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Thomas Dutoit
Trevor Harris

The Pathic Receptacles of Modernism

Jed Rasula

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  • 1 It is “a grand, hyperbolic undertaking” (Harrison, 1996, 212).

1“Modernism” is a term that appears foreclosed by prior associations; an official category for 20th-century artistic excess or extremity. Modernity is accepted as an historical condition, but “modernism” adds to this condition an unwarranted enthusiasm, a hyperbolic investigation of first principles, a distressing transfiguration of everything in sight, an “emancipation of dissonance” and more — its claims, in short, are themselves excessive.1 The aura of rupture courted in The Waste Land, the overloaded narrative aspirations of Proust and Musil and Joyce, the assiduous discontinuities rising to paroxysm in “The Rite of Spring,” “Potemkin,” and “Guernica” — these generic signifiers of “Modernism” now seem paradoxically comfortable with the agonies they signify, at repose in their distress. The familiarity of modernism as a periodizing term made it available as the cornerstone on which a chorus of huckster blandishments about the “postmodern” was erected in the 1980s. The probity and persuasiveness of some of the theorists of postmodernism notwithstanding, the most fruitful consequence of the debate has been a long overdue defamiliarization of “Modernism”. Modernism now reappears, in other words, as discursive surplus, bringing with it what it always did: the power of the gratuitous, the claim of excess.

2If we think of excessive plenitude, it is likely that Bataille will come to mind — the Bataille of La Part maudite: “A la surface du globe, pour la matière vivante en général, l’énergie est toujours en excès, la question est toujours posée en termes de luxe, le choix est limité au mode de dilapidation des richesses” (Bataille, 1976, 31). Bataille elaborates the implications of “extravagance” for the arts in his “Lettre à René Char sur les incompatibilités de l’écrivain” : “l’art seul hérite aujourd’hui, sous nos yeux, le rôle et le caractère délirants des religions: c’est l’art aujourd’hui qui nous transfigure et nous ronge, qui nous divinise et nous moque, qui exprime par ses mensonges prétendus une vérité vide enfin de sens précis” (Bataille, 1988, 21). The key word, italicized by Bataille, is “delirious”. Bataille is by no means a zealot of the bacchannalia; he is as much a moralist as Mathew Arnold. But his is not the executive moralism of the ten commandments; it resembles, instead, a finger raised in silent summons, the cautionary reminder of another perspective on events and actions which is not to be legislated in advance of the specific occasion — which is, indeed, “a truth that is empty at last of precise meaning”; a power of withdrawal, a dissent that is not protest or (re)active opposition. Bataille may be said to be of the devil’s party, in Blake’s special sense. “NON SERVIAM est, dit-on, la devise du démon,” Bataille indicates. “En ce cas la littérature est diabolique” (ibid., 19).

3A curious structure emerges. The work of art is the remainder, the unassimilable excess, the unserviceable excrescence. The important thing is that it is implacably there: a materially insistent noncontribution to the existing state of affairs. Its value for Bataille is this excess: it is a value that does not contribute to the wholesome vitality of the given, but animates a counter-insurgent double, a “nothing” which is of a certain moral use only to the degree to which one can remind the living that they too will one day be dead. Such a reminder has no unilateral application. For Bataille, the exemplary imposition of the memento mori is that its example cannot be followed and yet, through mere passage of time, it will be followed. In occupying an analogous position, modern literature is then the advocate of non-advocacy, exemplum of the unexemplary, and in extremis is a withdrawal of signification from the signifying gesture.

4In the North American imagination such unthinkable thoughts are polemically made out to be the special province of the French (or, in more sullenly generalized terms, typical of “continental” philosophy). But this is ludicrous: nothing is more extravagant than a literature that pitches vertiginously (to cite only one literary moment) from Hawthorne’s “Wakefield” to Melville’s “Bartleby” and Moby-Dick, Poe’s gothic miniatures, and Dickinson’s pornographically metaphysical versions of the Christian hymn book — not to mention the discerning aggravations of Walden and Leaves of Grass. Consider this, from Robert Frost (the representative poet selected for Kennedy’s presidential inauguration): “politics is an extravagance... an extravagance about grievances. And poetry is an extravagance about grief. And grievances are something that can be remedied, and griefs are irremediable” (Frost, 1995, 904). Frost’s sense of extravagance is simply going to the limit: “There’s always this element of extravagance. It’s like snapping the whip: Are you there? Are you still on?” (ibid., 907). And again — in a beautiful vernacular: “That’s the height of it all, in whatever you do: ‘bet your sweet life,’ you know” (ibid., 910). This bet is not that far removed from Mallarmé’s “hasard”: for Frost, as for the Frenchman with whom he is never associated, “The [poet’s] style is out of his superfluity. It is the mind skating circles round itself as it moves forward” (Frost, 1964, 166). That other crusty Yankee, Henry Thoreau quoted with relish, in Walden, the English poet Carew: “we advance / Such virtues only as admit excess” (Thoreau, 1985, 386); at the end of Walden he laments, “I fear chiefly lest my expression may not be extra-vagant enough, may not wander far enough beyond the narrow limits of my daily experience for I am convinced that I cannot exaggerate enough even to lay the foundation of a true expression” (ibid., 580). And — to conclude this extravagent aside — William James remarked that “Had [man’s] whole life not been a quest for the superfluous, he never would have established himself as inexpugnably as he has done in the necessary.... Prune down his extravagance, and you undo him” (James, 1992, 555).

  • 2 As Plotinus puts it, “The One ‘overflows’ and its excess begets an other than itself” (O’Brien, 196 (...)
  • 3 “Die Welt gebiert eine neue Zeit; es gibt nur eine Frage: ist heute die Zeit schon gekommen, sich v (...)
  • 4 It was in fact the phenomenon of American globalization that prompted Bataille to make an explicit (...)

