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  • The Vanishing Subject: Early Psychology and Literary Modernism
  • Alan Wilde
Judith Ryan. The Vanishing Subject: Early Psychology and Literary Modernism. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1991. x + 267 pp. $29.95.

In the current critical climate, Judith Ryan's examination of modernism is bound to seem somewhat old-fashioned. Untouched by the confusing crosswinds of postmodernism or by more recent gusts from the direction of New Historical studies, The Vanishing Subject honors both clarity and discrimination. Determined not to leap to conclusions or to indulge in premature generalization, it seeks precision above all. Ryan's statement of purpose—"to rediscover a lost element in the genesis of modernism, not to construct a theory about the period as a whole"—suggests her tone and methodology as well as her project. It has to be said, however, that the modesty with which she conducts her investigation underplays the excitement of what she has discovered. The "lost element" she refers to is empiricist psychology as illustrated in the works of Brentano, Mach, and William James, although its relation to the literary empiricism of the years 1880-1940, her major concern, has to do, as she repeatedly insists, not with simple "influence" but with "complex intertextuality." [End Page 427]

Empiricist psychology, as Ryan defines it early on, "meant that the only admissible evidence for the existence of something was that of our senses; the only reality was that of our consciousness"—both of which beliefs lead, in turn, to the rejection of metaphysics and dualism. Although one of the four sections that house her fifteen writers deals specifically with "authors who took issue with empiricism and sought new ways of consolidating the self," Ryan points out in her conclusion that "few of the authors actually agreed with the new psychologies" and that "there is scarcely an author who is not deeply disturbed by the conflict between empiricism and more familiar modes of thought." Not surprisingly, given the sometimes tortuous refinements that underlie her discussions of such subjects as "the role of sensory perception in the constitution of the self" and "attempts to revalorize the empiricist vision and develop a new kind of mysticism," and given too the ambivalences that her conclusion acknowledges, there is a good deal of to-ing and fro-ing in The Vanishing Self, and readers are advised to keep their eye on the larger picture.

Those who do are likely to find persuasive (and even moving) Ryan's portraits of writers reacting to "the sense of dissolution and fragmentation" to which "the new psychologies" gave rise. Nevertheless, convincing though she may be in her general argument, Ryan's method has its drawbacks. As literary hostess, she offers a buffet that is more various than bountiful, a kind of critical cuisine minceur. Certainly, the range is impressive as we are invited to focus in turn on, among others, Pater, Huysmans, Rilke, Alice and Henry James, Stein, Kafka, Schnitzler, Broch, Proust, and Musil; but as they are served up, one after another, in their smallish chapters, the helping seems just a bit on the skimpy side. Ungratefully, perhaps, one wants more—wants not only the cogent and perceptive demonstrations of how all the writers relate to empiricist psychology (and validate Ryan's thesis) but further, detailed illumination of their writings as these come into new focus under the empiricist lens. (One can argue about particulars too, about Joyce's inclusion, for example, or about the fact that the chapter on Woolf underplays her concern with depth—especially in the discussion of Jacob's Room —and, more generally, her belief in a persisting core of being.)

Ryan's scholarly, rhetorically low-keyed, punctilious handling of her topic leads her at the last and "on balance" to reject the notion of "the literature inspired by empiricism as a movement in its own right." And it keeps her as well from mapping out those more recently settled territories in which the embattled self threatens finally (or yet again) to enact its long-threatened disintegration. The "Freudian solution," as the best known of "a number of concerted attempts to consolidate the self," stands as the book's terminus ad quem, and The Vanishing Self...


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pp. 427-429
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