Literature, Fashion, Art
Literature, Fashion, Art
“Cold Modernism is a wonderful book—insightful, erudite, and witty beyond words. I think it will have an enormous impact on modernist studies.”
- Table of Contents
- Sample Chapters
In her wide-ranging discussion of fiction, poetry, art, and fashion, Burstein sets up the parameters of what she calls “cold modernism.” According to Burstein, cold modernism operates on the premise that “there is a world in which the mind does not exist, let alone matter”; it runs counter to the “tropical bodies” of Virginia Woolf and D. H. Lawrence. Basing the core of her analysis on the written works of Wyndham Lewis, Burstein views varying disciplines within modernism through the lens of their human interest, focusing on the “coldest”: works that convey the mechanical and inhuman. In these works, she contends, the role of the self is nonexistent, and the individual mind is merely a physical fact.
Cold Modernism raises questions fundamental to the understanding of modernist and postmodernist written and visual culture and is destined to become essential reading in the field.
“Cold Modernism is a wonderful book—insightful, erudite, and witty beyond words. I think it will have an enormous impact on modernist studies.”
“Readers who possess a passing familiarity with these artists, their personalities, and their artistic expression—which often ran uncomfortably but purposely against orthodox modernism—will realize the challenge undertaken by this author. With 52 pages of endnotes and bibliography, the effort certainly can be considered erudite.”
“Jessica Burstein’s Cold Modernism is an important book that makes us look again at some of the more unassimilable figures of modernism. Her critical voice is erudite, quirky (in the best possible way), and (above all) enthusiastic about its subjects, and her book presents a wealth of careful close reading of a diversity of texts and artifacts.”
“At its considerable best, Burstein’s book makes a major claim on our attention as a lunar Baedeker to the dark side of modernism. It is a tightly argued and original case for considering literature, fine art, and manufactured objects together, and it helps one to understand how ahumanism might reflect the relationship between consciousness and individuality on one hand and the very idea of humanism on the other. Burstein’s book should help bring her obdurately ahuman aesthetic and commercial subjects to further critical attention. It may seem paradoxical to say this, but never mind: however chilly, artificial, and (in the best sense) superficial its subject matter, Cold Modernism deserves a warm welcome.”
Jessica Burstein is Associate Professor of English at the University of Washington.
List of Illustrations
Introduction: Nothing Personal
2 Waspish Segments
Interregnum I: A Doll Is Being Beaten
3 Modernism and the Little Black Dress
4 Loy, Inc.
Interregnum II: The Legs of Balthus
Epilogue: Imitation and Its Discontents
So cold and optimistic, modernism.
—T. J. Clark
This book occurs somewhere between Gustave Flaubert’s 1853 observation that the function of the sun is not to help the cabbages along; Theodor Fontane having Effi Briest say in 1894, “Anyone is Mr. Right”; and Alexander Portnoy’s 1969 avowal that he lives a life without latent content. Portnoy comes much later in terms of chronology, and readers should know now that this is the only time we’ll hear from him, for Cold Modernism concerns itself primarily with the first part of the twentieth century (farewell, dear Fontane fans). However, it is impossible to understand Philip Roth’s majestic rant de coeur without flirting with the idea of living a life in which everything is always, immediately available: the mind has no secrets, and the world beyond presents itself as wholly knowable, and already known. In one version of this fantasy there is no distinction between the mind and the world, for both are in seamless concert. This would be to apprehend without apprehension. The world leaps readily into cognition, hiding nothing. Another turn of this screw is narcissism: not only does the world present itself entirely, but it offers itself up: “Fat aged carps . . . run into thy net, / . . . Bright eels . . . leap on land, / . . . The blushing apricot, and woolly peach / Hang on thy walls, that every child may reach.” Ben Jonson’s country-house poem describes a world that begs to be handled; even the fruit locates itself in the hope that a child come along to consume it. The world is here imagined as apparent even in the moments prior to a subject’s appearance on the scene. Logically this cannot be. For the world to be imagined, there must be a self doing the imagining—but that’s the point: narcissism completes itself by constructing its absence as a drum roll before the stage lights come on. A slightly more verdant version of this is the pathetic fallacy.
Portnoy means that his desires are wholly, ridiculously apparent. Where other people have an unconscious, with attendant repressions, his id frolics free, and his mind is an open book. His joke hangs on its construction, for saying one lives a life without latent content is not the same as saying one lives a life at the level of the manifest. There is the sense that one would miss the latent, or at least remark its absence, as does his syntax. Perhaps this is Portnoy’s (other) complaint: that one could do with a little more latency. If you knew really what you were doing, you wouldn’t. And, by the way, shame on you.
Portnoy’s world is one of psychoanalysis. Roth’s novel is constructed as an extended therapy session with the final line, and last word, belonging to the previously silent analyst: “Now vee may perhaps to begin.” There is a world beyond the hero’s words (and this therapist has not only manifested remarkable restraint, he seems to have rearranged his schedule for what would be something like fifteen consecutive sessions). Depending on the reader’s temperament, she can understand that last line to be good news or bad: you end something in order to begin something. If you are particularly communally oriented, you might put emphasis on that “we”: we now begin. (“Perhaps.”) Regardless, someone else has said something, and that introduces a world of the other (literally an auslander, one may gather from the phonetic rendering of “we”), a world of which many Samuel Beckett characters have despaired. The problem of other minds is the problem of whether there are other minds.
The world in which Cold Modernism operates is the one that made Portnoy possible. This may seem incredible, for the premise of cold modernism is that there is a world in which the mind does not exist, let alone matter—or it does matter but in the physical sense. Not “merely” matter: for that would be a lament (or a complaint). There are no laments in cold modernism, for there are no characters who would conceive of themselves as subjects. Insofar as cold modernism engages a world without selves or psychology, it is not antihumanism, but ahumanism. What, then, could Roth’s Portnoy possibly owe to Wyndham Lewis’s snooty baronet? To anticipate this book’s argument in broad strokes, modernism’s story of the individual has running through its heart the modernism’s presentation of a world in which the individual has no place.
By this I do not mean that the selves of modernism are alienated, dispossessed, or petulant to the point of extinction—although such instances certainly exist (Franz Kafka, Djuna Barnes, D. H. Lawrence, pretty much respectively). I mean to approach a problem that is partly philosophical and wholly inevitable: whether, or to what degree, one can entertain the idea of a world in which the self does not exist. Not “has died” (Jacob’s Room, “The Waste Land”), not “has been transformed” (Ulysses, “The Metamorphosis” [and “The Waste Land”]), and not “has been exhausted” (Ivan Goncharov, Samuel Beckett [or “The Waste Land”]), but a world in which the self is simply not part of the aesthetic register. This is impossible to conceive by virtue of the nature of conception, and that may be part of the problem—or part of modernism’s problem, for the modernism I present has not been and in a sense cannot be recognized.
Why not? Two aspects of recognition pertain: the critical and the philosophical. Because I am a critic and not a philosopher, I begin with the former. There are multiple reasons why an artwork, a writer, or an aesthetic may be overlooked critically. (The frameworks of looking may differ so radically as to prohibit thinking about them simultaneously, but let us try.) In keeping with scholarship’s emphasis on the contribution of new knowledge, literary and cultural criticism is particularly invested in an economy of discovery, and at least in the disciplines of British and American literatures, recovery projects continue to occupy a prominent role. By “recovery,” I mean the excavation of a writer, writers, or work whose influence has failed to exercise the critical grip that might and presumably should be the case. The stakes are often political, in both loose and tighter senses of the word. There is a useful symmetry to the notion of a democratic politics and of every artist having the right to a voice. The latter can amount to the expectation that every writer has the right to a critic, even though in many instances this amounts to saying that every dog has the right to a leash. In a sense, critics in the humanities have the unusual luxury of nominating, campaigning, and electing themselves: no one can tell you you can’t write on H.D. (alas). It is an attendant phenomenon that critical conversations can come to a close with one critic telling another, “Well, that’s not my Henry James.” Artists, especially those safely dead, are frequently crowded little islands; and recovery projects have at least the allure of appearing a far less populated place to build one’s dream house.
I’d like to imagine that this book isn’t for people trained exclusively in literature. This puts me in a slightly strange position, for I want to convince readers not familiar with literary modernism that if they were familiar with it, they still wouldn’t necessarily recognize the people in this book. For that reason, I shall now give a précis of the book’s major characters. Cold Modernism takes as its ken a variety of artists who have, in various ways and to different degrees, been overlooked.
In the case of Wyndham Lewis, this is less so than it was a decade ago. Due to critical studies by Michael Levenson, Vincent Sherry, Douglas Mao, Paul Peppis, Paul O’Keefe, and Paul Edwards (among others)—and buttressed by the earlier works of Hugh Kenner, Fredric Jameson, Timothy Materer, and William H. Pritchard—Lewis gained a visible toehold in the academic canon. This is good news, because he is an intransigent creature and wrote some of the most peculiar and obdurate English language prose to be had in modernism. He nonetheless remains underread.
