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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 49.4 (2003) 868-870
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Paul Sheehan. Modernism, Narrative and Humanism. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002. xiv + 234 pp.
Modernism, Narrative and Humanism is a brilliant study that sheds considerable light on the antihumanist and counterhumanist tendencies [End Page 868] in literature, philosophy, and critical theory over the past 150 years. Central to this book is what Sheehan refers to as the anthropometric turn (1850 to 1950) in western culture, which he broadly defines as "the taking of the measure of the 'human'" (x). For Sheehan, there was in the mid-nineteenth century "a turn away from the human as a given towards the human as a problem" (181). Given Schopenhauer's philosophy of a primordial will as the determinate force of all being and Darwin's scientific dethroning of nature's most godlike creature, the "human" has been alternately reduced to an inhuman machine or an inhuman animal. In either case, something inhuman not only controls but also props up "human" identity.
Significantly, for Sheehan, Darwin's and Schopenhauer's discoveries radically impacted narrative. More than anything else, what enables humans to define and to "consolidate their humanness" is narrative (10), for narrative "is human-shaped" (9), created by humans in order to measure and mold the "human." Through narrative, therefore, humans can—anthropomorphically—take control of the world they name. However, built into narrative is an inhuman "potential to exceed the limits of anthropological mastery" (10), a potential that ultimately dehumanizes what is human by reducing it to a machine-like being bound by mechanistic laws of necessity and inevitability. In this view, instead of humans using narrative to assert and secure mastery over the world and the human, narrative ultimately asserts and secures an inhuman mastery over the world and primarily the human. This dilemma—the human desire to establish humanity's humanness through narrative and narrative's propensity to dehumanize the human—is the central issue facing modernist writers like Joseph Conrad, D. H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, and Samuel Beckett, according to Sheehan.
Both the general claims and the individual analyses in this book are exceptional—Sheehan is an astute scholar, a lucid writer, and a provocative intellectual. And yet, despite the brilliance of this book, there are still reasons to have reservations about his interpretation of modernism. In this study, Schopenhauer's metaphysical Will embodies the mechanistic inhuman that ultimately renders the "human" "an excrescence" (64). According to this interpretation, Nietzsche, Conrad, Lawrence, and Beckett, who were all familiar with Schopenhauer's work, adopted the German pessimist's "mechanistic will" philosophy, which transforms "human glory into inhuman horror" (71). But, while it is clear that Schopenhauer directly influenced these prominent modernist writers, it is not entirely clear that they considered the will an ontological reality or a metaphysical entity, as did Schopenhauer. In fact, later Nietzsche (1886-88) unambiguously denies the existence of metaphysics and the will. Furthermore, there [End Page 869] is evidence in Conrad's, Lawrence's, Woolf's, and Beckett's writings that they too considered metaphysics the seething product of an overheated imagination rather than a legitimate tool for analyzing human beings. Therefore, while Sheehan is certainly right to say that the anthropometric turn effectively exposed the absurdity of "human megalomania" (7), it does not necessarily follow that the modernists, following Schopenhauer, ontologized either the inhuman or the will.
In short, if it can be demonstrated, and I think it can, that many modernists adopted more a Nietzschean view of the constructed will than a Schopenhauerian view of the metaphysical Will, then modernists would have resolved the human/inhuman problematic more creatively and deftly than Sheehan suggests. Or, to put this in the words of Foucault, if the death of classical thought inaugurated the erasure of the human, "like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea," then the "inhuman" could only suffer a similar fate, which would mean that the human/inhuman distinction would be less tenable than Sheehan implies, something that many modernists, following Nietzsche, understood. And yet, despite my reservations about Sheehan's interpretation of...