restricted access The Fate of the Self: German Writers and French Theory (review)
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Stanley Corngold. The Fate of the Self: German Writers and French Theory. New York: Columbia UP, 1986. 279 pp. $28.50.

Stanley Corngold will be known to many readers of MFS as one of the leading contemporary authorities on Franz Kafka. In The Fate of the Self he brings his thorough knowledge of both modern German literature and contemporary French theory to bear on a question of great theoretical interest and complexity: "If writing against the privilege of literary consciousness becomes more and more the expression of literary consciousness, would not so sustained an attack on the self actually bring about its disappearance?" The attack Corngold refers to is of course most visible in the aggressive critique of the "constitutive subject" by Foucault, Benveniste, Lacan, and others, but now of great importance to American literary criticism through the mediation of Paul de Man. If, as is widely acknowledged, the self has not departed from the scene or been forced into the wings, one would want to know by what means and in what form it survives.

The issue is a difficult one and requires patience, subtlety, and intelligence on the part of anyone who would propose to treat it. Fortunately Corngold's work displays these qualities, in addition to the extensive learning necessary to support what could otherwise become an excessively abstract argument. Even so, the reader must devote considerable care and subtlety of his own in order to follow the complex path of the discussion. The book assumes a reader nearly as knowledgeable as Corngold himself in the areas of German literary history and French theory, not to mention modern philosophy. Those who are not already conversant with the main tendencies of discourse in these fields will find the book tough going. It will amply reward, however, those who give it the effort it requires.

Corngold deals with seven German writers who have often been cited as exponents of the disappearing subject: Hölderlin, Dilthey, Nietzsche, Freud, Heidegger, and—of special interest to readers of MFS—Thomas Mann and Kafka. [End Page 684] Whereas the chapter on Mann treats mainly a number of his essays about Nietzsche, the essay on Kafka deals with an issue of special importance to students of modern fiction, narrative perspective. Kafka provides a crucial test case for Corngold in that the self of the author really does seem to vanish, to merge so completely with the literature he produces that he seems to become, as he claimed himself, nothing but literature. "If the self were indeed nothing else than literature, there . . . would be no subject tenuously dominant over a body of texts." Is "Kafka" simply the name of a body of texts, or does it refer to an "author" who somehow controls the production of those texts?

Corngold's method for answering such difficult and abstract questions is engagingly simple and concrete. He turns to the long-standing critical debate over Kafka's narrative perspective. At times Kafka's stories seem to be composed entirely from the point of view of the chief character, at others, however, from an "omniscient" perspective or at least a perspective unquestionably outside the experience of the protagonist. We therefore find "breaks" in the narrative perspective when the point of view shifts from "inside" to "outside" a character's experience, or vice versa. These breaks appear to have no function within the frame of the fiction and have therefore been ascribed frequently to oversight. Corngold's surprising move is to see these breaks as evidence of an authorial self who, because he views his own act of writing as fundamentally flawed, considers it "right that this false construction should be done violence to, that is to say, randomly perforated and broken, its falsity avenged." Kafka's textual self-destructiveness paradoxically affirms the existence of the self.

This brief example will have to serve to demonstrate the kind of problem Corngold is dealing with and how he goes about examining it. Those who continue to nourish an interest in the relation between the fate of literature and the fate of the self will find The Fate of the Self an essential book.

Clayton Koelb
The University...


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