Current Reading 2: Self-Fashioning & The Western Tradition

This is part two of my current reading for my comprehensive exams. I’m reading on self-fashioning and modernism; the title of the three lists together is “The Role of Text in the Formation of Identity.” My reading list follows my introductory essay.


The title of this list is “Influences on Modernism: Bringing Selves Into Being Through Writing.” It should be read as a narrative of sorts, beginning with the didactic and pedagogical traditions of classical Greece and Rome, and ending at the point where the modernist period (and my readings in modernism) begin. The narrative describes the history of a conflict between performative and recollective accounts of the role of text in the formation of identity. This conflict begins with the split between the rhetorical teachings of the Sophists, and philosophy as defined by Plato and represented as anamnesis. Although the logic of both sides of the debate was developed and complicated over time, the apparent linearity of this narrative is deceptive, as authors frequently drew on older parts of this philosophical and literary canon in opposing the tendencies of their time. Naturally, the strategy of calling for a “revival” of particular texts (especially classical texts), and a revival of the practices of reading and writing with which those texts were associated, was frequently part of an argument for the revival of a forgotten and valuable selfhood.

The included texts by Homer are there because of the centrality of the myth of Homeric pedagogy: every Greek child memorized Homer, and this act of learning was understood then and afterwards as the condition of possibility for a coherent Greek demos and the establishment of democracy. This model is not yet troubled by the problem of authenticity; nor, for that matter, are the Lives of Plutarch, which translate the lives of noteworthy men into didactic textual models. For Plutarch, a society is made by its exemplary individuals.

For the authors of subsequent texts on self-fashioning, Homer and Plutarch stood as models of an originary subjective wholeness and the sublation of performativity and inner truth. However, that wholeness is generally experienced as inaccessible when it recurs. It was supplanted by the Platonic model of the critical divide between the truth of the authentic subject, exemplified by the character of Socrates, and the rhetorical pedagogy of the Sophists. For example, Henry David Thoreau will bring only Homer with him into the woods, not as a sign of solidarity with the other citizens of Concord, but rather as the sign of an authentic rejection of the decadent profusion of other texts.

Once Plato has identified and dramatized the crisis of subjectivity through his own use of dialogic form – the authentic Socrates in dialogue with Athenian antagonists — the tradition of rhetorical pedagogy becomes increasingly local and concerned with context. Aristotle and Cicero cede to Plato the impossibility of opposing a unified rhetoric to the authentic unity of the Socratic subject, so they begin to contextualize rhetoric in terms of specific audiences. These include theatrical audiences in Aristotle’s Poetics, and the audience of statesmen in the Rhetoric and in Cicero’s De Oratore. The rhetorical study of audience and context will lead to the foregrounding of scene as the interpretive context for both texts and selves. In later works by Machiavelli and Castiglione, for example, the scene of the Italian court becomes an inheritor of Cicero and Aristotle’s studies of the assembly. Ultimately, writers and philosophers will contrast public scenes of rhetorical display with self-enclosed scenes of reading and writing. From the Poetics onward, drama and dramatis personae serve as metaphorical complements to the theatrical locative of the scene.

The reception of these classical texts has always been supplemented by the hermeneutical and exegetical traditions of Judeo-Christian religious thought. These traditions are, of course, deeply concerned with the relationship between text and identity, and text and praxis. We owe some of the most comprehensive analyses of the role of imitation in the reception of text to this tradition, for example. I have nonetheless had to exclude most religious writing from this list. The range and volume of religious texts is too great, and sometimes too tangential to the history of literary and philosophical developments in the thinking of self-fashioning. Furthermore, the relationship between literary texts (as opposed to Scripture) and self-fashioning ends by contesting that absolute hierarchy of texts which is necessary to the religious doctrine of divine authorship: hence the ambiguities of Milton’s superadded justification of religion in Paradise Lost. In order to indicate how the tradition of religious scholarship infiltrates and influences the tradition of self-fashioning, I have juxtaposed St. Augustine and Geoffrey Chaucer. Augustine sets the stage for Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s confessional method of regaining authenticity by divesting oneself of all that is artificial, and returning to Nature. In Platonic terms, this is the recollection of what is natural. Chaucer, by contrast, foregrounds accident, and opposes the accidents of experience to the teleological accounts of arrival, reunion, and return. He does so through a catalog of stories told “along the way” to Canterbury.

