Modern Intellectual History 5 (2):279-307 (2008)

Abstract
The meaning of “identity” in its contemporary sense of “who—or what—I am” is of relatively recent vintage. It became current as a concept of individual and group psychology only through Erik Erikson's work in the 1950s and its extension to collectivities in the social and political upheavals of the 1960s. But an important strand of European literature began calling the possibility of fixed self-definition into question in the 1920s, occasionally even deploying the word “identity” explicitly. In the work of Hermann Hesse, Virginia Woolf, Luigi Pirandello, Robert Musil, Hermann Broch and Franz Kafka, the dualistic representation of selfhood prevalent in much of prewar modernism gave way to the image of an infinitely fragmented and ontologically unfounded self not exhausted by any, or even the sum, of its many possible designations. For these authors, the events and aftermath of World War One desacralized a whole range of abstract collective identities—national or imperial citizen, cultured European, gebildete bourgeois, manly male, the spiritual “eternal feminine”—which had furnished the most deeply rooted and honored individual identities of prewar Europe. As a consequence, identity itself was undermined. The paradox of the birth of identity is that it was discovered in the negation of its very possibility.
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DOI 10.1017/S1479244308001650
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