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Living Streams: Continuity and Change from Rabelais to Joyce

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Gerald Gillespie

This book examines how a long line of imaginative writers, starting from Rabelais and continuing over Cervantes and Sterne down to such modernists as Proust, Mann, Joyce, and Barth, has reaffirmed the picture of an enduring Western civilization despite repeated crises and transformations. The humanist capacity to recapture a sense of European greatness as exhibited in Antiquity was paralleled by and continued in the guise of newer vernacular works, achievements regarded as vital forms of a shared cultural rebirth. This was amplified most notably in the tradition of the ironic encyclopedic novel which surveyed the state of successive phases of culture. The evolving heritage and revitalization of the arts constituted main subject matters in the series of major self-conscious epochal movements, the Enlightenment, Romanticism, and Modernism, which Postmodernism reflexively now struggles to supersede.

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Chapter 4: Traveling into the Abyss

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CHAPTER FOUR

Traveling into the Abyss

“Tís katabésetai eis tèn ábysson?” Romans, 10:7

Once Latin had adopted the Greek word ábyssos for things bottomless or boundless, unfathomed or unfathomable, and Saint Jerome’s vulgate Bible had passed it onward to the Middle Ages, our own latter age was destined to rediscover the abyss in various modem guises. I shall not pause here to consider the abyss indicated in the background of many a Renaissance painting as the incomprehensible ground out of which creation emerged, nor the importance of such a ground in mystical thought from Tauler over Boehme and onward. My focus here is on the secularization of the abyss that took place through specific encounters with a virtually ungraspable primordial threat which European peoples experienced partly in the real world, then increasingly in themselves. When Europeans ventured far beyond their afterwards so-called Old World, they reached alien “edges” populated by pre-civilized human beings, some actually so, others so perceived through misprision; these experiences precipitated new processes of “defamiliarization’’ and cultural learning that imaginative literature has registered.

A celebrated example is Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe (1719) in which the title hero, a middle-class international adventurer, is stranded for long years on an island off the coast of South America, after some sinful overreaching in dubious enterprises such as the slave trade. Thrown back into a state of nature, Robinson mobilizes a few tools from...

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