Unknowing: The Work of Modernist Fiction

Unknowing: The Work of Modernist Fiction


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Philip Weinstein explores the modernist commitment to "unknowing" by addressing the work of three supreme experimental writers: Franz Kafka, Marcel Proust, and William Faulkner. In their novels, the narrative props that support the drama of coming to know are refused. When space turns uncanny rather than lawful, when time ceases to be linear and progressive, objects and others become unfamiliar. So does the subject seeking to know them. Weinstein argues that modernist texts work, by way of surprise and arrest, to subvert the familiarity and narrative progression intrinsic to realist fiction. Rather than staging the drama of coming to know, they stage the drama of coming to unknow. The signature move of modernism is shock, just as resolution is the trademark of realism.

Kafka, Proust, and Faulkner wrought their most compelling experimental effects by undermining an earlier Enlightenment project of knowing. Weinstein draws on major Enlightenment thinkers to identify constituent components of the narrative of "coming to know"—the progressive narrative underwriting two centuries of Western realist fiction. The book proceeds by framing modernist unknowing between prior practices of realist knowing, on the one hand, and, on the other, certain later practices—postmodern and postcolonial—that move beyond knowing altogether. In so doing, Weinstein proposes a metahistory of the Western novel, from Daniel Defoe to Toni Morrison.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780801489730
Publisher: Cornell University Press
Publication date: 09/26/2005
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.72(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Philip Weinstein is Alexander Griswold Cummins Professor of English at Swarthmore College. He is the author of What Else But Love? The Ordeal of Race in Faulkner and Morrison; Faulkner's Subject: A Cosmos No One Owns; and The Semantics of Desire: Changing Models of Identity from Dickens to Joyce.

What People are Saying About This

Charles Altieri

"Four qualities make Philip Weinstein's book the best critical book I have read in many years. He combines an enviable precision in his operating concepts with an elegant and intimate style. This precision is accompanied by remarkable scope and exemplary sensitivity to the resonance in his major figures—Freud, Kafka, Proust, and Faulkner. Weinstein tells an intricate and powerful and utterly convincing tale that spreads from realism's ways of binding knowledge within firm concepts of space, time, and subject, to modernism's experiments in unknowing or shattering each of these framing conditions, to postmodernism's adapting all questions of framework to aspects of vocabularies, where even this shattering becomes primarily a rhetorical effect. And, most important, he writes so well that he makes us care deeply about his being right."

John T. Matthews

"Unknowing is a kind of love poem to modernist fiction by one of its most gifted and sympathetic interpreters. Philip Weinstein moves easily among the works in several languages he compares. His wide-ranging narrative gives us a valuable new vision of the modern novel's evolution as a critical apparatus of self-knowledge."

Philip Fisher

"Informed by a lifetime's reading and reflection on the modernist novel, and making use of an existential, urgent vocabulary, Philip Weinstein proposes a geography of the novel from realism to postmodernism with Faulkner—or the zone where Proust and Faulkner overlap—as the central and defining interest. Philosophy, theory, the richest array of critical views, and historical schemata guide this vital and inventive study of Proust, Kafka, and Faulkner along with their ancestors and heirs. Weinstein finds in the term 'unknowing' a common ground of shared attention among thinkers from Freud to Levinas and Bakhtin and writers from Faulkner and Beckett to Morrison and Rushdie."

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