Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Comparative Literature


John Brenkman

Committee Members

Evelyne Ender

Joshua Wilner

Moshe Gold

Subject Categories

Comparative Literature | Continental Philosophy | English Language and Literature | German Literature | Modern Literature


intoxication, modernism, James Joyce, Thomas Mann, Friedrich Nietzsche, Walter Benjamin


Intoxication as a poetic principle is often identified with the romantic imagination. The literature of the intoxicated reverie is commonly thought of as synonymous with works such as Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” DeQuincey’s accounts of numerous nightmares and reveries, a number of Keats’ odes, Novalis’ hymns, E.T.A. Hoffmann’s stories, and Poe’s oneiric Gothic tales. Each of these, in part through their opiation or the incorporation of various other draughts, evokes a realm of dreams and visions of various sorts that are commonly associated with romantic poetic practices. The ecstatic trance, the sense of passing into another domain that is cognitively, perceptually, and affectively differentiated somehow from the restraints of modes of normality and quotidian experience, receives unique articulations in each of these works and authors—indeed no two intoxicated modes of consciousness, much less their literary formulations, are ever quite the “same.”

And yet if intoxication is commonly explored in relation to romantic poetic practices, its significance for the modernist imagination has received far less scholarly attention. I argue that the intoxicated reverie is a particularly significant modernist poetic category: I bring together Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, Walter Benjamin’s writings on drugs and on the figure of the flâneur, and Friedrich Nietzsche’s various formulations of intoxication and dream, to suggest that the intoxicated reverie is given a rich variety of articulations in the era of literary modernism, and has a considerable bearing on modernist modes of knowing, creating, and embodiment. In an era in which intoxicants of all varieties for the first time become subject to widespread legislation, and likewise one in which dreams come to have increased relevance to understandings of the self, the intoxicated reverie becomes a particularly significant dimension of the literary imagination, and the figure of an inebriate visionary a recurring trope. I explore the various social, cultural, and political inflections of intoxicants of all sorts in these texts, as well as the broader historical and ontological concerns in relation to which they are situated—I do so with an eye turned in particular to the multiplicity of ways that texts incorporate intoxicated states. I argue that the materiality of the substance and the alleged inauthenticity of the experience it produces resonates both with the modernists’ heightened concern with the materialistic and corporeal, and with the questionable status of any definite signifiers to ensure the sobriety of representation. That intoxication opens an ambivalent space for the tensions between the divine and the material, or between the transcendent and the mundane, is a concern of mine throughout—I track the theological residues of the tropes of intoxication, and read the inebrieties that I address as part of a highly charged engagement with divinity and the western metaphysical tradition in the modernist era. The ephemeral or even illusory nature of the alterity of intoxication I understand in relation to the various enchantments and disenchantments of a distinctly modernist attunement. This study reflects an attempt to understand a social, cultural, and creative phenomenon that is both deeply rooted in human history and yet is often neglected by scholarship.