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Nullity's Shadow: T. S. Eliot's Unreal in Theory, Drama, and the work of Henry James

  • Author(s): Foust, Andrew F
  • Advisor(s): Warminski, Andrzej
  • et al.
Creative Commons 'BY-NC-SA' version 4.0 license
Abstract

This dissertation concerns itself with the philosophical category of the unreal, defined in the doctoral dissertation of T. S. Eliot, charted through an extended etymology from 1605-1958, and employed as a hermeneutical lens for T. S. Eliot's The Family Reunion and Henry James's "The Altar of the Dead."

Beginning by tracing the origins of the word in Shakespeare and Milton, I identify an etymological split in the uses of the term "unreal." Whereas Shakespeare's Macbeth employs the term to foreclose the reality of Banquo's "horrible shadow," Milton's Tetrachordon deploys the word to indicate the existence of higher realities beyond the "unreal nullity" of our everyday world. My first chapter examines Eliot's synthesis of these two etymological trajectories in his 1916 dissertation on Knowledge and Experience, where "unreal" is used both to designate an inexistent nullity and to cast authentic reality in opposition to a negated unreal. My second chapter applies Eliot's conclusions to the contemporary philosophies of W.V. Quine, Graham Harman, and Fredric Jameson, arguing the unreal represents the possibility of an ontological liberation from the strictures of present configurations of reality. I argue this liberation exhibits the modality of a denied and rejected unreal returning from abnegation. As T. S. Eliot turned from philosophy to drama, my final two chapters seek to understand what new tools literature might provide for crafting a reading of the unreal's return. Chapter Three delineates the realization of the unreal within Eliot's later drama The Family Reunion according to three forms: as an alternative temporality where time anticipates the return of what has been lost, as a new concept of subjectivity where the denial of freedom generates new ontological horizons, and in a new vision of dramaturgy as a vehicle to transform the perception of the audience. Chapter Four reads the unreal in the actions of George Stransom, who in Henry James's "The Altar of the Dead" denies his former friend a place on his altar to the dead, only to find the exclusion must be reversed in order for his construction of reality to be complete.

The recurrent theme of this dissertation is the ambivalence within the concept of unreality: unreality represents a nullification of possible realities, even as this closure betokens the shadow of a promise of their eventual return.

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