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Towards a Tentative Typology of the Literary Refusenik

Schaffner, Anna Katharina (2021) Towards a Tentative Typology of the Literary Refusenik. German Life and Letters, 74 (1). pp. 14-29. ISSN 0016-8777. E-ISSN 1468-0483. (doi:10.1111/glal.12289) (KAR id:87241)


Literary history teems with refusenik figures who, in one way or another, and for one reason or another, ‘prefer not to’ partake in many of society's most sacrosanct pursuits and who therefore rebel against fundamental social values, for the most part passively. Yet there is arguably only one pure refusenik in literary history; that is, a figure who is defined by nothing but his act of radical refusal, uncontaminated by any active and positive desires: Melville's Bartleby (1853). Apart from his grand gesture of refusal, Bartleby is a man without qualities, preferences or history, who, in the end, as Deleuze puts it, ‘dies of “civil disobedience”’. Comparatively speaking, Ivan Goncharov's Ivan Ilytch Oblomov (1859) is a feebler kind of refusenik, for he remains positively attached to repose, nostalgia (both for Tsarist Russia and for his childhood), and his gourmandise. Thomas Mann's Gustav von Aschenbach (1912), however, engages once again in a more unadulterated Bartlebian act of primary refusal. In this article I consider some of the primary features and poetological and ideological functions of a range of literary refusenik figures. All of them raise wider ethical questions about the social values against which they openly rebel. These include, above all, the values of productivity and industriousness, and the subscription to a work ethic that endows work with profound existential or spiritual significance.

Item Type: Article
DOI/Identification number: 10.1111/glal.12289
Uncontrolled keywords: Refusal, resistance, exhaustion, work ethic, capitalism
Subjects: P Language and Literature > PD Germanic philology and languages
P Language and Literature > PN Literature (General)
Divisions: Divisions > Division of Arts and Humanities > School of Culture and Languages
Depositing User: Anna Schaffner
Date Deposited: 20 Mar 2021 11:08 UTC
Last Modified: 02 Feb 2023 00:00 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)

University of Kent Author Information

Schaffner, Anna Katharina.

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