Date of Award

2017

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group

Comparative Literature and Literary Theory

First Advisor

Gerald Prince

Abstract

Interwar Europe was enamored of myth: adaptations of classical tales proliferated, anthropological research into so-called “primitive” mythology thrived, and movements ranging from psychoanalysis to surrealism bore myth’s undeniable imprint. But its reputation took a turn during World War II, and by the end of the war, myth had become synonymous with irrationality, violence, barbarism, and (most damning of all) fascism. At best, myth was dismissed as anachronistic or escapist; at worst, it was cited it as a serious political threat. Thus, most postwar European writers, especially those claiming to be politically “committed,” eschewed myth in order to avoid the threat of contamination. However, there are exceptions to this rule—writers who strived to maintain connections with past traditions, as myth once had, without falling victim to propaganda or neo-romantic universalization. Taking as my starting point myth’s tremendous capacity to facilitate social cohesion, I argue that it played a vital role in postwar French and Italian fiction, providing readers with the tools needed to process the trauma of the war, combat modern alienation and disenchantment, and engage with the sociopolitical exigencies of the day. This dissertation thus re-inscribes myth in a tradition of political commitment, tracing the (non-fascistic) political consequences of mythically inflected novels. This rehabilitation of myth hinges on four authors—Georges Bataille and Claude Simon in France, and Cesare Pavese and Elsa Morante in Italy—who mobilized myth as an alternative to the dominant literary and political models operative in each country. However, I do not merely demonstrate the persistence of mythological archetypes in the postwar cultural landscape; rather, I articulate the precise ways in which such archetypes interpenetrated the specificity of World War II and subverted traditional historiography. Far from being a form of escapist fantasy, myth allowed writers and readers alike to appropriate longstanding cultural traditions in order to circumscribe the otherwise uncontrollable and unassimilable experiences of war. Though many intellectuals advocated for myth’s outright demise, the authors considered here sought to recover something from contaminated discourses, recognizing that total rupture from the past would only exacerbate existing feelings of alienation, isolation, and despair.

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