Theses Doctoral

The Ontological Imagination: Living Form in American Literature

Barasch, Benjamin W.

“The Ontological Imagination: Living Form in American Literature” proposes a new theory of the imagination as a way forward from the long academic critique of the human subject. It is unclear how we should conceive of the human—of our potential, for example, for self-knowledge, independent thought, or moral choice—after the critiques of self-presence, intentionality, and autonomy that have come to define work in the humanities. This dissertation offers an image of the human responsive to such challenges. I argue that a set of major nineteenth-century American writers (Ralph Waldo Emerson, William James, Henry James, and Walt Whitman) held a paradoxical conception of the imagination as both the mark of human uniqueness—the faculty that raises the mind above the world’s sheer givenness, allowing for creative action—and the space of our greatest intimacy with the nonhuman world. For these writers, the highest human achievements simultaneously differentiate us from the rest of nature and abolish our difference from it.
Chapter 1, “Emerson’s ‘Doctrine of Life’: Embryogenesis and the Ontology of the Fragment,” presents an Emerson whose investigations of emotional numbness reveal a disintegrative force immanent to living beings. In the new science of embryology—a model of life at its most impersonal—he finds a non-teleological principle of growth by which a human life or an imaginative essay might attain fragile coherence. Chapter 2, “‘Concrete Imagination’: William James’s Post-Critical Thinking,” claims that James’s multifaceted career is best understood as a quest for an intellectual vitality that would not abandon self-consistency. I argue that an ontology of thinking underlies his seemingly disparate projects: his theory of the will as receptivity, his conception of faith as mental risk, and his late practice of exemplification over sequential argument. Chapter 3, “‘The Novel is a Living Thing’: Mannerism and Immortality in The Wings of the Dove,” argues that Henry James envisions the novel as an incarnation, a means of preserving the life of a beloved young woman beyond her death. Through formal techniques inspired by painterly mannerism, James creates a novelistic universe that unfixes the categories of life and death. Chapter 4, “‘Like the Sun Falling Around a Helpless Thing’: Whitman’s Poetry of Judgment,” emphasizes the figural and perspectival features of Whitman’s poetry at even its most prosaic in order to show how the imagination grounds us in a common world rather than detaching us from it. In opposition to an ethics for which realistic recognition of the world demands suppression of the imagination, Whitman’s realism requires acts of imaginative judgment.
In sum, “The Ontological Imagination” hopes to reorient study of nineteenth-century American literature by revising both its traditional humanist reading and its recent posthumanist critique. On the level of the discipline, by defining literary form as a singular space in which the human imagination and impersonal life are revealed as indivisible, I make a case for the compatibility of the new formalist and ontological approaches to literary study.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Posnock, Ross
Arsic, Branka
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
February 22, 2019