Alex Thomson (University of Edinburgh)

Posted on Friday, March 5th, 2010

‘Force and Styles: Stevenson on the Limit of Interpretation’

‘Form fascinates when one no longer has the force to understand force from within itself. That is, to create.’ (Derrida)

The OED tells us that to locate is to fix limits, to establish boundaries, to distribute or apportion: an act of definition as much as an act of settlement. Even if we can also hear in ‘location’ the surprise of finding or discovery, the conference title situates us forcibly within the history of criticism conceived as the placing of literary texts, a history within which the ambiguities of interpretation and appropriation are played out. This may be a story we already know: every literary text a victim – but also a force of resistance – to its interpretation.

This paper will start from Stevenson’s student squib ‘The Philosophy of Umbrellas’, co-written with James Walter Ferrier in 1871, in order to explore both the practical and the theoretical limits of editorial and historical interpretation. ‘I have forgotten my umbrella’ writes Nietzsche / Derrida in Spurs. Has Stevenson found it? Both Stevenson and Derrida’s essays challenge us to rethink styles: the relationship between juvenilia and mature art, the frivolous and the profound, the uniqueness of the author’s signature and his own repurposing of the materials of tradition. Seeking to account for this unlikely correspondence, the paper will turn to the relationship between two recurrent figures in Stevenson’s writing: an agonistic vision of the world as a field of contending forces; and the impulsive action which cuts through moral deliberation.

To his contemporaries, Stevenson was known as a writer of style: mere stylist, a slavish pilferer from the archives; or prodigy, self-authenticating master. To our contemporaries, Stevenson’s reputation for style has become a curiosity, and he has become instead the object of a morbid historical fascination. The paper will argue that to locate Stevenson within a larger history of force and styles is a necessary preliminary to situating his work in any more specific intellectual or artistic context.

Categorized as Abstracts

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