Renunciation as a creative force in the careers of writers, philosophers, and artists is the animating idea behind Ross Posnock’s new book. Taking up acts of abandonment, rejection, and refusal that have long baffled critics, he shows how renunciation has reframed the relationship of artists and intellectuals to society in productive and unpredictable ways.
In a work of remarkable synthesis that includes traditions and genres from antiquity to postmodernity, Posnock discovers connections among disparate figures ranging from Lao Tzu to Dave Chappelle and Bob Dylan. The thread running through these acts of renunciation, he argues, is an aesthetic and ethical resistance to the demand that one’s words and actions be straightforward and immediately comprehensible. Modern art in particular valorizes the nonconceptual and the intuitive, seeking to make silence articulate and incompletion fertile.
Renouncers reject not only artistic and scholarly conventions but also the public roles that attend them. Wittgenstein, Rimbaud, and Glenn Gould brazenly flouted professional and popular expectations, demanding that philosophy, poetry, music play by new rules. Emerson and Nietzsche severed all institutional ties, while William James waged a guerrilla campaign from his post at Harvard against what all three considered to be the enemy: the pernicious philosophical insistence on rationality. Posnock also examines renunciations in light of World War II—the veterans J. D. Salinger and George Oppen, and the Holocaust survivor Paul Celan—while a fourth cluster includes the mystic Thomas Merton and the abstract painters Ad Reinhardt and Agnes Martin.
A rich, tangled exploration, which reaches beyond renunciation narratives themselves to think about why such narratives compel, and, more complicatedly, what they say about the nature of the aesthetic, the relationship between intellectualism and intuition, and the grounds of our attachment to life itself. Moving across literature, philosophy and visual art, and exploring the work of (among others) Ludwig Wittgenstein, William James, Friedrich Nietzsche, J. D. Salinger, Mark Rothko, Ad Reinhardt, John Cage and Susan Sontag, Renunciation is a strenuously intricate, complex book…There is an intriguing argument throughout the book for the value of the intuitive, and of the wordless, that joins company with recent discussions of habit, reflex and the unconscious workings of our minds.
Ross Posnock is justly respected as one of the most penetrating and venturesome Americanists of his generation. Renunciation is his most ambitious achievement yet, a critical summa of exceptional verve, erudition, and idiosyncratic brilliance.
Ross Posnock’s Renunciation is a breakthrough, an innovative critical cultural and intellectual history. While Posnock dwells primarily on two extended moments—the turn of the 19th into the 20th century and the post–World War II period in America—his range of reference stretches from the ancients to theorists of the post-post-modern. This volume will become a standard text, a classic useful not only to professional audiences but also to the general reader curious about how we have come to find ourselves where we are and eager to have a guide to help us think about how to move into the future.
Ranging generously across modern fiction, poetry, music, religious thought, and philosophy, Posnock laces together an astonishing variety of figures and works, uncovering unnoticed constellations. Renunciation is a remarkable blend of immense learning and imaginative insight, one of those rare books that—to adapt Emerson, one of Posnock’s heroes—affords both instruction as well as provocation.
Ross Posnock’s Renunciation offers a stimulating, not too confusing account of abnegation, obscurity and going AWOL from Rimbaud to Jackson Pollock, George Oppen to Agnes Martin.
A genuinely extraordinary book—it is extraordinary in form and style, in intellectual depth, and subject matter…A tour de force of nineteenth and twentieth-century U.S. American and European histories of art, literature, and philosophy…An invitation to rekindle the much-needed debate about the power of aesthetic freedom in an age after critique and an age of creative ubiquity…Inspiring and enjoyable as a reading experience.
This is a stunning encapsulation of an elusive concept, one that is both global and ahistorical. Written as an essay, Renunciation lives its subject matter by renouncing conventional formats and discrete chapter headings. This book’s style lives out the serendipitous manner in which Posnock uncovered renunciation, the manner in which this act of freedom has permeated the culture and also how it feels. The author is brilliant in framing renunciation in terms of the relationship of thinkers and artists to modernity and the canon. Renunciation (or abandonment) is a lived response to and rejection of conformity both intellectual and public… With an overarching focus on two historical eras—the advent of the 20th century and the American postwar era—Posnock adroitly weaves together such disparate thinkers as Bob Dylan, William James, Paul Celan, Thomas Merton, and Martin Heidegger (to name just a handful) into a brilliant synthesis of intellectual history.
- 432 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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