This dissertation reads the self-representations of four modernists—Walter Benjamin, Katherine Mansfield, Gertrude Stein, and Laura (Riding) Jackson—as exemplars of the complexity of modernity and as productive subject matter for a dialectical criticism. Benjamin’s writing of the 1930s, both his autobiographies and his critical writing on historiography, provides a foundation for the “oscillatory” method pursued: seeking after contradictions—of self/history and of subject/object, especially—not to resolve them but to examine their movement in language. Each chapter examines a particular modernist in depth, working to arrive at a model or strategy for close reading his or her texts and to discover a politics of form. What comes together in these readings is the unerring complexity of self-representation in the context of modernity, so that these particular writers become variations on Benjamin’s famous Angel of History—staring melancholically at the “catastrophe” of received history, forced to “see” and to represent the horrors of the past. The question for each of Benjamin, Mansfield, Stein, and (Riding) Jackson becomes: how does one encapsulate the complex experience of the present, powerfully coloured by the past and indeed the future? In reading these translations from perception to text dialectically, recognizing that they are never fixed or closed, we can begin to identify a politics of critique and of revolution.
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Thesis advisor: Collis, Stephen
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