Strange and intermediary states of the mind which cross the borders between normal and pathological experience and seem approachable as much through cultural and philosophical discourses as through medical and psychological science tend to be the bread and butter of modernist studies. Sara Crangle's Prosaic Desires: Modernist Knowledge, Boredom, Laughter and Anticipation, is certainly no exception to this rule offering an intellectually sophisticated and intriguing return to the Anglo-American Modernist literary canon-Hardy, Joyce, Stein, Woolf and Beckett-in terms of the highly distinctive cluster of concerns named in her title, which allow her a fresh take on the modern as well as a timely synthesis of a range of current issues. In such avatars of existential modernity as Nietzsche and Freud, man is newly understood as a desiring machine and one of the fascinating dimensions of this study is that it recognises some of the intriguing ways in which literary Modernist writers both recognise this and also problematise it. It becomes problematic in all sorts of ways, among which can be included the profound ethical dimensions of the modern notion of a desiring subjectivity and how, for instance, this might relate to objects and to others. Consequently one of the early sections of the book offers a useful account of Levinas in whose works these concerns are so deeply inscribed. The book is full of such detours through continental philosophy which rarely fail to deepen its arguments, suggest and provoke, even if the continual process of comparison and forelock touching between text and theory is done with such persistence and ingenuity that the special character of the literary text or the literary character as a represented world at least partly sufficient to itself and comprehensible to the ordinary experience is strained.
That said, the author also has a gift for simplicity. Hardy's protagonists, Crangle proposes, are characterised by intense if sometimes frustrated desires which include social ambitions and sexual longings. Woolf and Joyce, on the other hand, begin their careers with works in which the protagonists (Rachel Vinrace and Stephen Dedalus) experience the desire for knowledge. This is indeed an intriguing proposition and one that is developed interestingly enough. Of course for neither character are the more conventional objects of desire either dispensible or easily attained but that is not quite the point. It is rather I think that the discussion of the desire for knowledge opens another vital aspect of desiring in the modern frame which is its placement within the condition of temporality. Implied in the very word "longing" is that we desire across time. Heidegger is in the mix too. Indeed one of the more interesting things about modernism is that the experience of the condition of desiring and longing which can be extended almost without reference to the attainment of the object desired becomes an interesting thing and a vital part of the aesthetic experience itself.
I can think of many Modernist texts in which this is the case and many different ways of approaching it. Crangle takes the currently intriguing novelty of discussing this in terms of boredom--invoking recent discussions of the term from Adam Phillips, Patricia Meyer Spacks and Elizabeth Goodstein to explore the boredoms, dullness, melancholy, ennui experienced by characters in Joyce and Woolf.
If this were not interesting enough then the third chapter launches into an equally timely and fascinating discussion of laughter--a topic which, like laughter itself, can appear or disappear involuntarily and which can yet link the modernities of Joyce with Wyndham Lewis and Bergson even as it invokes a string of complexities of the human through Darwin, Nietzsche and Freud. In this case the journey leads from the "unchecked", "vitriolic mockery" of Ulysses to Gertrude Stein: A Long Gay Book, Q.E.D. and Two. Solitary laughter can be self-punishing it is argued but is rather typical of modernism where a sense of the risible, "inclining towards laughter" is as familiar as shared laughter though it may be thought to constitute a nascent awareness of otherness in itself.
Two final novels, the Woolf of Between the Acts and the Stein of Mrs Reynolds, make up the last full chapter of the foursome here which explores the anticipations, waiting, the sense of intermediate time that seemed especially to characterise the second decade of the entre deux guerres. And Samuel Beckett is the subject of an extended conclusion where the play of these concerns is explored through the play of affirmation and negation that is a Beckettina trade mark.
"Ambitious ain't it?" Crangle at one point quotes Woolf's Mrs Manresa, from that novel, as commenting and it is of course a quotation that wittily self refers to this timely, ambitious, engaging and seldom prosaic study of the metaphysics of modernity which keeps the reader fascinated by the potential of abstract ideas to haunt the reading of literary texts, though perhaps by the end always teased rather than fully satisfied, always wanting to know more.
Reviewed by Dr Robert Brown, University of Leeds
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|Publication:||Journal of Philosophy: A Cross Disciplinary Inquiry|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2010|
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