Getting lost: Modes of disorientation in twentieth-century literature

by Ackerman, Ondrea E., Ph.D., COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY, 2009, 249 pages; 3386108


In the twentieth century, “getting lost” becomes an intentional, textual practice of writers such as James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Samuel Beckett, William Carlos Williams, and contemporary poet Robert Grenier. By “getting lost,” I mean two particular modes—one based in the text and the other based in the reading experience. In some works, characters get lost: in Ulysses, Leopold Bloom drifts aimlessly through the streets of Dublin, while in Beckett's trilogy, Molloy walks in circles through a forest. In others, the text loses its reader: Stein's compositions titled “France” and “England” become linguistic spaces in which readers wander, while Grenier's drawing poems subvert our expectations of what constitutes a poem.

Traditionally, when confronted with the displacements of wandering and digression in modernist literature, critics have either defiantly mapped these modernist narratives, untangling the spatio-temporal confusion created by the authors, or they have read these works as symptoms of a failed Enlightenment project and as the dissolution of the realist narrative. My dissertation, however, articulates a positive and generative potential in the experience of getting lost. Disorientation becomes a constructive methodological practice—a poesis, from the Greek, or act of making—that sets the reader and the text in motion.

Investigating modernism's techniques for mapping geographical space, I identify the productive tension that resonates between the commitment of these authors to some notion of place and their interest in textual strategies of displacement. Postmodernist literature typically dematerializes the world into a play of language in which there is no center—or as Stein famously writes, “there is no there there.” In modernist literature, however, there is still a world in which the center—the there—occurs. Getting lost always implies a geography—a space or a structure—from which to get lost. In Ulysses, there is a map; in Stein's work, there is a conventional grammar in place, however deviant; and in Grenier's drawing poems, the shape of the letter remains intact, however elusively or obliquely. Rather than being the story of fragmentation and of loss, modernism becomes instead the story of the moment in between orientation and disorientation.

AdviserMartin Puchner
Source TypeDissertation
SubjectsModern literature; Romance literature; American literature; English literature
Publication Number3386108

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