Theses Doctoral

Poetics of Orientation. Readings in Modernist Prose: Ernst Cassirer and Robert Musil

Ziolkowski, Neil

In this study on literature and thought from the early 20th century, I examine techniques of organization – including rhetoric, poetics and citation – across the work of the German philosopher Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945) and the Austrian writer Robert Musil (1880-1942). With particular attention to Cassirer’s Philosophy of Symbolic Forms and Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, this dissertation analyzes the prose strategies, by which the authors develop a poetics of orientation. Responding to shifts in the epistemological foundations of the empirical sciences, the authors reimagine genre and style as a way to direct the reader in the interpretive process. Although the inflection of this poetics of orientation differs in Cassirer’s cultural philosophy and Musil’s essays and narrative, they both follow dynamic moments in thought, the drama that unfolds as the interpersonal experience of making sense of the world. The displacement of substance by function in the sciences provides the shared ground against which the patterns of their prose emerge.

In the first section, “Ernst Cassirer. Problemgeschichte: from genre to texture”, I engage Cassirer’s shift from a critique of reason to a critique of culture, in which language and myth are treated alongside theoretical knowledge as interfaces for knowing the world. His mode of thought develops in a mode of writing, modifying the philosophical genre Problemgeschichte, which developed in the 19th century and was the dominant mode of philosophy among Neo-Kantians at the turn of the 19th to 20th century. He extends the genre’s diction of direction, such as the ubiquitous terms Richtung and Weg, with a decidedly mathematical accent. This figural register reflects the epistemic shift from substance to function, which also typifies his characterization of problems as sites of discursive interference. Building on this discussion of the philosophical genre Problemgeschichte, I then analyze narrative aspects of Cassirer’s writing, such as focalization, in order to understand how his play of citation demonstrates functional thinking.

In the second section, “Orientation: Robert Musil’s Reise vom Hundertsten ins Tausendste”, I follow Musil’s prose detours as an intentional gambit, connecting heterogeneous intellectual inquiry. Arguing that his prose innovation cannot be exhausted by a discussion of his essayistic style, I challenge standard accounts of the dissolution of narrative in Musil’s writing. The shift from substance to function as the epistemological foundation in the empirical sciences informs Musil’s displacement of narrative schema by narrative impulses, which preserves traces of traditional story telling as devices for helping the reader find their way in a textual space.

Both Cassirer’s and Musil’s poetics of orientation demonstrate engagement with the tumultuous Interwar period, which counters anti-Enlightenment tendencies of intellectual inquiry, common in the German-language cultural production of the early 20th century. The authors’ prose strategies are the vehicle for an intellectual vision, which maintains the potential for an open future.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Germanic Languages
Thesis Advisors
Simons, Oliver
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
January 23, 2020