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Ashes Taken for Fire

Ashes Taken for Fire: Aesthetic Modernism and the Critique of Identity

Kevin Bell
Copyright Date: 2007
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    Ashes Taken for Fire
    Book Description:

    Kevin Bell surveys fiction by Conrad, Woolf, Faulkner, West, Ellison, and Himes to argue that modernism exposes cultural identities such as blackness as mere strategies of conforming the self into belonging. For while blackness operates as a standard figural expression for disorientation, its presumably “voided” character is reprojected in this work as an immanent force of possibility and experimentation.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-9889-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction: Modernism under the Sign of Suicide
    (pp. 1-34)

    Opening in paradox and never leaving the scene, literary modernism is obsessed with the ways in which language supplants the nothingness that precedes it. More relentlessly than any other, this literature thematizes both the profound absence prior to language and the strategic concealment of that void by language. This book is concerned with how such aesthetic investigations undo the essential logic of cultural identity.

    One example is found toward the conclusion of Ralph Ellison’sInvisible Man.Speaking from within the pirated, artificial light of the Harlem basement that embodies his material inheritance of abandonment, the novel’s nameless protagonist admonishes us...

  5. Part I Mimetic Elusives

    • 1 Holographic Ensemble: The Death of Doubt Itself in The Nigger of the “Narcissus”
      (pp. 37-70)

      Borrowing unashamedly from a critical theory of art that will soon find its most powerful expression in the practice of his own fiction, Joseph Conrad, in the famous Preface to his 1897 novellaThe Nigger of the “Narcissus,”posits a fluid model for aesthetic thinking that inherits both its conception and its figuration from an aggressively perspectivist Walter Pater.

      In Pater’s essay “The School of Giorgione,” we find the striking formulation “All art aspires to the condition of music.” In music, Pater discerns an art obsessed only with finding its own contours, in this way sounding its liberation from all...

    • 2 Something Savage, Something Pedantic: Imaginary Portraits of Certitude in Jacob’s Room
      (pp. 71-108)

      The “chasms in the continuity of our ways” that form the point of Virginia Woolf’s literary departure expand the Conradian inquiry into the void at the center of all expression. This is true in the sense that the fracture, multiplicity, and groundlessness of meaning thematized by both writers at the level of plot is now extended by Woolf to the dimension of figure. For Woolf, the modern artwork must install, and not merely implicate, the experience of nonlocatability into its own aesthetic machinery as a necessary procedure of the work’s communication—a practice of both art’s disclosure and its subsequent...

  6. Part II Narcissism and Nothingness

    • 3 Maladjusted Phantasms: The Ontological Question of Blackness in Light in August
      (pp. 111-133)

      The private consequences of the public mandate of cultural role-play, scrutinized with such unrelenting irony by Conrad and then by Woolf, are disclosed perhaps most graphically in the American contexts of literary modernism.With William Faulkner’sLight in August(1932), we observe that the failure to “identify properly” not only unhinges every schema of social ordering but also sets into motion the mechanisms by which such projects of power will defend and perpetuate themselves by force. In other words, the novel is largely about how the failure to identify adequately can get one killed.

      As Edouard Glissant writes in his critical...

    • 4 The Business of Dreams: Retailing Presence in Miss Lonelyhearts
      (pp. 134-158)

      The wreckage of all beliefs and all doctrines, the exposure of all commodities and all policies as nothing more than techniques of mass hypnosis and mass deception, forms the basis of the later work of Nathanael West. What his literature makes real is the incessant encroachment of unreality, the perpetual deferral of the spontaneous, individual experience promised by the endless projection of commercial images that bombard virtually every moment of daily life. In West’s work the only survivors are those starving hordes who accept everything as it is presented, and those few who resist the banality of modernity but are...

  7. Part III Blackness (In) Visible

    • 5 Chaos and Surface in Invisible Man
      (pp. 161-191)

      If notions of selfhood originate, as do Paul de Man’s categories of knowledge and virtue, out of lies institutionalized and replayed as foundational truths, then constructions of meaningfully “black” identity must take on a doubly deceptive resonance in Western sociality and representation. Untroubled linguistic conversions of experimental life into atrophied, abstracted performances of racial being manage, with each successive repetition of the designations “black” or “white,” to submerge more deeply the primary anxieties and potentialities of self within beings freshly ossified by ideology and language. For Diana Fuss, following Fanon in herIdentification Papers,“white draws its ideological power from...

    • 6 Assuming the Position: Fugitivity and Futurity in the Work of Chester Himes
      (pp. 192-220)

      In the disappeared third side of a Parisian triangle he draws between Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Chester Himes, drinking and fighting, advancing and recoiling, all on the terrace of Les Deux Magots on a spring evening in 1953,New Yorkerwriter Hilton Als, describing the scene nearly fifty years later in a profile on Himes, detects the betrayal of an unspoken ideological mandate presumably governing the field of black American literature after World War II.

      The alcohol consumed by the three writers that evening loosens the boundaries of a hazardous zone of dense interpersonal tension, already laced by an...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 221-238)
  9. Bibliography
    (pp. 239-246)
  10. Index
    (pp. 247-252)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 253-253)