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MLN 117.5 (2002) 1152-1156
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Note: Appearance among these brief mentions of recent publications that arrived too late for inclusion or failed to find an appropriate reviewer in this issue does not preclude more detailed review in a later issue of M L N.
David Ellison, Ethics and Aesthetics in European Modernist Literature: From the Sublime to the Uncanny. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. xiv + 290 pages.
David Ellison is Professor of French and Comparative Literature at the University of Miami (Florida), where he chairs the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures. He is the author of critical works, including a pioneer study on The Reading of Proust (1964) as well as Understanding Camus (1990) and Of Words and the World: Referential Anxiety in Contemporary French Fiction (1993).
In the present volume Ellison chooses a very large canvas indeed: "an investigation into the historical origins and textual practice of European literary Modernism." The book proposes to trace the origins of Modernism (in France, England, and Germany) to the emergence of the early German Romantics and their roots in Kant's Critical thought. Rejecting purely aesthetic, formal, and epistemological accounts, Ellison claims that the passage from Romanticism to what came to be known as High Modernism can be best understood in terms of a gradual transition from "the sublime" to "the uncanny." He argues that the Modernist text is characterized by "the intersection, overlapping, and crossing of aesthetic and ethical issues." He sees this engagement as one of "antagonists struggling for dominance within the related fields of philosophy and theory on the one hand and imaginative literature on the other." The development of his thesis is supported by nuanced readings of Kant, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Freud in the first instance, and of Baudelaire, Proust, Alain-Fournier, Gide, Conrad, Woolf, and Kafka in the second. His concluding chapter, "Narrative and Music in Kafka and Blanchot," is one of the most sustained and effectively interwoven readings in the book; its account of "the disappearance of music" and "the unweaving of narrative" in Kafka's "Josefine" is a lovely piece of legerdemain.
René Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. Maryknoll: Orbis Books. 2001. xxiv + 199 pages.
This is an eminently readable translation by James G. Williams of Girard's Je vois Satan tomber comme l'éclair (1999), which acquired best-seller status in France. The translator is a well known scholar of the Hebrew Bible and Christian Testament, who has written a substantial book on the impact of Girard's thought on Biblical studies (The Bible, Violence, and the Sacred, 1991).
It is not unusual to see theories of literary interpretation resurface, retailored and often after a considerable passage of time, in other disciplines. (Witness the resurrection of New Critical speculations about "intention," when jurisprudentialists concerned themselves with "the intent of the framers," the enlistment of narratological theory by historians, or the recent impact of Derridian thought on architecture and the law.) What is unusual about the case of René Girard is that, after his first two remarkable books of "literary criticism" (Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque and Dostoïevsky: du double à l'unité), he himself, armed only with strong theories of mimetic desire, violence, and victimage, began to venture—boldly—into the fields that would normally have had to wait for second-generation colonization by practitioners of these other disciplines (anthropology, psychology, philosophy, sociology, theology and scriptural studies). Equally significantly, these ventures into other domains, beginning with La Violence et le sacré (1972), allowed his own thought and models to continue to evolve in response to the encounters. By the time that Des Choses cachées depuis la fondation du monde captured an enormous general audience in France, the disciplinary barons of the other fields were, if not subdued, at least mortally engaged.
Girard is a writer of considerable panache (much of which comes through in the present translation) and, as a long-ago scholar of the École des Chartes, fully aware of the scandalon of his raids on alien turf. In an interview published in "To Double Business Bound"—his readings...