THE MYSTERIES OF IDENTITY: A Theme in Modern Literature by Robert Langbaum

THE MYSTERIES OF IDENTITY: A Theme in Modern Literature

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With meditations on identity in vogue, Robert Langbaum's book should attract many readers bent on unriddling the riddle of the modern self. And they will be rewarded, for he handily interweaves psychological theory and literary criticism to deepen understanding of both ""the subject of identity"" and ""the literary works under discussion."" Recognizing that a preoccupation with identity (the stable, unified self) presupposes a threat to it, Langbaum--like many others--say that threat arose with the dissociation of thought and feeling, mind and body in the 17th and 18th centuries. Then, taking Wordsworth as exemplar of the Romantic quest for wholeness, he passes to the post-Romantic abandonment of the quest. Matthew Arnold shows us ""the encroaching death of self"" through his estrangement from nature and society; T.S. Eliot portrays the diminishing modern self who then seeks cure in religion; but Samuel Beckett sees no cure, for ""identity in Beckett approaches zero"" in his solipsistic isolation. Yet there are affirmative modernist versions of identity, and these elicit Langbaum's praise and his lengthiest analyses. Yeats saw through the fleeting appearances of modernity to a ""mythical identity"" that recreates itself in many forms and lives--his mysticism is thus a religion of art and identity. D.H. Lawrence also found identity underlying the broken surface, but he found it in natural instinct: the authentic and enduring self is the sexual self. By analyzing six authors closely, if quite conventionally and unpretentiously, instead of surveying many at a distance, Langbaum lends needed substance (as did Lionel Trilling in Sincerity and Authenticity) to that familiar idea: ""the spiritual problem of our time is a problem of identity.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1977
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press