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Redeeming Words

Language and the Promise of Happiness in the Stories of Döblin and Sebald

David Michael Kleinberg-Levin

Publication Year: 2013

Probing study of how literature can redeem the revelatory, redemptive powers of language.

Published by: State University of New York Press


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-9


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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xii

I am grateful to the Estate of Josef Herman and the Flowers Gallery of London and New York for kind permission to use an image of Herman’s “Figure on Road,” a painting the allegorical sense of which seems singularly fitting for the cover of this book. ...

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pp. xiii-lx

In Parages, Jacques Derrida explains why he likes the figure of a distant shore to signify the wholly, absolutely other: “Because,” he says, “the shore, that is the other [la rive, entendons l’autre], appears [only] by disappearing from view.”4 ...

Part I: Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz

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1. Fatality

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pp. 3-28

Berlin Alexanderplatz, Alfred Döblin’s novel relating the story of Franz Biberkopf, is a philosophically thought-provoking narrative about character and fate.1 It was published in 1929 in Berlin as the Weimar Republic was crumbling. This was a time of great social, political and economic turmoil, agitation and unrest, ...

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2. Natural History

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pp. 29-36

“Natural law,” which Adorno justifiably rejects, has played a major role not only in jurisprudence, but also in natural history. Döblin does not tell us what he thinks about natural law; but having begun his adult life as a dedicated physician, a physician often treating the poor, he found that he had much to say about human nature. ...

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3. Döblin’s Conception of the Modern Novel

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pp. 37-46

What is reflected in the form of narrative montage—the form that Döblin employs in Berlin Alexanderplatz to disrupt or suspend nineteenth-century realism, is the experience of the disintegration and disenchantment of the world. ...

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4. The Language of Fate

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pp. 47-68

My argument here, briefly stated, is that, in Döblin’s narrative, the potentiality of authentic human speech and the potentiality of authentic human action—speech and action in Hannah Arendt’s political sense—have been usurped, taken over by the metaphysics of language, a dangerous aestheticization of language expressing and enacting a causality of Fate.3 ...

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5. Language as the Causality of Freedom

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pp. 69-76

In “One-Way Street,” Benjamin declares, that “These are days when no one should rely unduly on his ‘competence.’ Strength lies in improvisation. All the decisive blows are struck left-handed.”1 My conjecture is that, when he wrote that, he had some of Döblin’s early left-leaning, politically charged writings very much in mind: ...

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6. Paradise in Words: The Promise of Happiness

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pp. 77-88

Biberkopf seeks happiness; he seeks it in a decent, “anständig” life, renouncing his old ways—violence, brutality, crime. For him, the promise of happiness is not the promise of a world of universal justice, peace, and human dignity, but simply the promise of material satisfactions, the rewards he believes are due him for avoiding his old, brutal dispositions. ...

Part II: Damals: The Melancholy Science of Memory in W. G. Sebald’s Stories

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pp. 89-92

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1. Telling Stories: A Question of Transmissibility

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pp. 93-146

After reading Walter Benjamin’s essay on the historian Eduard Fuchs, Max Horkheimer wrote to his friend concerning the question of the incompleteness of history, arguing that our relationship to the past must be treated dialectically if the victims of injustice are not to suffer even more injustice. ...

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2. Natural History: Becoming in Dissolution

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pp. 147-176

In “Aesthetica in Nuce: A Rhapsody in Cabbalistic Prose” (1762), J. G. Hamann asks: “But how are we to raise the defunct language of Nature from the dead?” The evocations of nature in Sebald’s stories seem as if written in meditation on this still troubling questions.1 ...

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3. Of Humans and Other Animals

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pp. 177-182

As we know, in his Letters to the Romans (VIII, 19–22), St. Paul observes that, although God’s world was made subject to corruption and decay, the whole of creation is groaning together, longing for redemption, longing for the words, the language, that could end its history of suffering. ...

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4. As Time Goes By: Words from the Embers of Remembering

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pp. 183-188

More than anything else, Sebald’s stories are works of memory—memory in all its guises and disguises. Memory, often, as belated witness. So I think we need, now, to reflect in a more concentrated way on the figures of memory and on the particular words and phrases that Sebald uses to register engagements with memory. ...

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5. Stoicism, Skepticism, and the Unhappy Consciousness: Sebald’s Phenomenology of Spirit

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pp. 189-206

In this chapter, my argument, the principal elements of which we have already encountered, is that each of the three configurations of consciousness named here, the historically unfolding spirit of which is recapitulated in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, can be discerned in Sebald’s writings, ...

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6. Beauty: Symbol of Morality in a Phenomenology of Spirit

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pp. 207-222

In §59 of the Critique of Judgement, “On Beauty as the Symbol of Morality,” Kant attempts to show how aesthetic experience is connected to the moral enlightenment and moral task of humanity.1 He argues there that the connection between the experience of beauty and the experience of the moral law is a symbolic one, ...

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7. On a Journey through Disenchantment

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pp. 223-240

For Sebald as for Benjamin, “redemption,” or the promise of happiness, is only an “Idea”; nevertheless, it can be revealed—and demands to be revealed—in the phenomenon, in materiality, the theatre of the empirical, register of history. But of course it is precisely in this theatre that his writings must struggle to say what the historical conditions inevitably distort, subvert, and disintegrate. ...

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pp. 241-248

In beginning my Prologue, I quoted, as a provocation for our thought, a question that Adorno formulates in his Minima Moralia: “What would happiness be that was not measured by the immeasurable grief at what is?”1 Ever since I first read it, this question has haunted me, causing many sleepless nights. ...


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pp. 249-304


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pp. 305-318


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pp. 319-324

E-ISBN-13: 9781438447827
Print-ISBN-13: 9781438447810

Page Count: 384
Publication Year: 2013