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A Philosophical and Literary History

Ross Hamilton


Ross Hamilton

320 pages | 6 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2007
E-book $10.00 to $45.99 About E-books ISBN: 9780226817590 Published February 2021
An accidental glance at a newspaper notice causes Rousseau to collapse under the force of a vision. A car accidentally hits Giacometti, and he experiences an epiphany. Darwin introduces accident to the basic process of life, and Freud looks to accident as the expression of unconscious desire. Accident, Ross Hamilton claims, is the force that makes us modern. Tracing the story of accident from Aristotle to Buster Keaton and beyond, Hamilton’s daring book revives the tradition of the grand history of ideas.

Accident tells an original history of Western thought from the perspective of Aristotle’s remarkably durable categories of accident and substance. Throughout antiquity and the Middle Ages, Aristotle’s distinction underwrote an insistence on order and subordination of the inessential. In a groundbreaking innovation, Hamilton argues that after the Reformation, the concept of accident began to change places with that of substance: accident became a life-transforming event and effectively a person’s essence.  For moderns, it is the accidental, seemingly trivial moments of consciousness that, like Wordsworth’s “spots of time,” create constellations of meaning in our lives. Touching on a broad array of images and texts—Augustine, Dante, the frescoes of Raphael, Descartes, Jane Austen, the work of the surrealists, and twentieth-century cinema—Hamilton provides a new way to map the mutations of personal identity and subjectivity.   
Introduction: The Shock of Experience
ONE / Accidental Origins: Defining Accidental Qualities and Events
TWO / Divine Substance: Assimilation of Accident within Christian Theology
THREE / Skeptical Accidents: Secularization of Accident during the Reformation
FOUR / Accidental Experience: Radical Enlightenment and the Science of Accident
FIVE / Novel Accidents: Self-Determining Accidents in Print Culture
SIX / The Textual Self: Opportunity and Emotion in the Creation of the Individual
SEVEN / The Accidental Sublime: Returning Substance to Accidental Events
EIGHT / Altered States: The Macroscopic Impact of Accidental Qualities
NINE / The Form of Accident: The Boundaries of Perception
TEN / Envisioning Accident: Searching for Substance in an Accidental World
Conclusion: Pattern Recognition
Review Quotes
Harold Bloom
“Sigmund Freud told us there were no accidents. Everything that could happen to us was already ourselves. Ross Hamilton’s extraordinary book both confirms and subtly extends Freud by showing that his was only a partial truth. In Hamilton’s vision, we are a living labyrinth in which accidents do happen but are never as gratuitous as they may seem.”
Helen Deutsch

“Beautifully and lucidly written, Accident balances a series of elegant and convincing close readings—­always supported by an impressive command of the critical terms—­of texts from Oedipus Rex through Musil’s Man without Qualities with a compelling and closely reasoned narrative arc. This is one of the most exciting, imaginative, and original books I’ve read in years, as well as one of the most accomplished and learned: it is truly innovative literary criticism grounded in solid literary scholarship.”­—Helen Deutsch, University of California, Los Angeles

Frank Kermode

“I am impressed by the diversity and range of the learning Ross Hamilton applies to a difficult and varied topic, largely invented by himself. A new topic, a new way of dealing with it, and a philosophical/literary treatment by a good writer—surely it will attract informed attention.”

Jean Starobinski

 “This book is a remarkable contribution to a comprehensive definition of modernity. It deserves the greatest attention, for it takes full account of the background and the main symptoms of the modern mind, both in philosophy and in literature.”

"Readers will get the impression that an excellent teacher . . . . is guiding them across millennia. . . . Specialists in English and comparative literature and those teaching undergraduate humanities courses will be well served by this book." .
ACLA, Harry Levin Prize citation, 2009 winner | ACLA, Harry Levin Prize, 2009 winner

“Ross Hamilton’s Accident: A Philosophical and Literary History is a highly erudite comparative study….Displaying not only great literary-historical, comparative, and philosophical breadth but also rich interpretive depth, this study demonstrates something that could be called prismatic ingenuity, illuminating multiple aspects of ‘accident,’ many of which are far from obvious.”

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