Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Jonathan D. S. Schroeder reviews Maladies of the Will

Jennifer L. Fleissner. Maladies of the Will: The American Novel and the Modernity Problem. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2022. 480 pp.

Review by Jonathan D. S. Schroeder

26 October 2023 

This long-awaited monograph is poised to transform literary studies and philosophy with a brilliant reexamination of two of these disciplines’ most cherished objects of study: the novel and the will. The simplicity of Fleissner’s argument belies its complexity and reach: neither reason nor sentiment, but will best explains the history and theory of the novel; in turn, the novel best elaborates the ongoing, though lately ignored, significance of the philosophy of will. Drawing upon theology, philosophy, medical vitalism, psychology, and other intellectual traditions from Augustine to W. E. B. Du Bois, Maladies of the Will demonstrates that the will does not name a faculty of the modern subject so much as a conflict between individual and world. “The central question,” Fleissner writes, “concerns the fit or misfit between the individual will and some greater Will”—whether God, state, economy, history, or life in general—“understood to provide that will’s ideal telos” (p. x). In recovering the novelistic conception of the will as a space for investigating the mystery of human motivation, she thus reorients the future of novel studies by demonstrating that the a priori foundations of the novel lie neither in the impersonal nor in the modern self—whether the individual’s interiority, self-interest, or rational autonomy, as in theories of the novel by György Lukács, Ian Watt, Nancy Armstrong, Thomas Pavel, and others—but will. In fact, “Lockean and sentimental understandings of the person,” Fleissner argues, were introduced to deny problems that result from “the noncoincidence of individual and greater will,” and consequently represent a posteriori projects for treating these maladies of the will (pp. 18, 37).

This project of treating maladies of the will—the excesses, deficiencies, and/or bad fits between will and Will—amounts to nothing less than the novel’s contribution to modernity. In particular, the novelistic will counterpoints Robert Pippin’s two features of modernity: “the meaning and legitimacy of human autonomy,” and “its viability in a universe governed by natural law” (p. 10).  Thus, by demonstrating that the novel’s project consists not of producing the modern individual, but of working through the relationship between individual and world, Fleissner makes a larger claim that the novel is an active player in shaping modernity as a philosophical problem. The book’s six chapters are built around fully inhabited close readings of the nineteenth-century American novel—including The Scarlet Letter (1850), The Morgesons (1862), Moby-Dick (1851), The Ambassadors (1903), and The Marrow of Tradition (1901)—which cast the historical transformations of the novelistic will-as-problem in rich relief, from Romantic willfulness to Victorian self-restraint to the fin-de-siècle will as robust force to the African American novel’s willing as action in the face of existential precarity.

The ramifications of these arguments for a contemporary “epoch that can seem in danger of forgetting the gap between will and Will and denying the multiplicity of wills” are equally immense (p. 9). By recovering the moral and vitalistic domains of the will, as well as the questions of value that arise from negotiating this multifaceted concept, Fleissner demonstrates how the novel challenges contemporary materialisms—New, actor-network, systems, affect, et al.—with their tendency “to dismiss the notion of will and aggrandize it in the form of a bodily power at one and the same time” (p. 300). Combining astonishing foresight and erudition, Maladies of the Will will revolutionize why we read that most modern of forms, the novel, and how we think of that most ancient of problems, the will.