Spirit Disfigured: The Persistence of Freedom in the Modernist Novel

Date of Award

Spring 2022

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Comparative Literature

First Advisor

Hägglund, Martin


The modernist novel has often been read as an apolitical expression of dissatisfaction with bourgeois modernity. From Kafka to Beckett, the modernists are taken to champion a transcendent condition beyond the straitjacket of society, body, and self. Against this interpretive tradition, my dissertation draws on recent work in philosophy on conceptuality and affect as well as animality and social recognition to develop a new account of the politics of form in modernist fiction. First, the project shows that the idea of a free, self-determining subjectivity is not—as has often been argued—defeated in or left behind by the modernist novel. Rather, the works of Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann, and Samuel Beckett express both the failure and the promise of the modern ideal of a free life. Second, the project seeks to extend G.W.F. Hegel’s theory of art as a distinctive form of social knowledge to the riddle of modernist experimentation, arguing that—if the riddle is to be solved—we must supplement Hegel’s account with a critical theory of capitalism. Through close readings of three major works from the high and late modernist periods—Kafka’s The Trial, Mann’s The Magic Mountain, and Beckett’s “trilogy”—the dissertation shows how the modernist critique of tradition and convention (in particular, of realism) both embodies the ideal of autonomy and manifests the crisis of agency under the conditions of advanced capitalism. The project reads each of these works as a self-knowing, critical account of a pivotal moment in the history of modernity: the subsumption of politics, labor, and art itself under capital. To this end, the dissertation explores the status and authority of three core categories underpinning modern notions of autonomy and spontaneity: law, life, and narrative. By vividly representing the impossibility of just laws, material satisfaction, and a coherent narrative sense of self in a class society, Kafka, Mann, and Beckett make palpable the absence of practices and institutions conducive to our flourishing. Drawing on Hegel’s radicalization of Kant’s foundational understanding of freedom as self-legislation, I contest the dominant reading of Kafka’s The Trial, which holds that law as such is a negative restriction. In contrast, I show how Kafka’s novel reveals the law as constitutive of any possible social form, whether alienated or emancipated. The Trial is an extended allegory for the ways in which we are dominated in modernity by laws we ourselves legislate. By the same token, the novel brings to light the possibility of an emancipatory transformation of the law, pointing beyond the coercive laws of the capitalist state to rational social roles with which we could fully identify. In The Magic Mountain, Mann in turn confronts the nineteenth-century Bildungsroman with the fateful results of its vision of free individuality, which is depicted as the product of a humanistic education apart from the world of work. The process of Bildung on the mountain in the novel produces a sickly intelligentsia powerless to act, who abandon the body politic to the predations of capital and the horrors of imperialist war. At the same time, The Magic Mountain envisions an alternative conception of Bildung, which seeks to reconcile spirit and life rather than overcome life in favor of a disembodied spirit. Reading Mann’s novel in tandem with the modern scientific and philosophical discourse on the form of the living, I demonstrate a twofold insight at the heart of The Magic Mountain. On the one hand, the novel enables us to see how embodiment, finitude, and desire are not fallen conditions but constitutive of any possible freedom. On the other hand, the novel shows us why embodiment comes to be regarded as a “sickness,” owing to the seeming inescapability of material dissatisfaction under capitalist conditions. If law and life are inseparable aspects of self-determining subjectivity, then narrative designates the ongoing activity whereby living beings bind themselves to laws, giving their lives form across time. In my final chapter, I analyze Beckett’s late modernist experiment, the “trilogy,” as a profound work of meta-fiction, a series of novels about novel-writing that discloses the deep historical obstacles to successful self-narration. I show that the modernist pursuit of an autonomous novel culminates in a reflective return to naturalism and a late “literature of crisis.” In this work, the novel attains to “absolute knowledge” of the embodied and historical status of narrative meaning—but at the high cost of a generalized anxiety over its continued possibility under late capitalism.

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