Lewis is known primarily as a writer, but he was also a painter. He was born, probably, in 1882, and died, definitely, in 1957. (As one biographer diplomatically puts it, “The lack of a birth certificate meant that he could invent himself.” ) Born on a yacht wonderfully named the Wanda off the Nova Scotian coast, Lewis went to England around age six, went to the prestigious and conservative Slade School of Art at age sixteen, was expelled at age eighteen (for smoking), and shook off the “bad effects of English education” as he traveled around Europe. Upon returning to England in 1908, he met and growled at Ezra Pound, who growled back, writing many years and eighty cantos later, “So it is to Mr Binyon that I owe, initially, / Mr Lewis, Mr P. Wyndham Lewis. His bull-dog, me, / as it were against old Sturge M’s bulldog, Mr T. Sturge Moore’s / bull-dog.” Together Lewis and Pound founded the first English avant-garde movement, Vorticism. The movement took hold from 1912 to 1915 and produced two little magazines, Blast 1 (1914) and Blast 2: War Number (1915), edited and peppered throughout with visual and textual contributions by Lewis alongside work by Pound, T. S. Eliot, Ford Madox Ford (then Ford Madox Hueffer), and Rebecca West; and images by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Helen Saunders, and Jacob Epstein. While Cold Modernism concerns itself with Lewis’s early work, his career extended over many years, to over twenty-one books of criticism, fourteen novels, and what must in this writer’s case be referred to as a steady convulsion of essays and short stories. He was good at everything except not being litigious and writing poetry (the latter evidenced by a mercifully single book of poems). A brain tumor didn’t kill him but did its work: he wrote his final books blind and by hand, six in six years.
Those few who had heard of Wyndham Lewis at the end of the last century were likely to have swallowed whole the synonymous relation that Jameson’s subtitle in his 1979 Fables of Aggression: The Modernist as Fascist implied, namely that the modernist was a fascist—and left it there, a feat accomplished by neglecting to read past the title. Lewis’s obdurateness has continued to perplex and irritate. Not only do I not wish to challenge this, I’d like it to remain, for it is not my intent to domesticate The Enemy, as Lewis gleefully termed himself. The problem with satire is that one risks losing an audience. Combined with his early endorsement of Hitler—“the man of peace,” as Lewis unpresciently termed him—Lewis almost succeeded in vanishing into the critical netherworld.
Mina Loy too ran the risk of invisibility; she continues to emerge as you read this. Born in England in 1882, Mina Gertrude Löwy dropped the “w” and the umlaut early, a step in becoming what Marjorie Perloff calls a “deracinated cosmopolite.” In terms of her lifespan, Loy would spend the least amount of time in the country of her birth, opting instead for Germany, Italy, Mexico, France, and both repeatedly and finally the United States of America. Whereas Lewis was amazingly prolific, Loy was not—or not in publishable form: her archives are rife with ephemera, works in progress, and the sort of entrepreneurial thought experiments I take up in the chapter “Loy, Inc.”
She published two books of poetry in her lifetime: Lunar Baedecker [sic] in 1923, and, thirty-five years later, Lunar Baedeker & Time-Tables (1958), published on her behalf by Jonathan Williams. Loy survived in the minds of a generation of poets—the American poet Kenneth Rexroth wrote an article on Loy in 1944 that inspired Williams to the 1958 publication—and then in the minds of poetry critics who saw her as worthy of more acclaim, but not quite ever getting it. As Hugh Kenner put it in 1982, “Her utter absence from all canonical lists is one of modern literary history’s most perplexing data.” This absence was either due to or witnessed by two things: first, the peculiar nature of her sparse publication history, beginning with the misspelling of the eponymous poem that lent itself to her first book’s title, and continuing with what I have compressed in the introduction of “Loy, Inc.” as the fact that after Lunar Baedeker & Time-Tables, Loy’s poetry circulated as The Last Lunar Baedeker in 1982, and then as The Lost Lunar Baedeker in 1996. However much Loy intended to orient—the Baedeker is the exemplary nineteenth-century travel guide—her work was so peculiarly stationed that it left the common reader bereft.
There is a sliver of difference between saying that the work was peculiarly stationed and that it was peculiar, and this second reason for her absence is a sliver no Lovian critic should disavow, for her sensibility is unique and extreme. It caught Pound’s attention in 1918 when, upon reviewing an anthology in which Loy appeared along with the American poet Marianne Moore, he wrote, “In the verse of Marianne Moore I detect traces of emotion; in that of Mina Loy I detect no emotion whatever.” He was spurred to demi-neologism (after all, this was the poet who would put the philologists in his Cantos’ hell), calling such a phenomenon “logopoeia”: “the dance of intelligence among words and ideas and modification of ideas and characters.” Whatever tenuous hold Loy had on a public’s attention would and should be inflected by the fact that, as the critic and poet Yvor Winters put it, “She moves like one walking through granite instead of air, and when she achieves a moment of beauty it strikes one cold.” A more fitting encomium to the modernist current that this book seeks to make plain cannot be had.
The editor Roger Conover in many ways is the reason Loy survived at all, along with notice accorded her by Rachel Blau Du Plessis and Carolyn Burke. Given Mina Loy: Woman and Poet (1998), edited by Keith Tuma and Maeera Shreiber; the prominent roles she assumes in both Janet Lyon’s Manifestoes: Provocations of the Modern (1999) and Cristanne Miller’s Cultures of Modernism: Gender and Literary Communities in New York and Berlin (2005); and, most tellingly, Loy’s inclusion in the eighth edition of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, she can no longer be considered marginal to studies of modernism. Nonetheless, I see her as warranting more scrutiny, but cast in a different framework. When mentioned today, Loy is cast primarily as a poet, but it is my hope that future readers will see her as something more like an entrepreneur whose work included words as well as objects, like lampshades and—as I examine in chapter 4—what might be termed fashion accessories. The two categories are not mutually exclusive, for Loy treated words like, or as, objects. One of Loy’s inventions from the 1940s, a “Build Your Own Alphabet” children’s toy, makes the confluence between word and object literally tangible (as in gripping): Loy designed several versions of the game, intended to teach “the budding mentality” its ABCs. Loy’s work began as and remains supremely indocile, and for all of what I have termed its domestica—the fact that Loy’s alienness roots itself in the familiar realms of household and body—the strangeness cannot be undersold, even as Loy wished it to come with a price.
The three other main figures in Cold Modernism are, in order of appearance, the German artist Hans Bellmer, the French couturier Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, and the Polish-French painter Balthazar Klossowski de Rola, or as he chose to be known, Balthus. They are all what I would call visual artists, with their work running the gamut from photographs, paintings, and drawings to dresses, hats, and perfume. The olfactory aspect of Chanel No. 5 is certainly important (would this book were equipped with perfume samples), but too the manner of the perfume’s packaging is determinant.
Hans Bellmer was born in 1902 in Katowice, a small town that was part of the German Empire and became Poland after World War I, to what critics have indefatigably noted as a tyrannical father whose sympathy for the Nazi Party was enthusiastic and unregretted. After working as a typographer, illustrator, and industrial engineering artist, Bellmer began an advertising design firm in 1927 in a suburb of Berlin. (That year he designed an advertisement for a refrigerator called the Santo Kühlschrank; the copy reads, “Cold temperature always steady, adjustable as needed” and promises “unsurpassed operational safety.” I’d like Cold Modernism to adopt this as its objet préféré, if only because the fridge features a section exclusively for ice cube trays, and its bottom shelf is dedicated solely to chilling wine bottles.) Bellmer started work as an artist earlier; while still in Poland in the early 1920s, he was, as Therese Lichtenstein notes, “arrested for exhibiting a series of gouaches (now lost) that were influenced by the left-wing Dadaists.” He later met some of those Dadaists upon moving to Berlin in 1923, where he came into contact with George Grosz and Otto Dix; and, while in Paris in 1924, Bellmer encountered the Surrealism avant-garde.
His activity as a designer in engineering and advertising circles came about as the result of his father’s pragmatic push, but, as we will see, Bellmer gave up this work when the National Socialists came to power in Germany in 1933, for he wished to abstain from any economic benefit to the state. He accordingly started on the dolls that serve as the basis of the first Interregnum in this book, “A Doll Is Being Beaten.” Bellmer’s dolls—singular insofar as the two were serially constructed; plural insofar as they took the form of objects to be photographed, photographs, drawings, sculpture, and the topic of his writing—preoccupied him intensely for over a decade, and recurrently through his life. They showed up on the pages of the surrealist little magazine Minotaur, and were repeatedly the subject of privately published or small-circulation editions, in one case appearing alongside poems by Paul Éluard.
Bellmer’s work is either a hard or an easy sell, for it is recurrently pornographic. Not only does Bellmer give George Bataille a run for his money, the two combined forces: Bellmer’s drawings would accompany Bataille’s assiduously startling novels Story of the Eye in 1949 and Madame Eduarda in 1965. His illustrations of the marquis de Sade’s Justine in 1950 are similarly indicative of Bellmer’s persistent engagement with the genre. Lichtenstein notes the fact that Bellmer collected “turn-of-the-century pornographic postcards” and ties them to his artistic production as an influence. While Lichtenstein remarks upon the motif of “twinning images” and mirroring, more to my point is how that art repeatedly features blurs between the inside of outside of bodies: an oversized phallus looming out of or blooming within a female torso is one recurrent motif. Another is the fact that the images collapse multiple perspectives, so the skirt that a female lifts is at the same time a close-up of a vagina, possibly but not necessarily hers. Another recurrent motif in Bellmer’s more pornographic work is the presence of striped stockings. In all, an embarrassment of riches—equally distributed between the two nouns—that soon palls into “the fatiguing repetitiveness” Susan Sontag remarks upon as pornography’s hallmark.
