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Theses Doctoral

Surprise Encounters: Readings in Transatlantic Modernism

Stanley, Kate

Since the beginning of the twentieth century, some of the most forceful accounts of modernity have located the traumatic shocks of war, urbanization, and technological change at the heart of modern experience and modernist literature. SURPRISE ENCOUNTERS argues that a dominant framework of shock and rupture has obscured a nineteenth-century conception of surprise, which transformed models of mind and narrative on both sides of the Atlantic. I draw on Ralph Waldo Emerson's formulation of life as "a series of surprises" to distinguish a paradigm of surprise from Walter Benjamin's influential definition of modernity as a "series of shocks and collisions." For Emerson, the fact that we live in an uncertain universe of chance requires moment-by-moment exposure to contingency. The challenge, as he framed it, was to invent new forms of living and writing that allow the unexpected to amplify rather than deaden receptivity, to enrich rather than impoverish experience. "Surprise," one of Emerson's "lords of life," guided such American writers as Henry James, Gertrude Stein, and Nella Larsen, but also Benjamin's shock poets par excellence--Baudelaire and Proust. Each translates Emerson's central question--How do I live so that every moment is new?--into compositional terms, to ask: How do I write so that every sentence is new? Their widely various responses to the Emersonian call hinge on unexpected syntactical and scenic turns that reorient attention and restructure narrative form. My chapters locate surprise in Proust's and Baudelaire's techniques for collapsing timelessness with the ephemeral (modernist methods I trace back to Emerson's "method of nature"); in the lacunae that lodge between past and future tenses in James's scenes of recognition; in Stein's cultivation of fresh grammars of attention; and in Larsen's challenge to Anglo-American master plots that deadeningly dovetail with the deterministic logic of race and reproduction. Each writer's dedication to renewal--temporal, psychic, grammatical, narrative--reframes the present as an open site of experiential and experimental possibility. Beyond representing surprise, the writers of this study are dedicated to training new habits of attention to the unpredictable events that punctuate daily life. In this endeavor, they join psychologists William James and Silvan Tomkins in theorizing surprise as a sudden event that both arrests and spurs processes of feeling and thinking. The literary subject of each chapter is a theorist of emotion and modern experience who exercises a capacity to express as well as enact the aesthetic and psychic dimensions of surprise.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Hirsch, Marianne
Degree
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 1, 2013
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