Idling the Engine
Linguistic Skepticism in and around Cortazar, Kafka, and Joyce
Some of the most important literary works of the twentieth century wrestle with a deep distrust of language, a distrust born of an untenable skepticism that insists on the manufacture of doubts where doubts are nonsensical. Common to each expression of this distrust is the often hidden premise that no knowledge or tool of knowledge, least of all language, can be trusted until an absolute justification can be provided for it. Idling the Engine examines the consequences of this skepticism as it appears in and around the work of Julio Cortázar, Franz Kafka, and James Joyce, each of whom was well aware of the crisis of language and the threat it was perceived to hold for literary endeavors like theirs. Almost as important as the study of the novels themselves is the study of their interpretation by critics, many of whom fail to question this skepticism about language because they themselves take it as axiomatic.
Author E. Joseph Sharkey uses the philosophies of language of Hans-Georg Gadamer and Ludwig Wittgenstein to counter the skepticism in question by showing that a language grounded in history instead of the transcendent is grounded nevertheless. Using Wittgenstein's metaphor of the idling engine for the misguided search for a logical or metaphysical justification of language, Sharkey demonstrates how such "idling" pervades the novels of Cortázar, Kafka, and Joyce. As he does so, he argues that at their best these novels celebrate the marvelous efficacy of language and show that it is made possible precisely by virtue of the limitations that trouble the skeptics.
E. Joseph Sharkey is associate professor of comparative literature at the University of Washington, Tacoma.
PRAISE FOR THE BOOK:
"Not only does Sharkey mount an innovative discussion of the central problem of the limits of language and how modernist authors deal with that problem, he also does so in a lucid, elegant, and often witty style. He manages to respond to some of our post-modern linguistic and aesthetic dilemmas with insight, logic, and common sense."—Kathleen L. Komar, University of California at Los Angeles
"The thorough distrust of language known as 'linguistic skepticism' has long been a cornerstone of modern philosophy. But, as Joseph Sharkey argues in this brilliant and compelling book, such great Modernists as Joyce, Kafka, and Cortàzar, who seem to subscribe to linguistic skepticism by having their protagonists espouse it, actually demonstrate just how well language does communicate. In Wittgenstein's words, 'Ordinary language, is alright.' This is a truly original and valuable book!"—Marjorie Perloff, Stanford University
"In his lucid study Idling the Engine: Linguistic Skepticism in and around Cortazar, Kafka, and Joyce, E. Joseph Sharkey examines the consequences of the deep skepticism and distrust of language in the works of these major twentieth-century writers. . . . It may take some time and effort to shake off the skepticism and follow the author on this intriguing expedition, but it is worth it. . . . Idling the Engine is absolutely worthwhile reading in that it not only draws attention to the fact that a distrust of language is taken for granted in our post-modern times, but in that it also offers a fresh approach to this situation, as well as a solution. Sharkey's engine is running just as smoothly as Joyce's; his style is lucid and often witty, which makes his study a pleasure to read." — James Joyce Literary Supplement
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