- The Work of Difference: Modernism, Romanticism, and the Production of Literary Form by Audrey Wasser
Audrey Wasser’s The Work of Difference reconsiders the ontology of literature and the underlying problem of the new. Beginning with Immanuel Kant’s third Critique and German Idealists and Romantic writers, Wasser revisits the early ontological formulations of literary work as a unified, self-explanatory text. She points out that this conceptualization persisted well into the twentieth century and widely influenced core assumptions and methods of literary criticism. In the first half of her book, Wasser shows the inadequacy of this Romantic formula. She then develops a new, “nonromantic theory of literature” (3) and offers a close reading of several modernist texts using her revisionary approach.
Often inspired by deconstructionist thought, Wasser proves equally astute as an intellectual historian, literary theorist, and literary critic. Wasser’s study insists that the ontology of the literary work and its newness should be reconceived not in terms of its self-unifying elements, but in terms of its difference “from itself as well as from its causes” (6, 9, 161). Only by adopting these commitments can we account for the work’s novelty. Only then can we explore how the work’s “moments of blindness, excess, contradiction, retraction, and repetition” contribute to the production of meaning (8).
In her first chapter, Wasser interrogates the Romantic legacy of conceptualizing literature, its newness, and its form. She demonstrates how Kantian aesthetics and early German Idealists and Romantic authors shaped not only the parameters of answers to these fundamental questions, but also set the terms in which we formulate our questions about the ontology of a literary work. The Romantic postulation of the terms of literary discourse remained a prevalent force in criticism through much of the twentieth century, but it began with metaphysical assumptions in Kant’s conception of the subject in the Critique of Judgement (1790). To overcome what they perceived as Kant’s “dualism of subject and object,” the German Idealist philosophers Johann Fichte, Friedrich Schelling, and the “young Hegel” formulated art as an “effective presentation of the absolute” (23, 25). In their journal Athenaeum and other [End Page e-4] texts, a circle of German Romantics centered on Friedrich Schlegel similarly attempted to reconcile the subjective and objective, freedom and necessity, in the literary form of fragments. According to this perspective, the “whole in the form of the fragment, and the formation of these fragments into a whole” embody “their infinitely incomplete-completion” and the “totality as an infinite work-in-progress” (32–33). But, as they conceptualized the literary work as fragment “reflecting on itself ” in its totality and as “giving itself to reflection” to “account” for its incompleteness, the Romantics only further cemented the tension between “necessity and freedom” and “form and formation” inherent in the Kantian system (36–37). With her detailed analysis of the early formulations of literature as a philosophical and aesthetic subject, Wasser lays the foundation for her overarching vision: to expose the shortcomings of Romantic ways of viewing and interpreting literature, pervasive in the Western literary discourse (6).
Chapter 2 discusses how the tensions of post-Kantian and Romantic aesthetics persisted in mid-twentieth-century American New Criticism with its focus on the unity and autonomy of the poetic text. A major precursor to this principle and an heir to German Idealism, Samuel Taylor Coleridge postulated in his Biographia (1817) that the completeness of a literary work is coincidental with the completeness of its form (47). Wasser shows how this view of the organic interrelationship between the creative process and the literary creation as a self-referential unity continued as a centerpiece of New Criticism. Representing one strain of the New Critics, Cleanth Brooks insisted that the unity of the poem is realized in the unity of authorial intention. Dispensing with the notion of intentionality, the New Critics William K. Wimsatt Jr. and Monroe C. Beardsley argued that authorial intention is immanent to the work itself (49). Seemingly different...