Publication details [#6931]

Kress, Jill M. 1998. The figure of consciousness: William James, Henry James and Edith Wharton. Rochester, N.Y.. 252 pp.


Through attention to philosophical, psychological, and literary texts, this dissertation explores the discourse of consciousness at the turn of the century. The significance of consciousness for the culture of the mind in modern literature has been well established; yet this study reveals the profound ways in which metaphor constructs its narrative. The psychology of William James and the novels of Henry James and Edith Wharton craft careful enclosures for the self's "interior" at the same time generating a procession of images which cannot be contained. What these works share, in their repeated attempts to understand the mind through figurative representation, is a deep ambivalence about the multiplying tendency of metaphors, emerging as they do out of the social and cultural domain. The metaphors prove significant precisely because figurative language becomes a means to build identity, to render accessible the self. Yet a shift in metaphor embodies a shift in concept: the unstable nature of metaphor is the fundamental problem of articulating identity. Figures for consciousness, at once, direct us inward to a stable, individualized core and propel us outward into the flux of the natural world. My reading of psychological scientists such as Lewes and Spencer, who follow Darwin and Wallace, anticipates the pattern of William James's conflicting metaphors as well as his compulsion to portray consciousness even when he questions its existence. Despite grounding in the natural sciences, evolutionary psychology often generates ethereal symbols for consciousness, preserving its elusiveness by making it metaphysical. The novels of James and Wharton dramatize the contest between private subject and socialized self, complicating the sacredness of individuality; thus the rhetoric of a natural or "real" self opposes a consciousness identical to social texture. This study formulates a fuller understanding of the direction that metaphor creates for these narratives as well as the significance of figurative language in different discourses. Reading consciousness as it materializes through metaphors of nature and place, social categories and spiritual essences, we discover both the precarious work of authoring selves into the world, and the regenerative power of metaphor to remake them. (Dissertation Abstracts)