Kant with Melville: Freedom, enthusiasm, and the novel
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This dissertation explores the relationship between Kant and Melville, paying close attention to the former’s idea of freedom and the latter’s effort to exhibit freedom without transforming it into individualism. It is also an attempt to read Melville’s novels as responses to Kant’s ethical critique of the novel in general. In Critique of Practical Reason, grounding his ethics on the idea of freedom, Kant denounces the novel because it causes moral enthusiasm by transforming freedom into a fantasy, which becomes a core of individualism by inducing great pleasure in the subject. The novel appears to be able to exhibit freedom since at a critical moment the hero or heroine decides to act independently of the laws of nature and culture, but, pointing out the moral enthusiast’s inclinations pathologically motivating his actions, Kant’s critique of the novel amounts to alleging that the freedom exhibited by the heroic action in the novel lacks the idea’s radical otherness to phenomena, causing pleasure to the reader instead. The novel is able to exhibit freedom, which in principle could not be accounted for, because it describes the moment of freedom as something “unaccountable,” rather than giving a substantial account of it. Freedom in the novel is thus to be comprehended by the absence of explanation, an absence that is indeed charged with a meaning. Individualism is precisely an ideology that utilizes this structure of accountable unaccountableness: each individual enjoys freedom, which has an appearance of an exception from society but indeed belongs to it as something exceptional. According to individualism, everyone has freedom with unaccountable secrets and mysteries, but this individuality is as such presupposed and in reality demanded in order to be a member of the society. Kant’s critique of the novel is in this sense his defense of freedom against individualism because the individual is not free at all. In the wake of recent critique of individualism, numerous interpreters of Melville have started focusing on the communal aspects of his works. I argue, however, that Melville’s response to the domination of individualism is not the embrace of communality but the defense of freedom in distinction from individualism. But Melville’s problem is that he writes the novel, which is, as Kant maintains, exactly the cause of individualism. Hence Melville’s task as a novelist is double: on the one hand he must write freedom, which the previous novels did not succeed in exhibiting without losing its radical otherness to phenomena, and on the other hand he must separate freedom from the fantasy of freedom, which eventually would form individualism. As a result, the heroes in Melville’s novels, such as Pierre, Bartleby and the confidence man, are lacking in what we usually consider freedom. They are unheroic heroes, as it were, because in his novels the fantasy of freedom, which has formed our image of “freedom,” collapses, as we see typically in Bartleby’s immobility and mechanical repetition of his formula. At the same time, however, these heroes are not mere products of nature; their destruction of the fantasy itself causes a surprise to the characters around them and also to the reader.