Dissertation Proposal (A Work in Progress)

Thus begins the “big haul” – my impending dissertation.  What follows is the first swipe at a concept.  I’m curious to return to this later on to see how far I go…

Myth, Melancholy, and Modernism

Melancholy betrays the world for the sake of knowledge.  But in its tenacious self-absorption it embraces dead objects in its contemplation, in order to rescue them.
–Walter Benjamin

In Civilization and Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud writes, “we may expect that one day someone will venture to embark upon a pathology of cultural communities.”  My project will be one attempt to produce this pathology, specifically through the analysis of narrative literature.  In particular, I will focus on what has become classified as the Modernist period of European, British, and American literature, with a special emphasis on works composed between 1890 and 1922, a dynamic period in which drastic developments in the fields of art, literature, philosophy, and psychology were juxtaposed with historic advances in science, technology, and telecommunications.  No doubt exists that these advances wrought profound changes in the lives of those who lived during this exciting and confounding period of Western history.
I begin with the assertion that the rapidity of these changes—rather than there mere instance of change—resulted in widespread and collective sense of loss.  I read the narrative texts of this period as a reaction to this loss, which we may describe as melancholia, mourning, or trauma.  In this way, I intend to present some conjecture on how notions of loss are the fundament of contemporary thinking on the relationship between self and society.

The Modernist period is of special interest to many literary scholars because of the rawness of the varied experiments in form.  As Esther Sanchez-Pardo notes in the introduction to Cultures of the Death Drive: Melanie Klein and Modernist Melancholia, “Romanticism, realism, naturalism, symbolism, and psychoanalysis with its techniques of inner monologue, stream of consciousness, and free association are only the latter-day versions of subtle and complex procedures present in earlier literatures” (7).  We may read, then, the “experimental” literature of the Modernist period not as a bold step forward, but rather a melancholic act of re-creation.

In his important 1973 study The Inward Turn of Narrative, Erich Kahler stops his examination at the 18th century, arguing that the novels that came after Tristram Shandy are essentially just variations on a theme.  I would argue, however, that the “inwardness” of narrative reached a critical point during the era now described as the Modernist period – specifically the “low” Modernism of 1890 to 1922.  At this juncture, we can see a sort of psychic/artistic crisis of anxiety reach both forward—by proposing new narrative forms—and backward—by widely integrating mythic themes and structures.

One potential source for this profound sense of loss and its accompanying melancholia is the utter destruction of time at the turn of the 20th Century.  Technological advances in transportation and communication effectively “shrank” the globe and upended the average citizen’s conceptualization of temporal relations.  To whit, narrative, by definition, is a function of time, so it would stand that if our conception of time changes, so too must our narrative forms.  Sanchez-Pardo suggests that “[Modernist] writers used a number of strategies to draw attention away from the instrinsic temporality of language and human action, among which we can include the use of mythic structures as organizing principles, the movement from perspective to perspective, rather than from event to event, and the use of metaphoric images as leitmotives to draw together separate moments and thereby efface the time that has elapsed between them” (211).

One additional—and perhaps disorienting—outcome of the advances wrought by Modernism was an increasingly cosmopolitan society (in the West, at least).  The increased diversity of European, British, and American society mandated that peoples who had previously been kept at a distance were now thrown together in an ecclectic, heterogenious society.  As individuals were confronted with a plethora of “strangers,” the need for a cosmopolitan ethic became apparent.  Concurrently, the notions of Marx, Darwin, and Freud became widespread; the collective work of these influential thinkers assassinated the Romantic conceptualization of self-identity and held that one’s individual behavior and character is the product of unseen societal, biological, and psychological forces, thus further exacerbating the Modernist anxiety.

My study will explore the socio-historical, theoretical, and epistemological context of this period before moving to a specific analysis of Modernist texts that appropriate mythic themes and structures.  In particular, I will examine three specific myths related to the major indigenous religions to Europe: Classical Paganism, Christianity, and Judaism.

Chapter 1) Historical context (the case for cosmopolitanism from fin de siecle to 1922)

Chapter 2) Theoretical/epistemological context (e.g. psychoanalysis/melancholy) AND literature review (the case for the melancholia of modernism)

Chapters 3-5) Specific examples (golem/odyssey/salome)

Chapter 6) Synthesis/resolution – make the case for the connection of melancholia to cosmopolitanism.  AKA ‘so what?’


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