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Mildenberg Ariane, Modernism and Phenomenology: Literature, Philosophy, Art

London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017
Xavier Le Brun
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Lidenberg Ariane, Modernism and Phenomenology: Literature, Philosophy, Art. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017 (xvi + 183 pages). ISBN : 978-1-349-59251-7

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1The interplay between modernism and phenomenology, which is at the heart of Ariane Mildenberg’s essay, can hardly pass as a new subject: in the case of a major modernist such as Virginia Woolf—to whom Mildenberg devotes one of the chapters of her book—numerous studies have already drawn the parallel and called attention to the relevance of phenomenology in understanding modernist writing. Paradoxically enough, this seemingly well-attested kinship, as well as the theoretical complexities inherent to phenomenology itself, may well be the reason why so few studies have attempted a large-scale exploration of the subject, focusing not only on the work of a particular author but on the common dynamics that weave together—or ‘braid’, to use Mildenberg’s term—the tenets of phenomenology and the assumptions about reality and art shared by modernist writers or painters.

2This is precisely what Ariane Mildenberg sets out to do: although her analysis is concerned with works by a number of carefully selected writers (Stein, Kafka, Woolf), painters (Klee, Cézanne) and poets (Wallace Stevens, Gerard Manley Hopkins), these examples always contribute to highlight a certain commonality of purpose between phenomenology and modernism. This approach—which stands in contrast with the more usual ‘top-down’ strategy of phenomenology-driven studies that seek to gain a better understanding of particular authors—leads her to formulate a number of very interesting and far-reaching propositions.

3The main argument developed by Mildenberg is that modernism and phenomenology reacted to the same crisis of modernity and explore human experience in a similar manner. In that sense, they are interlaced, entangled, or even verflochten—a term that belongs to Husserl’s phenomenological vocabulary and that Mildenberg translates as ‘braided’. The exact object of this braiding, and the common point between Kafka and Heidegger, or Woolf and Merleau-Ponty, is subjective experience. Both modernism and phenomenology are concerned with pre-reflective or pre-theoretical experience—in other words, with the lived, non-dualistic communion between subject and world.

4This central thesis is laid out in the first chapter of the book, along with supporting arguments. Most notably, Mildenberg establishes a parallel between modernist epiphanies—the moments of understanding or pure being experienced by fictional characters in Joyce, Woolf or other modernists—and phenomenological reduction, the action of ‘bracketing’ our ordinary assumptions about the world so as to return, as Husserl urged, to the ‘things themselves’. In both cases the ordinary sheds its objectified guise and reveals its more profound and unmediated nature. Although one could object that reduction, or epoché, is a conscious pursuit of the essence of things while epiphanies are moments of spontaneous, and often bewildering, revelation—and that they thus imply two vastly different attitudes to the world—the comparison is illuminating and essential.

5The remaining four chapters, all of which (except for chapter 4) comprise a number of case studies connected by a loose thematic thread, are devoted to the exploration of various aspects of the ‘braiding’ of phenomenology and modernism. Chapter 2 probes into pre-reflective experience as found in works by Cézanne (the still lifes with apples and vessels painted between 1890 and 1900), Stein (‘Apple’, from Tender Buttons) and Kafka (Metamorphosis). Taking her cue from Merleau-Ponty’s analysis of Cézanne in Eye and Mind, Mildenberg relates the former’s concern for unearthing the ‘flesh of the world’—the chiasmic entanglement between perceiver and perceived—to the latter’s challenge to our usual way of looking at the world: Cézanne’s objects, curbing perspective and defying geometry, return us to the ‘primitiveness of experience’ phenomenology strove to uncover. The primitiveness aimed at in Stein, Mildenberg argues, is linguistic, and the prose poems of Tender Buttons seek to regain the original meaning in signifiers which prosaic, matter-of-fact uses of language have made rigid or trivial. In this respect, Stein addresses a crisis in representation, which directly parallels the epistemological crisis identified by Husserl in European sciences. Their answers too are similar: the call for ‘radical new beginnings’. If Cézanne and Stein are associated respectively with Merleau-Ponty and Husserl, Kafka’s Metamorphosis is related to the thought of Heidegger, and in particular to the concept of Ruinanz, ‘a form of corruption or ruination by way of modernity and technological progress’. Gregor Samsa’s transformation into an insect allows a questioning of experience itself; it ‘brackets’ or suspends the accepted mode of relation to the world and is thus described by Mildenberg as ‘counter-ruinant’. In all three cases, an epoché of sorts is performed which disrupts the objectifying gaze and presents us with the unfamiliar at the heart of everyday experience and language.

6Chapter 3, while extending to the work of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Wallace Stevens and Paul Klee the conclusions Mildenberg has already arrived at, shifts the focus to the issue of the passage from experience to expression, and foregrounds a form of ‘sacred secularity’ found in Hopkins and Stevens. For these poets, as for Husserl, the transcendental is now to be found in the everyday—for instance in the flight of the kestrel in Hopkins’ ‘The Windhover’. This new proximity of the ‘thing itself’, however, comes with its own dilemma: for how to convey within language what essentially predates language and relational meaning in general? Avowedly, in Mildenberg’s account, there is no bridging the gap: modernists highlight the meaning-giving process implied in language, so that ‘what “The Windhover” does catch is the transition from experience to language’, rather than the original sense impression.

