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366Philosophy and Literature Part of the reason for this tepid response is that much of the handling is so irksome that the reader's good will and watchful attention begin to wane. The prose is too often desiccated and humorless cerebral gymnastics which seems to be occurring in a stuffy space closed off from anything resembling actual human life. It is full ofthe barnacles ofreceived nomenclature: "marginalized," "privileged," "empowered," etc. . . . We are frequently given tiresome lists of works that are supposed to support some proposition, at times including books tiiat could throw doubt on or even contradict our author's position. Even if convincing, the lists give off the stale odor of statistics. It is difficult to extract from this crumbly presentation a cogent argument as to why we should rejoice in this brave new world of literature emanating from all corners of a fragmented society, where there is no center that holds, no communal canon, no masterworks, no way to account for quality, where intention, form, closure, and meaning are declared nonexistent. This is a world where the fissures and self-contradictions of a text are "foregrounded"— reminiscent of the projectors of Lagado trying to soften marble for pillows. Literature is seen as a shadowy agent ofpolitical agendas, rather than a potent force capable of meaning and saying, "a plague upon all your houses!" or of saying "glory be to life!" Whitman CollegeWalter Broman Beyond Theory: Eighteenth-Century German Literature and the Poetics of Irony, by Benjamin Bennett; 354 pp. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993, $42.50. Bennett's ambitious book attempts to establish the notion of an eighteenthcentury German poetics that goes beyond the systematic aesthetics represented particularly by Descartes and Kant, and to link this poetics with contemporary critical issues. Focusing on canonical texts and authors of the period, he discusses primarily Goethe, Hölderlin, Lessing, Schiller, and Herder. Far from representing a precriticai or "relatively unreflected phase of history" (p. 13), Bennett maintains that the poetics of these writers is characterized by "radical irony" (p. 7), a playful, subversive, and destabilizing element that often surpasses contemporary critical theory in its resistance to closure or reduction to systematic principles. Bennett devotes separate chapters to close readings of each of the first three authors mentioned and, in the work's final three chapters and conclusion, clarifies and extends, more generally, his notion ofan eighteenth-century poetics of irony. Underlying this framework is Bennett's claim that these writers distance Reviews367 themselves from the Cartesian emphasis on the subject or individual and its implications for the notion of the individual reading in "radical solitude" (p. 308). Instead, they envision the reader as taking part in a dialogue or what Bennett terms an "ironic conversation" (p. 176), a kind of communal acceptance of the limits of language and recognition of the role that ambiguity plays in even seemingly factual narrative utterances. It is this movement against the notion of solitary, vicarious "romance reading" (p. 21) and a corresponding emphasis on reading's social nature in the sense described here, that Bennett argues are most characteristic of eighteenth-century German poetics. Bennett's treatment of Lessing's Laokoon in chapter three is particularly persuasive as it makes use ofunpublished materials by Lessing related to the later Laokoon. He suggests that Lessing consciously attempted to soften the theoretical contours of his work to the point of rejecting the term aesthetic as too limiting. The result of Lessing's rejection of what Bennett terms aesthetics for poetics is "a triumphant flourish by which the poetics of irony proclaims itself without defining or limiting itself' (p. 160). The unsystematic and often contradictory nature of Herder's writing, too, instead of provoking criticism as it often does, is, rightfully I think, credited by Bennett as a radical, ironic denial of Kant's systematic aesthetics (and the systematic aesthetics of Leibniz, Christian Wolff, and Alexander Baumgarten in the first half of the century) and its predominance in the second half of the eighteenth century. Bennett maintains that Herder powerfully affirms the open-endedness of discourse; like Lessing, drawing the reader's attention to the limitations of language, the things that cannot be expressed, rather than some...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 366-368
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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