Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Comparative Literature


John Brenkman

Committee Members

Richard Kaye

Giancarlo Lombardi

Subject Categories

Aesthetics | Arts and Humanities | Comparative Literature | Continental Philosophy | English Language and Literature | Literature in English, British Isles | Literature in English, North America | Philosophy


Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, Nabokov, Plato, Kierkegaard, Heidegger


In Plato’s Symposium, we get a pessimistic myth not only about love, but about the first experience of loss, in which we were once globular cosmic beings who were split in two by Zeus’s thunderbolts as punishment for not obeying the Olympian gods. Falling down to earth after the split, Zeus introduced eros out of pity for our condition. Our consolation was to find our other halves and hold on to them as a way of remembering what it was like when we were whole. But, as Allan Bloom notes:

…man’s condition soon worsened. In the beginning, their real half was right there, and they could hold on to each other. But soon some of the halves died while others lived on, and in succeeding generations, the offspring of mixed couples reproduced together without necessarily being the true other half. Eventually there are no true other halves. The result is that men continue the quest, but it is hopeless. (108)

To Plato, wholeness is hopeless, and yet we still gesture to it in the act of love, even as we are doomed to fail. The pursuit of love coincides with the pursuit of truth—also a project doomed to fail. Socrates never arrives at any definition of Justice in The Republic. In Phaedrus, he offers an account of eros, but only to take it back and offer yet another account, ending the dialogue with a meditation on the limits of the written word and how this medium of language fails us. In the Symposium, rather than offering a definition of eros once and for all, Plato displays multiple and often contradictory explanations for it, ending with the distractions of a drunken mob. Truth stands always at a remove, as elusive as Virginia Woolf’s Lighthouse. The most we can do is approach it as an asymptote. What Plato leaves behind is the vehicle to approach it—the dialogue itself, literally two halves summoned together in intercourse, pursuing love and truth as interchangeable categories.

That original separation, or Urteil in German—the word for “judgment,” our faculty for pursuing philosophy in the first place—reveals that eros is at the heart of philosophy. It is the nothing, the negativity, the lack that compels us to reach for what we have lost. Plato rehearses this split again in The Republic, when Socrates speaks of philosophy and poetry as lovers who have suffered a bad breakup. But the poetry Socrates is speaking of is “ordinary,” written in the language of average everydayness—ironically, the same kind of language that Plato uses in his own novelistic dialogues (602B). Plato, then, marks the fault-line between philosophy and the novel, a fault-line in which the novel is at fault. My dissertation charts their relationship across time as an erotic one, and as a pessimistic one. Behind the veneer of deduction and induction, philosophy—like the novel—operates primarily by seduction. This is the story of how both philosophy and the novel are seduced back to each other in modernity.

Before the criminal biography and the Renaissance anatomy give us the modern novel, one thread of its history can be woven through the Platonic dialogue, the medieval Romance, and the fairy tale, encompassing multiple genres in its quest to find its long-lost lover in the form of philosophy. I focus on three twentieth-century novels that, in dialogue with each other, narrate this progression. The structure of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse is modelled on Plato’s Symposium; D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover is a modern version of the medieval Tristan Romance; and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is a fairy tale that reimagines Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid.” Each of these novels offers its own model of eros as a pessimistic phenomenon.

I then bookend this discussion by coming back to Symposium as a model for Søren Kierkegaard’s pessimism and experimentation with form as a way to unite philosophy and the novel in his Seducer’s Diary and in his literary reviews. I argue that The Seducer’s Diary can also be read as a template for Lolita, and I explore how his reflections on the novel in his literary reviews prefigure the philosophy laid out by Martin Heidegger in Being and Time. Both Kierkegaard’s and Heidegger’s focus on the experience of “average everydayness” coincides with the overall project of the novel. This is where these two ancient lovers rediscover each other in modernity. I end the dissertation by exploring the novel as a pedagogical device that offers an alternative vision to a world hijacked by a destructive neoliberal politics of optimism.

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