Towards a modernist aesthetic : dialectical modes of representation in the early modern novel

Master Thesis


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University of Cape Town

This thesis contests the widely-held view that literary modernism is a late manifestation of the romantic-symbolist tradition, arguing that the modern novel's self-reflexive preoccupation with the materiality of language is incompatible with the essentialist premises of romantic-symbolist aesthetics. It also takes issue with the critical argument that modernism is the product of a conflict between the logocentric modes of symbolism and literary realism. Its central contention is that in its early stages modernism is defined by a deconstructive dialectic between a logocentric symbolist mode which gestures to a realm of meaning beyond language, and an ex-centric allegorical mode, which has its home in differential structures of representation. Chapter one discusses the origin of the symbol-allegory dialectic in the domain of romantic aesthetics; distinguishes modernist allegory from romantic and pre-romantic allegorical modes; and transposes the symbol-allegory dialectic into a post- structuralist theoretical framework. It demonstrates the affinity of symbol with the philosophical paradigms of Hegelian Erinnerung, the Lacanian Imaginary, and the presencing mode of the sign in Western metaphysics; and the affinity of allegory with the paradigms of Hegelian Gedachtnis (de Man's disjunctive "thinking memory"), the Lacanian Symbolic, and Derridean archi-ecriture. Building upon this theoretical ground, the next three chapters examine the representational features of three seminal early modern novels: Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim, Marcel Proust's Swann's Way and James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, demonstrating in each case how a discursive allegorical mode implicitly demystifies a symbolist rhetoric of "pure figuration" supposedly divested of referential function. Each chapter also represents a variation on the symbol- allegory problematic. Chapter two explores the relation of Conrad's early work to the aesthetic tradition of the sublime, arguing that in Lord Jim Conrad moves beyond a traditional literary sublime predicated on an elusive realm of meaning beyond language to an infinitely textual modernist sublime which exposes the discursive status of meaning and subjectivity. Chapter three demonstrates the affinity of Proustian voluntary and involuntary memory with the Hegelian categories of Gedachtnis and Erinnerung, and further, with the Lacanian concepts of Eros (Imaginary) and Law (Symbolic). It shows that involuntary memory is always already inhabited by the differential structures of voluntary memory, always already caught in the temporal predicament that is for Lacan and Derrida the definitive condition of desire and writing. Chapter four focuses on the relation between allegory, irony and authorial subjectivity in A Portrait. It demonstrates that the allegorisation of the· autobiographical subject in A Portrait crucially affects the modality of irony in the text, rendering obsolete conventional rhetoric of irony predicated on a coherent, non-discursive authorial subjectivity. The thesis concludes with a discussion of the representational issues involved in the shift from early to high modernist aesthetics. It cites Joyce's Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake as exemplary high modernist texts, and demonstrates that in both novels the dialectic between symbol and allegory falls away, and the sublime, intertextual form of allegory predominates.

Bibliography: pages 156-163.