Redeeming Words: Language and the Promise of Happiness in the Stories of Döblin and Sebald (Suny Series, Intersections: Philosophy & Critical Theory)
David Michael Kleinberg-Levin
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Probing study of how literature can redeem the revelatory, redemptive powers of language.
In this probing look at Alfred Döblin’s 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz and the stories of W. G. Sebald, Redeeming Words offers a philosophical meditation on the power of language in literature. David Kleinberg-Levin draws on the critical theory of Benjamin and Adorno; the idealism and romanticism of Kant, Hegel, Hölderlin, Novalis, and Schelling; and the nineteenth- and twentieth-century thought of Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida. He shows how Döblin and Sebald—writers with radically different styles working in different historical moments—have in common a struggle against forces of negativity and an aim to bring about in response a certain redemption of language. Kleinberg-Levin considers the fast-paced, staccato, and hard-cut sentences of Döblin and the ghostly, languorous, and melancholy prose fiction of Sebald to articulate how both writers use language in an attempt to recover and convey this utopian promise of happiness for life in a time of mourning.
“Redeeming Words is an elegant, highly learned, and incisive exploration of how language—and thus the greatest literature of our time—both registers the experience of the loss of utopia and affirms hope by making the loss more clear. It takes as its theme the most profound reflections on the role of words in a time of abandonment and disenchantment. Kleinberg-Levin argues not only that words communicate this sense of loss but constitute it by failing to achieve total mastery and transparency and self-consciously thematizing the corruption and also affirmative power of words. At the deepest level, this study analyzes words and what the very existence of words can confer to individuals and communities.” — Peter Fritzsche, author of The Turbulent World of Franz Göll: An Ordinary Berliner Writes the Twentieth Century
by commerce and industry, the alteration of nature by roads, dams and irrigation channels, and the expansion of villages, cities, and pastures replacing forests did not arouse a critical consciousness urging them to question the values of their civilization, perhaps we should pause to consider the possibility that, precisely in the aesthetic idealization of the intersection of nature and history, precisely in images of classical beauty, nature and history in harmony and balance, that very
My translation. 8. Döblin, “Der Schriftsteller und der Staat,” in Schriften zur Ästhetik, Poetik und Literatur, 160. My translation. 9. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Le visible et l'invisible (Paris: Gallimard, 1964), 239; The Visible and the Invisible, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1968), 185. 10. Merleau-Ponty, op. cit., 247 in the French, 194 in the English. 11. Benjamin, “Die Bedeutung der Sprache in Trauerspiel und Tragödie,” Gesammelte Schriften (Frankfurt am
27. Friedrich Hölderlin, “Das Werden im Vergehen,” in Sämtliche Werke, ed. Paul Stapf (Berlin and Darmstadt: Tempel-Verlag, 1960), 1035–40; “Becoming in Dissolution,” in Friedrich Hölderlin: Essays and Letters on Theory, trans. and ed. Thomas Pfau (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988), 96–100. 28. Hölderlin, Hyperion, Sämtliche Werke, ed. Paul Stapf (Berlin and Darmstadt: Der Tempel-Verlag, 1960, 497 and 557; in Eric L. Santner (ed.), Hyperion and Selected Poems, ed. Eric L. Santner
Unnamable, in Three Novels: Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable. New York: Grove Press, n.d. Beckett, Samuel. Endgame. Translated by Samuel Beckett. New York: Grove Press, 1958. Beiser, Frederick C. The Romantic Imperative: The Concept of Early German Romanticism. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003. Beiser, Frederick C. Hegel. New York: Routledge, 2005. Benjamin, Walter. “Geschichtsphilosophische Thesen.” Schriften. 2 vols. Edited by Theodor Adorno and Gershom Scholem. Frankfurt am
the operations of a dialectic represented by the rational, providential interpretation of history. We are living in a time of the most intense disenchantment. But Hegel's philosophical narrative, its confession of belatedness in the interpretation of history-making events symbolically represented by the twilight flight of the owl of Minerva, was already haunted by the ghosts of the buried past, already troubled by its vision of the future, and already addressing a time of crisis and mourning.