5As these extracts suggest, superfluity and extravagance are principles of creation. This is not particularly modern, and can be traced back at least as far as Plotinus, for whom the necessarily inexhaustible creative power of the primal One presses relentlessly on to the productive realization of every potential. “It is of the very nature of the One in its perfection to ‘overflow,’ producing in its exuberance the ‘other”‘(Formigari, 1973, 325).2 But the happy prospect of infinite superabundance becomes a vexing problem for finite beings like us: what do we do with the surplus? Taken as a question about temporality, this occasions an historical consideration: how does the past contribute to the totality of the present? — and is it a malignant part of the present whole? As artist and Blaue Reiter editor Franz Marc posed the problem in 1914: “The world is giving birth to a new time; there is only one question: has the time now come to separate ourselves from the old world? Are we ready for the vita nuova? This is the terrifying question of our age” (in Kandinsky and Marc, eds., 1974, 260).3 The new world: a structure of antiphonal hopes, dreams, disturbances and ruptures for five hundred years; but only in this century did it become evident that the new world was everywhere, and could no longer be conveniently consigned to America. The “American century” was becoming a global destiny.4

  • 5 The scholarship on decadence is considerable, but two works stand apart for their clarity and judic (...)

6The nineteenth century had its own inklings about excess, played out in esoteric celebrations and moralistic denunciations across that terrain called “decadence.”5 Symptomatically, decadence arrives in Europe in the form of an American, Edgar Allan Poe. Baudelaire, an immediate enthusiast, repudiates the charge of decadence. “Le mot littérature de décadence,” he writes in 1853, “suppose quelque chose de fatal et de providentiel, comme un décret inéluctable; et il est tout à fait injuste de nous reprocher d’accomplir la loi mystérieuse” (see Parmée, ed., 1949). If decadence is the inevitable culmination of a process of development, can the norm then be defined as a case of arrested development? This is a suggestion, and at times an accusation, by modernist writers following the path of Baudelaire, for whom the actual decadence was to be found in everyday life, its resplendent Victorian and Biedermeier excesses made transparent by their pervasiveness. “This is the true decadence,” Oscar Wilde declared in “The Decay of Lying”: “when Life gets the upper hand, and drives Art out into the wilderness” (in Ellmann, ed., 1969, 301).

  • 6 In his elegy for Mallarmé, Remy de Gourmont proposed that “En suprême analyse, l’idée décadence est (...)

7Wilde’s rhetorical fertility is itself a symptom of decadence, albeit decadence in the somewhat unfamiliar light of a bounty, but a bounty excessive with plenitude — extravagance as the favored measure. In 1914 Holbrook Jackson had the good sense to observe that “the effort demanded by even the most ill-directed phases of decadent action suggests a liveliness of energy which is quite contrary to the: traditions of senile decay” (77).6 “True decadence,” Jackson goes on to affirm, arises not out of senility “but out of surfeit” (78). The stereotyped view of dissipated indolence, then, misrepresents the truth of decadence, which is the elaboration of complexity as intensity, and intensity as the measure of a body fortified with the exercise of its newly endowed faculties — a vision shared by those decidedly undecadent Americans, Thoreau and Whitman. It is Walt Whitman who, in an 1876 preface, offers a frank realization of the dilemma of decadence — decadence as decline — when he concedes of his self-portrait in Leaves of Grass as healthy, robust everyman, that the radiant physiology of 1855 yielded to “the pathology which was pretty sure to come in time from the other” (1982, 1008). The question of cultural progress and decline, then, is inextricable from the problem of the body. William Butler Yeats, with scrupulous delicacies of reserve, ventured that what others called “decadence” is what “I, because I believe that the arts lie dreaming of things to come, prefer to call the autumn of the body” (1961, 191).

  • 7 “The new media and technologies by which we amplify and extend ourselves constitute huge collective (...)

8The autumn of the body was for Yeats a vision of spiritual refinement, a Platonic overcoming of sensory confusion, a new lucidity. But from our perspective, it is the premonition of a profound restructuring of sensory ratios, the imminent “obsolescence” of the body as it is transfigured from organic unity to mechanical variety. Two years after Yeats’ essay, Henry Adams visited the Exposition Universelle in Paris, a convulsive apparition which was to be repeated for him on a yearly basis thereafter. Confronting the hall of the dynamos, Adams felt his historical neck broken, as he put it, and found his entire education obsolete in the presence of “the new multiverse”. “The movement from unity into multiplicity, between 1200 and 1900, was unbroken in sequence, and rapid in acceleration,” he reflected. “Prolonged one generation longer, it would require a new social mind... it would need to jump” (in Samuels, ed., 1973, 458 and 498). In one generation it was modern trench warfare that made the social mind jump. Since then, culture has been subjected to a series of “blows” which dislocate existing sensory ratios.7 At the far end of this century of blows, it is getting difficult to imagine what a stable ratio of the senses might be, we’re so accustomed to rotary spin and redistribution of affect. What used to be military, in other words, has become the common repertoire of everyday life: the pulverizing of access routes and vantage points, the camouflage of concentrated forces and dissimulation of movement, along with reconstructive surgery and prosthetic technologies.

  • 8 On Baudelaire, see Nicholls, 1995, 8
  • 9 This manifesto, by Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà, Luigi Russolo, Giacomo Baila and Gino Severini, o (...)

9As if in oracular confirmation of things to come, Baudelaire attested to a new “psychology of nerves” and “multiplied sensation,” and Walter Pater commended “a quickened, multiplied consciousness” (in Phillips, ed., 1986, 153).8 Long before the historical catastrophe of world war, neurasthenic agitation was symptomatic not of crisis but of continuity. Nerves became the privileged medium of sensory awareness in the age of telegraph and telephone wires. In 1891 Hermann Bahr observed that “when classicism says ‘man,’ it means reason and feeling. And when Romanticism says ‘man,’ it means passion and the senses. And when modernism says ‘man’ it means the nerves” (cited in Everdell 1997, 100). Gertrude Stein, reflecting on the syncopated time of jazz, notices that “this difference in tempo... does make anybody nervous” (1935, 95). Paul Valéry acknowledged that “nous sommes ahuris par cette incohérence d excitations qui nous obsède et dont nous finissons par avoir besoin” — adding, “Nous avons perdu le loisir de mûrir” (in Hytier, ed., 1957, 1039). Lacking such “leisure,” the artist reconceives the environment itself, in its industrial transfiguration, as the ongoing milieu of ripening; and the Futurists, in the 1910 “Futurist Painting: Technical Manifesto, proclaim themselves” “the primitives of a new sensitiveness, multiplied hundredfold, and... our art is intoxicated with spontaneity and power” (in Apollonio, ed., 1973, 29).9

10There are times in which the linear model of development is misleading, as when we attribute to a given artistic movement the vanquishing or overcoming of its predecessors. The audacious technophilia of Futurism is seen as a much later stage in the succession from Romanticism to Symbolism and Decadence. It can be illuminating to think Futurism while re-reading Walter Pater’s famous conclusion to his book on the Renaissance).

