All that is solid melts into spirit: Autonomy, fluidity, and impersonality in Hegel, Emerson, and Eliot
Collins, David Brendan
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This dissertation examines the role that the Hegelian concept of autonomy can play in understanding the meaning of the persistent emphasis on autonomy within American Modernist poetry, here represented primarily by T. S. Eliot and to a lesser extent, Ezra Pound and Wallace Stevens, with Ralph Waldo Emerson serving as an important bridge between Hegel and these Modernists. This linkage of the philosophical discourse of German Idealism, particularly the work of G. W. F. Hegel, to Modernism responds to the problem that, although autonomy is a persistent concern in Modernism, the concept itself has come to be seen as theoretically and ideologically untenable because of its claims to absoluteness and self-containment. A different theoretical perspective on autonomy is required to make sense of its relevance to Modernism without reducing it to an error or illusion. The reason for adopting a Hegelian perspective is that Hegel was concerned with the same problem that unites artistic Modernism and cultural modernity: the problem of achieving autonomy in light of the modern tendency for fixed and stable identities to dissolve into abstract and mediated forms, a process often described in terms of the rhetoric of fluidity. This fluidity represents a significant challenge to the traditional understanding of autonomy in both literary and philosophy discourses, which tend to rely on a notion of self-containment incompatible with such fluidity, and is one of the reasons that the concept later fell into disuse. The adoption of the Hegelian notion of autonomy in terms of "being at home in one's other", which operates with more fluid criteria of selfhood and otherness, provides a much better position to understand one of the most common strategies for achieving autonomy in Modernism that I focus on throughout: the adoption of strategies of impersonality. One of the major results of this project is that it traces a definite trajectory in Eliot's work from The Love Song of J. Afred, through "Gerontion" and "Tradition and the Individual Talent" to The Waste Land, which can be understood in terms of his testing an essentially Hegelian concept of fluid autonomy. Not only does this approach result in new readings of these familiar texts, but it helps to make sense of many of the distinct elements of Eliot's work, including his notion of impersonality, his relation to Ralph Waldo Emerson, and his interest in anthropology. And in terms of Emerson, not only does his inclusion in the context of Eliot's work elucidate the nature of his often underground influence upon later writers, but relating his work to German Idealism, particularly F. H. Jacobi, also breaks new ground in the understanding of his intellectual roots.