Bellmer produced sculpture as well, for instance a breast-top, “The Top” (1938, 1968), that hewed to his own version of a wobbling pivot we will encounter anon, and a wood-and-metal creation called The Machine Gunneress in a State of Grace (La Mitrailleuse en état de grace). At the outset of the Second World War, he had been interned as a German national at the Camp des Milles, in Aix-en-Provence, and in 1940 was posted briefly to Provence as an artist in order to render portraits of Allied officers. The decades following the war were spent in continuous artistic production. He died in 1975 and is buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery, beside his partner, the artist Unica Zürn, but without the doll, despite having earlier expressed the wish that he be buried with it.
Gabrielle Chanel was born in 1883 in the Loire Valley and as Chasnel, a misspelling that would remain legally unchanged due to its bearer’s reluctance to “reveal that she was born in a poorhouse hospice.” Her nickname came from the one song she knew and sang while in Moulin in her early twenties at a local café: “Qui qu’a vu Coco dans le Trocadéro?”—a song about a lost dog. Or from the two songs she knew and sang there, “Qui qu’a vu Coco dans le Trocadéro?” and “Ko ko ri ko,” from an 1897 revue by a friend of Marcel Proust. Or from her responding to being booed—popularly accomplished through the imitation of barnyard animal noises—with her own rendering of the French for cock-a-doodle-doo, cocorico. She may not have been an accomplished singer, but Chanel was never booed on account of her apparel. She learned tailoring early, and, after spending some years in the company of men who brought her into contact with increasingly high social circles, moved to Paris and opened her first business in 1909, making hats in an ex’s apartment on the boulevard Malesherbes. “Making” hats isn’t quite right; she was buying straw boaters from the Galeries Lafayette department store and retrimming them with her own accoutrement. (Five years later Gertrude Stein would commemorate the same store in a piece that ran in the New York little magazine Rogue; what chapter 4 takes up as Stein’s comment on the repetition of styles, and the illustrator’s highlighting of that seriality, with Robert Locher’s “One, One, One, There are Many of Them,” is something Chanel sought to overturn with her rendering of the unique.) In late 1910, another lover advanced her the money to open her own space at 21 rue Cambon, and she expanded from millinery to knitted shirts and jumpers, taking as her cue the sporty English fashion she’d absorbed from men’s wear. Her first boutique came in 1913, in Deauville, on the rue Gontaut-Biron, and featured what were by now her well-known hats alongside the marinière (the sailor blouse), bathing costumes, and couture, all fronted for the first time by her name in “big black letters” (C, 65) on the shop’s awning. She kept the shop open during the war, and on 15 July 1915 opened another one in the resort town of Biarritz, conveniently located in a villa that faced a casino. It was the town’s first boutique. Her clientele now included Spanish royalty, and the line flourished, with the first Chanel design—“Chanel’s charming chemise dress”—to appear in a fashion magazine, a Biarritz creation showing up in a 1916 Harper’s Bazar. One biographer cites a dress from the Biarritz period as priced at 7,000 francs (81); by contemporary conversion standards, this amounts to upwards of $23,000 USD. True, this would have been a particularly pricey number, for another biographer refers to the maison’s dresses as “priced at 3,000 francs each” (CAW, 130)—a steal at $9,800 USD.
The postwar era brought Chanel an investment in jersey fabric and international fame. Her collaborations included repeated ventures into the theater, for instance the design of costumes for Jean Cocteau’s production of Antigone, featuring sets by Pablo Picasso (198) as well as for George Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky’s Apollon musagète in 1928 (255). The Stravinsky connection was not a light one, threading as it did through a personal affair and his work with the Ballets Russes. Chanel’s relationship with the Russian ballet company was such that she would pay for the funeral of its director, Sergei Diaghilev, in 1929. Her work moved from theater to cinema, and the 1930s had her designing for Gloria Swanson in Tonight or Never—it turned out to be only tonight, for the couturier would depart Hollywood, but the flash of Chanel on screen would have a second life in the later twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, with multiple biopics of the couturier’s life.
In 1920, Chanel brought out the quintessentially modernist perfume, blended by Ernest Beaux. Chanel No. 5, in “a flagon as clean as a cube” (184) would become the perfect metonym for the designer. The stark lettering of the print on the label was and is sans serif, as if to facilitate speed reading, with the abbreviation “No. 5” intended to indicate the series from which the scent emerged and had been selected. No. 5 doesn’t smell like a flower; it’s arranged, and sweet, but there’s a slightly metallic quality to the olfactory proceedings. Indeed there’s a quality of the factory behind the olfactory; as we will see, Henry Ford’s assembly lines and Model A series were contemporaneous. Chanel No. 5 was not grown; it was made. The machinic, and its serial status, pertain to cold modernism’s investment in the often uneasy tension between the original and the copy.
Unlike Chanel or Bellmer, Balthus came from an artistically pedigreed family. Born Balthazar Klossowski in Paris in 1908, he had parents who both painted, with the father a noted art historian as well, and the mother a traveler in coteries spanning France, Germany, and Switzerland. Her affair with the poet Rainer Maria Rilke was formative for Balthus, and issued in his first publication, at age thirteen: Mitsou (1921), forty ink drawings prefaced by the poet, showing the story of a cat, found and lost again. His first one-man exhibition, in 1934, featured several of the paintings for which he is today well known, and was, in his biographer’s words, “a succès de scandale.” None sold. The Guitar Lesson (1934) was kept in the gallery’s back room. It shows a splayed and stunned half-clad young girl gripped by a stern female teacher, whom she also appears to be disrobing. The painting would eventually disappear into the collection of a buyer who insisted on anonymity for a period of years. The Street (1933) would be repainted later by Balthus, at a collector’s request, in order to move the hand of one of its male figures slightly away from the groin of a fleeing young female and have it pluck at the skirt instead.
The exhibition was held at the Galerie Pierre in Paris, and Pierre Matisse, the son of the painter Henri Matisse, remained Balthus’s primary representative for the remainder of the gallerist’s life. Balthus’s periods of productivity were relative even as he worked consistently. He produced a great deal while in Chassy, France, in the 1950s, but less so while in Italy, for in the 1960s Balthus was appointed the ambassador of French culture to Italy and lived in Rome at the Villa Medici with his wife and family. It was in the 1950s and 1960s that Balthus’s painting began to sell for increasingly high prices. His output was, by his biographer’s standards in 1999, “relatively small,” but the paintings “fared extremely well on the art market.”
Balthus took repeated delight in announcing the irrelevance of his life to his work. Upon receiving a request from the Tate Gallery for biographical information to be included in their catalogue for a 1968 retrospective, he would cable back the putatively unhelpful, immensely quotable suggestion that the essay begin—and end—“Balthus is a painter of whom nothing is known. And now let us look at the pictures.” At once demure and flagrant, the proposition is not unlike his work. It consistently dovetails with theater, first in the sense that there is a staginess to many of his paintings—“the figures in many of his early paintings are presented as if on stage” —and second insofar as Balthus himself was, like Chanel, repeatedly associated with the theater. One typically notes that the artist’s father, Erich Klossowski, designed sets for Max Reinhardt in Berlin, and that Balthus designed for various stage productions: Paulson fruitfully notes the fact that Balthus designed sets for Antonin Artaud in 1935 and speaks to the conjunction between Artaud’s theater of cruelty and Balthus’s tableaux; Rewald mentions the fact that he designed sets and costumes for Camus’s L’État de siege, and the year of his first one-man show Balthus designed the set and costumes for Shakespeare’s As You Like It. It is also worth noting that this 1934 production entailed the only known oil painting that Balthus did of his studies for theater sets, Projet de décor pour la salle du palais ducal, featuring an interior with a curtain tied emphatically back. The image is clearly a precedent, with a twist, for the curtain in the 1943 painting La Patience, whose means of restraint is invisible (see CR, 504, T1604) and which will frame our investigation.
A certain theatricality also underpins the fact that Balthus would adopt, for what despite his claims remain unfounded historical reasons (“The Klossowskis were minor nobility and were one of seventy-three Polish families that bear the Rola coat of arms, but they never held a title”), the title of count and become the count de Rola, but it matched the fact of living in a chalet in Rossinière, Switzerland, as he did until his death in 2001. This “aristocratic fantasy,” as his biographer terms it, may also have gone with the painter’s denying the fact of his Jewish lineage, but it certainly matches the art of self-construction that would lead to doodling “more than twenty experimental ‘fake monograms’” (CR, 565) on a study for the painting that will so preoccupy us in the second Interregnum.
Finally, Balthus’s dismissals of psychoanalysis were recurrent: “The curse of modern thought” is typical. The sentiment may or may have not been assisted by the fact that he knew the French psychoanalytic practitioner and writer Jacques Lacan. Balthus was surrounded by psychoanalysis and its more surreal permutations; his brother, Pierre Klossowski, a member of the Collège de Sociologie and listed as one of three directors for the first issue of its magazine Acéphale in June 1936, brought his own understanding of psychoanalysis to bear on the psyche of the marquis de Sade, publishing an account of what Klossowski called the reverse Oedipus complex, which rated as strange even for Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus. (Stranger still is Klossowski’s appearance in Robert Bresson’s 1966 film Au Hasard Balthazar, where Balthus’s brother whips the eponymous character, who despite the name is not a painter but a donkey. ) Whatever its origins, and however rococo its contexts, Balthus’s abrogation of psychoanalysis was part of his resistance to any interpretation of his work that relied upon symbolism, particularly of the sexual or erotic variety.