7In a departure from the preceding ones, chapter 4 is devoted entirely to a single author, Virginia Woolf, and to The Waves in particular. Mildenberg here returns to Merleau-Ponty’s concepts of ‘flesh’ and chiasmic ‘fold’ to describe the interlacing that binds the six voices of the novel while abolishing dualistic oppositions such as inner / outer or subject / object. The final chapter, turning to the notion of ‘hyperdialectic’, also gives prominence to the thought of Merleau-Ponty, but this time weaving together references to all the modernists discussed over the course of the preceding sections. In a movement which echoes her own findings, Mildenberg thus binds or ‘braids’ the different threads in her study. The hyperdialectic—‘a dialectic without synthesis’, a continuous movement of questioning, which itself is never removed from the flow of experience—here contributes to evidence the modernists’ refusal of closure, their desire never to ‘freeze’ reality in an objective set of representations. Quite evidently, Mildenberg herself is careful to emulate this strategy in a conclusive chapter which feeds back her observations about Stein, Klee, Kafka Woolf, Stevens and Hopkins into a renewed inquiry—her own hyperdialectic.

8The strengths of Ariane Mildenberg’s study are undeniable. It is precise in its handling of phenomenological concepts while steering clear of technical complexities, and thus remaining perfectly accessible to the uninitiated. Mildenberg is keen to dispel longstanding misunderstandings as to the nature of key phenomenological concepts, such as the reduction—often equated with a form of introspection or estrangement from the outside world. Most importantly, she is unambiguous in her use of phenomenology, which she refuses to see as a ‘theoretical tool’ that would unlock the secrets of modernist texts or paintings. As always, the temptation is great to look at works of art as if they were somehow expressive of a given philosophical position—instead of expressing their own position. Mildenberg avoids the pitfall and devotes herself to the more decisive task of mapping the ‘common ground’ that unites modernism and phenomenology. In this respect, she engages into an archaeological pursuit, in the sense of Michel Foucault, delineating the shared épistémè on which Woolf’s fiction, Husserl’s philosophy or Cézanne’s painting all rest.

9However, the relatively accessible character of Mildenberg’s study does come with an emphasis on Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, to the detriment of the often more obscure thought of Heidegger or even Husserl. Although it never feels like such insistence weakens Mildenberg’s argument, taking the parallel between modernism and phenomenology further away from the well-trodden path of the Merleau-Pontian comparison might have served its originality. Again, this must not mask the fact that some of the analyses in Modernism and Phenomenology provide enlightening insight into a subject that is too often dismissed as hackneyed or—worse still—self-evident. Mildenberg seems at her best when, in a truly phenomenological or modernist way, she disrupts such self-evidence and establishes connections that feel both compelling and fresh, such as the one between the epiphany and the epoché, or between free indirect speech and the dissolution of the subject-object split in phenomenology. At such moments, the literary and artistic is truly folded over—or braided into—the philosophical, and the other way round.

10Among the other accomplishments of the essay is the recurrence of close readings of modernist texts, such as Stein’s ‘Apple’ or Hopkins’ ‘The Windhover’. The detailed linguistic analyses offered by Mildenberg are captivating and prove instrumental in effectively grounding her general demonstration. Finally, this demonstration would not have been as forceful if it hadn’t included references to Klee and Cézanne, whose work is shown to engage in similar questionings as those which fuel modernist novels or poems: by adopting this larger, transdisciplinary scope, Mildenberg evidences the cohesion within modernist practices—and thus within the general épistémè out of which both modernism and phenomenology emerged.

11In fact, the principal objection one could form against Modernism and Phenomenology is a direct consequence of how well it succeeds in its task. As part of the ‘Modernism and. . .’ series at Palgrave Macmillan, the main focus of Ariane Mildenberg’s study is modernism itself: she is concerned first and foremost with Woolf, Stein, Cézanne and the other writers, poets and painters she selects for discussion, while Husserl, Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger never steal the limelight. Although this is in line with the context of Palgrave’s series, the point made by Mildenberg is such that one can’t help wondering at this limitation. Indeed, why explore the braiding of modernism and phenomenology from the sole perspective of modernism, and not from that of phenomenology? Can’t Kafka, Stevens or Klee crop up into a reading of The Visible and the Invisible or Being and Time? Can’t stream of consciousness and the use of multiple perspectives in modernist works serve as valuable points of reference in an exploration of Husserlian intersubjectivity, much as the hyperdialectic and the phenomenological reduction in the case of modernist writing and painting? Although these questions fall out of the remit of Modernism and Phenomenology, they are the sign of how stimulating Ariane Mildenberg’s approach proves to be.

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Xavier Le Brun, « Mildenberg Ariane, Modernism and Phenomenology: Literature, Philosophy, Art »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 57 | 2019, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2019, consulté le 08 mai 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Xavier Le Brun

Université d’Angers

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Études britanniques contemporaines est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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