How shall we pass most swiftly from point to point, and be present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy? To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life .... For our one chance lies in ... getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time. Only be sure it is passion — that it does yield you this fruit of a quickened, multiplied consciousness. (Phillips, ed., 1986, 152)

11This incendiary fanning of life’s flame, compounding its pulsations, makes a claim we find as readily in Vorticism, Expressionism, and Surrealism. The final sentence of Nadja could be Pater speaking: “La beauté sera CONVULSIVE ou ne sera pas” (Breton, 1988, 753).

12Nadja fulfills the aspirations of Joseph Conrad’s literary impressionism, aspiring “To snatch from ... a passing phase of life ... the rescued fragment ... of a sincere mood ... to show its vibration, its color, its form; and ... to disclose its inspiring secret” (Conrad, 1963, 13). Conrad’s narrative complexities toil with a nihilistic suspicion that these rescued fragments are orphans, belonging to no intelligible whole. At the same time, Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Lord Chandos bemoans his descent into fragmentation, which is significantly intricated with somatic analogies:

  • 10 “[S]o wie ich einmal in einem Vergröβerungsgl as ein Stück von der Haut: meines kleinen Fingers ges (...)

As once, through a magnifying glass, I had seen a piece of skin on my little finger look like a field full of holes and furrows, so I now perceived human beings and their actions. I no longer succeeded in comprehending them with the simplifying eye of habit. For me everything disintegrated into parts, those parts again into parts; no longer would anything let itself be encompassed by one idea. Single words floated round me; they congealed into eyes which stared at me and into which I was forced to stare back — whirlpools which gave me vertigo and, reeling incessantly, led into the void. (Hoffmannsthal, 1952, 134-135)10

13Proust’s vast novel is a similar study in disorientation, the poetics of which is effectively expressed in Proust’s observation that “l’absence d’une chose, ce n’est pas que cela, ce n’est pas un simple manque partiel, c’est un bouleversement de tout le reste, c’est un état nouveau qu’on ne peut prévoir dans l’ancien” (Proust, 1987, 300). The situation is at once a crisis and a source of jubilation: a phantom sensation of the lost whole persists, but at the same time a “new state,” an emergent totality of another order, arises as apparitional palsy of the parts. Samuel Beckett (whose first book was on Proust) speaks with consummate succinctness of his own goal as the realization of a “Total object, complete with missing parts, instead of partial object” (Beckett and Duthuit, 1965 101).

  • 11 Compare Picasso’s nonchalant declaration, in 1935: “In my case a picture is a sum of destructions” (...)
  • 12 “Womit kennzeichnet sich jede litterarische décadence? Damit, daβ das Leben nicht mehr im Ganzen wo (...)

14The vocabulary of purification is integral to the modernist drama of decomposition of forms. Long before Picasso declared his painting to be a sum of destructions, Mallarmé acknowledged that “La Destruction fut ma Béatrice” (Mallarmé, 1995, 349).11 In his case, one might say that intellectual fastidiousness pulverized the familiar world into granulated elements which enabled a more ravishing aesthetic to arise as an art of new combinations. During the same period, Paul Bourget’s influential studies of “contemporary psychology” encompassed decadence: “Un style de décadence est celui où l’unité du livre se décompose pour laisser la place à l’indépendance de la page, où la page se décompose pour laisser la place à l’indépendance de la phrase, et la phrase pour laisser la place à l’independance du mot” (Bourget, 1901, 20). Nietzsche, who had broken with Wagner in part as a way of affirming his own French enthusiasms (famously championing Bizet over the Teutonic maestro), read Bourget and rewrote his passage on decadent style: “What is the sign of every literary decadence?” asked Nietzsche. “That life no longer dwells in the whole. The word becomes sovereign and leaps out of the sentence, the sentence reaches out and obscures the meaning of the page, the page gains life at the expense of the whole — the whole is no longer a whole” (Nietzsche, 1988, 626).12 But what if we consider this in purely descriptive terms, alleviated from the unsavory connotations of decadence? To do so would allow us to think of the parts as elements in an awakening, not vestigial traces of obliteration; a reinitiation into pathesis, rather than a collapse of order.

  • 13 “Die besten und unerhörtesten Künstler werden diejenigen sein, die stündlich die Fetzen ihres Leibe (...)

15Dadaist Richard Huelsenbeck insisted that “The best and most extraordinary artists will be those who every hour snatch the tatters of their bodies out of the frenzied cataract of life, who, with bleeding hands and hearts, hold fast to the intelligence of their time” (1981, 243).13 Intelligence, here, I take to be the disfiguring power of the cataract, in which disfigurement is taken in the modernist sense as a newly disclosed power of creation — “the terrible, thrilling monster of life’s vitality” as Max Beckmann called it (in Harrison and Wood, eds., 1992, 267-268). Rilke (in a letter in French) wrote:

  • 14 A strikingly similar formulation is ventured by the composer Arnold Schoenberg: “Art is the cry for (...)

Tout ce que les autres oublient pour se rendre la vie possible, nous [artistes] allons toujours le découvrir et l’agrandir même ; c’est nous les véritables réveilleurs de nos monstres, auxquels nous ne sommes pas assez opposés pour devenir leurs vainqueurs; car dans un certain sens nous nous trouvons d’accord avec eux ; ce sont eux, ces monstres, qui retiennent ce surplus de force, indispensable à ceux qui se doivent surpasser. (Rilke and Merline, 1954, 93)14

16Indeed, “Pathology is rapidly becoming the basis of sensational literature,” Oscar Wilde presciently noted in 1887, “and in art, as in politics, there is a great future for monsters” (in Beckson, ed., 1996, 135).