There is something, I hope, slightly contentious about including such a motley crew in a book whose ostensible primary concern is the literary. My point in doing so is not to say but to show that it is absolutely impossible to consider an aesthetic current in Anglo-American modernism without taking into account the intellectual congress between artists of different countries and media. Novels and poems happen alongside and in concert with other forms of cultural expression.
The ideas that this book draws on, then, are based in part on the investment in the relationship of writing to culture for which Walter Michaels argued in 1987, and which would form the basis of the critic’s later readings of American modernism and identity politics. Instead of taking as appropriate the question of whether “texts refer to social reality,” Michaels asks what it means ask such a question. Rather than “interrogate the relations between that space (here defined as literary) and the culture,” he begins with the assumption that “the spaces I have tried to explore are all very much within the culture, and so the problem of interrogation makes no sense; the only relation literature as such has to culture as such is that it is part of it.”
I would suggest that cold modernism is exemplary in its demonstration of the fact that there is no outside to culture. I’m assisted by the fact that many of the figures with whom I deal meditate upon culture as such: Loy and Chanel design for it, Bellmer sees it as a scandal, and Lewis won’t shut up about it, as the 1934 group of essays ominously entitled Men Without Art is meant to suggest. “Implicit in the serious work of art will be found politics, theology, philosophy . . . even the Plain Reader is aware of that in theory. But what is not so clear to very many people is that the most harmless piece of literary entertainment—the common crime story for instance, or the schoolboy epic of the young of the English proletariat . . . is at all events politically and morally influential.” In seeing themselves as fit for the occasion of pronouncement, these artists make more solid my, or Michaels’s, claim.
Michaels’s “outside” is also a reminder that many critical investments are the result of spatial conceptions: how culture is figured, whether conceived in terms of base and superstructure, to take one familiar instance; the spectacularly “tangled mesh of modernists” Bonnie Kime Scott exhibits in her The Gender of Modernism; or a Venn diagram with art on one side, commerce on another—no longer tenable, but once a preconception of what was referred to as “high modernism,” a phrase itself suggesting a particular spatial relation. These are metaphors, but the spatial conceptions underpinning one’s critical presuppositions may serve to determine how one understands the possibilities of not just criticism, but the objects of critical pursuit.
In order to outline some of the tenets of cold modernism as a whole, I will proceed to build on the idea that there is no “outside to culture.” Spatial relations undergird each. Indeed, in the final analysis this book may simply be a means of exploring what Stanley Cavell gestures to in a footnote in his essay on Beckett when he refers to “the possible identity of spatiality (or physicality) with literality.” Cold modernism is exemplary in its taking “spatiality (or physicality)” literally, and it is exemplary in the two senses of the word, both in displaying a general tendency and providing a sharpened instance of that tendency. The category of cold modernism thus both serves as an ideal (attractive or no) and, tellingly, relies upon imitation.
<1> Cold Modernism
One of cold modernism’s central mainstays is that there is no difference between style and substance. If one conceives of style as an addendum to or veneer over an idea, much of what this book’s figures will have to say will be lost, for cold modernism does not distinguish between form and content. “Style” here means both the form of a sentence and the fact of fashion in terms of trend, most emphatically embodied at the realm of the sartorial: “In my formulation,” wrote Benjamin, “‘The eternal is in any case far more the ruffle on a dress than some idea.’” Cold modernism is in that sense a literal condition: all outside, and surface all the way down. (For that reason cold modernism may be a rebuke to criticism.)
The concept of a geography without depth—a topography without geology?—extends to several other general points. First and most importantly, in cold modernism the mind does not matter, or it matters purely as matter. I will refer to this cold modernist tendency in terms of a valorization of exteriority. A less kind account might term the material deeply superficial, and the thought should not be distressing, for distress—and thought—are beside the point. Cold modernism may be taken, then, to discount matters of mind as irrelevant or wrongly conceived. One should understand this tendency less as antipsychological than as apsychological, both because the latter term widens the ken of what cold modernism grasps, or grasps at, and because an antipsychological investment is simply too heated for the proceedings. True, we will encounter anti-Freudianism: Lewis’s fulminations are typical, and however important Balthus’s disavowals of psychoanalytic interpretation are to an account of the painter’s psychology, the work itself is exhaustively planar, not in keeping with those disavowals but alongside them. Psychology, with its investment in motive; the unconscious, with its emphasis on hidden depths (the more hidden the more tantalizing, the more right); emotion, with its emphasis on affect and binding relations to the world—cold modernism in its purest form dispenses with all this. In this way, cold modernism begins and ends as a formal enterprise.
By saying that cold modernism valorizes exteriority, I mean that the body is taken as the start and the finish of all explanation. What precisely cold modernism explains, however, is not the question of what it is to be human, but what it is simply or merely to be; the status of the human has no especial purchase, and thus the human form is on par with seemingly dissimilar entities in the world: clothing, cars, and curtains, for example (each of which will appear in the course of this book). The body is a machine to be toyed with, one that toys or ticks, or tics. In its most extreme form, cold modernism offers an account of the human form in which the mind plays no role; or, in a slightly less extreme form, in which the mind is so physicalized so as to have no more or less purchase than pure anatomy.
The relation of the cold modernist body to an environment is one of fierce adjacency or even, in the mildest form, of a gripping proximity. Regardless, what surrounds it—clothing, curtains, cars—is determinate, even constitutive. At times it may be difficult to distinguish between where a body stops and where another body or the extra-corporeal begins, as in the case of novels whose characters agglutinate or adhere; or, in terms of visual artworks, how to disentangle Bellmer’s splayed bodies from each other or their surroundings. When Bellmer writes of
the physical consciousness of a seated little girl who, placing all emphasis on her raised shoulder and stretching her arm lazily on the table, hides her chin between the muscle of her upper arm and her chest, in such a way that the pressure of the arm, like the reflection of the counter-pressure exerted by its support, flows from her armpit in a linear relaxation, slips further, passing the elbow, on to the slightly bent wrist, hardly noticing the slope of the back of the sleeping hand before terminating under the tip of her index finger resting on the table, in the accent of a little grain of sugar,
the body described is as intermingled with itself (the entanglement of chin, chest, armpit flows into and down the arm) as it is with the table on which it rests, for the “support”’s exercise of a “counter-pressure” is mirrored by the body’s gentle termination of a fingertip atop a sugar grain. The give-and-take, or what would be for Bellmer balance, between body, table, and sugar makes this consciousness a purely “physical” one, one in which flesh, wood, and sucrose collaborate to create a single entity.
Combining as it does flesh with nonflesh, the prosthetic takes the fact of determinate proximity in cold modernism to its tightest fit, for the body’s relation to that which immediately adjoins it is clearly articulated. One effect of the Great War was to change forever the shape of the bodies of a generation of soldiers, with the new forms of the war’s weaponry resulting in new wounds to the human, and with that, a resultant rise in the orthopedic and prosthetic industries. Hal Foster and Tim Armstrong have made strong arguments about the role of prosthetic aesthetics in modernism, and I build on this work, even as I hope to demonstrate that any appeal to interiority overlooks the more compelling aspects of what prosthetics can do, or at least do for cold modernism. Even as a prosthetic limb is understood in one sense as a copy of a fleshly limb, it is important to see how that copy comes to supplant the original. Thus the prosthetic recurs in subsequent chapters in different forms; but it should be understood as cold modernism’s investment both in the body’s relation to its environment and in the idea of the copy, or the idea of an imitation of a copy, one that trumps its prototype. A trio of related aesthetic, stylistic, and thematic attributes thus emerges as salient for cold modernism as a whole: the prosthetic, the copy, and imitation. Each is an aspect of cold modernism as a whole.
In the course of this book, I say that the copy is the currency of cold modernism (and I say this repeatedly, hopefully for mimetic reasons). Characters can multiply; Bellmer’s doll might be translated as puppet, serially assembled so as to resemble (a disturbing version of) the female form, doing something that looks like but cannot quite pass as play, or play as traditionally understood; the dresses designed by Chanel operate in tandem with the notion of the “authentic copy” and rely on seriality; and Loy would wrestle with the copy, and being copied.
The status of imitation looms large, accordingly, in this book’s epilogue, for even in Henry James one finds the traces of what began as an essential problem of mimesis and emerges in cold modernism as an emphasis on what imitation says anew about the world. By then we will have seen how for Gabriel Tarde it is through imitation that invention arrives in the world, and what began in Lewis as characters imitating each other will come to resemble how Roger Caillois sees the natural world infested by mimicry. The dynamic of Vogue’s Viola Paris repudiates some forms of being copied even as she herself is the ne plus ultra of imitation as invention, and Balthus’s painting’s girl will both resemble and depend upon, in the physical sense, an imitation of a table, or a table that is an imitation. The “primordial tendency to imitation” that Ruth Leys takes up in another context as a “struggle against mimesis” emerges as a result of the habit humans, or things that look very like humans, have of imitating not just the world but, chillingly, themselves.
