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H.D and Modernity

Hélène Aji
Antoine Cazé
Agnès Derail-Imbert
et al.

Cold Modernism, Eros and H.D.’s Hieroglyphic Femme Fatale

Richard Cole

Texte intégral

  • 1 J. Burnstein, Cold Modernism: Literature, Fashion, Art, p. 13.

1Although H.D.’s work has largely been classified as operative within the category of hot modernism, for its libidinous and psychological (over) sensitivities, this essay focuses instead on her largely ignored cultivation of a feminized image of cold detachment. This essay draws on Jessica Burstein’s theorization of “cold modernism” to assess moments of affective suspension or cold objectivity. This reading of H.D.’s hieroglyphic images of femininity, specifically allows to examine key moments in Helen in Egypt when the reader encounters noticeable difficulties in deciphering any emotion whatsoever. H.D. cultivates affective detachment, which raises a second critical problem. For while Burstein’s critical framework of cold modernism “valorizes exteriority,”1 allowing her to successfully examine the mechanical, inhuman modes operable in a select group of modernists like Wynham Lewis, an assessment of H.D.’s cold modernism does not appear to fit the same mould, since the critic must think through rather than entirely divorce H.D.’s work from the psychoanalytic trajectories that circulate within her work. The question at stake, therefore, concerns how we as critics might work to expand our interpretations of Helen’s dual persona—a subject who frequently attempts to cultivate and understand emotional and rational self-identifications of her own historical position.

  • 2 C. Pondrom, “Approaches to Teaching Helen in Egypt,” p. 86.
  • 3 A. Morris, How to Live/What to Do: H.D.’s Cultural Poetics, p. 84 n. 23.

2The poem, of course, is a palimpsest. Cyrena Pondrom puts this quite clearly: Helen in Egypt, Pondrom says, is “inscription of a new text over the old, obscuring but letting the old elements show through.”2 As much as H.D. might have wished to entirely conceal the old epic tale of Helen of Troy in her revision, a complete erasure of the cultural memory of Helen was not realistically possible. But in writing the poem H.D. certainly attempted to undercut the symbolic durability—the staying power—of Helen as a seductive yet dangerous female with a lethal secret. So imagine H.D.’s disappointment in 1956, the year after she completed her epic poem Helen in Egypt, when she came across a review describing a new Warner Brothers film that put Helen back in Troy, with all the reductive female stereotypes that implied. The film, she complained in a letter to Pearson, again reduces Helen to a Spartan. Helen’s status as a goddess had been cheapened to a talking doll, to a [quote] “cutie” played by Rosanna Podestà (Letters, 31 January 1956). The 1956 film overlooked H.D.’s poetic representation of Helen as an antidote to patriarchy. Director Robert Wise made several departures from Homer’s version as well. Helen was simply an excuse for men to fight and win the treasures of Troy; her regal authority had been reduced to that of a gendered pawn. In a useful footnote, Dee Morris connects this cinematic adaptation to Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Morris argues that Helen’s artificial personality results when “the unique aura of the person” has been turned into “the spell of personality.”3

  • 4 B. Guest, Herself Defined: The Poet H.D. and Her World, p. 220.

3But how exactly do we read such differences between the spells cast on Helen’s personality? Is the spell simply one-dimensional: that Helen, the face that launched a thousand ships, had been replicated into a bimbo celebrity by the Cold War Hollywood machine? Barbara Guest casts a different, biographical spell over Helen’s persona when she suggests that as early as 1934, in letter exchange with Bryher, H.D. had become acutely sensitive to the rise of female celebrity. The highlight of Bryher’s stay in New York up to that point had been seeing Hepburn and Bergner on stage. “‘You, ’Bryher wrote to H.D. in Vienna, ‘if you saw Hepburn [you] would never leave New York, so I think it is just as well you are NOT here.’”4 Bryher’s comments infuriated H.D. They cast a sharp dichotomy between Bryher’s desires and her own appearance. Hepburn’s bangs resembled H.D. ’s.; more similar, she was figured as the “slightly older [!] and wiser cat.” Yet despite the fact that Hepburn was the rebel, the woman against the establishment, Bryher made it a point to say that, despite all this, she was “not so exciting,” preferring Bergner instead because she was “more boy,” more mysterious, more of a catch. It would not be a stretch, then, to state that Helen in Egypt not only works through the hermetic tradition, but that simultaneously H.D.’s poem also confronts competing depictions of female celebrity as they re-emerge in the Cold War era. A seemingly more self-reliant, carefree, new woman is set in tandem with a slightly older female icon, whom, while more emotionally reserved, is correspondingly much wiser to paternal authority. One might go so far as to suggest that these two depictions of femininity—one innocent and naïve, the other experienced and reticent—are inextricably located within close proximity in the poem in ways that allow H.D. to circulate between numerous subject positions, without having to reduce herself to fit within any one version of femininity.