  • 15 The most succinct assessment of the contingencies of modern selfhood may be Musil’s well-known pass (...)
  • 16 “[E]s gibt kein ‘Sein’ hinter dem Thun, Wirken, Werden; ‘der Thäter’ ist zum Thun bloβ hinzugedicht (...)

17Self-overcoming was a programmatic feature of modernism from Rimbaud onward. For Rimbaud the path from “I” to “other” — from humanist subject to modernist monster — was the road to bounty; as it was for Whitman, imagining that to contain multitudes was necessarily to inhabit an expanded self (but Leaves of Grass only fitfully approximates the plenitude of Gargantua and Pantagruel). The modernist trajectory develops a consistent insight: there is not a “natural” person who is educated and acculturated to develop certain innate abilities; rather, one seizes the person one becomes in ritual supplication — a process memorialized by the prevalence of the “mask” in Gourmont, Wilde, Yeats, Pound, and others.15 One of the most powerful artistic resolutions of modernism was to spurn the Romantic faith in a primal soul, a “deep self” lurking below the crust of socialized personality. Modernist epistemological radicalism is best summarized by Nietzsche: “there is no ‘being’ behind doing, effecting, becoming; ‘the doer’ is merely a fiction added to the deed — the deed is everything” (481).16 Gertrude Stein is not often thought of in connection with Nietzsche, but she repeats his claim: “one has no identity ... when one is in the act of doing anything. Identity is recognition.... I am I because my little dog knows me” (1971, 148-149). Her entire work — exquisitely anatomized by Stein herself in Lectures in America — is a vast demonstration of what it means to hold strictly to the proposition of a creative act not grounded in the dialectical echo-chamber of ego-building. It is because the depth psychology model is so prevalent that Stein has been incompletely assimilated to the modernist canon, her robustly tactile exuberances unconducive to the thematizing of idealism in crisis. Her work is monstrous — that is, it raises issues associated with the grotesque: excess or deficit, too much or not enough.

  • 17 “Unsere Kultur ist ein Tempel dessen, was unverwahrt Wahn gennant würde, aber gleich auch seine Ver (...)

18Robert Musil’s Ulrich, the man without qualities, observes that “Our civilization is a temple of what would be called unsecured mania, but it is also its asylum, and we don’t know if we are suffering from an excess or a deficiency” (1995, 834).17 This is the perennial question of any new world mentality, as any vita nuova must contend simultaneously with amputation and abundance, collapse of a reassuring order and exuberant discovery of new orders. The excessive challenge of such claims is registered as trauma, to which there are two responses, each with biodynamic implications. The first is most succinctly put in the biological dictum, phylogeny is recapitulated in ontogeny: the individual is a fragment of a whole, but prior to its detachment it rehearsed the whole in its embryological development. The problem with this (to follow Jean Starobinski’s helpful scrutiny) is that “Making the most remote past coefficient to our most intimate depth is a way of refusing loss and separation” (1975, 334). This (ontogenetic) response to trauma concludes that there is no trauma, that it is all a dream, a fear not a hurt. It also replicates totality in the image of the great chain of being, in which the well-formed work is a localized recapitulation of universal principles, extending the regulative unity of the whole into all the parts that compose and affirm it.

19The other response to the trauma of parts and wholes, excess and deficiency, is related to the collapse of the great chain and the emergence of organic form. From the premodern perspective of cosmic harmony a discordant form was not possible. A discordant form was not a form but a failure, a monstrous excrescence. But the monster was nonetheless preserved in aesthetic practice as the grotesque, deliberately preserving and transmitting the monstrous as monstrare or demonstration of limits, thresholds, breaches of the harmonious boundary. The grotesque may be seen as the admission of materiality into the considerations of eidos or formalized idea, conceding that the non-compliance of material with disposing form produces interesting formations in its own right. The grotesque initiates, then, a transfusion of resources available to art: the low is not strictly abject matter awaiting the dignity of form, but a wild or chaotic dimension which can energize the formative endowment.

  • 18 “Aber die höchste Schônheit, ja die hôchste Ordnung ist denn doch nur die des Chaos, nämlich eines (...)
  • 19 Emerson’s essay implicitly recapitulates, without acknowledgment, the terms of Schiller’s Stofftrie (...)

20It is in this spirit — and in explicit acknowledgement of the grotesque, or the discordant form — that the Romantic insistence on organic form arises. Friedrich Schlegel goes so far as to maintain that “the highest beauty, indeed the highest order is then ultimately only that of chaos, that is to say, a state awaiting the touch of love to unfold it into a harmonious universe” (in Furst, ed., 1980, 93).18 Schlegel validates process over thing, energy over outcome, a view further celebrated in Emerson’s ecstatic encomium to the poet, “resigning himself to the divine aura which breathes through forms” and thereby “sharing the path or circuit of things through forms” (1983, 459).19 Such a recognition endows the arts with an inconceivable bounty: not only any form, but any subject, is quickened with latent intensity. The divine emanation does not disappear, it is reborn in every material instance — and materialism is itself reconceived under the sign of a redemptive superfluity, creation as the practice of excess. Emerson speaks of “defects and deformities” (455) as signifying exuberance, the base and the obscene becoming illustrious. Victor Hugo, likewise, held that:

Le beau n’a qu’un type; le laid en a mille.... Ce que nous appelons le laid ... est un détail d’un grand ensemble qui nous échappe, et qui s’harmonise, non pas avec l’homme, mais avec la création tout entière. Voilà pourquoi il nous présente sans cesse des aspects nouveaux, mais incomplets. (1963, 420 and 421)

21The challenge and potential of chaotic multiplicity is taken up by Yeats in “The Emotion of Multitude”. By multitude Yeats means creative fertility as the power of suggestion in “vague symbols that set the mind wandering from idea to idea, emotion to emotion” (216). Yeats would have us feed off sublunar changes, seeking the nutrient of novelty not in things themselves but in the motion they incite — a motion incarnated, for many in the fin de siècle, in Wagner’s operas, in which the underlying mood is one of farewell, Abschied, Liebestod, Sehnsucht. To lend assent to the Heraclitean flux is to be roused by a continual shower of novelties, but it also means bidding farewell to the equally copious cascade of familiar departing and declining things. It is in this quasi-Wagnerian mood that Osip Mandelstam poignantly observes: “Literary forms change, some forms give way to others. But every change, every such innovation, is accompanied by bereavement, by a loss” (1977, 67).

