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Abstract

My dissertation, The Styles of Volition: Toward a Theory of the Novelistic Will, investigates the way in which the American novel inherits and reimagines the philosophical problem of the will. The authors I consider—Herman Melville, Patricia Highsmith, William Faulkner, and Toni Morrison—not only engage the question of the will on philosophical terms, but also hark back to a theological tradition in which the possibility of God’s grace at once leaves the individual at the mercy of an inscrutable force and encourages a vigilant tending to the world and oneself. These authors respond to this practical tension by imagining forms of social and aesthetic mediation that constrain the will without abandoning it to determinism. What emerges in all these works is an image of agency whereby novelistic characters are oriented within social and generic fields that put pressure on their autonomy yet—for this very reason—open up unexpected capacities for action. Beginning with the premise that the will is rooted in language’s capacity to stipulate or command, my project argues that the novel complicates this stipulatory function by means of volitional stylization—that is, by means of novelistic styles that reorganize imperatives and galvanize action. One significant consequence of this argument is that it throws new light on the problem of novelistic character. On my account, novelistic characters, affectively registering and practically negotiating a discrepancy between the is and the ought, are not representations of “real” human agents existing beyond the inflections of literary language. I argue instead that novelistic character can be viewed as a site of mediation between literary stylization and narratively structured action. Orienting themselves within transpersonal stylizations, characters tend to occupy spaces of generative social tension, rather than sites of solitary freedom on the one hand or ideological consensus on the other. Thus, the novel produces a sociality of the will, not at the level of represented content, but at that of form; stylization links character to the fraught vita activa of the modern world. Following a theoretical introduction, which situates my account in relation to canonical theorists of the novel, my first chapter filters Melville’s Moby-Dick through the early American theologian and philosopher, Jonathan Edwards, thereby reconsidering manner in which Melville poses the question of the will. While a majority of critics have either celebrated or impugned what they see as Captain Ahab’s strong-willed individualism, I argue that, through Ahab and his crew, Melville draws upon sermonic practice to dramatize a transpersonal will rooted in the theatrical mode of call and response. Will here is less a form of self-assertion than a socially mediated process of self-persuasion, which determines agential commitments and drives novelistic action. Like Moby-Dick, Patricia Highsmith’s fiction deploys novel form to rethink the theologico-philosophical problem of the will. But whereas Moby-Dick’s form of ongoing call and response engenders a will that operates continuously across a single action, Highsmith’s stylized impersonal narration both suspends and sets up potential leaps to action, sudden shifts in volitional actualization, akin to certain kinds of religious conversion. Drawing upon the conversion episode in Augustine’s Confessions, I argue that Highsmith’s antiheroes must endure what Augustine calls the “birth pangs of conversion” before making a leap to willed action. The problem of the will appears as the suspenseful problem of whether to commit to—or, alternatively, avert oneself from—a given course of action. Highsmith’s characters can only become agents by suspending their particular agential commitments, exposing themselves to the suspenseful temporalities opened up by modulating instantiations of the novelistic “stranger.” My third and final chapter juxtaposes Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Morrison’s Beloved to develop the concept of a Gothic will. By deploying the Gothic motif of possession, these novels give a profound temporal depth to the problem of the will. The Gothic will in these novels illustrates the manner in which the persistent forces from the past inhere within the individual, endowing haunted agents with new potentialities and constraints which implicate agency in strange forms of collectivity. Thus, this chapter maximally extends the question of the will to account for its imbrication in both familial and cultural histories.

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