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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Why Does Literature Matter? by Frank B. Farrell (Cornell University Press) “Literature matters because . . . it allows for experiences important to the living out of a sophisticated and satisfying human life; because other arenas of culture cannot provide them to the same degree; and because a relatively small number of texts carry out these functions in so exceptional a manner that we owe it to past and future members of the species to keep such texts alive in our cultural traditions.”—from Chapter One

Frank B. Farrell defends a rich conception of the space of literature that retains its links to issues of self-formation and metaphysics and does not let that space collapse into just another reflection of social space. He maintains that recent literary theory has badly misread findings in the philosophy of language and the theory of subjectivity. That misreading, Farrell says, has tended to endorse ways of understanding literature that make one question why it matters at all. Farrell here opposes some recent theoretical trends and, through a mix of philosophical and literary studies, tells us why in his view literature does truly matter.

Among the writers Farrell discusses are John Ashbery, Samuel Beckett, Amit Chaudhuri, Cormac McCarthy, James Merrill, Marcel Proust, Thomas Pynchon, Salman Rushdie, W. G. Sebald, and John Updike. The philosophers important to his arguments include Donald Davidson, Daniel Dennett, and Bernard Williams; G. W. F. Hegel, Martin Heidegger, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Ludwig Wittgenstein play roles as well. Among the literary theorists addressed are Stephen Greenblatt, Paul de Man, and Marjorie Perloff. In addition to his close readings of literary, philosophical, and critical texts, Farrell considers cultural studies and postcolonial studies more generally and speculates on the possible contributions of object-relations theory in psychology to the study of literature.

Frank B. Farrell is Professor of Philosophy at Purchase College, State University of New York. He is the author of Subjectivity, Realism, and Postmodernism: The Recovery of the World.

Renaissance Beasts: Of Animals, Humans, and Other Wonderful Creatures edited by Erica Fudge (University of Illinois Press) Taking as its starting point the popularity of speaking animals in sixteenth-century literature and ending with the decline of the imperial Ménagerie during the French Revolution, Renaissance Beasts uses the lens of human-animal relationships to view issues as diverse as human status and power, diet, civilization and the political life, religion and anthropocentrism, spectacle and entertainment, language, science and skepticism, and domestic and courtly cultures.

Within these pages scholars from a variety of disciplines discuss numerous kinds of texts  – literary, dramatic, philosophical, religious, political – by writers including Calvin, Montaigne, Sidney, Shakespeare, Descartes, Boyle, and Locke. Through analysis of these and other writers, Erica Fudge, senior lecturer in English literary studies at Middlesex University , London , uncovers new and arresting interpretations of Renaissance culture and the broader social assumptions glimpsed through views on matters such as pet ownership and meat consumption.

But this collection is not called Early Modern Beasts; it is called Renaissance Beasts. The distinction between the two can be made not in terms of the representations of particular formations of culture, particular concep­tions of a period in the past; rather, the title refers to an idea as much as a period.

The title is in direct opposition to its more famous forebear, "Renaissance Man." "Renaissance Beast" may well be an equiva­lent creation of the early twenty-first century, reflecting the unease with which much contemporary philosophy has come to view humanity, but like Burckhardt's creation, it might offer a way of thinking about the earlier pe­riod. Where the animal, for Renaissance Man, was a mere instrument for use and, as scholars such as Lawrence Babb have shown, was the aspect of Man that needed to be tamed, kept under, the Renaissance Beasts of this col­lection have a more active role in their historical moment: they have the power to create new ideas.

The chapters are arranged in broadly chronological order. The collection begins with the use of speaking animals in satire and ends with the liberation of the animals from Louis XIV's Menagerie in 1792. Be­tween these starting and ending points the chapters introduce some of the many ways in which animals were used and thought with and about in early modern culture. In many ways, the uses of animals represented in these chap­ters are unsurprising: in science (Cummings, Harrison), religion (Fudge, Wise­man), literature (Perry, Sheen, Knowles), and sport and pastime (Schiesari, Stewart, Graham, Senior). However, each of the chapters offers a new way of thinking about these uses, and each proposes that we revise our assumptions about the place, role, and function of animals in early modern thought.

