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Aristotle and Modernism

Aesthetic Affinities of T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and Virginia Woolf

Edna G. Rosenthal completed her M.Phil. in modern literature at St. Antony’s College, Oxford (1978), and her Ph.D. at Bar-Ilan University, Israel (2004). She teaches English at the Kibbutzim College of Education, Tel Aviv, and is currently associate editor of The European Legacy: Toward New Paradigms.

The discussion of literary modernism from the perspective of the history of Aristotelian aesthetics enhances our understanding of these authors, both as individual writer-critics and as a representative group of modernists, as well as deepening our appreciation of critical history and of the abiding relevance and resonance of Aristotle’s Poetics.

Aristotle and Modernism examines literary modernism in its relation to the history of criticism by analyzing the role of Aristotelian principles, primarily the notion of formal affectivism, in the critical writings of these three modernists who have invariably been thought to uphold incompatible aesthetic beliefs. Whereas Eliot saw himself as a classicist modernist, Stevens and Woolf shared a marked anticlassicist stance. Despite their initially incompatible attitudes to literary history and criticism, this study discloses their convergence on the Aristotelian notion of formal affectivism, demonstrated through specific conceptual shifts.

In an original approach the author seeks a ‘diachronic’ solution to a ‘synchronic’ problem – the debate about the Modern, reflected in the claims and counterclaims made by the modernists themselves and by subsequent literary critics and theorists. This methodology is largely dictated by the nature of the subject – the adversarial critical orientation of Eliot, Stevens, and Woolf, who have never been studied as a group before, and the attempt to reconcile their differences by reconfiguring them in terms of the Aristotelian critical tradition. The result is a conclusive demonstration of how Eliot incorporated central Aristotelian dramatic principles into his view of literary history and criticism, and, similarly, how both Stevens and Woolf, through historically determined conceptual shifts, implicitly endorse and use formal affectivism and dramatic criteria, which, as may be expected, they almost never refer back to Aristotle or to his foremost modernist defender, Eliot.

Discussion of literary modernism from the perspective of the history of Aristotelian aesthetics enhances understanding of these authors, both as individual writer-critics and as a representative group of modernists, as well as deepening appreciation of critical history and the abiding relevance of Aristotle’s Poetics.

Hardback ISBN: 978-1-84519-171-9
Hardback Price: £55.00 / $75.00
Release Date: May 2008
Page Extent / Format: 236 pp. / 229 x 152 mm
Illustrated: No



1. What’s New in Eliot’s Aristotle?

2. Aristotle and the Puzzling Case of Wallace Stevens

3. Aristotle and Virginia Woolf’s Modern Sublime

4. Ethos and Pathos in Mrs Dalloway



The most valuable of this book’s many insights is that Virginia Woolf’s elevation of character over plot was as ‘classicist’ a gesture as any made by the author of Ulysses. What Woolf meant by ‘character’ is not far from what Aristotle meant by ‘action’. In making this counterintuitive but well-demonstrated point, Edna Rosenthal’s book is an irenic accomplishment of high order. It shows that Woolf, Wallace Stevens, and other supposed anti-classicists are part of the same modernist family as Eliot, Pound, and Joyce.
 Jeffrey M. Perl, Bar Ilan University, author of The Tradition of Return: The Implicit History of Modern Literature and Skepticism and Modern Enmity: Before and After Eliot; Founding Editor, Common Knowledge

Who would have thought that by inserting Aristotle’s Poetics into modernist aesthetic debates one could do so much towards healing the ‘dissociated sensibility’ of modernism itself? Many of its and our passionate critical wrangles – ‘neo-modernists’ vs. ‘paleo-modernists’, Carlos Williams vs. Eliot, Pound vs. Stevens – come to look merely epiphenomenal in the light of Edna Rosenthal’s searching analysis of the shared Aristotelian underpinnings of T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens and Virginia Woolf. A rare critical imagination here casts our debates about modernism on to a new plane of sophistication.
Tony Pinkney, University of Lancaster, author of Women in the Poetry of T.S. Eliot: A Psychoanalytical Approach and editor of Raymond Williams’s The Politics of Modernism

In what may be considered a contrarian critique, Goldman-Rozental applies the principles of Aristotle’s Poetics to rarely grouped writers of the classicist or modernist label attached to Eliot, Stevens, and Woolf. In chapters informed by Frank Kermode’s distinction in his seminal 1960s essay The Modernist between ‘impersonal’ paleo- and ‘personalist’ neo-modernists writers, and other critical theory, she attempts to reconcile Eliot’s paleo-modernism and Stevens’ and Woolf’s neo-modernism.
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