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Comparative Literature Studies 42.1 (2005) 108-113

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Ethics and Aesthetics in European Modernist Literature: From the Sublime to the Uncanny. By David Ellison. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. xiv + 290 pp. $65.

David Ellison's new book is awe-inspiring: it sets up high standards and huge claims and then manages to live up to them. Its agenda is nothing short of momentous: he describes how European Modernism grew out of early German Romanticism in a series of differential responses to Kant's ethical and aesthetical philosophy. This is in fact a philosophical genealogy of Modernism that goes via Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Freud [End Page 108] and Maurice Blanchot. The concepts and insights extracted from this genealogy are applied to elegant discussions of works by Baudelaire, Fournier, Proust, Gide, Conrad, Woolf and Kakfa. The main thesis of the book is that the poetological evolution leading to Modernism has been determined by an interaction between ethics and aesthetics. It corresponds to the replacement of the concept of the Sublime by that of the "uncanny," a term launched by Freud and now one of the critical keywords of our time (or theory's "master trope" as Martin Jay had well observed in his 1997 Cultural Semantics). The "uncanny" remains half-way between psychoanalytical criticism and recent deconstruction in its "hauntological" guise. Ellison states staunchly: "The uncanny is the sublime of our age" (53). From the sublime to the uncanny there is more than one step indeed, but what is awe-inspiring is not only the way this fascinating ground is covered in a few bold jumps and many subtle demonstrations, but also that Ellison ends up performing for us the haunting of the uncanny when he stages a final "Homeric" misreading, enacting in a parapraxis the power of the very concepts deployed.

Some aspects of this book are "old-fashioned" in the best sense: first, Ellison remains quite close to a traditional history of literature and culture determined by conceptual rearrangements without opting for a "new historicist" methodology; then he adheres to one of the most ancient tenets of "comparative literature," i.e. that one should "compare" texts, often just two, and that from the systematic parallels and contrasts one observes (as for instance between Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and André Gide's L'Immoraliste) significant patterns emerge; this is why, right from the first page, Ellison explains that he is a classical "comparatist" in the sense that he will "pursue the categories of the sublime [...] and the uncanny [...]across national borders" (ix). Above all, he belongs to the camp of scholars who continue engaging with the arduous task of reading closely the letter of the texts in discussion: all his conclusions are derived from painstaking explications de textes that tease out echoes, submerged puns, hidden tropes read in the original signifiers themselves. Besides the great command of languages and cultures this presupposes—Ellison seems equally at ease with French, German, English, and Danish texts—this approach vindicates the methodology of "comparatism" understood in the most rigorous sense.

The book is divided into two main parts, the first containing the theoretical genealogy ("Kant, Romantic Irony, Unheimlichkeit") while the second offers "readings" in "The Romantic Heritage and Modernist Fiction." [End Page 109] An "uncanny" Epilogue concludes by "comparing" Blanchot and Kakfa on the issue of narrative and music. This dry summary does not do justice to the almost musical nature of the writing: Ellison often writes like Thomas Mann playing on polyphonic themes and variations, and his deep familiarity with Wagner's music is everywhere perceptible. It would be impossible to enumerate all instances: all the chapters and subsections are concluded with a beautifully modulated chord letting previous motives chime together. This does not exclude occasional pathos, but I for one will not grudge my pleasure. Here is the neat rhetorical conclusion after a brilliant analysis of Freud's "Das Unheimliche": "Freud, through Das Unheimliche, Der Sand-mann, and Oedipus the King, here evoked something far more terrifying than the mind of a...


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