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“That Ugly, That Clumsy, That Incongruous Tool”

“That Ugly, That Clumsy, That Incongruous Tool”

(p.1) Introduction “That Ugly, That Clumsy, That Incongruous Tool”
Strange Likeness
Dora Zhang
University of Chicago Press

Although it is a ubiquitous feature of the novel, description remains undervalued and undertheorized. This Introduction highlights the variety and historicity of descriptive modes, as well as its role in determining or “making up” its objects. Focused on the modernist backlash against the perceived descriptive “excesses” of realism, the Introduction surveys a range of early twentieth-century writers’ hostilities toward description, which are situated within the context of changing epistemological standards, new visual technologies, and developments in the teaching of writing. The Introduction then builds upon Elaine Scarry’s idea of “perceptual mimesis,” the idea that literature gives us instructions for imagined acts of perception in order to broaden thinking about description beyond its reflexive association with visualization and with the prose of things. Although modernist writers turn their descriptive attention away from what was visible and tangible, they in fact continue the realist project of describing a common world, even as the fracturing of “the community of thought and feeling” required new methods in order to do so.

Keywords:   description, Modernism, perceptual mimesis, Henry James, Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, André Breton, Paul Valéry, visuality

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