Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Philip Weinstein, noted Faulkner expert and Alexander Griswold Cummins Professor of English at the College presented a talk yesterday on his new book “Unknowing: The Work of Modernist Fiction.” The work comes out this month, published by the Cornell Press. In a lecture to a packed audience at the Scheuer Room, Weinstein discussed the elements of uncertainty inherent in modernist texts.
While realism, expounded by three Enlightenment thinkers, Descartes, Newton, and Locke, may have been about a capitalized Self and really nothing else, Weinstein argues that modernists take a much more circumspect stance. Typified by Franz Kafka, Marcel Proust, and William Faulkner, writers of the early 20th century created modernism to remain a philosophy of unknowing.
The Self may be going somewhere, but the directions are rather confusing and the streets look different. Kafka?s character Josef K. in “The Trial” has no idea why he is under arrest, the nature of his crime, or even the physical properties of his prison cell. According to Weinstein, Kafka’s work is simply a “thicket of uncertainty.” Clouds of disorientation hang to his characters like car exhaust.
Space, time, interpersonal relationships, modernists reevaluate everything. This is the reason Marcel Proust wrote “Remembrance of Things Past” as mostly a story of childhood and adolescence. The author is interested in “recognition,” a “crescendo moment” when his life’s metaphorical street signs finally make some sense. Weinstein makes the point that the protagonist must primarily “come to know the territory” and understand the people, places and times that he or she encounters.
Faulkner may be the best geographer of uncertainty. His Southern landscapes, marked by fuzzy logic, decaying ideologies, and few remaining landmarks, are the absolute stomping ground of modernity. It is a “culture at the end of its belief system…. Space and time are arrested.” The subject is almost always an aimless time traveler, Benjy from “Sound and the Fury” or Joe Christmas from “Light in August.” These characters express a reluctant connectivity to the world. Descartes’s “cogito ergo sum” has really become by the 20th century “cogito ergo huh?”