English 250

Research Seminar: Modernism's Metaphysics

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
4 Spring 2016 Blanton, C. D.
F 9-12 301 Wheeler

Other Readings and Media

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Over recent decades, we have become accustomed to speaking of the ‘cultural logic’ of modernism, using a periodizing term to delineate a larger complex of historical effects, while also insinuating its availability to the integrated descriptions of critical reason. And understood broadly enough, modernism itself seems to comprise a series of variations on the problem of logic or critical reason, ranging from the analytic to the psychoanalytic, from dialectics to phenomenology. It is less clear, however, that one might speak with confidence of modernism’s metaphysics, its attempt to think first causes. Indeed in 1929, Martin Heidegger argued that the enterprise of metaphysics could only be authentically pursued by forswearing logic as such, trading the conceptual claims of Hegelian negation for a more primordial Nothing ultimately designed to banish Western metaphysics altogether.

This course constitutes the first stirring of a counter-hypothesis, testing the proposition that Heidegger’s own modernist moment developed its own distinctive metaphysics, even when it failed or refused to provide a proper metaphysical language. Our reading will tangle in passing with the philosophical traditions already mentioned and more, as well as the discourses of literary criticism that the period spawned. We will attend to the period’s epistemological experiments and the rise (from several directions, both artistic and technical) of inductive modes of knowing. Centrally, however, we will concentrate on four major canonical figures, attempting to grasp the metaphysical consequences of the formal logics they develop as distinctive conceptual styles.

Our largest work will begin with two poets, both of whom seem to press the limits of what a poem can know. For W. B. Yeats, the sequence of volumes following the first war (The Wild Swans at Coole, Michael Robartes and the Dancer, The Tower, The Winding Stair) seem to predicate their boldest visions on ignorance rather then insight, incognition rather than cognition. By comparison, T. S. Eliot’s early work, culminating in Ara Vos Prec and pointing to the more radical experimental break marked by “Gerontion” and The Waste Land, seems to trade vision for the more modest relevance of satire, even as the mode’s underlying referentiality seems to slide into mere inference. In each case, we are confronted with what a poet seems not to know, even as the poem essays a logic that operates behind his back.

We will pursue the larger implication of that division in the work of two novelists. Wyndham Lewis’ Human Age trilogy takes the period between the wars as a logical and historical singularity, a moment when the future is experienced in advance, before it is known, when a second future war emerges as the cause of the first. For Samuel Beckett, Lewis’ unfashionable experiment in teleology is reinscribed as occasionalism, developed from the first trilogy (Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable) to the late Comment c’est (How It Is) as a categorical incommensurability between the physical and the metaphysical.

This section of English 250 will count toward the Critical Theory Designated Emphasis, and it is cross-listed with Critical Theory 290 section 1.

This course satisfies the Group 5 (20th Century) requirement.

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