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Jennifer L. Fleissner, Maladies of the Will: The American Novel and the Modernity Problem

Russell Sbriglia
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Jennifer L. Fleissner, Maladies of the Will: The American Novel and the Modernity Problem, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2022, 480 p., ISBN: 9780226822020, £84.00.

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1Philosophical approaches to nineteenth-century American literature have in recent years trended heavily in the direction of the various posthumanisms that have come to shape much of the landscape in contemporary literary and critical theory more broadly. Jennifer Fleissner’s Maladies of the Will: The American Novel and the Modernity Problem is perhaps the best counterexample—and antidote—to this trend. In one of the most comprehensive and erudite Americanist contributions to the field of literature and philosophy in quite some time, Fleissner challenges many of the assumptions underwriting the currently regnant posthumanist paradigm. She does so, however, not by championing the notions of imperial selfhood and sovereign subjectivity against which critical posthumanisms position themselves, but rather by revealing that such triumphalist notions of selfhood and subjectivity are presentist inventions, that (to strike a Latourian note) we have never been sovereign, imperial selves. Traversing a daunting landscape of literary, philosophical, and psychological texts and traditions with remarkable ease, Fleissner reveals that “we have been wrong about the modern individual” (xv), that despite assaults on the category of human subjectivity for its “presumed grandiosity,” the nineteenth-century American novel demonstrates time and again that “being a subject […] is a rather embarrassing affair” (13).

2As the book’s title suggests, the primary concept through which Fleissner approaches the “embarrassing” status of subjectivity is the will. Against “triumphalist construal[s] of what ‘will’ actually meant” (11) in the nineteenth century, Fleissner demonstrates, by way of careful close readings of “philosophically inclined” (18) novels of the era—a far from exhaustive list of which includes Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Melville’s Moby-Dick, Stoddard’s The Morgesons, Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition, James’s The Ambassadors, and Norris’s Vandover and the Brute—that American authors considered the will a problematic agency prone to various “maladies.” The aforementioned novels (and more) on which Fleissner focuses throughout the book are not rife with “Victorian idealizations of human will” (1); on the contrary, drawing on and complementing a philosophical tradition for which a “more wayward will forms a persistent crux” (17)—a tradition that extends from Pauline and Augustinian notions of the will as “subject to irrational tendencies that could prove harmful for self-preservation” (xvi) to Romantic and vitalist notions of the will as a “kind of pathologized excess” (154) located at the heart of the subject, undermining it from within—these novels, Fleissner shows, are far more attentive to “the will’s inherent perversity” (1). Indeed, contrary to “the ‘rational autonomous subject’ against which so many of our current posthuman endeavors pitch their interventions” (xii), these novels feature split subjects very much in the vein of Poe’s subjects of “perverseness,” subjects undermined by the very will that critical posthumanism accuses nineteenth-century thinkers of worshiping as a sacred fount of “absolute self-sovereignty” (xvi). In drawing attention to these perverse, non-sovereignty-based theories of the will, Maladies not only reconceptualizes the nineteenth-century American novel—itself no small feat given that, as Fleissner correctly notes, “novel theorists tend to ignore American examples” and Americanists, in turn, tend to have “little interest in theorizing the novel” (17)—it also prompts us to revise “our understanding of the modern individual” (xi) more generally.

3Perhaps the best entry point into Fleissner’s argument throughout Maladies is her reading of Moby-Dick in the book’s third chapter. As Fleissner reveals, in contrast to “Lockean and sentimental accounts of the self […] more familiar to novel studies” (xv), the Romantic will of Melville’s monomaniacal Captain Ahab—the long-supposed apotheosis of nineteenth-century imperial selfhood, Melville’s “most profound response to the problem of the free individual will in extremis” (447), as F.O. Matthiessen paradigmatically put it—is a will that “turn[s] on extremes of subjectivism that, strangely yet crucially, [can]not be divorced from the sense of an alien otherness at the core of the individual will” (158). Thus, however kingly in name or however queenly in personality, Ahab experiences his “unsurrenderable wilfulness” not as a lynchpin of absolute self-sovereignty but, rather, as an agent of “self-division and self-sabotage” (25), as (in his own words) a “nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing,” a “cozening, hidden lord and master,” a “cruel, remorseless emperor” that “commands” him, “against all natural lovings and longings,” to “do what in [his] own proper, natural heart, [he] durst not so much as dare” (406). As with Augustine’s wayward will, what is most remarkable about Ahab’s self-professed “reckless” will, Fleissner stresses, is “its lack of relation to the self-concern believed […] to characterize the modern individual” (25). If Augustine is “the ‘first subject’ that does not assume modern selfhood must take a Cartesian, self-affirming form” (25), then Ahab, like Poe’s aforementioned perverse subjects, is a latter-day Augustine, a subject “in which genuine and even impressive force of will and a kind of pathological possession [are] not at odds but, somehow, strangely intertwined” (165). It is thus “quite mistaken,” Fleissner concludes, “to conceive of will or freedom as Ahab represents it as any sort of Emersonian ‘self-reliance,’” as critics have far too long followed Matthiessen in conceiving of it, for Ahab is much more a figure of Romanticism’s fascination with “the pathological potentialities inherent in the modern individual’s much-vaunted will” (163).

