- Marginal Modernity: The Aesthetics of Dependency from Kierkegaard to Joyce by Leonardo F. Lisi
What does literary modernism look like when seen from unaccustomed places? In the last decade, scholars have sought to expand “modernism” to cover an ever-wider geographical, linguistic, and cultural terrain.1 Leonardo F. Lisi’s wide-ranging book joins this effort to reorient modernism, operating from a base in Scandinavian studies; it covers writings in Danish, Norwegian, German, and English. Lisi argues that the aesthetics of major European modernist pioneers draw on Scandinavian models. His work reminds us that, though recent modernist studies have been global in ambition, tending to compare Europe and the United States to the postcolonial world, European modernism is itself by no means uniform; it has its centers and peripheries too. In the new modernist studies as in the old, the “big” languages threaten to eclipse the “small” ones, with “global modernism” turning into a shorthand for global English [End Page 539] modernism.
Marginal Modernity builds a convincing case for widespread Scandinavian influence on the first generation of modernists, above all via Henrik Ibsen. Joyce’s early reverence for Ibsen is only one example among many. For Lisi, the contribution of the nineteenth-century Danish and Norwegian literary vanguards to modernism has not been understood. Scandinavia, he claims, developed a distinctive philosophical aesthetics, the “aesthetics of dependency.” This aesthetics contrasts with two better-known modernist tendencies: the aspiration to the unified, autonomous work and the embrace of formal fragmentation.2 The aesthetics of dependency emerges in Søren Kierkegaard and Ibsen and then, Lisi claims, makes itself felt in the signal early modernisms of Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove, Joyce’s “The Dead,” Hugo von Hoffmannsthal’s Lord Chandos Letter, and Rainer Maria Rilke’s Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge.3
Readers expecting an analysis of political, economic, or cultural dependency will be disappointed. Lisi brackets these concerns to focus on “aesthetic” problems, by which he means the “organization of text-immanent elements” (8). A text exemplifies the aesthetics of dependency when “the purposeful relation of its parts depend[s] on an interpretative perspective not coextensive with the logic of those parts themselves” (6). The interrelations of aesthetic parts matter, says Lisi, because they are “the artistic enactment or representation of fundamental forms of knowledge and experience” (8). Lisi’s philosophical themes make for some difficult reading, especially in the book’s dense first part, which traces debates in epistemology from Immanuel Kant, by way of Friedrich Schiller and Friedrich Hölderlin, to Kierkegaard. The latter is the hero of the book; Lisi presents his theology as a novel and enduring answer to the questions raised by Kant.
Lisi’s approach will appeal most to scholars working on the intersection of literature and philosophy, especially Continental philosophy from Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel to Martin Heidegger. Those who do not count themselves among those specialists will be more interested in the literary interpretations Lisi derives. His interpretive method is, as he says, “close readings” (18)—that is, detailed textual interpretations that mostly remain within the boundaries of individual texts, with occasional excursions to other writings by the author under consideration. Social and cultural contexts make only brief appearances, principally in the fascinating pages that interpret the nineteenth-century Danish playwright Johan Ludvig Heiberg in terms of Denmark’s political and economic development in the epoch after the Congress of Vienna (81–86).
According to Lisi, all the protomodernist works he examines share a “fourfold structure” that characterizes the aesthetics of dependency [End Page 540] (53). In each text, Lisi identifies a basic opposition at the level of theme or form; argues that the ending of the text promises to transcend the opposition; and claims that this ending is nonetheless not motivated from within the text but rather sends us searching for a fourth element to make sense of the links among the other three. Thus, The Wings of the Dove opposes the opacity of Jamesian late style to the...