Theses Doctoral

The Psychic Work of Reading: Form and Unconscious Affect in the Wake of Modernism

Amoretti, Valerio

This dissertation articulates the relationship between literary form and unconscious affect in fictions by Cesare Pavese, Samuel Beckett and Alain Robbe-Grillet. Drawing from contemporary psychoanalytic object-relations theory, including the work of W.R. Bion and the Bionian school, it defines three paradigmatic forms of psychic work — reparation, containment and construction — that structure the intersubjective unconscious responses to specific formal challenges. It claims that the psychic work involved in meeting those challenges is both “historical” — in the sense that it reveals elements of each text’s historicity and political valence within their cultural setting — and “productive,” in the sense that it entails a degree of psychic growth for the reader.

This dissertation bridges literary history, psychoanalytic theory and reader-response theory. It seeks to intervene in each discipline’s debates: in literary-historical terms, it argues that the psychic work of reading must be understood as constitutive of the texts’ expression of the context of the postwar and as part of their struggle to move beyond the aesthetic of modernism. In psychoanalytic terms, it joins in the lively discussion about the historical specificity of the mechanisms theorized by object-relations theory. Finally, at the level of literary theory, it seeks to affirm the value of Bion’s model of object-relations in theorizing reading as a transformative process characterized by intense unconscious, intersubjective activity.

The dissertation is organized in three literary chapters, followed by a theoretical chapter. Taken together, the first three chapters represent the evidence for the need of a concept of psychic work in reading late modernist fiction and for the potential payoffs of formulating such a concept. Chapter 4 consists of four theoretical “notes,” addressing, in broad terms, the resonance of intersubjective notions of psychic work for reading, criticism and literary theory.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Gourgouris, Stathis
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
October 7, 2019