4Another figure of the Romantic will at which Fleissner looks closely—one that better encapsulates the “modernity problem” of Maladies’ subtitle—is Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne. In a fascinating Kantian reading of The Scarlet Letter, Fleissner calls attention to the fact that “Hester Prynne’s wildest transgressions, like Kant’s conception of free willing, are conceived as taking place not in the forest alongside her lover but in the realm of pure thought” (50). Focusing on the pivotal chapter “Another View of Hester,” wherein Hawthorne’s narrator reflects at length on Hester’s “freedom of speculation” (107) and “enthusiasm of thought” (108)—a freedom and enthusiasm, we are told, which render the “world’s law” “no law for her mind,” and which, were the Puritan magistrates aware of, they “would have held to be a deadlier crime than that stigmatized by the scarlet letter” (107)—Fleissner offers a convincing solution to a question that continues to puzzle most readers of the novel: why does Hester, following her forest tryst with Dimmesdale, choose to resume the “A” (especially since she is no longer required to do so) and remain a member of the community that has branded her an outcast? Fleissner’s Kantian answer to this query is that the true “office of the scarlet letter” is not to curtail Hester’s freedom but, conversely (and paradoxically), to realize it.

5As Fleissner notes, of the many ambiguities around which Hawthorne’s novel revolves, one of the “most brilliant” is that which occurs “when Hester, who has just been described as having been ‘set free’ by her outlaw status and the speculative thought it engenders, then feels the return of a lost ‘freedom’ when she takes off the symbol of that status, the letter, and lets down her hair in her reunion with Dimmesdale in the woods.” The “real question” being asked here, Fleissner clarifies, is a Kantian one: “How is it a blessed relief to be free of freedom?” (90). From the vantage point of Kantian deontology, freedom is anxiety-inducing insofar as the moral law on which it is grounded is a purely formal, contentless imperative, thus leaving one to decide for oneself what constitutes “doing one’s duty.” Echoing Kanto-Hegelian philosopher Slavoj Žižek’s notion of the “abyss of freedom,” Fleissner calls attention to Hawthorne’s framing of the “limitlessness” of Hester’s “speculative roamings” in “Another View of Hester” in explicitly “gothic terms,” as “producing a Kierkegaardian anxiety.” Though Hester’s freedom of thought “excite[s] and energize[s] her, and give[s] her a mission,” it at the same time “frighten[s] her, representing as [it] do[es] a realm without any moral signposts, an abyss or void (‘deep chasm’ or ‘precipice’), a ‘dark labyrinth of mind’ with a ‘home and comfort nowhere’” (91). From this Kantian perspective, Hester’s forest fantasy of fleeing with Dimmesdale and erasing the past is a symptom not of her desire for freedom, but rather of her desire to “turn away from the project of freedom toward an obliteration of its demands” (91). Though Hester may seem at her most “dramatically ‘willful’” when plotting to escape with Dimmesdale, following Kant, such plotting is actually a textbook example of “the will acting against its own highest goals,” an attempt to flee from “the intensity of her encounter with” (91) the abyss of freedom. Thus, we might say that, for Fleissner, the novel’s eponymous “A” stands not so much for ambiguity (as in Sacvan Bercovitch’s earlier alluded to ideological interpretation of the novel, The Office of The Scarlet Letter) as for anxiety, the anxiety that comes with authentic freedom.

6And here we come to the “modernity problem” of Fleissner’s subtitle. As articulated by Hegelian philosopher Robert Pippin, the modernity problem concerns, above all, “the noncoincidence of individual and greater will” (37), the “gap between will and Will” (9). If Pippin’s work on the modernity problem “represents a serious attempt at co-articulating will and Will,” a co-articulation dependent upon “someone choosing to limit their personal freedom on behalf of what is recognized to be a higher end” (40), then Hester Prynne is a modern subject par excellence, for this is precisely the choice she makes. Such a choice can only be understood as a free choice, however, from the Kantian, deontological perspective through which Fleissner approaches it—a perspective that likewise goes a long way toward explaining why Hester, in the narrator’s words, performs her “self-ordained role” of “Sister of Mercy” (105) to the poor and unfortunate of her community not sentimentally but rationally, not sensuously but supersensuously, with a “marble coldness” (107), or, as Fleissner puts it, with a “distinct detachment” (90). To thus invoke the title of one of Kant’s many treatises on metaphysical morality, Fleissner’s Hester is a figure practices her freedom “within the limits of bare reason”—hence Fleissner conclusion that, despite “our frequent critical desire for Hester to represent the second coming of Anne Hutchinson,” to reject “all laws” and “listen only to the truth of her heart” (90), acting of her own free will paradoxically necessitates the self-abnegating resumption of the scarlet letter.

