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Thinking in Literature: Joyce, Woolf, Nabokov by Anthony Uhlmann (review)

From: Modernism/modernity
Volume 20, Number 4, November 2013
pp. 798-799 | 10.1353/mod.2013.0109

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This book isn't quite what it seems, or rather what its title initially appears to promise. It's not a study of relations between modernism and mentation, or one of modern fiction's responses to extra-literary (psychological or psychoanalytic) discourses of mind; nor for that matter is it a discussion of how patterns of thought relate to specific formal techniques in Joyce, Woolf, and Nabokov. What Anthony Uhlmann offers instead is at once more methodologically distinctive and more theoretically demanding. For this challenging study—again, despite its titular emphasis—spends only half its time with modes and styles of modernist literature as such. The book's first part is devoted to a searching examination of the relevance of Spinoza, Leibniz, and Deleuze to three principal elements that Uhlmann sees as central to modernist expressions of "the thinking process": "relation, sensation and composition" (4). In the book's second part, these concepts offer conceptual frames for a trio of chapters on the three writers at the book's heart, allowing Uhlmann to move beyond a purely representationalist discussion of how thinking is reproduced structurally in fiction and leading him to analyze how literature is itself "understood to be thought" (7)—a possibility modernist writers embrace as they "create works that in turn create or enable 'reflection'" (149). Such a short review as this can scarcely do justice to the intellectual virtuosity Uhlmann displays in recovering such complex philosophical treatments of perception and reflection. J. M. Coetzee's warm back-cover endorsement is thoroughly deserved in this respect, as Uhlmann does indeed offer "useful unfoldings of difficult material" (Coetzee). He navigates Leibniz and Spinoza to re-illuminate their relevance for reading more familiar modernist methods of rendering thought, methods that include a "constant shifting of viewpoints" (30), free indirect style, and other rhetorical simulations of sensory states. Uhlmann opposes the idea that inner thought is both the dramatic site and the formal source of modernism's perceived subjectivism: that culprit of modernism's supposed "inward turn." Departing from such portraits of literary interiority, he advances "an externalized concept of expression" (35), one that liberates interpretations of mind in fiction from a preoccupation with the phenomenology of cognition alone. Narrative expression is therefore understood here as "involv[ing] the externalization of meaningful elements throughout the work," a practice that "requires each component of the work to function as part of an interconnected, complicated, single expression" (36). With this model in hand, Uhlmann is able to shed new light on modernist aspirations to formal integrity, while also making a broader case for innovative literature's capacity to matter beyond itself, to intervene externally in the world, through its expressive re-organization of how readers perceive the real.

Such are the wider and more appealing implications of a book that could otherwise have been, at least in the first half, a somewhat terminologically dense excursus into discourses of thought and relationality. Indeed, despite those occasionally forbidding sections of theoretical extrapolation, Uhlmann's deceptively simple premise is that "thinking in art involves the creation of complicated worlds; worlds that provoke us to interpretation" (31). To what extent this provocation is historically peculiar to modernist practices is not exactly Uhlmann's concern (after all, even a cursory glance at Victorian realism could pinpoint narratives that provide highly complex "worlds" in their own right, each demanding equally complicated interpretive strategies for doing them justice). That is, one arguably wouldn't need to tackle Spinoza, Leibniz, or Deleuze at such exacting length to reach that conclusion about the provocative nature of artistic world-making. Nonetheless, Uhlmann's contention obviously pertains to modernist writing well enough if we assume that especially innovative texts summon especially active readers, readers who are regularly "asked" by modernist writers "to translate the complicated worlds of others from the possible worlds of fiction into what Leibniz calls our own 'clear zone': the place in which we are able to understand, or apprehend a sense of the unity that underlies the multiple" (31). Rarefied though all this sounds, the idea of the reader's participatory interaction with literature's performative (rather than simply representationally mimetic) modes of thinking resonates throughout the subsequent chapters. What...

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