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Reading Volumes: The Book, the Body and the Mediation of Modernism


This dissertation examines the way the novels of the early twentieth century, written in the midst of a media revolution precipitated by the rise of film and the invention of phonographic recording, enrich our understanding of the book's status and various functions as a phenomenal object. By showing how the novels of three major modernist writers - Marcel Proust, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf - draw attention to the books that transmit their texts, I develop an understanding of literature as a specific form of "mediation," a concept whose dual sense as a process of transmission and as a procedure by which two separate parties come into relationship, moves beyond, even as it encompasses, the critical framework of "representation."

I begin my argument by providing an alternative understanding of T. S. Eliot's statement that "the poet has, not a `personality' to express, but a particular medium." If standard accounts of modernism follow Eliot's emphasis on the poem rather than the poet by focusing primarily on the textual or linguistic features of the period's literary works, I resuscitate the status of the "particular medium" of the book for works like Ulysses and Jacob's Room, whose extreme experimentalism not only investigates the medium of written language but also renews our attention to the sensuous object on which the transmission of that writing relies. For these novels, the book does not vanish but rather comes quite obviously into view. Indeed, as I draw out how the reading practices afforded by these experimental novels establish a relationship between the body of the reader and the object of the book, I complicate claims for the period's exclusive interest in subjectivity and explore how these novels interrogate the relationship between subject and object that reveals the subject's fundamental entanglement with the object world. In doing so, I show how they create a mode of intimacy between subject and object that depends on mutual embodiment and belongingness to the same phenomenal world.

In Chapter 1, "Sleeping with the Books of the Recherche," I discuss how the Proustian narrator's most peculiar instance of "involuntary memory," namely his discovery of George Sand's François le Champi at the end of the novel, betrays a sensory and affective relationship with the "book in a red binding" and the "grain of a particular paper" rather than an intellectual relationship with the narrative of its text. Indeed, Proust's own compositional methods - the "paperoles" which he created by pasting pieces of paper onto the edge of his manuscript notebooks - demonstrate how a similar kind of material awareness supplements his linguistic creation. This addition of material sensation to intellectual cognition takes on a larger significance as it comes to condition the narrator's relationship with Albertine, particularly in the scenes when she is asleep, and affords a kind of intimacy based less on the desire for possession and capture than on acquiescence to her ultimate impenetrability.

This impenetrability is a main facet of the book's function as an object which my subsequent chapters refine in more particular ways. In Chapter 2, "The Embodied Reader of Ulysses," I juxtapose Stephen Dedalus' overly intellectualized mode of reading in "Proteus" with Leopold Bloom's emphasis on the physical aspects of reading in "Calypso" and argue that Ulysses works to bring these two poles together. Not only does it describe scenes of embodied reading, such as Bloom perusing the Titbits magazine in the outhouse, but Ulysses also enjoins its own reader to use the body in the act of deciphering its text, most notably in the "musical" Sirens episode, as we see and try to pronounce the quasi-onomatopoetic phonemes that pepper this middle section of the novel. In so doing, Joyce's novel fleshes out the limits which the reader's physical body places on the mental act of reading.

In Chapter 3, "The Dark Print of Finnegans Wake," I argue that the impenetrability of the work's multi-lingual puns and portmanteaux - along with its intermittent typographical play - highlights the agency of its "dark print." Darkness, long a figurative framework for critics approaching the Wake, here becomes "literal" in the black shapes on the white page. By examining the famously obscure geometry lesson that Shem gives his brother Shaun, I develop the way these dark letters also function as the bodies of its main "characters," especially HCE and his son Shem. In doing so, I show how they facilitate a quasi-interpersonal acquaintance with its print that recasts reading in communal or social terms, as an act done with other people and mediated by a common experience of the object of the book.

Chapter 4, "The Pages in Jacob's Room," focuses on the function of the page itself. I explore how the large gaps that separate Woolf's short narrative vignettes both recondition our notion of reading and contribute to the novel's investigation of knowing another person. By putting the experimental page layout into conversation with Woolf's contemporaneous work at the Hogarth Press and larger object-centered currents in the visual aesthetics of early Bloomsbury, I highlight the agency of visual perception in reading and show how the blank spaces on the page subtly develop a relationship between reader and book based on sensation. As I examine the occurrence of the page spacing at key moments of connection for the characters, I elaborate a non-penetrative model of intimacy that functions as an alternative to the narrator's unsuccessful attempts to penetrate into the personality of the main character Jacob Flanders. I ultimately suggest that the novel extends this non-penetrative mode of intimacy beyond the strictly intersubjective to an exploration of our relationship with the larger, non-human world.

Finally, in Chapter 5, "The Binding of The Waves," I examine how Woolf's most experimental novel underscores the passing of readerly time by appealing to the turning of the book's pages. I argue that the suggestion of a bounded moment created by the narrative form - the use of the pure present tense and the interludes that describe the progress of the sun over a deserted seascape - functions as a temporal version of the way the book's material binding brings the sequence of its pages together to form an object in extended space. As such, The Waves offers the most explicit investment in the object world whose persistence undergirds - and exceeds - the subjective experience dramatized in the novel's six intertwined monologues. In The Waves, however, what persists is precisely the passing of time itself, a transience that impinges on subject and object alike and serves as the ground for a form of community that includes them both.

With their explorations of reader, print, page and binding, these chapters offer a description of "reading volumes," an account of the way we cannot ignore the three-dimensionality to which these novels call attention. Indeed, if current discussions of the book typically proceed by textualizing its material features, my readings of twentieth-century novels show how we might also materialize the book's textual features. I thus develop an approach to literature from within the conceptual framework of "mediation," a perspective which, according to John Guillory's recent argument, the rise of other media forms in the late nineteenth century opened up. In doing so, I offer an expanded account of the modernist novel's entanglement with its historical moment that goes beyond a consideration of its contemporaneous publication practices. Additionally, I bridge the divide between literary studies and media studies more generally and map axes along which we might bring the book into conversation with other forms of mediation, both historical and contemporary. Ultimately, in explaining how a consideration of the book can provide new understandings of intimacy and community, I show how this "old" medium is still highly relevant in an increasingly technologized world that seems to contain no end of "new" things.

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