I study works of fiction and poetry that explore the process by which feelings come to seem relevant or productive to those who experience them and to others. My research seeks to contribute both to literary studies and to recent debates about the political and philosophical usefulness of lived or represented feelings. Contemporary scholars often treat works of literature as sites that help us discover why it is politically or ethically urgent, or epistemically revealing, to pay attention to other persons' and our own emotional experiences. The writers I examine do not stress forceful imperatives to attend to how someone feels. Rather, they call attention to the difficulty of knowing how intensely, when, and why we should do so. Each chapter of my dissertation focuses on one quality of feelings that, one might think, should make these feelings reliable sources of knowledge or potential change. These qualities include feelings' whimsicality (which I examine through Wallace Stevens and Sylvia Plath), their urgency (which I examine by reading Ralph Ellison), their portability (which I examine by reading Virginia Woolf and F. Scott Fitzgerald), their persistence (which I examine by reading John Ashbery), and the quality I will focus on today, their immersiveness (which I examine by reading Marcel Proust and James Baldwin).
The writers I study show why such qualities might seem politically or philosophically promising. But they also highlight why it is in fact hard to decide whether feelings that carry such qualities are significant in any larger sense. On a historical level, I argue that the definitions of feeling my chosen writers rely on are inspired by modernist philosophy, political theory, and psychology. These writers' reflections on the unclear importance of feelings can therefore help illuminate the stakes of parallel reflections taking place in these other disciplines. These writers can also thus help us appreciate literature's particular contribution to this strand of modernist intellectual history. More theoretically, I claim that my chosen novelists and poets explore a dimension of emotional experience that has been neglected by contemporary affect theory because of its prevalent emphasis on proving feelings' productivity. My research therefore aims to map out some ways in which these writers' treatment of feeling could help us think more self-critically and more expansively about our current studies of fictional or lived emotional states.
In my introduction I present the larger social and intellectual contexts and reasons for modernist literature's particular preoccupation with uncertainly important feelings. For modernist philosophy and politics, emotions are both obstacles and gateways. They are the tools and objects of new philosophical and political ideas that range from psychoanalysis to early communism. But from the first, many thinkers also doubt whether it is possible reliably to parse apart politically or philosophically significant feelings from irrelevant ones. I outline this unease as it is voiced by Karl Marx, William James, Henri Bergson, Sigmund Freud, and Hannah Arendt. I also set these thinkers' treatments of feeling in dialogue with recent historical research on how the experience of total war destabilized Western society's standards of emotional proportion. The introduction finally frames my project within the field of affect studies as staked out by critics such as Charles Altieri, Rei Terada, Lauren Berlant, and Sianne Ngai.
My first chapter focuses on whimsical feelings. Wallace Stevens and Sylvia Plath center their lyrics on the emotional vacillations of the introspective self. Both poets showcase the way that feelings' whimsical persistence in searching for their most appropriate or appealing objects could be seen to resemble or to support a philosophical or political investigation of the proper importance of any given subjective impression or reaction. But they also suggest that the very diversity of the spans and intensities of focus feelings are capable of keeps making these feelings seem unreliable and inconsistent; proofs not of any particular importance of their speakers' inner lives, but of these speakers' confusion about its import. Stevens explores the process of trying to decide what more or less important self-knowledge could come from each momentary focus his speakers' feelings give to their experience. Plath studies her speakers' ongoing attempts to figure out whether and why the feelings they uncover could deserve to be voiced or even lingered in. Their speakers alternately lose and regain hope of finding in this whimsicality a stable sense of who they are or what they merit. Both poets keep multiplying the possible contexts, scales, pitches, and spans of time or space in which each feeling could be experienced. On the one hand, their poetry affirms emotional states as paths toward discovering or sounding new modes in which we relate to our world. On the other hand, the way their represented feelings' different scales and paces disrupt or fold into each other dramatizes how hard it is to decide exactly why each momentary worry or elation should have any significance even to the person experiencing them.
