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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...


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pp. 257-259
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