Maladies of the Will: The American Novel and the Symptomatology of Modernity


ACLS Fellowship Program




This project offers an alternative history of the category of the will, one that can explain its centrality to the literature, philosophy, and psychology of the nineteenth century. The familiar sense of will as indicating only the rational agency of the liberal subject, it argues, derives from reactions against an older sense of the will as the site of deeply embodied human struggles with the idea of freedom itself. Beginning in theology, these notions become medicalized in eighteenth-century vitalist writings, emerging in nineteenth-century literature as "maladies of the will," such as obsession, willfulness, habit, and inertia. This project aims to revivify the novel's critical potential by taking such symptoms seriously and reading them as posing living questions, both political and ontological, about the status and meaning of human freedom.