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The Paradoxes of Posterity

The impetus for literary creation has often been explained as an attempt to transcend the mortality of the human condition through a work addressed to future generations. Failing to obtain literal immortality, or to turn their hope towards the spiritual immortality promised by religious systems, literary creators seek a symbolic form of perpetuity granted to the intellectual side of their person in the memory of those not yet born while they write. In this book, Benjamin Hoffmann illuminates the paradoxes inherent in the search for symbolic immortality, arguing that the time has come to find a new answer to the perennial question: Why do people write? Exploring the fields of digital humanities and book history, Hoffmann describes posterity as a network of interconnected memories that constantly evolves by reserving a variable and continuously renegotiated place for works and authors of the past. In other words, the perpetual safeguarding of texts is delegated to a collectivity not only nonexistent at the moment when a writer addresses it, but whose nature is characterized by impermanence and instability. Focusing on key works by Denis Diderot, Etienne-Maurice Falconet, Giacomo Casanova, Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand, and Jean-Paul Sartre, Hoffmann considers the authors' representations of posterity, the representation of authors by posterity, and how to register and preserve works in the network of memories. In doing so, Hoffmann reveals the three great paradoxes in the quest for symbolic immortality: the paradoxes of belief, of identity, and of mediation. Theoretically sophisticated and convincingly argued, this book contends that there is only one truly serious literary problem: the transmission of texts to posterity. It will appeal to specialists in literature, in particular eighteenth-century French literature, as well as scholars and students of philosophy and book history.
Benjamin Hoffmann is Associate Professor of Early Modern French Studies at The Ohio State University. His recent publications include Posthumous America: Literary Reinventions of America at the End of the Eighteenth Century and a critical edition of Lezay-Marnesia's Letters Written from the Banks of the Ohio, both published by Penn State University Press. About the translator: Alan J. Singerman is Richardson Professor Emeritus of French at Davidson College, the translator of Benjamin Hoffmann's Posthumous America: Literary Reinventions of America at the End of the Eighteenth Century and Letters Written from the Banks of the Ohio, and the editor and translator of Abbe Prevost's novel The Greek Girl's Story, all published by Penn State University Press.
"In addition to providing a fascinating examination of how writers such as Diderot, Casanova, and Sartre confronted the possibility of 'writing from the grave,' Hoffmann's provocative and well-written book asks all writers to reflect on their own intentions (and personal mythmaking) when they themselves take up the pen." -Andrew Curran, author of Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely
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