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  • Modernist Fiction and Vagueness: Philosophy, Form, and Language by Megan Quigley
  • Laurent Milesi (bio)
MODERNIST FICTION AND VAGUENESS: PHILOSOPHY, FORM, AND LANGUAGE, by Megan Quigley. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016. 242 pp. $95.00.

Shaped and influenced by the rich scientific ferment of the day, modernist aesthetics have often been associated with the search for greater precision in style and content and the objectivity and clarity advocated by the likes of T. E. Hulme and Ezra Pound,1 and expressed in T. S. Eliot's precept of the objective correlative in "Hamlet and His Problems," as well as in William Carlos Williams's famous pronouncement in Spring and All that artists must seek "to refine, to clarify, to intensify."2 In this respect, one may recall the author of Ulysses asking his aunt whether it would be possible "for an ordinary person [like Leopold Bloom] to climb over the area railings of no 7 Eccles street," and sneering against "these English writers" who "always keep beating about the bush" and fail to anchor their fiction believably in the "particulars" and pithy minutiae of the real.3

Leaving aside an earlier classic like Phillip F. Herring's Joyce's Uncertainty Principle,4 it may therefore still come as a surprise to read a study piecing together an aesthetic counter-current of vagueness in several key modernist fiction writers, although Megan Quigley's Modernist Fiction and Vagueness adds to related work within new modernist studies' interest in connections between analytic philosophy, pragmatism, and modernist literature,5 as well as positions itself within an emerging, broader referential field including vagueness6 and cognate notions like ambiguity, uncertainty again,7 fuzziness [End Page 463] (fuzzy logic), blurring, and the like. Yet this is precisely the central thesis of Quigley's book, which fleshes out the main argument of an earlier, seminal essay on "Modern Novels and Vagueness,"8 stated here in the form of a question: "Why did literary realism … prove insufficient at the beginning of the twentieth century for capturing the vagaries of consciousness or modern life?" (19).

The sequence of chapters and novelists follows a neat pattern, each writer being paired with a philosopher: Henry James and his brother William with Charles S. Peirce, Virginia Woolf with Bertrand Russell, and James Joyce with Ludwig Wittgenstein, using C. K. Ogden as a middleman. Framing these three studies, the introduction and final chapter on Eliot crucially provide an existing context for Quigley's emphasis on vagueness within the broader canon of modernist scholarship.

Focusing on her chosen texts in terms of form and content, Quigley examines vagueness in relation to both literary and philosophical realisms, asking whether "vagueness really [is] only a property of language rather than of some nonlinguistic reality" (x). For Russell and Gottlob Frege, analytical methods and logical formulae were needed to dispel language's intrinsic fuzziness and unstable terminological boundaries, whereas pragmatists like Peirce and William James, then Wittgenstein (and, more recently, Stanley Cavell) maintained an unproblematic necessity of vagueness in language that does not detract from its usefulness as an expressive instrument (3-4).

Starting on the premise of a historical connection between fiction's adoption of vagueness and the "linguistic turn" in philosophy, Quigley wishes to challenge the prevailing view that has tied linguistic experimentation to the burgeoning of analytic philosophy, positing instead that the response in modernist fiction's exploration of vagueness more closely resembles that of the pragmatic philosophers (5-6). Linking the logical-positivist trend to the Cambridge literary critics' advocacy of Basic English, she thus contends that, "[f]rom Ogden's creation of Basic English to Joyce's re-babelization in Finnegans Wake, or from Ezra Pound's Imagist Manifesto to Woolf's 'vague way,' literary modernism is less defined by Eliotic structure and coherence than by its investigation of the borders of linguistic precision" (6-7). To substantiate her claim, Quigley traces "a taxonomy of stylistic vagueness in modernist fiction from Henry James's long indeterminate clauses, to Woolf's dissolution of direct discourse, to Joyce's verbal coinages and puns in Finnegans Wake," and, thematically, "from James's ineffable secrets, to Woolf's impressionistic renderings of subjectivity, to the...


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