy," he complains, "the subject and its object have been treated as absolutely discontinuous entities" (Essays 27). This discontinuity--what James describes as an "epistemological chasm" (Essays 33)--is in effect at once the meta of metaphysics and the theater of theory, the division that puts the mind above and beyond the world, making possible its transcendent apprehension, but only by recourse to a gap-clearing intellectual "salto mortale" (Essays 33) whose desperate heroics are, for James, but the symptom of philosophical despair. (3) To this "saltatory" model of cognition James proposes an "ambulatory" one, according to which mind and world are not separate entities occupying different ontological registers but the termini of a continuous and irreducibly temporal process (Meaning 79-80). …

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