4Such a queering of the feminine, as we might describe it, operates to identify differences rather than to fix identities. To this extent, then, the poem does not always pose just one cultural depiction of femininity over the other. Instead, Helen’s image, when read like a hieroglyph, can be translated in more than a few ways. This is not to say that the poem does not stand as a discursive act that permitted H.D. to dislocate Helen as a vamp in Troy by resituating the narrative in Egypt. The point to remember is that in order to accomplish this task the poem often involves negotiating diverse forms of female power that function to obscure and displace patriarchy. The poem accordingly locates Helen’s strength to be her skill in using evasive lexical tactics. Helen is attuned to her own disguises. What’s more, the first book of “Palinode” relies on the poetic genre of recantation, of reversal and apology, in order to provide reason where other cultural depictions fall short. “She is afraid,” H.D. writes, “So she needs this protection. She has tried to conceal her identity with mockery, ‘I am a woman of pleasure.’” (15) The paradox, however, is that the very act of concealment that Helen relies on as a form of protection has repeatedly, again and again throughout cultural history, been mistaken as a liability. The tragic reality of Helen’s cultural status is confirmed by H.D. in the opening commentary to canto 8:

O—no—but through eternity, she will be blamed for this and she feels it coming. She will blacken her face like the prophetic femme noir of antiquity. (15)

5This allusion to the noir genre, which was at the height of its popularity in the early fifties when H.D. was writing Helen in Egypt, is set anachronistically against antiquity, to convey that the diminutive figure of the femme fatale had its origins not in bad Hollywood cinema but in the Hellenic tradition. As H.D. continues, it becomes clear that this disguise has been identified by Achilles as faulty; she is cast as a scapegoat:

But it does not work. Achilles is here to impeach her. Why? We must blame someone. Hecate—a witch, a vulture, and finally, as if he had run out of common invective, he taunts her—a hieroglyph. (15)

6Helen’s mercurial powers of transformation are directly connected to hieroglyphic image as a female—one that destroys men, despite the fact that it also enables her to gain a small sense agency.

7 It is important to note in the verse that follows these lines that Helen is not cast as the hysteric woman unable to control or contain her emotions. Just the opposite, she appears able to cultivate a high degree of emotional detachment as the speaker narrating her own events:

I drew out a blackened stick,
But he snatched it,
He flung it back,
“what sort of enchantment is this?
What are will you wield with a fagot?
are you Hectate? are you a witch?
a vulture, a hieroglyph?
the sign or the name of the goddess? (16)

8A role reversal occurs in these lines. Helen is recast as the person capable of clearly depicting a factual sequence of events, which repositions the male Achilles as hysteric, emotional. He is the one “enchanted” and most of all prone to jumping to conclusions.

  • 5 D. Chisholm, H.D.’s Freudian Poetics: Psychoanalysis in Translation, p. 189.
  • 6 Ibid.

9This reconstruction of this primal scene in Helen’s history is a radical translation of the Homeric representation of Achilles death. According to Dianne Chisholm, “here, it is Helen’s power to induce desire that deprives the invisible hero of his self-possession, makes him fumble with his armor, thus leaving him exposed to Paris’s deadly, poison tipped arrow.”5 Chisholm may be less accurate in asserting that it is “Helen’s sexual charm alone that has the power to disarm and dispel heroic aspiration.”6 But she argues, quite convincingly, that the poem performs the cultural work of demystifying Freud’s theory of civilization, deconstructing the notion that civilization and sexuality (especially female sexuality) are categorically opposed. In other words, for all the poem’s emphasis on hieroglyphic images that dissolve fixed, antithetical formulations such as pleasure-unpleasure, man-woman, and so on, it seems strange to me that “Helen’s sexual charm alone... has the power to disarm and dispel heroic aspiration.” What this “charm alone” suggests, instead, is that Chisholm’s book has gone further than most to correctly account for undifferentiated sexuality in H.D.’s poetics. Yet such a reading of the hot libidinal discourse of modernism falls short, only tells part of the story. Doesn’t Helen also represent various aspects of femininity other than sexual charm? Might one of those other aspects be that Helen’s capacity for rationality is equally a threat to Achilles’ sense of intellectual mastery?

10 There has been a tendency, when reading Helen in Egypt, to always equate the rational function with masculine logos—the paternal drive, for instance, toward mastering every object as a phallic symbol. Certainly this is one of the most powerful and useful components of Freud’s entire idiom. There are moments in the poem when H.D.’s critique of the masculine logos is undeniable. Her commitment to privilege myth over science is undeniable. She says three times over that war is a “holocaust” (5, 38, 229), and a rationalized product of scientific destruction that ends in “a flash of heaven at noon that blinds the sun” (160):

brighter than the sun at noon-day
yet whiter than frost,
whiter than snow,
whiter than the white drift of sand
that lies like ground shells
dust of shells—
dusk of sculls. (160-161)

  • 7 A. Morris, How to Live / What to Do: H.D.’s Cultural Poetics, p. 74.
  • 8 S. Friedman, Psyche Reborn: The Emergence of H.D., p. 258.

