Mysticism and the mind: Varieties of subjectivity in British and Irish fiction, 1860--1940 and beyond
by Pauza, Colleen Marie, Ph.D., UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, DAVIS, 2009, 307 pages; 3401498


This dissertation reconfigures the origins of the modernist conception of stream-of-consciousness subjectivity by linking its form to the emergence of a mystical element within the opaque epistemology of the mind. Beginning as early as the mid-nineteenth century, this narrative mysticism becomes apparent in the novels of George Eliot, whose fiction is fundamentally informed by the expanding discourse of spiritual, psychical, and psychological concerns that proceed to successively occupy such intellectuals as F. W. H. Myers, William James, Evelyn Underhill, and Sigmund Freud in the wake of Darwin's publication of The Origin of Species. I begin my study with an examination of the realist fiction of George Eliot, in an effort to locate traces of mystical elements in the narrative of Victorian fiction, which has traditionally been deemed on the other side of the epoch divide from modernist literature. My aim is to propose an opening between these two disciplinary fields of literary studies, in which I can situate my argument and reconfigure the origins of the modernist conception of stream-of-consciousness subjectivity.

As the central concern of my study, I examine the converging influences of mysticism and the mind, or individual consciousness, on the varieties of subjectivity discernable in modernist fiction. I argue that a broadly conceived interest in the mystical as both a spiritual and psychical construct becomes a preoccupation of modernist fiction that is notably evident within the work of Dorothy Richardson, James Joyce, and Samuel Beckett, leading to each author's various interpretations of an experimental narrative aesthetic - a variety of subjectivity - that arguably destabilizes the idea of a coherent self. Expanding the discourse surrounding modernism's fascination with materiality to include the cognitive insights offered by the mystical tradition allows for both a (re)placing of spiritual transcendence alongside the materialist contributions of fin de siècle psychology, and a (re)visioning of spirituality's uncanny situatedness within twentieth-century fiction - this latter point is explored within the late twentieth century fiction of Michael Ondaatje, as a coda to this study.

Situating the origins of stream of consciousness subjectivity within a larger cultural milieu is, I acknowledge, nothing new to the field of modernist studies. However, what I propose is new because other critics of modernism have neglected to align the earlier fin de siècle mania for mysticism, in both its secular and religious contexts, with the larger movement of literature towards innovations in narrative form that were - and still are - predicated on evolving explications of the self and the mind. Most studies of mysticism seek to explicate its interrelationship with the types of spiritualist practices that developed such a popular following from the mid-nineteenth through the early twentieth century, such as table-rapping, mesmerism, mediumship, séances, and astral travel. There are also a number of scholars who have explored the mystical as a general category of spiritualist practices historically deemed in some way aberrant (medically), irrational (philosophically), and/or subversive of traditional Christian teachings. Also, as a specific autobiographical genre, the mystic text has attracted writers and readers for centuries, even beyond the specific example of Saint Teresa of Avila, whose writings are still in print and immensely popular. She serves as an apt paradigm of support for my reading of Miriam Henderson and Molly Bloom as mystically modernist characters, since they too can be interpreted as reluctant participants in the author's new way of looking at the world.

From a philosophical viewpoint, and as an important element of medieval writings, mysticism has been a consistent topic of critical study. In contrast, the mystical novel, while rarely a pure form, is, according to Iris Murdoch, representative of man's "attempt to express a religious consciousness without the traditional trappings of religion…and reflects the uneasy suspicion that perhaps after all man is not God. One might connect this with our gradually changing consciousness of science [which] today is more likely to make us anxious than to make us proud" (Existentialists 225-6). Clearly, those who dabble in mysticism and its writings occupy an ambiguous space in terms of religious identity. Whether it is the avowed agnosticism of George Eliot, the self-imposed exile from Ireland (land of perpetual religious strife) of James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, or the open-minded pantheism of Dorothy Richardson, modernists sought their own piety outside of orthodox boundaries. Like the ambiguity surrounding these writers' reactions to the increasing alienation and materialism of the twentieth century world, the mystical modernists I study were of two minds: one undeniably tethered to the external, physical world, and one periodically glimpsing the transcendent universe through the mysterious medium of the mind.

SourceDAI/A 71-04, p. , Apr 2010
Source TypeDissertation
SubjectsModern literature; Philosophy of Religion; History of science; British and Irish literature
Publication Number3401498
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