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Out of Character: Modernism, Vitalism, Psychic Life. Omri Moses. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014. Pp. 296. $65.00 (cloth).

High modernists were known to reject “the realism of character” (as Gertrude Stein described the novels of George Eliot), with its static social types and transparent personal motivations. Since the 1960s, many critics have extrapolated those representational choices into a wholesale rejection of consciousness or subjectivity. Out of Character sets out to “repsychologize” modernism while avoiding the error of depth psychology—in short, the idea that each of us possesses a truer self than the outward-facing one, or that we can explain our present behavior in reference to a concrete, traumatic event in the past. For Stein, Henry James, and T. S. Eliot, the vitalist philosophy of Henri Bergson and William James offered a way to describe character that was thick with the transitory stuff of life, a holism in which the meaning of the whole was always changing. For Moses, vitalist modernism offers a corrective to other critical movements, which he gathers into two loose groups: those that view the self as the product of external forces (including Frankfurt School critical theory, Foucauldian analysis, and behaviorism) and those that see it as a conservative edifice needing to be subverted or shattered (poststructuralism and queer theory).

Out of Character is a strikingly optimistic book. It takes characters widely associated with mental paralysis—Stein’s Melanctha, Eliot’s Prufrock—and recasts them as agents with the power to transform their circumstances, within limits. Most of the action takes place in what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick called the “middle ranges of agency,” in which one is aware of some, but not all, of the forces bearing upon oneself and acts tentatively and locally.1 Like Sedgwick, Moses is amenable to a biological picture of life. He accepts that there is some evolutionary basis for our species-wide interest in fictional characters, yet his suggestions are more accommodating than the cognitive-literary mainstream would be. One prominent adaptationist view holds that we read fiction in order to better predict the outcomes of social situations; Moses offers instead that the value of literature is its difference from real life, its allowing us to try out the “reactions we might have toward others when our own instrumental calculations are not at issue” (58). This follows from Bergson’s principle of creative evolution, which stipulates that culture, rather than being an epiphenomenon of the survival instincts, actually contributes to the evolution of life. [End Page 257]

The reading of Bergson is lucid and subtle throughout. Moses sketches out a genealogy of vitalism intertwined closely with classical pragmatism, beginning with the physiological investigation of memory and habit in 1880s Germany. (His insistence on distinguishing vitalism from pragmatism is not entirely convincing.2) From investigations scientific and aesthetic, Bergson and William James concluded that learned inattention, rather than diluting perception, makes perceptions meaningful. Moses finds in their writings a pluralistic alternative to some recent ethico-political studies of modernism. Where some critics have tried to determine the ethical valence of art’s seeming withdrawal from the social world (either it represents a retreat from war and empire, or the inadequacy of politics as such), Moses simply observes that modernists—and the psychologies of perception that inspired so many of them—were uniquely alert to the “variability in response that make[s] social and political freedom a value in the first place” (48). This is a liberal and a pragmatic aesthetic virtue as much as a vitalist one.

Bergson linked habit with comedy at a time when the discourse surrounding habit was fatalistic and very often a conduit for racist and sexist ideology. In his early essay “Laughter,” Bergson argued that laughter interrupted the human tendency to automatism, including the capitulation to type. “Melanctha,” Stein’s novella depicting an African American community in Baltimore, has been widely read against the backdrop of social Darwinism, with Melanctha’s death from tuberculosis said to be a punishment for poor self-control. In contrast, Moses shows that the text enacts a comic Darwinism in which habits are value-neutral. They cannot be said to cause sickness—only to coincide with it. Indeed, according to Moses, Stein was a step ahead of the early Bergson, for she perceived that if causal narratives are constructed in retrospect, so too must be the distinction between decisive action and mindless repetition. Thus her social ontology allows for highly predictable, habit-driven individuals who are nonetheless subject to chance. In a remarkable section, Moses takes up the distinction between accident and coincidence in Stein’s lesser-known essay “Henry James” to suggest that both individual lives and literary canons are formed, in retrospect, by colliding potentialities.

The chapter on Henry James delves further into ethical questions. Using James’s famously vague wording as a resource, Moses explains that “interest” can refer to either a person’s economic motivations or her indeterminate affective investments (the sort philosophers usually reserve for works of art). In The Ambassadors and The Wings of the Dove respectively, Lambert Strether and Merton Densher’s ability to suspend their instrumental interests leads them to new and deepened relations. Even The Golden Bowl’s Maggie Verver, who has a definite interest to save her marriage after her husband strays, refuses to make a plan or otherwise circumscribe her relation to her rival, Charlotte Stant. She devises an arrangement that benefits herself while still earning everyone’s “reluctant but freely given consent” (105). This understanding of freedom has its basis in evolutionary theory, too. When Bergson studied living organisms, he declared that the delay between stimulus and response was an index of potentiality; the longer the delay, the greater the organism’s agency and the complexity of its relations. Still, there is something discomfiting about this reading of The Golden Bowl—particularly its implication that the freedom to choose outstrips the value of the choices available. What is more, some characters never change. Moses names a few (Kate Croy from Wings, John Marcher from “The Beast in the Jungle,” Melville’s Bartleby) but ultimately leaves it for a future project to address the stuck-ness, the “recalcitrance,” that keeps some people from realizing their vital potential (200). In his own hesitation, there is a hint of what he faulted Bergson for doing in his early work: namely, characterizing some states of inanimacy as a threat to liveliness. Likewise unaddressed is the proclivity of some characters (and many modernists) to sheer nastiness.

The chapter on Eliot has the same quality of being theoretically intricate and yet selective when it comes to variations in character. Eliot’s lyric personages are portrayed as continually adjusting and readjusting themselves to others’ expectations of them (rather than, in a more conventional gloss of “Prufrock” or The Waste Land, imposing their fixations on others). Here, as in the chapter on Henry James, Moses has a tendency to cite critics for whom sexuality and [End Page 258] gender were key concerns, only to transpose their arguments onto a neutral plane of “relation” or “situation.” The chapter works best as intellectual history, explaining how Eliot came to misread Bergson as an irrationalist and pointing out the considerable synchrony between Bergson and the idealist F. H. Bradley. Bradley, Moses shows, offered Eliot a notion of totality apart from the flux of experience, which Eliot would christen “tradition.” But Eliot also found in Bradley an essentially vitalist idea of complex agency, a world in which thinking or feeling toward the future “creates a minimal but more than nominal difference in reality” (184).

Out of Character has a great deal to offer to scholars of Anglo-American modernism, and indeed to anyone curious about the entanglements of ethics, aesthetics, and biology. It is an empowering departure from critical works that hold up “negative agency” (70) as the default stance in modernity. Yet vitalism suffers by being presented in this book as an antidote to psychoanalysis and critical theory, when it could be read more generatively in relation to those bodies of thought.

Claire Laville
Thompson Rivers University


1. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 13.

2. The opposition seems forced in light of Moses’s fondness for ethical criticism over cybernetic or new-materialist Bergsonisms and his appropriation of Emerson, as well as several scholarly works that do indicate a continuity between the two. See Paul Grimstad, Experience and Experimental Writing: Literary Pragmatism from Emerson to the Jameses (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013); Steven Meyer, Irresistible Dictation: Gertrude Stein and the Correlations of Writing and Science (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001); Joan Richardson, A Natural History of Pragmatism: The Fact of Feeling from Jonathan Edwards to Gertrude Stein (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).