In the second chapter I examine how late modernists represent the difficulty of making sense of feelings' portability. I focus on Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway as well as F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night. Woolf and Fitzgerald are preoccupied by the apparent difficulty of stably distinguishing between emotional experiences that stem from or react to intense personal events and ones that stem from law-like, socially instilled habits. They showcase the difficulty of expressing feelings in a way that would allow them to be stably and reliably recognized as expressions of trauma or of libido; of the sensitivity with which their characters take in the fine grain of the objects and impressions they are presented with, or the indiscriminateness with which they equate all these objects as sources of more or less lasting pleasure. Both Woolf and Fitzgerald embed emotional exchanges within descriptions of walks, parties, and teas. They frame these social events as spaces in which the long-term material labor that goes into maintaining their characters' lifestyles is set in tension with these persons' momentary efforts to lift the moods of those around them. Their characters try to use their possessions and bodies to create or demand fleeting offerings of joy or comfort. Rather than be satisfied or disappointed by what they give or receive, they keep discovering new aspects of an uncertainty about whether each such attempted exchange has been successful and about how significantly these emotional gifts affect their larger lives. Woolf introspects primarily into the process by which her characters try with varied success to apply their resurging feelings to a new context or person. Fitzgerald remains on the outside of his characters' minds, and focuses on the way their feelings are recurrently expressed within the social and material world.
The third chapter studies the immersiveness of feelings. Marcel Proust and James Baldwin explore what it would mean to try to do something with feelings that relate to enveloping sensory spaces. They ask how one nurtures such immersive feelings as potentially significant outcomes of our engagement with the world or models for how we can engage with this world further. They explore how one could try to perpetuate these feelings or satisfyingly to act on them. They also highlight the sheer effort it requires emotionally to take in or react to one's entire horizon of perception. But Proust and Baldwin also wonder how we can ever tell that any such immersive emotional experience is valuable, precise, or lasting. For both writers this preoccupation with the uncertain and unsteady relevance of immersive feelings is mediated through their simultaneous preoccupation with rooms. Both for Proust and for Baldwin rooms provide the best, perhaps even too self-flatteringly material models for how enveloping and seemingly reliable a space a feeling is able to draw us to or to discover around itself. Yet rooms also provide models for the ease with which immersive feelings are entered and exited. They showcase the constant need such feelings have for material settings to fuel and confirm themselves, the unreliability of the efforts they inspire us to apply toward the world, the paucity of such feelings' engagement with parts of the world we do not immediately sense.
The last chapter examines emotional abundance through the poetry of John Ashbery. Emotional states, as Ashbery represents them, are abundant in two interrelated senses. They are abundant, first, in the sheer number of their ongoing expressions; in the way that these expressions seem always to be vaster and greater in number than the speaker can attend to all at once. Second, they are abundant in that--rather than present the speaker merely with concepts or merely with sensations--they offer what appears to be a sensory landscape that is already suffused with its own abstract consequences and applications. Rather than represent feeling as an immediate connection or reaction to his personal history or his environment, Ashbery represents his speakers' emotional states as attempts to imagine and inhabit a landscape independent of these contexts; a landscape that the speaker seems at once to create and to fall into as his feelings' necessary corollary, one that seems to not represent but occlude and rival--or at the very least to frequently lose from sight--the context to which it would at first appear to be responding. The details Ashbery's represented environments contain seem constantly and richly to open up onto potentially universal insights; his speakers keeps encountering abstractions in what appear to be robust material forms ready to be inhabited, touched, or tested. But Ashbery also keeps showing that, in themselves, feelings are unable to turn their abundance of expression into articulable particular or universal insights. His speakers easily discard or simply forget about their disconnected momentary expressions as soon as they lose their ephemeral appeal.
My conclusion is entitled "Eyebread," taking up a phrase Walter Benjamin coined during a euphoric false revelation about pastries that he had while on hashish. I take Benjamin's reflections on altered states as a model for my research because of how well they show that, paradoxically, emotions' potential for seriousness and insight is closely related to their potential for preciosity and frivolity. I also take it as a point of departure as I propose how one could apply these questions back to the political and philosophical realms to which these literary works so unreliably and inconsistently aspire. Studying more closely the inconsistent importance and productivity of feelings can help us rearticulate both how we define the subject positions from which we conduct philosophical or political inquiry, and how we delimit the seriousness and importance of philosophy and politics in themselves. Affect theory is uniquely able to help us work toward addressing these questions, provided that--rather than try to deny the unclear importance of feelings, as it has done up till now--it embraces this lack of clarity as the defining feature of emotional experiences.