The automatic quality grounding this book’s account of imitation may seem to preclude awareness, but criticism need not echo its objects of examination. I said above that two aspects of recognition pertain to the modernism traced in this book. The second aspect of recognition I am after draws from a philosophical current, implying as it does an epistemology. While recognition is not the same thing as discovery, the two phenomena share the dynamic of coming to terms with an aspect of the world that has hitherto either evaded notice or not existed. Lionel Trilling opened his 1972 Sincerity and Authenticity with an announcement that the world had changed, but phrased it in noisily temperate terms:
Now and then it is possible to observe the moral life in process of revising itself, perhaps by reducing the emphasis it formerly placed upon one or another of its elements, perhaps by inventing or adding to itself a new element, some mode of conduct or of feeling which hitherto it had not regarded as essential to its nature.
The news of such an event is often received with a degree of irony or some other sign of resistance.
Trilling’s announcement is both genteel and cagy. His account of difference places the emphasis not on the result—it resists settling even on the means (“perhaps” revision; “perhaps” addition)—but on the possibility of noticing that things have changed. The emphasis falls on awareness, on the rarity—the occasional occasion—of registering difference. That Trilling follows up his diplomatic advancement of this potential, sometimes, rather possible, moment of comment with the imagination of a reply further grounds his thesis in the contingent, that is to say the social realm: the audience, or imagined interlocutor, is less than persuaded (or “often” so). The imagination of change is twice removed from the absolute: it is communicated, contextualized as a social exchange; and what has changed has not changed absolutely. It has revised, a fact others may be loath to acknowledge.
Trilling, then, hedges the issue of whether and how things change by casting the question in terms of what it means to notice things change, and what it means to tell someone you’ve noticed. Clearly, for Trilling, things have, but the subtlety of the proceedings puts him in the camp of something like a radical transitionalist—change means addition, revision, and (possibly) resistance—rather than someone characterizing change as a radical break.
It is a truism in much Anglo-American modernism, however, that its literature was born of rupture. Its artists have not helped things, given as they are to variations on that concept in their own critical histories. Virginia Woolf’s amusing version is that “[i]n or about December, 1910” human character changed; Ezra Pound records that “to break the pentameter, that was the first heave.” Overall the understanding of modernism as inflected by rupture owes most to the role of the Great War. Samuel Hynes captures the spirit of this argument perfectly: “Even as it was being fought the war was perceived as a force of radical change in society and consciousness. It brought to an end the life and values of Victorian and Edwardian England; but it did something more fundamental than that—it changed reality. That change was so vast and so abrupt as to make the years after the war seem discontinuous from the years before, and that discontinuity became a part of English imaginations.” The reverberations would thus find their way into artistic modernism in ways that reshaped even literary syntax, as Vincent Sherry argues in The Great War and the Language of Modernism. The historian Modris Eksteins puts it pithily: “Modernism was born on the battlefield.”
There is another perspective, however, which emphasizes continuity. The idea that modernism arrived in the form of revolution was a bone of especial contention for Clement Greenberg. He would state in 1960, “I can not insist enough that Modernism has never meant, and does not mean now, anything like a break with the past. It may mean devolution, an unraveling, of tradition, but it also means its further evolution. Modernist art continues the past without gap or break, and wherever it may end up it will never cease being intelligible in terms of the past.” Never a word-mincer, Greenberg attributes the idea of modernist rupture in the arts to pedestrian understanding: “It belongs to journalism—and to the millennial complex from which so many journalists and journalist intellectuals suffer in our day—that each new phase of Modernist art should be hailed as the start of a whole new epoch in art, marking a decisive break with all the customs and conventions of the past. Each time, a kind of art is expected so unlike all previous kinds of art, and so free from norms of practice or taste, that everybody, regardless of how informed or uninformed he happens to be, can have his say about it” (“MP,” 93). Greenberg’s modernism (or as Caroline Jones puts it, “Greenberg’s modernism”) is an aggressively critical enterprise, with the stakes set as whether particular painters would flourish or languish. (To protest that Greenberg was not an art historian but an art critic is to misunderstand the problem, for Greenberg “tells a story about abstract art that ‘is internal to art history itself.’” ) Even this is too tame: those outfitted with brush, easel, oils, and canvas who weren’t part of modernism’s history were doing something, but it wasn’t painting. Recognition meant not just being noticed—Greenberg noticing Jackson Pollock, for instance—but being part of history, versus aesthetic roadkill.
Greenberg’s modernism is a visual history, pitched in the tendentious year of 1960, but a number of literary critical histories stress the deep and formative connections between modernism and what came earlier. Two salient examples, given that they bookend the earliest and latest periodized eras that precede the period of our inquiry, are Michael Saler’s account of a “medieval modernism” and Jessica Feldman’s argument for a “Victorian modernism.” This sense of continuity with the past can owe a great deal to what Sean Latham and Robert Scholes refer to as “the rise of periodical studies.” The perspective that emerges from a scholar’s attention to an archive is subject to a historical dynamic in which radical break is difficult to discern (at least until the journal stops). When any amount of time is spent immersing oneself in the conversations of contemporaries, recanting of earlier opinions, anticipation of upcoming publications, reviews of publications, replies to reviews—when immersed in the bloom and buzz of a culture, with quotidian as dictum—it’s hard to see rupture.
More emphatically, in such circumstances it is impossible to see rupture as anything more than a retrospective gesture. As one astute discussant put it in a roundtable discussion on periodical studies conducted at the 2000 New Modernisms Conference, when reading in the archives, “You stop waiting for modernism.” (I apologize to the astute discussant for not recording her name at the time; it only occurred to me years later that this was a historic remark. Therein lies a parable.) The allusion to Godot is a neat one, for it summons up the apparitional quality of the proceedings, and the futility of hanging around while anticipating the arrival of someone that someone else says is en route. Modernism didn’t stroll onstage at any one point, and histories that invoke this perspective are employing a specific critical lens, one that neatens up the fuzzy edges of the quotidian. The British essayist Adam Phillips asks us to consider what might be lost when we neaten up the edges in the context of making art or living: “of what we might be doing when we are too keen to clear up clutter.”
However necessary, the imposition of frameworks of understanding inevitably distorts, both because they are generically anachronistic (even as it is still too early to judge the effects of the French Revolution, “it is always too late to speak about time” ) and because they stop us from seeing what doesn’t fit. Fredric Jameson points out something akin to this when he observes that “the choice between continuity and rupture is something like an absolute historiographic beginning, that cannot be justified by the nature of the historical material or evidence, since it organizes all such material and evidence in the first place.”
We have, then, “those who insisted on the radical novelty of modernity,” or what the philosopher Robert Pippin calls “the ‘radical break’ proponents”; and the “more reconciliationist.” The options appear as vexing as they do stark. Cast in terms of the philosophical emergence of modernity, “The question . . . is whether a genuine origination in Western civilization occurred in roughly the sixteen and seventeenth century (or whether it could have occurred, or what origination might mean), whether our epoch, however continuous in other ways, is, or is potentially, independent of classical and religious assumptions, or whether it still depends on mythic, religious, or perennial expectations and hopes” (MPP, 115). Cast in literary terms, the question is more inflected toward what Pippin parenthesizes: the status of the new. The obsession with originality in aesthetic realms cannot be denied; beside it even the vaunting of authenticity pales. We will return to the question of the new, but here my point is to emphasize the importance of understanding the fact of such a choice—rupture versus continuity—having arisen as not simply as the occasion for, or a precipitant of, choice, but as a constitutive aspect of modernism itself. As Pippin reminds us, the argument over engaging modernism as either a “culture of rupture” or one of continuity is not merely one of modernism’s recurrent points of disputation, but its site of embarkation (29). I have said that the second, and related, question of recognition coalesces around what I have called a philosophical issue, for I am arguing that the issue of seeing or recognizing something, even at the most quotidian level, is an essential part of the question of not just how to tell a history of modernism, but what modernism is.
I take Pippin—a philosopher—as an essential part of the framework for reasons in excess of the mere fact of accuracy. One of the most important reasons for doing so is that literary modernism increasingly takes itself as an interdisciplinary area of inquiry. Literary critics in the habit of spending time around scholars from other fields—however that occurs, be it through the coincidence of office location, following rhizomatic Internet links, the persistent nagging of an unfinished education (the best ones are), conference bars, or wandering around library shelves—cannot fail to notice the range of applications and referents of “modernism.” The question of what modernism is comes to assume extremely various proportions. One version of this is a question of training in languages, but the predicament inevitably opens into the splay of different disciplines. Allow me one possible trajectory. After a grounding in twentieth-century modernism written in America and England—two nations separated by a common language, as George Bernard Shaw famously put it—one can experience the sinking sensation that English is an afterthought and France got to modernism earlier, for reasons Baudelairean. You dutifully trot off to learn French and upon return, having turned back to Arthur Symons’s work on the French symbolists with a smug sense of knowing what is what, realize that having read Freud and Kafka and Benjamin in translation is increasingly inadequate, given the unpleasant fact of German philosophy. The unpleasantness is due less to the fact of the German language—“fleshy, warped, spit-spraying, purplish and cruel” though it may be —than the fact of philosophy. You may or may not succor yourself with Stanley Cavell, and Pippin, who helpfully (for you) tend toward the literary; in any case the idea of Kant as beginning modernism can be heartbreaking to someone trained in the early twentieth century. But at least Kant used words.
