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Abstract

The dissertation aims to articulate a theory of “the truth of literature” and a practice of reading aimed at grasping that truth, and to demonstrate and clarify this theory and practice through readings of works of modern tragedy and an modern “apocalyptic” genre emerging from the wars and horrors of the twentieth century and the imagination of nuclear and ecological disaster. Beginning from the common idea that we come to know something, both tacitly and explicitly, through reading great works of literature, I argue that—specifically—what we come to know are the realities and conditions of human life, conditions which are not just material but ideal—normative, narrative, and historical. Using Michael Polanyi’s theory of tacit knowledge and of “reality” conceived as both the object and condition of inquiry, I argue that in reading and reflecting on literature we are referred to our own largely tacit sense of a ground of sensemaking and judgment more adequate to our experience than the typified and conventional ground of our everyday experience. I then demonstrate a practice of reading aimed at the acquisition of this kind of knowledge, beginning from Norman Maclean’s nonfictional Young Men and Fire which seeks “to transform catastrophe into tragedy,” to find a tragic form adequate to the deaths of thirteen Smokejumpers in a 1949 forest fire. If tragedy represents events so as to show their underlying order, the conclusion of Maclean’s work suggests that modern tragic form must acknowledge the apocalyptic—the dawning possibility or likelihood of human self-destruction—which radically threatens any order. I further develop this idea of the apocalyptic through readings of McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, Robert Lowell’s “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” which imply the need to reconceive the telos of human life in light of its seemingly catastrophic historical trajectory and the impotence of conventional goodness, and Wallace Stevens’ “The Auroras of Autumn,” as well as his poetic theory, which imply the need to recognize the provisional, constructed, and threatened character of all our sensemaking. Collectively these works refer us to what I call the apocalyptic sublime, the inconceivable enormity of the inhuman forces at work in human history, as an essential aspect of the horizon—or myth—against or in light of which we must comprehend our present situation—to the degree such comprehension is possible. My readings suggest that that situation necessitates an ongoing effort of disciplined attention, dispossession and reorientation—a shift from the telos of individual fulfillment and flourishing (“happiness”) to that of an imperative to consciousness of the tenuous conditions of our humanity—and that a practice of reading and reflecting on literature is integral to such consciousness.

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