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  KEVIN OHI

English
Boston College

Curriculum Vitae

  RESEARCH PROJECT

“A beautiful infatuation this, always, I think, the intensity of the creative effort to get into the skin of the creature; the act of personal possession of one being by another at its completest”: this is Henry James’s description of limiting the novelistic view to a center of consciousness. As in the formulation, frequent in the prefaces, of “going behind” a character, James’s language is knowingly explicit about the bodily quality of a commerce more commonly figured in visual terms, and is knowing, too, about the abstraction that prevents us from seeing the literal ground of the figure. James’s remark might serve as an emblem for my project, which seeks to trace the eroticism of the novelistic representation of consciousness, a commerce between desiring bodies (on the one hand) and depersonalization (on the other). That depersonalization is marked, on a thematic level, by a dividing of desire from psychology—from etiological or causal elaboration and from psychological consequence—and, on a structural level, by an abstraction of voice and perspective. The former might be exemplified by the curious sangfroid of characters in Ronald Firbank, whose fictional world is roiled to the verge of chaos by a desire that his characters seem nevertheless not to register as consequential, or by the externalization of grief in the novels of James Purdy. The latter might be exemplified by the externalization of thought (most clearly formulated by Sharon Cameron) in James’s representation of consciousness, and is enacted by the evolution of free-indirect style as it appears in light of Ann Banfield’s grammatical definition of it: sentences, possible only in narrative fiction, that are (can be) spoken by no one.

Skin—and the recourse to skin in figurations of novelistic perspective—figures the topography, and emblematizes the eroticism, of this mode of narration. My project seeks to bring together a literary historical narrative of the novel, an analysis of narrative method in specific literary texts, a meditation on queer theory’s relation to literary reading, and a consideration of the relation between abstraction and embodiment. Its literary historical argument seeks not so much to discard the conventional narrative of a “psychological” tradition (Richardson, Austen, Eliot, James, Woolf, Joyce) as to link the narrative practices of those writers to a more explicitly “anti-psychological” one (Sterne, Thackeray, Firbank, Wodehouse, Benson, Purdy, Faulkner, even, though in a very different register, Beckett). (At the beginning of the English novel, or one of its beginnings, that non-opposition could be emblematized by Robinson Crusoe, where psychology could be said to coalesce in an empty footprint.) These are generalized markers of a specific development one could trace in the deployment of free-indirect style from Austen to James to Woolf. In novels from the 18th to the 20th century, the increasingly nuanced specification of psychic interiorities coincides with their externalization, and with a depersonalization of narrative. Outlining that history of the novel, the project seeks thereby to explore its consequences for understandings of sexuality, and, more generally, of embodiment.

  BIO
Kevin Ohi is Professor of English at Boston College and the author of Innocence and Rapture: The Erotic Child in Pater, Wilde, James, and Nabokov (2005); Henry James and the Queerness of Style (2011); and Dead Letters Sent: Queer Literary Transmission (2016). A graduate of Williams College (BA) and Cornell University (PhD), he is the recipient of fellowships from the National Humanities Center and the Guggenheim Foundation. His research and teaching interests include: queer theory, aestheticism and decadence, Victorian literature, American literature, literary theory, and the history of the novel. He is currently working on three projects: on narrative perspective, abstraction, and embodied desire; on the concept of origin in literary creation; and on solitude.

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