11Dee Morris clarifies that these bleak lines resonate with Hiroshima, “the flash of the hydrogen bombs detonated by the United States on 1 November 1952” and similar Cold War threats such as the bomb “on 1 March 1954 at the Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific.”7 Many commentators, elsewhere in the poem, have noted that sea shells, with their cyclical lines and spirals, are mythical symbols of regeneration. Here, though, a lexical uncertainty occurs when the word “shells” is repeated twice. Susan Friedman observes that the masculine world of war in Helen in Egypt is often imagined by “cold, metal, weapons, clanging sounds, and fortresses repeatedly associated with it.”8 So in this case does the word “shells” resonate better with feminine beach shells or artillery shells? Both would be the only relevant answer to this question.

  • 9 J. Burnstein, Cold Modernisms: Literature, Fashion, Art, p. 2.
  • 10 Ibid.

12Similarly, H.D.’s heroic female is often imbued with a confusion of signs. Her hieroglyphic image demonstrates an unresolved tension in the poem between logic and emotion. Thus, for instance, H.D.’s objective to erase the barbaric traces of Helen in order to install her as a civilized female. As this revision occurs in the text Helen must repeatedly contend with poor copies of her own image that proliferate. The male gaze projecting desire on her repeatedly attempts to redress Helen into a corrupt imitation—threatening to supplant her image as a sexually manipulative woman. But logic is required for Helen to differentiate between her self-identification and the identifications projected upon her. To this extent the speaker cultivates emotional detachment to clarify her rational powers of observation. As hinted at in the opening of this paper, Jessica Burnstein’s recent book provides a helpful critical intervention here by suggesting that “cold modernism engages a world without selves or psychology.”9 By this Burnstein does not suggest that the “selves of modernism are alienated, dispossessed, or petulant to the point of extinction… a world in which the self is not part of the aesthetic register.”10 Helen is not simply a body without a self, since that would surely undercut the dense, subjective dimensions of this particular text. But what is worthwhile is to suggest that as H.D. works through an undifferentiated female image it often involves forms of cold detachment that react against the hot libidinal modes, female hysteria being the most irrational and embodied of Freud’s emotional symptoms. Just as Achilles in the poem has recourse to his emotions, Helen cultivates a certain degree of logical detachment from the emotional identifications that would pin her down to any one version of femininity.

13Part of the disarming and de-mystifying power used by the heroine in Helen in Egypt, then, is to penetrate the heroic armor of Achilles through a rational kind of love death that exceeds masculine-feminine desire. This cold logic exceeds and shatters the ego boundaries associated with masculine mastery, self-assertion, and projection of the gaze. The ethical question that remains at the end of the poem, however, is to what extent might this cold logic of detachment from any one subject position be understood as a defensive violence allowing Helen to evasively defend her own images against the aggression of being “fixed” as a femme fatale? The interest in rewriting the narrative of female seduction, then, resides in the emotional coldness and ethical impasses associated with staging cultural fantasies of feminized aggression. H.D. resisted Bryher as she cast a sharp dichotomy between the two female celebrities, preferring Bergner over Hepburn; similarly, Helen resists identifications that threatened to master her image, and does so using sexual charm as much as the ability to dissociate herself from a clear set of common emotional responses that men interpret only to gender her as feminine. Because Helen’s morally compromised status as a temptress operates through an outwardly threatening ability to elude the precarity of female emotions through which Achilles might identify her, this paper must conclude that H.D.’s cold modernism frequently challenges the socially prescribed affective cues that might allow men to fix her hieroglyphic images as womanly in the first place.


1 J. Burnstein, Cold Modernism: Literature, Fashion, Art, p. 13.

2 C. Pondrom, “Approaches to Teaching Helen in Egypt,” p. 86.

3 A. Morris, How to Live/What to Do: H.D.’s Cultural Poetics, p. 84 n. 23.

4 B. Guest, Herself Defined: The Poet H.D. and Her World, p. 220.

5 D. Chisholm, H.D.’s Freudian Poetics: Psychoanalysis in Translation, p. 189.

6 Ibid.

7 A. Morris, How to Live / What to Do: H.D.’s Cultural Poetics, p. 74.

8 S. Friedman, Psyche Reborn: The Emergence of H.D., p. 258.

9 J. Burnstein, Cold Modernisms: Literature, Fashion, Art, p. 2.

10 Ibid.



Richard Cole, a graduate student of the Cornell School of Criticism and Theory, is completing a doctoral dissertation at the University of Alberta on the New York School. His recent or forthcoming essays appear in Cartographies of Exile (Routledge, 2014), Canadian Review of Comparative Literature, and Affects of Modernism (Edinburgh University Press, 2014).

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