This collection is about animals, but among those animals it is perhaps the human itself that comes under the greatest scrutiny. In the early mod­ern period, as now, animals were not easy beings to contemplate. They raised the specter of human limitation; they provoked unease about the distinct nature of humanity; they undid the boundaries between human and beast even as they appeared to cement them, and in so doing they offer us another way of thinking about Renaissance Man and a way of configur­ing our new entity, Renaissance Beasts. The collection is certainly about animals, but of the many species discussed, it is ultimately humankind that comes under the greatest scrutiny.  

In Rereading George Eliot: Changing Responses to Her Experiments in Life by Bernard J. Paris (State University of New York Press), a noted Eliot scholar, Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Florida , explores how we become different interpreters of literature as we undergo psychological change. 
In a probing analysis that has broad implications for theories of reading,
Paris explores how personal needs and changes in his own psychology have affected his responses to George Eliot over the years. Having lost his earlier enthusiasm for her Religion of Humanity, he now appreciates the psychological intuitions that are embodied in Eliot’s brilliant portraits of characters and relationships. Concentrating on Eliot's most impressive psychological novels, Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda, Paris focuses on her detailed portrayals of major characters in an effort to recover her intuitions and appreciate her mimetic achievement. He argues that although she intended for her characters to provide confirmation of her views, she was instead led to deeper, more enduring truths, although she did not consciously comprehend the discoveries she had made. Like her characters, Paris argues, these truths must be disengaged from her rhetoric in order to be perceived.

Chapters include

  1. No Longer the Same Interpreter
  2. “An Angel Beguiled”: Dorothea Brooke
  3. The Two Selves of Tertius Lydgate
  4. “A Dreadful Plain Girl”: Mary Garth
  5. “This Problematic Sylph”: Gwendolen Harleth
  6. “The Crushed Penitent”: Gwendolen’s Transformation
  7. Gwendolen and Daniel: A Therapeutic Relationship?
  8. Deronda the Deliverer

In the conclusion, Paris says, “George Eliot was right when she said that if she were to help others see at all it must be through the medium of art. Perhaps she herself distrusted her formulas….She preaches living for others but shows us how desperate a strategy this is and how destructive to the self. ” Her novels become, in Iris Murdoch’s words, “a house fit for free characters to live in.” Rereading George Eliot offers this fresh perspective.

Afterlife of Property: Domestic Security and the Victorian Novel by Jeff Nunokawa (Princeton University Press), Associate Professor of English at Princeton University, investigates the conviction passed on by the Victorian novel that a woman's love is the only fortune a man can count on to last. Taking for his example four texts, Charles Dickens's Little Dorrit and Dombey and Son, and George Eliot's Daniel Deronda and Silas Marner, Nunokawa studies the diverse ways that the Victorian novel imagines women as property removed from the uncertainties of the marketplace. Along the way, he notices how the categories of economics, gender, sexuality, race, and fiction define one another in the Victorian novel.

Afterlife of Property addresses literary and cultural theory, gender studies, and gay and lesbian studies. 

Philosophy, Literature, and the Human Good by Michael Weston (Routledge) Weston examines the role of literature in philosophical reflection on the significance of life, addressing both the European "Post-Nietzschean" tradition and the increasing importance of these issues for major American and British thinkers.

Contents: Preface; Introduction; 1. Life as Art: Kant, Schlegel, Nietzsche; 2. Georges Bataille: The Impossible; 3. Maurice Blanchot: Literature's Space; 4. Jacques Derrida: The Staging of Deconstruction; 5. Iris Murdoch: The Transcendent Good; 6. Martha Nussbaum: Moral Fortune; 7. Richard Rorty: Philosophy as Literature; 8. Stanley Cavell: Language, Therapy and Perfectionism; 9. A Kierkegaardian Intervention; 10. D.Z. Phillips: The Mediation of Sense; 11. A concluding Reading: Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim

Critique of Violence:  Between Poststructuralism and Critical Theory by Beatrice Hanssen (Routledge) is a highly original and radical investigation of the heated controversy between poststructuralism and critical theory. Renowned scholar Beatrice Hanssen uses Walter Benjamin's essay, "Critique of Violence," as a guide to analyze the debate, shifting the emphasis from struggle to dialogue between the two parties. Regarding the question of critique and violence as the major meeting points between the two traditions, Hanssen positions herself between the two in an effort to investigate what critical theory and poststructuralism have to offer each other. In the course of doing so, she assembles incisive and imaginative new readings of Benjamin, Arendt, Fanon and Foucault on war, the politics of recognition, the violence of language, and feminist theory.