  • 20 Difference in decadence is invariably recognized in a process of assimilation — its “decadent” exc (...)
  • 21 The technological invasion of the body has been a consistent preoccupation for Paul Virilio, who ma (...)

22My concern here is with the pathic dimension of generic bereavement, with the fact that aesthetic receptacles hurt when they undergo developmental transfiguration. The hurt is commensurate with the body because subjectivity is spread out across a grid of cultural transmitters, freestanding receptacles endowed with the power of sentience. By the turn of the century the average Joe, the common integer of Vitruvian Man in postures of stalwart mastery amidst the modern dynamos, like the stable body of the traditionally sanctioned writer or artist, was being monstrously augmented with alien endowments, experienced initially in decadence as the stimulation of phantom difference.20 Simultaneously with the rise of these phantom claims, the new technologies were refabricating the bodily alignment with cultural wardrobe, an encounter from which the body emerges as biologically unfit for what are now called “future technologies,” and it begins to assume a remedial relation to social skills.21 It is in the arts, I propose, that this remedial relation assumes a chronic and conspicuous aspect, rendering modernism in the arts an uncanny forecast, in formal generic terms, of acquired immune deficiency syndrome. That is, the antibodies that had made the hard crust of artistic genres into such infallible transmitters of cultural blueblood break down, in modernism, casting off their shells, becoming susceptible to invasion from an immanent manifold of viral energies. I don’t want to overextend the analogy (not that it isn’t already crushed under the weight of metaphoric excess); suffice it to say that in modernism we arrive for the first time at something like a. mutation of artistic forms from which no genres are immune, and this: mutation is evidence not of some “experimental” mood or distemper of public spirit but is an acute materialization of pathic intensity, a rupturing of genre that tells us, poignantly, that art is of the body and the body’s traumas extend to the art.

  • 22 Ralph Ellison’s eponymous narrator concludes his novel with the insinuation that “on the lower freq (...)

23It would be misleading to propose that the artwork is a secondary or mimic body, an understudy in the life cycle, or a vaporous animation like the Egyptian ka and the Greek psyche. What happens to the body does not pass undisturbed into art: the relation is not reflective, but one of evident cultural intervention. But the importance of the somatic with respect to art is more than illustrative. The labor of creation extends pathic sensitivity from artist to work, particularly in times when the security of traditional models is under challenge and an emergent mode is compelled to manifest — as an incorporated principle — its own modus operandi, the autopoetic vindication of its own existence. This is why, for instance, the gestural typology made visible by Jackson Pollock elevated action painting to the status of a salutary culmination of modern art. When the artwork itself manifests a poetics, a tacit procedural credo, the “idea” is inseparable from the matter at hand, and the body becomes the proximate orientation. The work itself may not bear any obvious imprint of the body, but it serves nonetheless as pathic receptacle, transmitting in its own “lower frequencies” the animating episodes of corporation, incorporation, and discorporation.22

  • 23 Race and gender are now ubiquitous categories in the study of modernism. On provincialism, see Robe (...)

24In The Struggle of the Modern Stephen Spender advances the thesis that “The modern aim was essentially the re-invention of reality: re-presentation of the shapes and forces of a new world, and also of a modern kind of sensibility” (1963, 133). Spender inherits many of his views from Eliot, whose “dissociation of sensibility” looms large here; and, like Eliot, the “feeling” in question is emotional, having no reference to pathic sensibility, the feeling of the body. It is most keenly in the symptoms and initiatives of bodily feeling, however, that we can recover the implications of modernism as a re-invention of reality. With the new points of orientation to modernism made available by considerations of race and gender, as well as acknowledging provincialism as a contributing factor,23 the modernist literary work is less and less the secure expression of the autonomous subject in a freestanding artifact. It is more and more discernable as a pathic sanctuary — receptacle of corporeal damage, but also a space of shelter and recuperative delay.

25What I propose is more than a simple shift of attention from mind to body, from concept to pathos. The reflective dimension encouraged by the old view of modernism, in which disjointed times prompted fractured thoughts, is not so easily accommodated to the physio-material realm. What would it mean to imagine no longer a continuum of psychic dislocation, but in its place a discontinuous series of physical maladaptations? Perhaps the first thing we might learn is that a field composed of fully differentiated bodies ripples with incommensurability: the transference of suffering from one body to another is nearly unintelligible, as the individuating insistence of pain is a greater obstacle to the spectre of unified sensibility than any rational (or even irrational) argument. Under the old paradigm of modernism as re-invention of the real, even if under pressure of historical trauma, there lingered an unwarranted ease of transference of experience, supposedly “felt” and “shared,” from person to person, all these persons then collectively ratified as having thought the same thought together — the thought of dislocation. And yet, the very works most commonly said to promote this mood of collective dislocation demonstrate the incommensurability of private moods: witness the deflationary climax of homecoming in Ulysses, as Stephen and Bloom transect one another’s path’s with merely mechanical consequence; consider Forster’s inscription of missed connection as imperial destiny in Passage to India ·, not to mention the constancy of cross-purposes in Woolf, the anomie of divergently situated historical agents in the Conradian diaspora, the characteristic bestiality of relations in Kafka, the immense cloud of unknowing that constitutes love in Proust, as well as the polarized stalemate of sexual politics in Lawrence — these are a few instances of a temperamental disavowal of any systematic summation, much as they appear to converge on the thematic prospect of “dislocation”. Location might well be a term of collective identity, but dislocation is not, and — as in the case of “explosion” — whatever central force it indicates, dispersal is the outcome.

  • 24 Suddenness attests to “the nonidentity of aesthetic experience and historical meaning,” as Karl Boh (...)

