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A GENEALOGY OF IMPERSONALITY by Anne Quema It is customary to regard the death of the author as a relatively recent theory, with Barthes and Foucault as major exponents. Yet this theory actually has important common points with the theory of impersonality usually associated with literary figures such as T. S. Eliot. Indeed, the question of impersonality goes far beyond the notion of modernist classicism, while the death of the author on the theoretical stage did not occur without notice. The genealogy I am to propose here is not meant to be complete or comprehensive. My chief purpose is to establish a pattern which eventually can be modified, refined, or proven inaccurate. In British Modernism Wyndham Lewis's and T. S. Eliot's ideas on impersonality are usually viewed as radically antithetic. On Eliot's 1917 belief in the "progress of an artist [as] a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality,"1 Lewis remarks that art "can be used ... as a perfecdy good litmus paper for many an acid test, without involving a pretentious 'depersonalization' of the artist . . . the 'artist' remainsjust Mr. This or Mr. That—and we observe that he is a seething mass of highly personal fine-feelings."2 This rebuke, written in 1934, contains key words and concepts which will keep recurring in the history of twentieth-century criticism. These are the references to the comparable function of art and science, the identity of the artist or "name" and the question of emotion and internal self. Lewis's opposition to the idea ofimpersonality is invaluable, not because he sustained it, but because it introduced a sense of contradiction and ambiguity Philosophy and Literature, © 1994, 18: 109-117 110Philosophy and Literature into the debate. His defense of personality stems from what could be called a materialist vision of life. In 1927, he maintained that it is "actually as impossible (as it is undesirable) for an artist to be 'impersonal ' as it is for a 'tree' to be neither an oak, nor a birch, nor a pine, nor any known tree, but the abstraction 'tree'. . . . Artistic creation is always a shut-off—and that is to say a personal—creation."3 While Eliot creates a division between the man who suffers and the man who creates, Lewis depicts Shakespeare as a man who suffered and created. His tragic characters are "much more mirrors held up to his tired and baffled mind than they were the mirrors of any nature that he objectively could know" (LF, p. 160). Lewis's rereading of Shakespeare derives from the twentieth-century conception of the self: the artist is characterized by multiplicity and heterogeneity, and his characters are in search of one hypothetical author. However, what is equally significant in Lewis is the desire to cut off the selffrom material origins. The purpose is to achieve the state of the not-self which he equates with pure intellect.4 This credo drives him to self-contradiction. In "'Detachment' and the Fictionist," published the same year as his Men withoutArt (1934), he argues that "the handling of the material of art or of science—oífact, in other words—does 'detach' a man from his personality (composed as the latter is of race, class, period and the rest)."5 Thus Eliot's conception of literary history as "simultaneous order" (TIT, p. 49) and Lewis's detached fictionist require the bracketing of the material, historical, political, and national self.6 Some kind of ideational or transcendental self hovers above the miasma of life: anywhere out of the world! Eliot's and Lewis's reflexions on the author betray the same resdessness concerning the self. The modernist rejection of subjectivity coincides with a flight from self towards "object." In 1934 Pound made the object a condition for knowledge and meaning: "A general statement is valuable only in reference to the known objects or facts."7 The same quest is expressed by Bergson whose influence on Modernism can be traced to Pound's definition of the ideogramic method in Guide to Kulchur. Bergson wrote: "Were . . . detachment complete, did the soul no longer cleave to action by any ofits perceptions, it would be the soul of an...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 109-117
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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