Clayton Koelb

After completing graduate study in Comparative Literature at Harvard, I took up a faculty position at the University of Chicago in 1969. Except for a few visiting appointments, I spent all the first two decades of my career at Chicago, teaching literary criticism and theory, modern German literature, comparative literature, and introductory undergraduate "core" courses in the humanities. I also served for several years as chair of the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures. In 1991, I accepted an offer of permanent appointment as the Guy B. Johnson Professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. At Carolina I continue to offer courses both in German and comparative literature, though now I also chair the German department and serve as an advisor for the undergraduate program in Cultural Studies. My scholarly work began with a doctoral dissertation on the history of notions of tragedy from the mid-eighteenth to the early twentieth century. This thesis led to a series of articles exploring some of the persistent difficulties attending theories of tragedy and theories of genre. At the same time I began writing about leading figures of early twentieth-century German literature, particularly Franz Kafka and Thomas Mann. These early researches eventually led to a book on Mann's sources for his "Goethe and Tolstoy" essay (1984) and a number of essays on Mann and Kafka in scholarly journals and anthologies. I had been drawn to Kafka in large measure because of the unique integration of fantastic and realistic elements in his fictions. I found that Mann had also tried in a different way to bring fantasy into his realistic stories and that an interesting theoretical problem lurked on the edges of the fantasy/realism question. No one had ever examined the issue of why our literary tradition has in the main preferred to have its fantasy alloyed somehow with reality, nor had anyone proposed a theoretical basis for those fictions (a small but important minority in our culture) that depart unabashedly from relevance to any "true" reality. I pursued this matter in The Incredulous Reader (1984), where I developed a set of concepts and vocabulary for understanding the structure and function of fictions which present pure flights of fancy, such as Aristophanes' Birds, Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, and Poe's tales of terror. I also proposed an explanation for the long-standing cultural preference for what I call "alethetic" fictions - that is, fictions readable as in some sense true to reality - over the "lethetic" flights of fancy. After finishing The Incredulous Reader I began a couple of editorial projects in collaboration with others (The Current in Criticism, The Comparative Perspective). Essays I wrote for these two anthologies were part of a larger program of research that emerged from The Incredulous Reader. One of that book's principal arguments focuses upon the importance of rhetoric, particularly figurative language, as a generator of narrative ideas. It was evident to me at the time that the transformation of a trope into the germ of a story (what I call a "rhetorical moment") is an important and widespread literary phenomenon. It is a central feature not only of the lethetic fictions I dealt with in The Incredulous Reader but of many literary texts, Kafka's among them. It seemed likely that a great deal could be learned about literary invention in general and about Kafka in particular by looking into this matter further. I therefore spent much of the next four years examining a large number of texts with an eye to the relation between rhetorical and narrative structures. I found that sustained and detailed attention to the rather technical matter of figurative language could yield surprisingly fundamental insights into the creative process. Two books came out of this research. One treats the relation between rhetoric and narrative invention in a set of texts characteristic of the mainstream Western tradition, such as Boccaccio's Decameron, Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel, Goethe's Iphigenia, Hawthorne's "Rappaccini's Daughter," and others (Inventions of Reading, 1988). The second focuses exclusively on the rhetorical constructions of Franz Kafka (Kafka's Rhetoric, 1989). As these projects were completed I decided to explore further my interest in Friedrich Nietzsche, one of the figures treated in Inventions of Reading. I had come to Nietzsche primarily because of the importance of rhetoric in his practice of philosophy; but now I wanted to see how these explorations fit into Nietzsche studies in general, a field notable for productive interactions between philosophers and literary critics. Nietzsche as Postmodernist (1990) brings together essays by scholars from both fields in an examination of one of the more controversial issues in current Nietzsche research. At the same time, I was offered the opportunity to produce a new translation and critical edition of Mann's Death in Venice for W.W. Norton (1994). The project gave me the chance not only to continue my earlier work on Mann but also to move for a time from theoretical to practical rhetoric. I have recently returned to the heart of my long-term research interests, the exploration of the role of rhetoric in the construction of literary worlds. I have concentrated hitherto mainly, though not exclusively, on the more outlandish realms of imaginative fiction, but now I am examining constructions of a different sort: not the invented world of fantasy but the reconstructed world of ancient history. My latest book, Legendary Figures, examines revolutionary views of the past that have played a crucial role in European and American literature of the last 150 years. It traces these new approaches to history through a range of novels, from Flaubert's Salammbô (1862) to Christa Wolf's Cassandra (1983), and argues that this new "historical sense" tends to view the past as essentially "alien" and "other." The connection of the past to the present may be powerful, but it is always indirect and difficult to negotiate. As a result, the past seems exotic and unattainable, the object of nostalgia and desire. The modernist writers treated in the book-Flaubert, Pater, Mann, Broch, Wilder, Yourcenar, and Wolf-imagine a past that is "mythic" and "legendary" and thus a metaphor for everything distant, complicated, unattainable and unknowable. After completing graduate study in Comparative