26When, I wonder, will we stop being medical technicians of modernism and become its homeopathists and therapists, its fellow convalescents? There are, after all, such enormities of trauma in works like Nightwood and Spring and All and The Good Soldier, that the pretence to apprehend them under the disposing framework of professional expertise is like prescribing an increased dosage of morphine for a terminal case so as to quickly move on to the next patient. But when works like these set out to re-invent the real, their re-invention does not stop at the parameters of the text; they keep re-inventing themselves in a viral insistence that increasingly implicates the reader, a reader who ceases to be a reader and becomes at once a witness, an attendant, a confidant, and a freshly opened wound. They persist, paradoxically elaborating with great patience the suddenness of being stricken.24

27Two diagnoses result, corresponding to the old and new renditions of modernism. The first is the functionalist model of compensation, which surreptitiously recapitulates the great chain of being on a strictly social level. Repeated ad nauseam in thumbnail histories of modernity, this version was sanctioned by the tremendous authority of T.S. Eliot, who celebrated Ulysses for its invention of mythical form as a way of taming the anarchy of modern life. Wallace Stevens, likewise, defined mind as “a violence from within that protects us from a violence without” (1951, 36). In this theory, the malignancies of modern life (seen as a combination of accelerated industry, urbanization, imperialism, and total war) confront the artist with an overwhelmingly menacing reality, confining response to a compensatory mimicry; so the artist damages the artform, much as statesmen destroy their nations. This is, of course, a crude variant of the Marxist dialectic of base and superstructure, the sublimated familiarity of which has surely contributed to the prevalence of the functionalist model of cultural compensations. Furthermore, the thought of sublimation suggests that the hegemony of the Freudian topos of psychodynamics also reinforces the sense that art is compensation on one level for damages inflicted on another level.

28The second version of modernism suggests a different diagnosis: in this version, the Romantic organicist model is adjusted so that it is not strictly a happy image of fruition and inevitable fulfillment, but a truly organic legacy in which its constituents are subject to blight, mutation, hybridity. A reconstituted organic model gives us a view of disfiguration as the plastic measure by which artists attempted to heal not themselves but their damaged media. There is no single: diagnosis of such damage. In some instances a given genre could seem atrophied through underuse; in others, bloated and stupefied through gluttony. Whitman is a case in point: his early lyrics helplessly reverberate the soporific voice-over of his era’s gentility, the trace elements of which he was only able to purge (with enormous difficulty, he admitted) by stepping out of the wicker-basket of the lyric stanza altogether. Whitman’s example is instructive — in ways equally true of Joyce, Picasso, and Stein, among others — of how the recuperative: attention to a damaged medium succeeds not by tinkering, but by a global solution, a purging of toxins through superabundance, extravagance:, and sheer gratuity. Modernism, then, is not a form of idealism; it is not the reflection of crisis in form: modernism is the enactment of crisis, and this enactment works through a legacy of somatic distress, a legacy that extends to the artwork itself in its capacity as pathic receptacle.

  • 25 “The book has somehow to be adapted to the body,” writes Woolf (1957, 81), after observing the plia (...)
  • 26 “For this is not one life; nor do I always know if I am man or woman, Bernard or Louis, Susan, Jinn (...)

29When Virginia Woolf says in A Room of One’s Own that the book must be adapted to the body, it sounds like a belated recognition of what was already conspicuous in modernist practice.25 It’s not that Woolf was inattentive; in fact, it’s surprising even now how little attention has been paid to the cardiac dimension of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, nearly a century after its publication, as though the very word “darkness” overshadowed the rest of the title, just as we tend to think of Kurtz with his gangrenous soul as the main character. But it is manifestly Marlow’s tale, a tale of his own initiation into mysteries that are dark because they are inscrutably corporeal. In a commonly overlooked detail late in the story, as Marlow is following Kurtz’s track in the dark toward the rituals underway around the fires, his agitation is momentarily dispelled, and he is pacified by something integral to Conrad’s title: “I remember I confounded the beat of the drum with the beating of my heart, and was pleased at its calm regularity” (1983, 106). A minor detail with major consequence: ostensibly a story about the atrophy of the European soul, metaphorized in the title as a spiritual journey to the heart of darkness, Conrad’s book has buried in it this convalescent incident: inside the metaphor is a body, the panicked body of the narrator, for whom the jungle rhythms afford a cardiac tranquility. Consider, then, another story-telling scene, as Quentin and Shreve in Absalom, Absalom! rehearse the Sutpen blight, pacing “slowly on in that rhythm which not the eyes but the heart marks and calls the beat and measure for” (1990, 236). Consider, also, the zoomorphic junctures in Nightwood by Djuna Barnes, a book sentient with animated postures of distress, its characters coagulating into a collaborative grief that “love and life are a bulk of which the body and heart can be drained” (1946, 158). Barnes’s characters collectively animate a single torment, despite their mutual incomprehension — a structure also adopted by Virginia Woolf in The Waves26 and clarified by Rilke, who observed of Rodin’s sculptural groups that,

  • 27 “[S]o ordnen sich ihm andererseits auch Teile verschiedener Leiber, die aus innerer Notwendigkeit a (...)

parts of different bodies, brought together by inner necessity, become for him a single organism. A hand laid on the shoulder or limb of another body is no longer part of the body to which it properly belongs: something new has been formed from it and the object it touches or holds, something which was not there before, which is nameless and belongs to no one. (1978, 105)27

30This eerily neutral lasciviousness is a sinister undertone in the poems of T.S. Eliot. There is an opulence of dismemberment in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “Gerontian”. Prufrock moves about in a fogbound ruination that assumes human form only by analogy with an evening “spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherised upon a table”. Dismemberment is the norm: “I have known the eyes already, known them all,” he laments. “[T]here will be time / To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.” When eyes and faces circulate on their own in a plastic hypersocial region like this, Prufrock’s most affirmative moment is the recognition that “I should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of ancient kingdoms” (1969, 13-15). But for the thematic congruity with Prufrock, one might attribute the physical deterioration of the old man in “Gerontian” to his age, as he notes “I have lost my sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch: / How should I use them for your closer contact?” (38). But the condition is not personal, it is environmental. In the world of “The Hollow Men”:

The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms. (84)

31Such images attest to the pressure of erasure, the phantom insistence of the “lost body” which Aimé Césaire memorializes in Corps perdu, which rehearses (as does all Césaire’s work) the psychotropism of slave trade, middle passage, and re-acculturation:

Tout ce qui jamais fut déchiré
en moi s’est déchiré
tout ce qui jamais fut mutilé
en moi s’est mutilé. (1983, 254)

  • 28 “Wer gab uns den Schwamm, um den ganzen Horizont wegzuwischen?” (1973, 159).