7I have devoted considerable space to Fleissner’s reading of The Scarlet Letter because it arguably does more than any other of the book’s chapters to illustrate her insistence that the nineteenth-century American novel was not merely an “outgrowth” or symptom of “a just-so story of modernization,” but was, on the contrary, “a serious participant in that story’s ongoing theorization” (2). Indeed, though Fleissner meticulously frames her readings of all the novels she considers throughout the book by way of dazzling overviews of the various philosophical traditions that helped shape their literary investigations into the will, she altogether avoids the temptation to historicize these novels. This is just as true of her readings of novels that historicism was in large part responsible for resurrecting, such as Chesnutt’s Marrow of Tradition, the primary (though not sole) literary focus of the book’s final chapter. In a rare and exemplary reading of Chesnutt’s novel along more philosophical than historicist (or historical) lines, Fleissner demonstrates that American realists remained just as interested in the various maladies of will as their Romantic predecessors.

8Whereas nearly all readings of Marrow tend to focus on the contrast between the accommodationist Dr. William (“Will”) Miller and the working-class militant Josh Green, Fleissner instead focuses on the novel’s figure of “free subjectivity” (341), Miller’s biracial wife Janet. At the novel’s end, after the Millers’ young son dies in a race riot fomented by the white supremacist Major Carteret, whose wife Olivia is Janet’s own half-sister, Janet finds herself confronted with much the same abyss of “existential freedom” (345) as Hester Prynne—albeit for altogether different reasons. Due to Janet’s biraciality, the proud Olivia has all her life refused to recognize Janet as her sister. When, however, the Carterets’ own infant son, Dodie, ends up contracting a case of membranous croup (ironically, as an indirect result of the riot), the haughty Olivia is finally compelled to call Janet her “sister” and begs her to prevail upon her husband, a prominent Black surgeon whose aid to Dodie the Carterets have previously refused, to save her son’s life. As Chesnutt’s narrator stresses, though this sisterly recognition has long been Janet’s “heart’s desire,” upon finally receiving it, she finds it altogether empty, “not freely given, from an open heart, but extorted from a reluctant conscience by the agony of a mother’s fears” (195). Drawing on the work of Hegel, Sartre, and Fanon, Fleissner stresses that this moment of “estranged” desire (346) is the key to Janet achieving “genuine existential freedom” (350), for “her realization that she no longer wants or needs Olivia’s recognition produces the Hegelian moment of grasping her own negativity […] as an object,” of grasping, more precisely, “her self-positioning as object in her lifelong desire for Olivia to grant her subjectivity” (349). Only by tarrying with the negative, a tarrying integral to “recogniz[ing] for the first time that she has a will” (350), does Janet become fully “subjectivized,” and this subjectivization, in turn, is what frees her to make the “ethical choice” (352) of asking her husband to (attempt to) save Dodie’s life. As Fleissner punningly puts it, what Janet is “really doing” in calling on “her ‘Will’” to try to save Dodie is “insisting on the moment Fanon stated slavery leaves out, in which the slave—here, the child of slaves—offers her recognition to the master,” an inversion of the master-slave dialectic whereby Janet demonstrates that “her own ‘humanity’ […] has nothing to do with Olivia’s acknowledgement, but is the product solely of her own action” (350), of her radically free act. Thus, though different from the self-estrangement Hester suffers to realize her freedom, Janet’s “radical estrangement” (346) from her own desire is likewise the key to her existential freedom, a freedom that stands as another literary attempt at co-articulating will and Will.

9As readings such as those rehearsed here suggest, Maladies of the Will is an unapologetic study of “the novel’s dualism in a ‘monist’ era” (36), a “dualist, dialectical dimension,” Fleissner cautions, “in danger of being occluded in much contemporary theory” (19). Swimming against the current posthumanist tide, Maladies attends to the many ways in which the nineteenth-century American novel “vivifies in human narratives the dual threads of moral dilemma and living existence in the philosophy of will, revealing these to be more dialectically intertwined than they otherwise often appear” (19). In so doing, Maladies itself proves to be a thoroughly dialectical book, and in the strictest Hegelian sense of the term too, for it theorizes the various maladies that plague the will (above all what, following the aforementioned Žižek, we might characterize as the “disease of freedom”) as altogether immanent ones, maladies inherent to the will itself. The book should be required reading, not just for those still willing to defend the (ostensibly) lost cause of the willful human subject, but also (and especially) those for whom the so-called death of the subject cannot come fast enough.

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CHESNUTT, Charles W. The Marrow of Tradition. Ed. Werner Sollors. New York: Norton, 2012.

HAWTHORNE, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter and Other Writings. Ed. Leland S. Person. New York: Norton, 2005.

MATTHIESSEN, F.O. American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman. New York: Oxford University Press, 1941.

MELVILLE, Herman. Moby-Dick. Eds. Hershel Parker and Harrison Hayford. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 2002.

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Russell Sbriglia, « Jennifer L. Fleissner, Maladies of the Will: The American Novel and the Modernity Problem »Transatlantica [En ligne], 2 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2023, consulté le 22 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Russell Sbriglia

Seton Hall University

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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