Date of Degree
Mary Ann Caws
Comparative Literature | Esthetics | Philosophy
Friedrich Nietzsche, melancholy, modernism, Robert Walser, William James
This study considers a group of distinctly modernist philosophers for whom aesthetic and reflective practices represented a way out of the paralysis of a culture dominated by narrowly conceived philosophical values. These modernist philosophers, I argue, helped to give birth to mode of experimental writing that Robert Musil called "essayism." I begin in Chapter One with an account of Walter Benjamin's experimental concept of melancholy and its intersection with the avant-garde practices of French Surrealism. Chapter One begins to contrast Benjamin's concept of melancholy with Friedrich Nietzsche's therapeutic efforts to transform and overcome melancholy on both a personal and a cultural level. Chapter Two changes course to pursue a comparative study of Nietzsche and his contemporary, William James. I treat them as proto-modernist philosophers whose efforts to overcome philosophy and replace it with experimental writing are intimately connected with their experimental concepts of melancholy. The efforts of James and Nietzsche represent what I see as an important bridge between Ralph Waldo Emerson's radical re-conceptualizing of melancholy and later modernist experimental writing. Before turning to Emerson, I read (in Chapter Three) Freud's 1915 essay "On Transience" alongside Virginia Woolf's essay "On Being Ill" and James's "Will to Believe." Chapter Four then focuses on Emerson's essay "Experience" as an anticipation of Nietzsche's concept of experimental writing, as well as a watershed moment in the long history of thinking about melancholy. Chapter Five reads Nietzsche's Ecce Homo as (in many respects) the ultimate Emersonian text, as well as something of a failed experiment. The study concludes with a series of close readings of Swiss writer Robert Walser, who inspired Max Brod to write: "After Nietzsche, there had to be Walser." I examine the ways in which Walser pursues the implications of Nietzsche's thought at the same time he explores quite different alternatives. Walser, I argue, is an example of a melancholy modernist who successfully converts philosophy into a form of experimental writing. By the end of the study, I hope my account of a modernist melancholy provides a context that sharpens our sense of how difficult it is to come "after Nietzsche."
Gentry, Derrick James, "Agreeable Despair: Modernism and Melancholy" (2014). CUNY Academic Works.