By the mid-1950s, when Saul Bellow published Seize the Day, French existentialism and the phenomenological view of humankind that underlies it had become popular enough in the United States and England for leading novelists to begin dealing critically with its fundamental assumptions. Taking as its starting point the critique of existentialism’s phenomenological background derived from Edmund Husserl and elaborated by Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre, Julius Rowan Raper’s Narcissus from Rubbledelves into the intellectual assumptions that lie behind eleven of the most influential and challenging novels created by Bellow, Thomas Pynchon, John Fowles, Jerzy Kosinski, John Barth, and Lawrence Durrell.
Raper sees the central conflict of twentieth-century humanistic inquiry as the modern opposition between psychology and philosophy. He dramatizes the competition in the novels between the phenomenological model of human behavior and a variety of models associated with psychoanalysis, especially those created by Sigmund Feud, Carl Jung, and Heinz Kohut. He argues that despite numerous efforts to fuse phenomenology and psychoanalysis, the two conceptions of personality have been fundamentally opposed to each other since Husserl’s original description of phenomenology.
The book underscores the irony that while much contemporary literary criticism continues to draw on a phenomenologically based view of character derived in part from the essays of Jacques Lacan, our leading novelists for a quarter century have been warning us in major novels such as Henderson the Rain King V.and The Magus of the rage, compulsiveness, emptiness, pointlessness, fragmentation, and associated dangers to which taking a phenomenological stance may contribute.
Raper finds that all six novelists worked through the intellectual maze that Freud called narcissism, as well as through the hazards of self-transcendence, to a new understanding of narcissism that is less judgmental and more perceptive than Freud’s earlier formulation. It is the struggle—first to comprehend the dangers of the self-transcending tendencies of our culture, and then to become completely true to ourselves beyond the roles imposed on us by life—that creates the drama Raper detects as the common component in the works studied in this book.
Raper’s approach offers exciting insights into some fascinating and difficult literary texts. By revealing the common concern on which they rest, he provides the reader with an illuminating way to approach other contemporary works of literature.
Julius Rowan Raper is professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the author of From the Sunken Garden: The Fiction of Ellen Glasgow and Without Shelter: The Early Career of Ellen Glasgow and editor of Ellen Glasgow’s Reasonable Doubts: A Collection of Her Writings.
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