For the remainder of the list, the decisive figure is Rousseau. Rousseau gives the most prescient account of the Platonic crisis of authenticity, and locates the struggle for authenticity within every individual, as well as between individuals within the larger society. Rousseau lays the groundwork for the Romantic representation of Nature as the site of authenticity, and also provides a vocabulary for the “evil” and “decadent” urban writing of Baudelaire and Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. Rousseau’s interpretation of Plutarch will be contested by Boswell’s attempt to be Plutarch by writing the biography of the anti-Rousseauean Johnson. Rousseau also tries to equate the achievement of democracy with the achievement of authenticity through the mediation of culture. This move will inspire Matthew Arnold, John Stuart Mill, and John Ruskin along similar lines. Lastly, by associating authentic culture with the culture of sentimentality, Rousseau establishes the opposition between sentimentality and irony (with irony as that which must be overcome) that so crucially informs works by Choderlos de Laclos and Gustave Flaubert, as well as the category of the “modern” insofar as it is characteristically ironic.

It is difficult, in giving an account of this nature, to avoid subjecting authors like Plato and Rousseau to derision, since the notion of authenticity has been so comprehensively critiqued in the last century. It is inevitable that the language of performativity and the critique of sentimentality should permeate descriptions of Plato’s Dialogues, Rousseau’s Émile, and the rest. My aim is not to prove or disprove the theoretical positions in play; rather, it is to thoroughly read those texts that contributed to the whole dialectic of authenticity and rhetorical performance. This dialectic always bears the trace of a fall from catholicity, a textual catholicity symbolized by Homer and the myth of a universal pedagogical standard.


I. Classical Exemplars: Greece and Rome

Nicomachean Ethics

De Oratore

On The Sublime

The Odyssey
The Iliad



II. Confession Vs. Experience: The Middle Ages

Augustine, Saint

Chaucer, Geoffrey
The Canterbury Tales

III. Self-Fashioning In and Out of Court: The Renaissance

Castiglione, Baldesar
The Book of the Courtier

Machiavelli, Niccolo
The Prince

Montaigne, Michel de
Complete Essays

Shakespeare, William
Henry IV, Parts I and II
As You Like It
Twelfth Night

IV. Confession Vs. Experience Redux: The Restoration

Boswell, James
The Life of Samuel Johnson

Congreve, William
The Way of the World

Diderot, Denis
Rameau’s Nephew

Laclos, Choderlos de
Les Liaisons Dangereuses

Milton, John
Paradise Lost

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques
The Social Contract and The Discourse on Inequality

Sade, Marquis de

V. The Self at the Scene of Writing: Romanticism

Bernstein, J.M. (editor)
Classic and Romantic German Aesthetics

Blake, William
Selected Poetry and Prose Poetry

Byron, Lord
Don Juan
Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von
Faust, Part 1
Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship

Keats, John

Schiller, Friedrich
The Robbers

Shelley, Percy Bysshe
Selected Poetry
Selected Prose

Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft

Wollstonecraft, Mary
A Vindication of the Rights of Women

Wordsworth, William
The Prelude

VI. Self-Reliance and Self-Improvement: 19th Century America

Adams, Henry
The Education of Henry Adams

Douglass, Frederick
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave

Emerson, Ralph Waldo
Selected Essays
Representative Men

James, William
The Varieties of Religious Experience

Thoreau, Henry David

Whitman, Walt
Selected Poems

VII. The Threat of Mass Culture: 19th Century Europe

Arnold, Matthew
Selected Prose
Culture and Anarchy

Baudelaire, Charles
Selected Essays

Dostoevsky, Fyodor
Notes from Underground

du Maurier, George

Flaubert, Gustave
Madame Bovary

Huysmans, J. K.
Against Nature (A Rebours)

Kierkegaard, Soren
Either/Or, Part One

Mill, John Stuart
The Subjection of Women
On Liberty

Morris, William
Selected Prose

Pater, Walter
Marius the Epicurean
The Renaissance

Ruskin, John.
Selected Prose

Tolstoy, Leo
Selected Stories, including “The Death of Ivan Ilyich.”

Published on April 24, 2007 at 9:43 pm  Leave a Comment  

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