32The instances I have cited from Conrad, Eliot, Barnes, Woolf, Rilke, Césaire, all testify to a migratory corporeality, a phantom itch collectively scratched; evidence of a diffuse but densely implicated structure of pathic resonance. Subjectivity is always in transititory suspension, on its vibratory web of semiotic transmitters, just as the body is constantly being displaced in the aesthetic microclimates of culture, the tidepool sanctuaries along the rim of historical turbulence, the site of those great mid-nineteenth-century visions of dark recuperation, Arnold’s “Dover Beach” and Whitman’s “Sea Drift” poems. In the modernist anthropology of our cultural endowment the dispersed elements of sentience, like the dismembered parts of Osiris, are deputized to bear witness to a whole which is inconceivable, presenting the enigma of a totality grown exorbitant in droplets. The perplexing interplay of presence and absence, the mismatched parts of a “discrepant engagement” (to use Nathaniel Mackey’s [1993] term for the asymmetrical prowess of a cross-cultural modernism), and above all the paradoxically enabling trauma of productive loss — these are the conditions latent in that startling question Nietzsche’s madman asks in The Gay Science: “Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon?” (1974, 181).28 That sponge is now the Promethean dominant, the global electric skin imposing an unmanageable inflation of pathic receptivity, while at the same time the aesthetic is supplemented by its anaesthetic double. As we struggle to negotiate the dialectic of modest flesh and presumptuous incorporation — suffering an excess of deficiency, sensing the kenosis or emptying of things, an evacuation at the heart of the world — the works of modernism begin haunting us again, prompting reveries of mutilation such as Faulkner supposes in Absalom, Absalom! with its “diffused and scattered creatures drawn blindly limb from limb from a grab bag” (71). The acute disabling of forms, legible in that trauma of genres for which modernism is famous, is a disabling that strangely quickens and enhances the sensational fragments of what remains — pathic receptacles of a recuperative distancing which is not alienation, but the space necessary to feel that tingling evoked by Giorgio de Chirico: “Perhaps the most amazing sensation passed on to us by prehistoric man is that of presentiment. It will always continue. We might consider it as an eternal proof of the irrationality of the universe. Original man must have wandered through a world full of uncanny signs. He must have trembled at each step” (in Harrison and Wood, eds., 61).


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1 It is “a grand, hyperbolic undertaking” (Harrison, 1996, 212).

2 As Plotinus puts it, “The One ‘overflows’ and its excess begets an other than itself” (O’Brien, 1964, 107).

3 “Die Welt gebiert eine neue Zeit; es gibt nur eine Frage: ist heute die Zeit schon gekommen, sich von der alten Welt zu lösen? Since wir reif für die vita nuova? Dies ist die bange Frage unsrer Tage” (Lankheit, trans., 1975, 325).

4 It was in fact the phenomenon of American globalization that prompted Bataille to make an explicit link between his thesis of extravagance and this historical pressure: “le développement industriel de l’ensemble du monde demande aux Américains de saisir lucidement la nécessité, pour une économie comme la leur, d’avoir une marge d’opérations sans profit” (1976, 33).

5 The scholarship on decadence is considerable, but two works stand apart for their clarity and judiciousness: Gilman, 1979 and Calinescu, 1987.

6 In his elegy for Mallarmé, Remy de Gourmont proposed that “En suprême analyse, l’idée décadence est identique à l’idée d’imitation”; but in the hands of Mallarmé “l’idée de décadence a été assimilée à son idée contraire, à l’idée même d’innovation” (1910, 116-117).

7 “The new media and technologies by which we amplify and extend ourselves constitute huge collective surgery carried out on the social body with complete disregard for antiseptics,” McLuhan writes, in a colorful analogy. “Each new impact shifts the ratios among all the senses. McLuhan holds to a Romantic faith in the restorative power of art, which he defines in this context as exact information of how to rearrange one’s psyche in order to anticipate the next blow from our own extended faculties” (1965, 64 and 66).

8 On Baudelaire, see Nicholls, 1995, 8

9 This manifesto, by Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà, Luigi Russolo, Giacomo Baila and Gino Severini, originally appeared in English in the catalogue for a Futurist exhibit at the Sackville Gallery in London, March 1912.

10 “[S]o wie ich einmal in einem Vergröβerungsgl as ein Stück von der Haut: meines kleinen Fingers gesehen hatte, das einem Bachfeld mit Furchen und Höhlen glich, so ging es mir nun mit den Menschen und ihren Handlungen. Es gelang mir nicht mehr, sie mit dem vereinfachenden Blick der Gewohnheit zu erfassen. Es zerfiel mir alles in Teile, die Teile weider in Teile, und nichts mehr lieβ sich mit einem Begriff umspannen. Die einzelnen Worte schwammen um mich; sie gerannen zu Augen, die mich anstarrten und in die ich wieder hineinstarren muβ: Wirbel sind sie, in die hinabzusehen mich schwindelt, die sich unaufhaltsam drehen und durch die hindurch man ins Leere kommt” (1951, 14).

11 Compare Picasso’s nonchalant declaration, in 1935: “In my case a picture is a sum of destructions” (Harrison and Wood, eds., 1992, 499). “Womit kennzeichnet sich jede litterarische décadence? Damit, daβ das Leben nicht

12 “Womit kennzeichnet sich jede litterarische décadence? Damit, daβ das Leben nicht mehr im Ganzen wohnt. Das Wort wird souverain und springt aus dem Satz hinaus, der Satz greift über und verdunkelt den Sinn der Seite, die Seite gewinnt Leben auf Unkosten der Ganzen — das Ganze ist kein Ganzes mehr” (1969, 21).

13 “Die besten und unerhörtesten Künstler werden diejenigen sein, die stündlich die Fetzen ihres Leibes aus dem Wirrsal der Lebenskatarakte zusammenreißen, verbissen in den Intellekt der Zeit, blutend an Händen” (Huelsenbeck, ed., Dada, Eine literarische Documentation [1920], 1984, 31).

