A Minor Subject: Habit and Subjectivity in Modernist Literature and Philosophy


  • Federico Bellini Università Cattolica di Milano



Parole chiave:

Habit; Modernism; Proust, Marcel; Svevo, Italo; Woolf, Virginia.


In this essay, I intend to investigate some of the aspects of the resurgence of habit at the dawn of the twentieth century by touching upon a series of paradigmatic texts of the modernist canon and by investigating their debts to and consonances with the contemporary philosophies of habit. My thesis is that during those decades – seen as a mere chapter in the longer history of modernity – the philosophical and literary theme of habit served not only as a way to understand and represent the ordinary dimension of life, but also as a means to develop an idea of human subjectivity that could mediate between the centrifugal and the centripetal tendencies that permeated the competing ideologies of the time. The crisis of subjectivity that characterized modernism and which has often been simplistically represented as a disintegration of the subject into irredeemably broken fragments, should rather be seen as the development of a dialectical idea of a “minor subject”, that is, an open, dynamic, multilayered subjectivity still endowed by a certain malleable consistency. Both modernist literature and its philosophical counterparts found in the “minor subject” (here in the sense of “subject matter”) of habit, the opportunity to investigate and represent the porosity between activity and passivity, volition and determinism, individual identity and social structures, that characterize this idea of subjectivity.

I focus on three different representative – though not exhaustive – facets of the issue. In the first section, relying on Virginia Woolf's work, I highlight how some of the narrative techniques developed by Modernist writers can be seen as an attempt to give a plastic representation to the blurred boundaries of subjectivity as captured in the everyday existence of their characters. I then connect these innovations to the theory of habit of Samuel Butler, whom Woolf identified as one of the harbingers of modernity. In the second section I focus on Marcel Proust to discuss how modernist writers proved to be able to combine two opposed views of habit: on the one hand, the view of habit as purely mechanical and leading to inauthentic life; on the other, the idea of habit as essential to the human being's potential for self-perfecting and creativity. The third section is dedicated to addiction, seen as a form of habit in which the subject is radically torn between opposite forces. Following insights from Sigmund Freud's Beyond the Pleasure Principle, I interpret Italo Svevo's Zeno's Conscience as a meditation on how such a torn subjectivity manifests the essential incompleteness of the human subject and life's insuppressible nostalgia for the inorganic.

Virginia Woolf’s blurred boundaries, Marcel Proust’s ambiguous authenticity, and Italo Svevo’s split selfhood are three interconnected facets of the modernists’ interest in the “minor subject” of habit. Investigating the interaction between the philosophical and the literary discourses on habit at the dawn of the twentieth century can contribute to a more nuanced reconstruction of a pivotal moment in the history of thought but also to the contemporary philosophical debate. Almost exactly one century later, the renewed interest in the theme of habit mirrors a situation in part similar to what characterized the ideological landscape of the time, as now too it is concerned with the attempt to reimagine a “minor subject” that mediates between the postmodern pulverization of identity and the temptation of reaffirming anachronistic forms of strong subjectivities.

Riferimenti bibliografici

Auerbach, E., Mimesis. The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, Princeton University Press, Princeton 2003

Bellini, F., Un'identità minore. Percorsi sull'abitudine fra letteratura e filosofia, Vita e Pensiero, Milano 2021

Bourdieu, P., Outline of a Theory of Practice, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1977

Butler, S., The Way of All Flesh, Penguin, New York 1986

Carlisle, C., On Habit, Routledge, London 2014

Compagnon, A., Proust entre deux siècle, Seuil, Paris 1989

Crangle, S., Prosaic Desire. Modernist Knowing, Boredom, Laughter and Anticipation, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh 2010

Deleuze, G., Différence et Répétition, PUF, Paris 1995

Deleuze, G., F. Guattari, Thousand Plateaus. Capitalism and Schizofrenia, Continuum, New York 2010

Freud, S., Beyond the Pleasure Principle, The International Psycho-Analical Press, London 1922

Freud, S., Tre saggi sulla sessualità – Al di là del principio di piacere, Bollati Boringhieri, Torino 2012

Fülöp, E., Habit in À la recherche du temps perdu, in “French Studies”, 68/3, 2014, pp. 344-358

Fülöp, E., Proust's Imperfect, Rhythms of the Recherche, in “Marcel Proust Aujourd’hui” 12, 2014, pp. 197-212