Literature at Harvard, I took up a faculty position at the University of Chicago in 1969. Except for a few visiting appointments, I spent all the first two decades of my career at Chicago, teaching literary criticism and theory, modern German literature, comparative literature, and introductory undergraduate "core" courses in the humanities. I also served for several years as chair of the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures. In 1991, I accepted an offer of permanent appointment as the Guy B. Johnson Professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. At Carolina I continue to offer courses both in German and comparative literature, though now I also chair the German department and serve as an advisor for the undergraduate program in Cultural Studies. My scholarly work began with a doctoral dissertation on the history of notions of tragedy from the mid-eighteenth to the early twentieth century. This thesis led to a series of articles exploring some of the persistent difficulties attending theories of tragedy and theories of genre. At the same time I began writing about leading figures of early twentieth-century German literature, particularly Franz Kafka and Thomas Mann. These early researches eventually led to a book on Mann's sources for his "Goethe and Tolstoy" essay (1984) and a number of essays on Mann and Kafka in scholarly journals and anthologies. I had been drawn to Kafka in large measure because of the unique integration of fantastic and realistic elements in his fictions. I found that Mann had also tried in a different way to bring fantasy into his realistic stories and that an interesting theoretical problem lurked on the edges of the fantasy/realism question. No one had ever examined the issue of why our literary tradition has in the main preferred to have its fantasy alloyed somehow with reality, nor had anyone proposed a theoretical basis for those fictions (a small but important minority in our culture) that depart unabashedly from relevance to any "true" reality. I pursued this matter in The Incredulous Reader (1984), where I developed a set of concepts and vocabulary for understanding the structure and function of fictions which present pure flights of fancy, such as Aristophanes' Birds, Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, and Poe's tales of terror. I also proposed an explanation for the long-standing cultural preference for what I call "alethetic" fictions - that is, fictions readable as in some sense true to reality - over the "lethetic" flights of fancy. After finishing The Incredulous Reader I began a couple of editorial projects in collaboration with others (The Current in Criticism, The Comparative Perspective). Essays I wrote for these two anthologies were part of a larger program of research that emerged from The Incredulous Reader. One of that book's principal arguments focuses upon the importance of rhetoric, particularly figurative language, as a generator of narrative ideas. It was evident to me at the time that the transformation of a trope into the germ of a story (what I call a "rhetorical moment") is an important and widespread literary phenomenon. It is a central feature not only of the lethetic fictions I dealt with in The Incredulous Reader but of many literary texts, Kafka's among them. It seemed likely that a great deal could be learned about literary invention in general and about Kafka in particular by looking into this matter further. I therefore spent much of the next four years examining a large number of texts with an eye to the relation between rhetorical and narrative structures. I found that sustained and detailed attention to the rather technical matter of figurative language could yield surprisingly fundamental insights into the creative process. Two books came out of this research. One treats the relation between rhetoric and narrative invention in a set of texts characteristic of the mainstream Western tradition, such as Boccaccio's Decameron, Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel, Goethe's Iphigenia, Hawthorne's "Rappaccini's Daughter," and others (Inventions of Reading, 1988). The second focuses exclusively on the rhetorical constructions of Franz Kafka (Kafka's Rhetoric, 1989). As these projects were completed I decided to explore further my interest in Friedrich Nietzsche, one of the figures treated in Inventions of Reading. I had come to Nietzsche primarily because of the importance of rhetoric in his practice of philosophy; but now I wanted to see how these explorations fit into Nietzsche studies in general, a field notable for productive interactions between philosophers and literary critics. Nietzsche as Postmodernist (1990) brings together essays by scholars from both fields in an examination of one of the more controversial issues in current Nietzsche research. At the same time, I was offered the opportunity to produce a new translation and critical edition of Mann's Death in Venice for W.W. Norton (1994). The project gave me the chance not only to continue my earlier work on Mann but also to move for a time from theoretical to practical rhetoric. I have recently returned to the heart of my long-term research interests, the exploration of the role of rhetoric in the construction of literary worlds. I have concentrated hitherto mainly, though not exclusively, on the more outlandish realms of imaginative fiction, but now I am examining constructions of a different sort: not the invented world of fantasy but the reconstructed world of ancient history. My latest book, Legendary Figures, examines revolutionary views of the past that have played a crucial role in European and American literature of the last 150 years. It traces these new approaches to history through a range of novels, from Flaubert's Salammbô (1862) to Christa Wolf's Cassandra (1983), and argues that this new "historical sense" tends to view the past as essentially "alien" and "other." The connection of the past to the present may be powerful, but it is always indirect and difficult to negotiate. As a result, the past seems exotic and unattainable, the object of nostalgia and desire. The modernist writers treated in the book-Flaubert, Pater, Mann, Broch, Wilder, Yourcenar, and Wolf-imagine a past that is "mythic" and "legendary" and thus a metaphor for everything distant, complicated, unattainable and unknowable.

Bibliography from Purdue University Press

No Purdue University Press books have been authored by this contributor.