14 A strikingly similar formulation is ventured by the composer Arnold Schoenberg: “Art is the cry for help of those who experience in themselves the fate of humanity. Who wrestle with it instead of accommodating themselves to it. Who do not bluntly serve the enigma of ‘dark powers,’ but who plunge into the running machinery to grasp its construction. Who do not avert their eyes to protect themselves from emotion, but rather open them wide to tackle what has to be tackled. But who frequently shut their eyes to perceive what the senses do not convey, to behold within what only seemingly takes place outside. And within, inside them, is the agitation of the world; what breaks through to the outside is only its echo: the work of art” (in Harrison, 66). Harrison says of Schoenberg that “It was precisely because he was so attached to the principle of harmony — and suffered rather than extoled his estrangement — that he gave voice to the dissonance that was his grief” (213).

15 The most succinct assessment of the contingencies of modern selfhood may be Musil’s well-known passage: “There’s no longer a whole man confronting a whole world, only a human something moving about in a general culture medium” (1995, 234). “Aber man merkt es nicht einmal; man ist anders geworden. Es steht nicht mehr ein ganzer Mensch einer ganzen Welt gegenüber, sondern ein Menschliches Etwas bewegt sich in einer allgemeinen Nährflüssigkeit” (1952, 217).

16 “[E]s gibt kein ‘Sein’ hinter dem Thun, Wirken, Werden; ‘der Thäter’ ist zum Thun bloβ hinzugedichtet — das Thun ist Alles” (1968, 293).

17 “Unsere Kultur ist ein Tempel dessen, was unverwahrt Wahn gennant würde, aber gleich auch seine Verwahrungsanstalt, und wir wissen nicht: leiden wir an einem Zuviel oder einem Zuwenig” (1952, 768). Note that the English “asylum” lends a prejudicial air to Musil’s “Verwahrungsanstalt,” which would be more accurately rendered “protective institution”. Musil’s term deliberately plays on the previous adjective “unverwahrt”; together, they lend semantic force to the equivocation of the entire assertion.

18 “Aber die höchste Schônheit, ja die hôchste Ordnung ist denn doch nur die des Chaos, nämlich eines solchen, welches nur auf die Berührung der Liebe wartet, um sich zu einer harmonischen Welt zu entfalten” (ibid., 94).

19 Emerson’s essay implicitly recapitulates, without acknowledgment, the terms of Schiller’s Stofftrieb and Formtrieb generating between them the antiphonal frictions of creative arousal — teeming stuff and intelligible order — superseded by and resolved into the reconciling posture of the Spieltrieb, the play-drive.

20 Difference in decadence is invariably recognized in a process of assimilation — its “decadent” excess, its notoriety, being attributable to a reversal of socially dominant priorities, such that this assimilation is not that of other to self but vice versa: the decadent posture is precisely that of “going native,” of undergoing a conversion to dangerously alluring alterity. Anatole Baju, the socialist editor of Le Décadent, found his platform in the affirmation that “Man becomes more refined, more feminine, more divine” (in Spackman, 1989, viii). The identification of spiritual ascendancy with feminization and cultural refinement was debated in the United States in terms of neurasthenia, a discourse which medicalized the dialectic of production and reproduction as masculine purpose versus feminine masquerade and ostentation (see Lutz, 1991). In Europe the dialectic extended to forms of primitivism, Orientalism, and fashion (see Wollen, 1-34, Huyssen, 44-62 and Anderson, 1992).

21 The technological invasion of the body has been a consistent preoccupation for Paul Virilio, who maintains that “the boarding of the metabolic vehicle is literally an act of piracy” (1986, 89). More recently he has criticized prosthetics, nanotechnology, and other biotechnologies as “technical fundamentalism”. “Bringing the body and its vital energy up to speed with the age of instant teletechnology means... abolishing the classic distinction between internal and external” — bringing with it, in Virilio’s view, a “new eugenics... that would extend the pleasure principle and so-called gratification handed down from the age of the consumer society [into] a sort of perpetual stimulation” (1995, 118, 106, 129). The resulting state of infantile dependancy was forecast by Wyndham Lewis in The Doom of Youth (1932). For further reflections on the cultural polemic of infantilization, see Rasula 1990.

22 Ralph Ellison’s eponymous narrator concludes his novel with the insinuation that “on the lower frequencies, I speak for you” (1989, 581). The triadic configuration I offer on the subject of embodiment is indebted to Philip Fisher’s terms entanglement, sheltering, and recovery (in Fisher, 1978, 133-146).

23 Race and gender are now ubiquitous categories in the study of modernism. On provincialism, see Robert Crawford’s illuminating hook Devolving English Literature (1992).

24 Suddenness attests to “the nonidentity of aesthetic experience and historical meaning,” as Karl Bohrer puts it (1994, x). Consequently, aesthetic activity cannot be held accountable for historical disfigurations (see Leo Bersani’s vital The Culture of Redemption [1990]); nor, conversely, can the appeal to history justify or explain art. It is in the space of this mutual incommensurability that I locate the pathic dimension, a space: that merits a reconsideration of the sublime. In light of modernism, the sublime returns as the 18th century’s unique contribution to pathesis. See Lyotard, tr. Bennington and Bowlby, 1991, who tellingly observes, “The paradox of an art ‘after the sublime’ is that it turns towards a thing which does not turn towards the mind” (142).

25 “The book has somehow to be adapted to the body,” writes Woolf (1957, 81), after observing the pliability which the fledgling genre of the novel offered the woman writer.

26 “For this is not one life; nor do I always know if I am man or woman, Bernard or Louis, Susan, Jinny, or Rhoda — so strange is the contact of one with another” (1992, 234).

27 “[S]o ordnen sich ihm andererseits auch Teile verschiedener Leiber, die aus innerer Notwendigkeit aneinander haften, zu einem Organismus ein. Eine Hand, die sich auf eines anderen Schulter oder Schenkel legt, gehôrt nicht mehr ganz zu dem Körper, von dem sie kam: aus ihr und dem Gegenstand, den sie berührt oder packt, entsteht ein neues Ding, ein Ding mehr, das keinen Namen hat und niemandem gehört” (1965, 164-165).

28 “Wer gab uns den Schwamm, um den ganzen Horizont wegzuwischen?” (1973, 159).


Queen’s University

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 1999

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