Guerlac, S., Proust, Photography, and the Time of Life. Ravaisson, Bergson, and Simmel, Bloomsbury, London 2021

Heyman, G., Addiction. A Disorder of Choice, Harvard University Press, Cambridge 2009

Holton, R., Willing, Wanting, Waiting, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2009

Lavagetto, M., L'impiegato Schmidtz e altri saggi, Einaudi, Torino 1975

Loeserman, A.R., Proust and the Discourse on Habit, Dissertation, University of Maryland, College Park, 2004

Luperini R., M. Tortora, Sul modernismo italiano, Liguori, Napoli 2012

Luperini, R., L'incontro e il caso: narrazioni moderne e destino dell'uomo occidentale, Laterza, Bari 2007

Mann, T., Buddenbrooks, Vintage, London 1992

Mann, T., The Magic Mountain, Alfred A. Knopf, New York 1949

Mariani, M.A. Svevo e Nietzsche, in “Allegoria”, 59, 2009, pp. 71-91

Miceli Jeffries, G., Darwinismo, Machiavellismo e “creative destruction” nella rappresentazione del lavoro e degli affari in Svevo, in “Annali d'italianistica”, 32, 2014, pp. 215-234

Olson, L., Modernism and the Ordinary, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2009

Orford, J., Excessive Appetites: A Psychological View of Addictions, New York, John Wiley & Sons, 2001

Palmieri, G., Schmitz, Svevo, Zeno. Storia di due «biblioteche», Bompiani, Milano 1994

Paradis, J.G., Butler after Butler: The Man of Letters as Outsider, in J.G. Paradis (ed. by), Samuel Butler Victorian Against the Grain, Toronto University Press, Toronto 2007

Perec, G., L'infra-ordinaire, Seuil, Paris 2015

Piazza, M., Creature dell'abitudine, Il Mulino, Bologna 2018

Piazza, M., Proust, philosophe de l'habitude, in “Revue d’études proustiennes”, 5, 2017, pp. 361-76

Pilkington, A.E., Bergson and his Influence. A Reassesment, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1976

Proust, M., Contre Sainte-Beuve,Pastiches et mélanges, Essais et articles, Gallimard, Paris, 1971

Proust, M., À la recherche du temps perdu, Gallimard, Paris 1987-89

Luperini. R., L'incontro e il caso: narrazioni moderne e destino dell'uomo occidentale, Laterza, Bari 2007

Randall, B., Modernism, Daily Time and Everyday Life, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2007

Ravaisson, F., De l'Habitude, précédée d'une introduction par Jean Baruzi, Félix Alcan, Paris 1927

Ricoeur, P., La memoire, l'histoire, l'oubli, Seuil, Paris 2000

Rydstrand, E., Rhythmic Modernism, Bloomsbury, New York 2019

Romano, C., L’équivoque de l’habitude in “Revue germanique internationale”, 13, 2011, pp. 187-204.

Sandreschi de Robertis, S., Da Spinoza a Proust: L’abitudine e i suoi molteplici effetti, in Bostrenghi, D., Santinelli C., Visentin S., Spinoza nella cultura del Novecento: percorsi attraverso la letteratura e le arti, Le Lettere, Firenze 2022

Sayeau, M., Against the Event. The Everyday and the Evolution of Modernist Narrative, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2013

Rydstrand E., Rhythmic modernism, Bloomsbury, New York 2019

Sim, L., Virginia Woolf: The Patterns of Ordinary Experience, Routledge, London 2016

Sinclair M., Being Inclined: Félix Ravaisson’s Philosophy of Habit, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2019

Sinclair, M., Bergson, Routledge, London 2020

Svevo, I., Romanzi e «continuazioni», Mondadori, Milano 2004

Svevo, I., Zeno's Conscience, Penguin, London 2002

Tortora M., A. Volpone, Il romanzo modernista europeo, Carocci, Milano 2019

Woolf, V., Collected Essays, Vol. I, The Hogarth Press, London 1966

Woolf, V., The Diary of Virginia Woolf. Vol Two, 1920-1924, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, San Diego 1978

Woolf, V., Moments of Being, Harvest/HBJ, San Diego 1985

Woolf, V., Mrs Dalloway, Penguin, London 2000






Abitudine e letteratura, edited by Sofia Sandreschi de Robertis, Alessandra Aloisi and Marco Piazza