Philosophical modernism exists alongside of art-historical modernism, which uses the term “modernist” or “modern” in ways that can seem either early (Édouard Manet, Adolph Menzel) or late (Pollock) to a modernist literary critic. At this point, architectural modernism is a blow upon a bruise (for anyone other than Victoria Rosner, Anthony Vidler, Mark Wigley, or the authors in Grey Room ). I leave entirely to one side Arnold Schoenberg and Erik Satie (unlike Cavell, Roger Shattuck, or Daniel Albright ) and what physicists were up to, but at least in the case of the latter, the communal relation between D. H. Lawrence and thermodynamics or Virginia Woolf and astronomy can bring anyone other than Bruce Clarke and Mark Morrisson or Holly Henry and Emily Dalgarno to their knees. Forget economics (fortunately neither Michael Tratner nor Jed Esty did ). My point is that interdisciplinarity has changed the constitution and texture of what we talk about when we talk about modernism. For this reason, if not the sheer pleasure of intellectual promiscuity, this book moves with minimal guilt between books, magazines, visual art, designs for brooms, couture, and a few (not enough) Cole Porter songs. There is also, as I have said, the fact of the artists themselves getting around, or as Bellmer trenchantly put it, “in order to have a certain poetic gift it’s not necessary first of all to be an idiot in every other domain.”
As I have intimated above in referring to the importance of style for cold modernism, one prominent instance of interdisciplinarity in Cold Modernism is the appearance of sartorial fashion as essential to this modernism’s contour. Walter Benjamin took the fact of fashion as not just a direct imprimatur of a history, but the means by which history occurs, a fact noted by Peter Wollen and which Ulrich Lehmann takes as the basis of his account of modernity. As the director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology succinctly puts it, “fashion is a verb as well as a noun,” and the fashion of modernism—its trends, styles, currents—is less a fad (with all respect due fads) in modernist studies than, this book suggests, one of its most salient facts. With its recurrent emphasis on the new, fashion in modernism is positioned as a vital aspect of modernist history. This emphasis is borne out most noticeably by Jane Garrity, Jeffrey Schnapp, Nancy J. Troy, and Caroline Evans, whose stitchings of the importance of the sartorial to modernism’s whole cloth are seamless; these critics work within the realm of, respectively, British, Italian, American, French, and fashion history tout court. If modernism owes its emergence to the adverb modo, it cannot be wrong that la mode forms its core.
With mode and style come the new. As I have said, this is precisely the point not only of modernism, in terms of what it contemplated as its constitution, but of the accounts of its occurrence.
The New. Again.
There are six ideas. The rest, and that would include much of what any one scholar decides to find fascinating—visual optics, verb tenses as literary events, the medieval pretzel as a privileged object, shame, the absence of “flight insurance in the Middle Ages” —is upholstery. If we believe this, an attendant conviction arises: it is unlikely that any one particular artist came up with something whole-cloth. It is not my intention to suggest that we swallow entire the rhetoric of “the invention of the new,” in any one of the many forms that newness may take at a given time. The idea of the new is, as we have seen, an old idea; the Greeks had a history, and the crucifixion of Christ is simply an editing job, as Mikhail Bulgakov makes clear. Or as Alain Robbe-Grillet put it, “There’s nothing new under the sun, it’s all been said before, we’ve come on the scene too late, etc., etc.” The last two words are the point, at once resignedly abbreviated and studiously redundant (a true scholar would say they are in order).
Such critical myopia, with the accompanying weariness born of eternal déjà vu, deadens us, however, to the local pleasures of invention and the lovely vertigo that may accompany discovery. While hell and public transportation existed before Pound got on board, certainly there is something new about his poem “In a Station of the Metro,” and it is to the credit of Hugh Kenner that he was able to wake us up to this. That poem is new, despite the fact that it was Pound’s third try; despite its laden moment, not quite allusive but in the neighborhood—“a crowd seen underground, as Odysseus and Orpheus and Koré saw crowds in Hades”; despite the fact that Charles Dickens had thoroughly plumbed the literary relation between the glint of selfhood and modes of transportation in the previous century.
So what’s new? In 1974, after acknowledging that “[n]ewness as an aesthetic category existed long before Modernism,” Peter Bürger distinguished between four types of newness. They were a “variation within the very narrow, defined limits of a genre”; the use of a “a calculated effect” that “already accommodates at the structural level the public’s desire for shocklike effects”; “the renewal of literary techniques within a sequence of works of a literary genre,” which Bürger associates with the Russian formalists; and finally, the kind of newness Theodor Adorno means when he discusses modernism: a newness that emerges as a result of the “radical quality of the break with what had prevailed before.” This is a newness premised not on “artistic techniques or stylistic principles” but that instead negates whole cloth “the entire tradition of art” (TA, 60). (Bürger quibbles with Adorno on this last point, over whether that form of the new is substantive or seeming, but the issue of rupture is not challenged, merely debated as to its location.)
Bürger’s fourfold taxonomy has the advantage of moving up the Linnaean tree, proceeding from species (genre) to tradition (wonderfully consonant with “order” as a taxonomic subset). I wish to move up one more level, from order to class, and advance that the concept of the new is more generally predicated on the appearance of anomaly. By no means do I intend to leave the issue of modernist criticism to the side, for I will continue to suggest a confluence between the constitutive question of the new in modernism and the procedural question of the new in modernist criticism and the formative role of the new in cold modernism.
Much of what I find compelling in modernism and exemplary in cold modernism has to do with an obdurateness, which in another sense is simply the desire not to fit. Anomaly is that which does not fit, exceeding as it does our frameworks of understanding. Thomas Kuhn called those large frameworks “paradigms,” and his description of what happens when people are confronted by anomaly provides an exemplum for the practice of reading. When exposed to a deck of cards including anomalous red spades and black hearts, the subject at first tends unhesitatingly to identify the undoctored cards correctly, while the anomalous cards are “almost always identified, without apparent hesitation or puzzlement, as normal. The black four of hearts might, for example, be identified as the four of either spades or hearts. Without any awareness of trouble, it was immediately fitted to one of the conceptual categories prepared by prior experience.”
However, upon repeated passes, and slower periods of exposure, “subjects did begin to hesitate”:
Exposed, for example, to the red six of spades, some would say: That’s the six of spades, but there’s something wrong with it—the black has a red border. Further increase of exposure resulted in still more hesitation and confusion until finally, and sometimes quite suddenly, most subjects would produce the correct identification. . . . A few subjects, however, were never able to make the requisite adjustment of their categories. Even at forty times the average exposure required to recognize normal cards for what they were, more than 10 percent of the anomalous cards were not correctly identified. And the subjects who then failed often experienced acute personal distress. One of them exclaimed: “I can’t make the suit out, whatever it is. It didn’t even look like a card that time. I don’t know what color it is now or whether it’s a spade or a heart. I’m not even sure now what a spade looks like. My God!”
On a good day, the recognition that you are in the grip of a misrecognition is attended by a sudden and panicky clarity about what is in front of you. The experience likely brings with it a test of tolerance, specifically in terms of the degree to which you can tolerate the distinct possibility that if you were wrong once, you might damn well be wrong again. Critics don’t like being wrong. Even as we can admit fallibility in the abstract, typically we continue to insist that the highway is definitely to the left. Very few critics go on record as having changed their mind, let along as having been wrong. (One exception is the critic Donald Davie, who in examining Ezra Pound’s poem “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” for a second time, later in his career, stated that he was mistaken in his initial assessment.) Mark Twain said that when he was fourteen, his father struck him as the stupidest man he’d ever met; upon turning twenty Twain was, he said, surprised by how much the old man had learned in six years. This is funny because we hear Twain recognizing his own reluctance to reassess, and even as he comes up with a way to accommodate a change in his conviction, he persists in the investment in his own ability to be continuously right. (Or simply to be continuous.)
What about taking seriously the idea of being certain as a step toward getting it wrong? We’ve said good-bye to Portnoy, but not to Roth, for another, grimmer, character comes to just such a conclusion about the inextricability of making mistakes and being alive. “The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, upon careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. This is how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong.” At the risk of paralleling the enterprise of criticism with the state of being alive, it may be that the best way to engage modernist criticism (for instance) is to acknowledge, if not the presence, then the occurrence of anomaly in the hope that it precipitates some moment of moving on to get things right, leavened with the recognition that this too shall pass.
We thus return to the problematic status of recognition, for the problem with anomaly is that while it triggers an acknowledgment of something previously in excess of one’s world, it doesn’t initially (and simply may not) present as anything more generally knowable. As the art historian Caroline Jones puts it, “the very presence of anomalies reveals an ‘alternate’ world wholly embedded within the fissures of the present one, ‘seen,’ but seen as unintelligible” (emphasis added). I have adduced the recognition of anomaly as a formative aspect of realizing that one has been wrong (or that one’s father has learned a lot recently). In any case, the appeal to anomaly need not necessarily be grim prescript.
Insofar as it entails the (beginnings of) recognition of the new in its most basic terms, anomaly admits a fundamental alteration, or excess, or discontinuity. My previous taxonomic gesture was a move from the order of the new to the class of anomaly. Let this be the step from class to phylum, the phylum of change. I stated earlier that rupture and continuity were both two versions of how to tell a story about modernism and a constitutive fact of modernism itself. One cogent encapsulation of a historian’s dilemma comes from Peter Stearns: “Change is of course both constant and cumulative, which makes any effort to identify particularly crucial transition decades difficult and contestable.” This book argues for making a change in terms of both the recognition of modernism and how we tell that story, even as I take that charge to be one consistent with not only the fact but the history of modernism. To do so, I want to both move forward and backward, concluding this beginning by examining what cold modernism is not, by beginning from a radical change both constant and cumulative. Best to do so by employing a speaker relatively exotic to current modernist climes. We return to Trilling.
