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Abstract

This study investigates the motif and operation of recognition in poetic realist works by Adalbert Stifter (1805-1868) and Gottfried Keller (1819-1890). Taking as a starting point the mutually dependent relationship between recognition (anagnorisis), reading (anagnosis), and mimesis in Aristotle’s Poetics, it demonstrates that recognition scenes, which are utterly ubiquitous in poetic realist texts, self-reflexively stage the dominant epistemological and medial concerns of the period. In Aristotle’s account, recognition is not only a constitutive component of the plot-structure. As the basis for mimetic pleasure, the operation underlies the very way in which we gain knowledge about the world. Mimetic pleasure derives from recognition qua representation, but when this recognition is absent, the constructedness of an object, e.g. its color or workmanship, can still generate pleasure. While these two features are distinct in Aristotle, poetic realism short-circuits the two, such that recognition generates both a “reality effect” and an awareness of a work’s artificial nature. This study argues that this dual effect is more broadly indicative of the dialectic at the heart of the period, for poetic realist texts both maintain a link to reality and foreground their own aesthetic transfiguration thereof. In poetic realist recognition scenes, which are often also scenes of reading, characters come to knowledge about the overlap between their life and literature. Their recognition of their own mediated understanding of reality – an operation that the extradiegetic reader repeats – thus throws into relief the preconditions for the narratives’ production and reception. By providing close readings of canonical narratives and archival materials like manuscripts, personal journals, and doodles, this study offers a media historically oriented approach to epistemologies of poetic realism.

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