Michael Fischer reviews Eldridge’s Literature, Life, and Modernity


Literature, Life, and Modernity (Columbia Themes in Philosophy, Social Criticism, and the Arts)

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Michael Fischer (English, Trinity University) reviews Richard Eldridge’s recently published Literature, Life, and Modernity (Columbia Univ. Press, 2008) in the Summer 2009 issue of JAAC. To read the whole review, click here.

Here is the first paragraph of Fischer’s review:

Richard Eldridge’s new book promises and delivers insight into three daunting subjects: literature, life, and modernity. His starting point seems to be literature, or, more exactly, his deeply held conviction that close reading of literary works enriches our lives. The stresses and complexities of modernity reinforce our need for literature and shape the benefits it offers us. Although Eldridge focuses on literary works that engage the specific conditions of modern experience, he also reflects on our lives as finite individuals subject to time, loss, and incompleteness, thus always and everywhere in need of what he thinks literature provides.

And here is an excerpt from a bit later on in the review:

Literature intervenes in the present not by handing down ironclad moral truths but by exemplifying how we can work through loss and disorientation without certainty. Literature helps “to open up some senses of possible common purpose and some routes of possible mutual engagement, hesitantly and nondogmatically, without either denying or undertaking to rule over the complexities of modern social life” (p. 4). ‘Hesitantly’ and ‘nondogmatically’ are key terms here. ‘Nondogmatically’ differentiates the provisional insights of literature from the universally binding moral dictates no longer available or desirable in modern democratic life. ‘Hesitantly’ suggests a noncoercive, tentative means of expression, an invitation rather than a directive, always subject to revision and renewal, something akin to what John Keats had in mind when he counseled that “man should not dispute or assert but whisper results to his neighbors” (February 19, 1818 letter). We get from literary works what Eldridge variously calls moments of closure, recovery, resolution, calm, and clarity that enable us not to rest in some fixed and final worldview but to go on with renewed confidence in our capacity to make ourselves intelligible and to enter into productive relationships. Literature, in short, stimulates our “awakening through reflectiveness into new and better commitments, coupled with a sense of lingering anxieties and uncertainties” (p. 14)—uncertainties that do not sabotage these commitments but keep them current, saving us from both dogmatic slumber and narcissistic drifting.

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