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Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Violent Empathy: The Problem of Other Minds in Modernist Literature
by Hammond, Meghan Marie, Ph.D., New York University, 2011, 323; 3466892
Abstract (Summary)

This dissertation argues that modernist narrative has a fundamentally empathic character and constitution. I also contend, however, that literary modernism produces its own critique of empathic processes by consistently revealing the dangers inherent in acts of “mind-reading” and cognitive perspective-taking. Working in a transnational frame, my project examines engagements with empathy from the late nineteenth century through the 1930s. I argue that modernist narrative bears the mark of Pre-Freudian anxieties about psychological distance—an umbrella term I use to discuss the distance between minds as it was understood by William James and his contemporaries. Empathy, a concept that evolved from both the English tradition of sympathy and German aesthetic theory, promises to bridge that divide between minds. In literary modernism, desire for empathy drives stream-of-consciousness narrative and other forms that attempt to minimize psychological distance by pushing the limits of cognitive role-playing. Yet many modernist voices expose the violence of empathy or resist it outright. Such voices are particularly invested in the difficulties of communicating across differences of gender, class, and nationality. I locate these voices in a rich array of canonical and neglected texts that question empathic thinking on both epistemological and ethical grounds, exposing the ways that “feeling with” others can damage individual subjectivity. Through readings of works that question what the individual eye can see and what the individual “I” can say, like Dorothy Richardson’s Pointed Roofs, Katherine Mansfield’s “Prelude” and “At the Bay,” Henry James’s A Small Boy and Others, Ford Madox Ford’s novel The Good Soldier and his journal the English Review, Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, and Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, I suggest that apparently solipsistic narrative frameworks often articulate debates about the ethics of imagining and representing other minds. Such debates are central to the psychological landscape of literary modernism, but have yet to meet the critical attention they deserve.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Deer, Patrick
Commitee: Harries, Martin, Miller, Nancy K., Nicholls, Peter, Watson, Jini Kim
School: New York University
Department: English
School Location: United States -- New York
Source: DAI-A 72/11, Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Modern literature, Literature of Oceania, American literature, British and Irish literature
Keywords: Autobiography, Early psychology, Empathy, First-person narrative, Modernism, Problem of other minds, Psychological distance
Publication Number: 3466892
ISBN: 978-1-124-80793-5
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