Skip navigation
Please use this identifier to cite or link to this item:
Title: Alkahest: Wit's Formations and Deformations in German Letters
Authors: Hinkley, Austen
Advisors: Heller-Roazen, Daniel
Contributors: Comparative Literature Department
Subjects: German literature
Comparative literature
Modern literature
Issue Date: 2023
Publisher: Princeton, NJ : Princeton University
Abstract: Alkahest: Wit's Formations and Deformations in German Letters studies discourses about the German word Witz, meaning both wit and joke, between the end of the Enlightenment and the beginning of the 20th century. The project's title names a central problem: although Witz was commonly understood as a faculty that finds similarities between disparate things, it is, like an alkahest or universal solvent, often also conceived of as an agent that dissolves such associations. This is compounded by a second tension: Witz refers both to the joke, as a form of speech, and to the mental faculty similar to the one called wit in English. The dissertation tracks these two tensions across a variety of small forms, such as journal entries, articles, prefaces, fragments, and jokes. Across these small forms, the functions of Witz condense and multiply, blurring the lines between poetic productivity and the complete collapse of sense. Chapter 1 studies the fragmentary works of G. C. Lichtenberg, who explored Witz as a "tool for the intellectual world" with powers both creative and destructive. Chapter 2 concerns the fragments published within the early Romantic journal Athenäum, where Witz is described as both the "principal of affinities" and the "universal solvent." For the Romantics, this double nature of Witz becomes a central way for relating the role of the fragmentary to the project of progressive universal poetry. Chapter 3 examines the poetics of the novelist Jean Paul, for whom Witz represented a source of deep ambiguity about language's ability or inability to connect the world of the spirit and the world of the body. Chapter 4 offers an interpretation of Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytic theory of Witz, wherein the joke is understood as a way for the child's free play with language to be preserved into adult life. The dissertation argues from these examples that wit's dual function of creating sense and nonsense granted it an unexpected poetic potency that could only find expression in small forms. Through rediscovering these tensions, the dissertation offers an account of modern literature defined by the small and fragmentary. It also challenges our own relationship to speaking, writing, and thinking as activities in which synthesis and dissolution are closely intertwined.
Type of Material: Academic dissertations (Ph.D.)
Language: en
Appears in Collections:Comparative Literature

Files in This Item:
This content is embargoed until 2025-04-05. For questions about theses and dissertations, please contact the Mudd Manuscript Library. For questions about research datasets, as well as other inquiries, please contact the DataSpace curators.

Items in Dataspace are protected by copyright, with all rights reserved, unless otherwise indicated.