Meandering, meditative essays, written more for the ear than the eye, these philosophical reflections have a poetic and existential focus on the significance of life itself. The theme alludes to a variety of literary works, (fairytales, Shakespeare, Melville, Dostoyevsky, in particular) to throw new angles upon, if not quite eternal verities, then perpetual questions. Hamlet and the Snowman: Reflections on Vision and Meaning in Life and Literature by Benjamin Newman is a pleasant read for a quiet Sunday afternoon.


The years go on and on, round and round they go, one by one the seasons come and go. Each year, each turn, brings with it a finality of one kind or another, and then, in the course of time, a special moment will come to some human soul when life itself emerges as the finality, a thing to behold, something that is the last of everything. Standing then as if upon nothing in some vastness looking on, one thinks and wonders, is that what it is, the whole of it, established, examined, and final. It is then that literature, like some subservient conspirator eager to join in, comes running, carrying its bundle of delights and all its sundry seemings, calling out its confirmation. Yes, is its cry, I have seen it too, I know it well, and here is my vision of all that it is. And meaning, where is it to be found? It is the feelings that accompany vision and move us to ask, can it be, is it truly so, and now ....

Existence does not seem to want to be spoken or written about too openly and freely, and literature, its bosom companion, does its best to hide right along with it behind a vast inventory of metaphor and story. In the end, what is the hiding but a loneliness amid silences. The need to know, to know and then to know more and more, to say, to listen, can life be life without it. And that is why I wrote this book, to talk things over as it were, and pass along reflections and wonderings that have come to me with the years about the truth and the meaning of what lies behind literature's entrancements, and dormant or insulated in the hearts and minds of all the living…

Slowly, drop upon drop, the answer came to me. There is an onlyness to this place in which we live, to each life, and to the mankind that carries its lives from one generation to the next. One, the single one, the only world, the only life, hold it up for examination and fear will come to us; it is fragile, precious, be careful. The fear is for a permanence that may be lost, leaving nothingness in its place. And each human mind as it struggles with its own life and its own mortality, in its anguish seeks to shelter itself within the shadows of permanence cast by an inert world of earth and stars and space, by the mankind from which it came, and by the beliefs it holds dear. Yes, a universal sacredness, but seen through the eyes of only one, ourself, watching, trembling, anxious that none shall be marred and the worthwhileness of each guarded. Hence the guilt for the words said, the truth uncovered, and the need to be silent, or to whisper, but barely

An onlyness, is it not like a summation compressed into a single word that betokens purest essence. Like a brooding presence, it underlies every work of literature and every vision one may have of our human life, and it is lived and borne by every human soul as we grope about for meaning. Speak of essence in life or place or self and soon the variegated dress and decoration of familiar ordinariness will be swept aside, and the image will come to us of a single something that is what it is, and it is forever closed as if locked away within itself. Call it onlyness, call it what you will, and let the words be one or many, it doesn't matter, for life itself will bring it all together as an ultimacy that is enshrined in the tales of the masters and the songs of the poets and in the dreams and longings of our lives. And inasmuch as it is life that has made it so, we too may speak of it now and then, yes, plainly and openly but with kindness, and for that, amends will not be ours to make.

I MAY BE SOME TIME: Ice and the English Imagination by Francis Spufford (St. Martin’s`Press, $26.95, hardcover, 381 pages, notes, index, 0-312-17442-X )

In the spirit of Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster and The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea, Francis Spufford explores the British obsession with polar exploration in a book that Jan Morris called "a truly majestic work of scholarship, thought and literary imagination." The title, a last quote from one explorer to his party as he left their tent never to return, embodies the danger and mystery that fueled the allure of the poles. This look at the British obsession with polar exploration and the human desire to conquer faraway places is far from being a conventional history of polar exploration., I MAY BE SOME TIME attempts to understand the minds of the polar explorers as they headed toward destinies like Terra Nova. Serving up a heady brew of Captain Perry, Jane Eyre, gastronomic obsessions with iced desserts, and the daily lives of the Eskimos, Spufford treats the reader to one of the most satisfying and imaginative contemporary works dealing with exploration and human need.

I MAY BE SOME TIME is the winner of the Writers Guild Award for Non-Fiction.

Francis Spufford hailed as a member of Britain’s new literary generation, has edited two acclaimed anthologies, The Chatto Book of Cabbages and Kings: Lists in Literature and The Chatto Book of the Devil. He has also recently coedited Cultural Babbage: Technology, Time and Invention

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