“At a certain point in history men became individuals” (SA, 24). Lionel Trilling’s riff on Virginia Woolf marks the sine qua non of modernism. Prior to that point, “[man] did not have an awareness of . . . internal space. He did not . . . imagine himself in more than one role, standing outside or above his own personality; he did not suppose that he might be an object of interest to his fellow man not for the reason that he had achieved something notable or been witness to great events but simply because as an individual he was of interest” (24). He could not have, in Trilling’s formulation, sincerity, built as it is a relationship to one’s self. In fact, our nonindividual would not use the word self, for “‘that . . . in a person [which] is really and intrinsically he’” (25) would have no antecedent.
But for better or worse, individuals were invented. Modernism has been taken to conceive as its problem that fact, the status of the self: its intelligibility, incoherence, elusiveness, even its construction and its performativity. Trilling specifically notes the accord between “the devaluation of sincerity” (we have passed sincerity’s four-hundred-year honeymoon) and “the classic literature of our century” (6), and his examples are Joyce and Eliot, so it is unrisky to understand this as modernism. Such writers “took the position that, in relation to their work and their audience, they were not persons or selves, they were artists, by which they meant that they were exactly not, in the phrase which Wordsworth began his definition of the poet, men speaking to men. . . . Eliot said that ‘The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.’ Joyce said that ‘The personality of the artist . . . finally refines itself out of existence, impersonalizes itself, so to speak’” (6–7). This call to impersonality goes hand in paradoxical glove with the writers’ subject matter, which is, Trilling says (in fact quotes himself as having said, which is divinely illustrative), “shockingly personal,” both in its address to the audience and in its reflexivity: “this literature takes its license to ask impermissible personal questions from its authors’ having put the same questions to themselves” (7). Why would this be? “Their statements about the necessity of transcending or extirpating the personal self we take to be an expression of the fatigues which that self is fated to endure; or perhaps we take them as a claim to shamanistic power: not I but the wind, the spirit, uttered these words” (8).
Trilling’s assessment is positioned at a moment in which the 1960s hangover has not yet faded; Sincerity and Authenticity is a disassembling of any prima facie claim that authenticity had garnered during the previous decade. His final juxtaposition of self-origination (fatigue with selfhood as part of selfhood’s package) with the appeal to transcendentalism may be a response to (in any case must have been influenced by) his relationship to a former student, the mystically inclined poet Allen Ginsberg and his poem “The Lion for Real.” Whatever its prompt, Trilling’s assessment mirrors a critical problem of modernism, that of reading it as concerned with selfhood, or if not, if the self is to be extirpated, then such is due to a weariness with same.
Thus we have the forms of consciousness that grow out of an engagement with a line of development Michael Levenson traces back to Matthew Arnold and Walter Pater. At issue, as Levenson puts it, is “the disintegration of stable balanced relations between subject and object and the consequent enshrining of consciousness as the repository of meaning and value.” The vehicles that bear these repositories—their bodies and narratives—communicate significance, value, purpose. Accordingly, the bodies that move through Lawrence’s Women in Love bleed, become turgid, and give voice by crying out, arguably Lawrence’s favorite verb for the spoken means of communication. “God, what it is to be a man!’ she cried”; “‘Why doesn’t it move?’ she cried”; “‘Isn’t it a fool!’ she cried”; “‘Not at all,” she cried.” Speech emerges from a heated and regnant environment, with words ejaculated.
Such bodies are given to dancing, and when they do, they practice eurhythmics, the trendy kinesthetic of “music made visible” that arose in 1910 as the union of the “spiritual” and the “corporeal.” “‘Oh, Dalcroze!’ . . . cried Ursula” (WL, 185). Lawrence’s Gudrun Brangwen dances by “pulsing and fluttering rhythmically with her feet making slower, regular gestures with her hands and arms, now spreading her arms wide, now raising them above her head, now flinging them softly apart, and lifting her face, her feet all the time beating and running to the measure of the song, as if it were some strange incantation, her white, rapt form drifting here and there in a strange impulsive rhapsody” (185). This is hot modernism. The body is resonant with meaning, beating it out like a pulsing heart. It is responsive to the song that animates it from within—the “rhapsody” of an “impulse”—and without—Gudrun’s dance is accompanied by her sister’s singing, which is like some “strange incantation”; it “lift[s]” the dancing form “on a breeze of incantation” (185). The body is at once porous, filtering melody, and resonant, expressing desire.
In contrast, Mina Loy gives us
Revolving in the enervating dust
That wraps each closer in the mystery
Among the litter of a sunless afternoon.
This is the dance of cold modernism: no sun, no redolent flesh, just “singularity / Among the litter.” What “mystery” there is resides in that “singularity,” but this version of difference is entirely different from Lawrence’s dance as triumphantly original. The latter is a unique expression of Gudrun’s rapt body (summoning with its power men and cattle alike); Loy’s cylinders, even while “wrapped,” simply revolve, doubled. Gudrun beats, like a heart, while Loy’s lovers machinate like gears.
While my example above is drawn from an instance of Lawrence, hot modernism continues to be taken to represent literary modernism as a whole. Stephen Kern, for example, characterizes “the novelists who did most to define literary modernism—James Joyce, Marcel Proust, and Virginia Woolf”—as having “concentrated on the inner life of characters.” Such primacy accorded “inner life” irritated Alain Robbe-Grillet, who provides a helpful and helpfully snide point of dismissal in characterizing the monopoly that the subject has long exerted on the world of fiction.
In his 1956 “A Future for the Novel,” Robbe-Grillet observed that “already sacrosanct in [Madame de La Fayette’s] day, psychological analysis constituted the basis of all prose: it governed the conception of the book” (15). “And of course there is always the human ‘heart,’ which as everyone knows is eternal” (16). His nemesis was what he called “the initial novel” (20), in which the world appeared only as a shadow (heart-warming or heart-rending; the difference was negligible) of human presence. There, “objects and gestures . . . [leave] behind only their significations: the empty chair becomes only absence or expectation” (20; emphasis in original). Elsewhere Robbe-Grillet would characterize signification (or more precisely “so-called signification,” for he recurrently lards the term with a derisive emphasis) in terms of an “anthropomorphic atmosphere, vague but imbuing all things” that “invest[ed] [the world] from within by a more or less disingenuous network of sentiments and thoughts.” In order to combat this “tyranny of significations” (22), he lobbies on behalf of things: “Around us, defying the noisy pack of our animistic or protective adjectives, things are there. Their surfaces are distinct and smooth, intact, neither suspiciously brilliant nor transparent” (19; emphases in original). He would envision a novel in which “gestures and objects will be there before being something; and they will still be there afterwards, hard, unalterable, eternally present, mocking their own ‘meaning’” (21; emphases in original). Robbe-Grillet had had it up to there with depth.
His reference to “the empty chair” that signifies “only absence or expectation” is suggestive of hot modernism’s primal scene, object-wise. We find a chair’s two appearances signifying respectively expectation and absence in Woolf’s 1922 novel Jacob’s Room. The concluding scene, in which Jacob’s mother and his good friend (helpfully named Bonamy) clear out Jacob’s digs after his death—“Listless is the air in an empty room, just swelling the curtain; the flowers in the jar shift. One fibre in the wicker arm-chair creaks, though no one sits there” —re-presents verbatim (as does the majority of the brief chapter) an earlier moment from the novel, in this case the third chapter’s survey of Jacob’s room during his time at college. In both instances, the chairs are empty.
In the first instance, Jacob is gadding about somewhere else (“[H]e wasn’t there. Dining in Hall, presumably” [JR, 38]), and his return is if not immediate, then imminent, the occasion of expectation. Woolf’s narrator toys with the uncertainty of Jacob’s location, for the “listless” lines are straddled by the presumed possibility of his dining; and a description (or a list, as you will) of three other men, university professors, returning to their digs. The first professor, Huxtable, is momentarily prevented from doing so by Jacob; if he is not quite physically obstructed by the material fact of Jacob’s body, the scene implies it, for only later do we learn that Huxtable “can’t walk straight.” In any event, Jacob’s appearance parenthetically interrupts the progress of the sentence: “Coming down the steps a little sideways (Jacob sat on the window-seat talking to Durrant; he smoked, and Durrant looked at the map), the old man, with his hands locked behind him, his gown floating black, lurched, unsteadily, near the wall; then, upstairs he went into his room” (39).
In the second appearance of the sentences, Jacob isn’t “there”—isn’t in the room, and isn’t in the chair in the room—because he has been killed in the war, a thorough form of what Robbe-Grillet calls absence. Insofar as the chair here is the same as the chair “there” (the sentences are the same), the chair has identity. Insofar as the novel imbues the chair with Jacob’s presence, the chair also has an identity. The latter is exactly what irritates Robbe-Grillet.
The novel’s supreme presentation of an object imbued with what Robbe-Grillet had called “suspect interiority” (“FN,” 21) occurs in the last chapter’s final moment:
“Jacob! Jacob!” cried Bonamy, standing by the window. The leaves sank down again.
“Such confusion everywhere!” exclaimed Betty Flanders, bursting open the bedroom door.
