Date of Award

Spring 5-15-2011

Author's School

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Author's Department

English and American Literature

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Type



The critical history of Modernism has long asserted a connection between Modernist literature and war. Studies as diverse as Paul Fussell's "The Great War and Modern Memory," Vincent Sherry's "The Great War and the Language of Modernism," and Modris Ecksteins' "Rites of Spring" all maintain that Modernism responds, whether in subject matter or poetic structure, to the conditions of worldwide conflict. This dissertation contends that Modernist literature encountered a fundamental deadlock in its attempt to address the violence that surrounded it, a deadlock experienced because the act of writing is itself founded on violence. The compositional necessity of prioritization and selection means that writing is, in principle, based on what poet and critic Allen Grossman has called a "bitter logic" of representation--a way of writing in which "this must be before that, or such that this be because of that, or such that this be and not that"--a logic that participated in the economy of violence to which many Modernist writers were opposed. I contend that one of the key, if unacknowledged, features of Modernist literature is its attempt to manage this "bitter logic" and that the structural congruity between the violence of writing and the violence of war makes its successful management an especially urgent concern in literature of the time. The three figures on which Failing Better focuses--Samuel Beckett, Gertrude Stein, and Jacques Lacan--deactivated the violent logic of representation by adopting an aesthetics of failure. Placing these writers in the intellectual climate of interwar Paris, I argue that the work of each accepts the fact that language necessarily misses its mark and thus turns to seriality--the possibility of beginning again after a failed attempt--as a strategy for alleviating the anxiety of leaving something out. In focusing on the literary possibilities of a gesture that must be repeated because it fails, my project offers an alternative to the longstanding view of Modernism as a collection of large-scale literary projects whose all-inclusiveness is at odds with the compositional necessity of prioritization and selection. Arguing for the complementarity, during the interwar period, of fields as diverse as psychoanalysis and literature, my research also contests critical approaches that simply apply the insights of one to the other. I argue, instead, that Beckett, Stein, and Lacan were engaged in compatible projects that, in their capacity to tarry with the productive potential of failure, recalculate the speaking subject's power to say what she wants.


English (en)

Chair and Committee

Steven Meyer

Committee Members

Guinn Batten, Robert Henke, Lutz Koepnick, Anca Parvulescu


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Available for download on Friday, May 15, 2111