Worldly Acts and Sentient Things

Worldly Acts and Sentient Things: The Persistence of Agency from Stein to DeLillo

Robert Chodat
Copyright Date: 2008
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    Worldly Acts and Sentient Things
    Book Description:

    Ants, ghosts, cultures, thunderstorms, stock markets, robots, computers: this is just a partial list of the sentient things that have filled American literature over the last century. From modernism forward, writers have given life and voice to both the human and the nonhuman, and in the process addressed the motives, behaviors, and historical pressures that define lives-or things-both everyday and extraordinary.

    In Worldly Acts and Sentient Things, Robert Chodat exposes a major shortcoming in recent accounts of twentieth-century discourse. What is often seen as the "death" of agency is better described as the displacement of agency onto new and varied entities. Writers as diverse as Gertrude Stein, Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, and Don DeLillo are preoccupied with a cluster of related questions. Which entities are capable of believing something, saying something, desiring, hoping, hating, or doing? Which things, in turn, do we treat as worthy of our care, respect, and worship?

    Drawing on a philosophical tradition exemplified by Ludwig Wittgenstein and Wilfrid Sellars, Chodat shows that the death of the Cartesian ego need not entail the elimination of purposeful action altogether. Agents do not dissolve or die away in modern thought and literature; they proliferate-some in human forms, some not. Chodat distinguishes two ideas of agency in particular. One locates purposes in embodied beings, "persons," the other in disembodied entities, "presences." Worldly Acts and Sentient Things is a an engaging blend of philosophy and literary theory for anyone interested in modern and contemporary literature, narrative studies, psychology, ethics, and cognitive science.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6247-4
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Introduction: French Cathedrals and Other Forms of Life
    (pp. 1-22)

    How do you seduce a heap of chiseled stones? One person who tried, at least for a while, was Henry Adams. In the “Vis Nova” chapter of The Education of Henry Adams, Adams describes traveling around France at the turn of the last century, and he depicts himself as a lover infatuated with the facades and stained glass of the country’s medieval cathedrals, whose beguiling spirit he pursues gallantly across the country.

    For him, the Virgin was an adorable mistress, who led the automobile and its owner where she would, to her wonderful palaces and chateaux, from Chartres to Rouen,...

  6. Part One: Agents Within

    • Chapter 1 Sense, Science, and Slight Contacts with Other People’s Minds
      (pp. 25-55)

      Pablo Picasso made an impression on virtually everyone he encountered, and Gertrude Stein was no exception. Included in Stein’s 1934 collection Portraits and Prayers is “If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso,” which was written eleven years earlier and opens as follows:

      If I told him would he like it. Would he like it if I told him.

      Would he like it would Napoleon would Napoleon would would he like it.

      If Napoleon if I told him if I told him if Napoleon. Would he like it if I told him if I told him if Napoleon. Would...

    • Chapter 2 Embodiment and the Inside
      (pp. 56-88)

      The end of chapter 1 approached a conceptual crossroads. Through most of the chapter we traced a path that led to a model of agency as an internal disembodied presence, “the inside,” which according to Gertrude Stein and many of her readers generates the words of her works. As I suggested there, this (in Ulla Dydo’s term) “centripetal” aspect of Stein’s writing could be seen as shaping not only her works but also, to one extent or another, those of later figures like Beckett and the Language Poets. Inscribed above the gate to this path is a sentence quoted earlier...

    • Chapter 3 The Prose of Persons
      (pp. 89-120)

      Living in Paris after the Second World War, Saul Bellow occasionally ran into Richard Wright, who had arrived a couple years earlier to the kind of warm welcome the French pay to persecuted foreign writers and intellectuals. Wright was immersing himself in phenomenology under the tutelage of Sartre and de Beauvoir, an immersion that would eventually shape his 1953 novel The Outsider. Bellow’s interests lay elsewhere, however. “Seeing Wright in Saint-German-des-Prés,” he said, “deep in a thick, difficult book, I asked him why this was necessary, and he told me that it was indispensable reading for all writers and that...

  7. Part Two: Agents Without

    • Chapter 4 Selves, Sentences, and the Styles of Holism
      (pp. 123-155)

      How does one become “avant-garde”? The term migrated from the military to the cultural arena with Saint-Simon in the nineteenth century, but a classic image for it was given by Wassily Kandinsky at the start of the twentieth:

      The life of the spirit may be fairly represented in diagram as a large acute-angled triangle divided horizontally into unequal parts with the narrowest segment uppermost. The lower the segment the greater it is in breadth, depth, and area.

      The whole triangle is moving slowly, almost invisibly forwards and upwards. Where the apex was today the second segment is tomorrow; what today...

    • Chapter 5 Embodiment and the Outside
      (pp. 156-195)

      The weekly newspaper The Onion once ran the following headline: “Report: U.S. May Have Been Abused During Formative Years.” The report was issued, it said, by leading psychologists who claimed that the United States showed symptoms of childhood mistreatment: difficulty forming lasting relationships, deep paranoia, a penchant for intimidation in resolving disputes. Because of “trust issues” stemming from the abuse, claimed the alleged lead author of the study, “America has become withdrawn, has not made an ally in years, and often resents the few nations that are willing to lend support”—all dangerously immature behavior for a nation 230 years...

    • Chapter 6 The Culture and Its Loaded Words
      (pp. 196-232)

      In interviews Don DeLillo has insisted that the dialogues in his novels display speech as it actually falls from the lips of people, but readers haven’t always agreed. Perhaps the most hostile, or at least well-publicized, disagreement was voiced by B. R. Myers in his 2001 “manifesto” against contemporary fiction. After describing DeLillo as a novelist of limited gifts, full of spurious profundity, and downright silly, Myers selected a slice of dialogue from White Noise—in which Jack Gladney and his wife say repeatedly that they want what’s best for the other—as an example of the “long conversations of...

  8. Conclusion: Person and Presence, Stories and Theories
    (pp. 233-246)

    At one of the many bustling parties depicted in William Gaddis’s massive mid-century novel The Recognitions (1955), Esther, one of the main characters in the book, is introduced by someone named Buster Brown to someone named Mr. Crotcher, who describes himself as a writer.

    —My book has been translated into nineteen languages.

    —I must know it, Esther said.—I must know of it.

    —Doubt it, said the modest author.—Never been published.

    —But you said . . .

    —I’ve translated it myself. Nineteen languages. Only sixty-six more to go, not counting dialects. . . . It’s Celtic now. . ....

  9. Index
    (pp. 247-254)