Bonamy turned away from the window.
“What am I to do with these, Mr. Bonamy?”
She held out a pair of Jacob’s old shoes. (JR, 176)
It is a magnificent moment at multiple levels, not the least of which is how “interiority” is something like the opposite of literalized (but not made “merely” figural): the body that wore these shoes (i.e., was inside them) is coextensive with inner life.
Douglas Mao gives an account of Woolf’s philosophical turns in terms of, first, “the possibility that subjectivities might be connected through objects” (SO, 52; emphasis in original), reconstructing that line of inquiry from Woolf via T. S. Eliot through F. H. Bradley, famously the subject of Eliot’s dissertation. Mao distinguishes this trajectory from “her emphasis on the stubborn distance of an object world that cannot be subsumed by human knowing,” an emphasis that “more closely evokes the work of G. E. Moore” (52). Mao’s account of Woolf is balanced between the existential, extraordinarily persuasive as he is in connecting Sartre and Woolf, and a version of phenomenological intersubjectivity, with the object world providing a means by which consciousnesses otherwise isolate engage. Mao argues that in Mrs. Dalloway,
the mediation performed by things seems more satisfactorily thematized by showing consciousnesses connecting across other kinds of objects [than bodies conceived as (mere) “housings” for souls]. . . . In the party scene, for example, the trace of bodies provides Clarissa with a mediation cleaner, though far less profound, than the encounter with the old woman: entering the empty room, she guesses, most likely from the fact that the “chairs still kept the impress of the Prime Minister and Lady Bruton, she turned deferentially, he sitting four-square, authoritatively,” that “they had been talking about India.” (53; emphasis in original)
Mao’s account of these chairs is not only cogent, but to my point. Woolf here is less invested in—I would say quite resistant to—the idea of the body as a thing (“perhaps because the habit of most post-Cartesian, pre-Sartrean reflections on the body in ordinary experience has been to treat it as a housing for the soul, rather than a thing for others” ). I push the point further. The “brute facticity” of things in hot modernism is a potential site of intersubjective reckoning. The possibility of direct encounter in Woolf’s moment of chair-gazing is expressly palpable, for this is the means by which what Mao wonderfully calls a “trace” is made: the abutment of body with chair. Accordingly, we have Dalloway’s impression of an impression. We will turn in “The Legs of Balthus” to the fact of plush and Benjamin’s characterization of it as “the material in which traces are left especially easily”; I wish now to emphasize that the most material facts of the body’s relation to the world are, in Woolf, restricted, even sanitized, by the preoccupations of selfhood.
The notion of intersubjectivity one finds in Woolf is premised on, as Mao puts it, a “limited knowledge of other consciousnesses” (50), a problem Ann Banfield explores in great depth, getting closer to the possibility of “the world seen without a self.” Banfield locates her account of Woolf in terms of both the Bloomsbury circle in which Woolf moved and the philosophical inheritance of her father, Leslie Stephen; like Mao she argues that Woolf’s work was deeply influenced by the philosophy of Moore, but according to Banfield, Bertrand Russell in the end takes precedence in terms of his impact on Woolf. Banfield’s reading is, she admits, “not in conformity with the standard view, which gives primacy to ‘[t]he tremendous influence of Moore’ . . . ‘upon us,’ i.e., Bloomsbury, as Leonard Woolf put it” (PT, 40). As yoked as they are in their turn from an idealism to a realism, the difference between Moore and Russell amounts to the difference between getting to (or at) reality by using, respectively, “common sense” versus “science, especially [modern] physics” (43). Given the common reader, it may be counterintuitive to see Woolf as opting against “common sense”—and opt out exactly she does not, for Moore repeatedly pops up—but in this context the problem with common sense is the senses. However heavily one might lean on the second part of the word, “sense-data” are subject-bound.
Problematic is the issue of not just access (whether through common sense or science) but accessibility to knowledge, for as Banfield brilliantly explicates, there is a parallel between the philosophical conundrum of access to reality and the social ramifications of moving in a more inclusive public sphere—and with that, not just taking the problem of philosophy as itself the expression of the question, but taking its display as the form of the answer. “The problem of knowledge was the philosophical problem through which philosophy was brought to a wider public” (19). The forms of public knowledge Banfield charts start with moving “beyond the confines of the university elite” (17), moving into “co-education,” and the establishment of a Home University Library of Modern Knowledge and a society of conversation into which Woolf herself could enter, or as Banfield puts it, “endless Bloomsbury talk” (35).
In the end it is public knowledge, with philosophy as that form of public knowledge, which provides the way through the woods. Even as for Woolf the private self is bedrock, at times cozy and free in the room of one’s own; at other times, as Banfield says in terms of Woolf’s Moments of Being, “the private world is a prison” (116), and “the movement out” (alluding of course to Woolf’s The Voyage Out) is the means by which one approaches the fact of the world. In order “to describe the world seen without a self” (294 and passim), science and logic provide the purest form of a self-less account of the world: it is Russell who takes logic as an object (and an objective), moving beyond observation, doomed, if one will, by the fact that a self must be observation’s agent, and carving it into (this is Banfield) “a knowledge of the unobserved [as] a non-psychological knowledge whose subject matter is irreducible to any subject’s mental state” (48). Knowledge—whether of logic, physics, or a philosophy about them—is the beeline to the world without a perceiver.
But this, I would say, only finesses the problem, for that knowledge must, in whatever form, be accessed—and so the self will return repeatedly to trouble the proceedings, in the shape of either incomprehension, overcomprehension, miscomprehension, doubt, or exclusion (“Let me in!” cries the woman locked out in Jacob’s Room [JR, 109]). For that reason, however drawn Woolf is to a world seen without a self, her novels are, as Banfield remarks, “elegiac” (PT, 53), and thus she is irrevocably a hot modernist, for the self persists as a problem in her works, albeit one at times gladdened or maddened by the possibility that she or he need not be.
Woolf raises the question of who counts as cold and who counts as hot. Stein, too, might be profitably engaged as a means of complicating the divide, with on the one hand her persistent foregrounding of being (either as celebrity or as subject—the difference is negligible) and on the other hand an engagement with how composition is explanation (enough), and grammar is, in its endless depthlessness, a surface along which one might glide. I’d still call her hot, but it might have been interesting to see more thoroughly just how hot. There are also those whom I do not engage and who strike me as cold: Ivy Compton-Burnett, Henry Green, Evelyn Waugh, the more wintery climes of Wallace Stevens, with his “steel against intimation,” and certainly Marcel Duchamp. At the far end of this modernist chronology there are Patricia Highsmith and Samuel Beckett; at the far end of many best things one finds Beckett. I’ve forgone them all, for reasons ranging from ignorance to space. Caveats are sometimes overtures.
To be clear: I do not propose that modernism cleaves down the thermometric middle. This is reflected in Cold Modernism’s structure. I bestow chapterhood on those figures who seem to me of a piece with the coldest end of modernism’s spectrum. Wyndham Lewis persistently incurs the cold modernist ethos in his work, with his indefatigable obduracy and emphasis on the prosthetic as a given. He is cold modernism’s exemplar. Accordingly, I have accorded him two chapters, in order to give some sense of his early evolution from dispensing with characterological integrity, first in terms of troubling it as a formal pursuit that necessitates other bodies, complicating the form of the novel in so doing; and second in terms of taking prosthesis not simply as an overt topic but as a means by which to understand the most mundane. My interregna, on Bellmer and Balthus, are positioned so as to enforce what I take to be a salubrious or at least studied form of critical difference. If only to suggest a continuing relation between modernism as a fact and a critical discipline, I intend these moments to partake both of rupture and continuity within my account. Even or just as I argue for the presence of cold modernism, there are important variations on the theme, for while cold modernism issues from a world beyond subjectivity, its currents pool. As tempting as it is to invoke Hugo Münsterberg’s (smug) pronouncement that “The story of the subconscious mind can be told in three words: There is none,” I cannot rest there. Therefore in each interregnum the matter of the mind emerges in explicit form. In the case of Hans Bellmer, his representations of the doll as well as his written work either explicitly address the role of the mind or have been understood in wholly minded ways by his critics. In the case of Balthus, the image of La Patience appears to evoke a psychological state. My argument in each case is that the category of mind is physicalized to such degree as to render any account of interiority moot. Thus, their executions employ pivotal aspects of cold modernism (literally, in the instance of Bellmer) that lay bare not just what critics have neglected but provide the conditions for a form of recognition that can only arrive from a new encounter with that which first or once appeared familiar.
While the term “cold modernism” is my own, I am not alone in my use of the thermometric as a gauge for the period. For instance, Helmut Lethen’s Cool Conduct: The Culture of Distance in Weimar Germany (2001) and Gabriele Mentges’s “Cold, Coldness, Coolness: Remarks on the Relationship of Dress, Body, and Technology” both employ the topos of the chilly as means by which to organize modernity. The former author is a cultural and literary historian and the latter a cultural anthropologist specializing in textiles. According to John Updike, Saul Bellow’s work is haunted by little professors; my own argument has been stalked, if not preceded, by extremely convincing Germanists. In addition to the previous two, Anton Kaes’s “The Cold Gaze” contrasts the work of Fritz Lang with that of Ernst Jünger; for both men the camera is the “all-seeing and disciplinary ‘cold’ apparatus.” “In the tradition of the New Objectivity, Jünger praised the camera as a new technical eye which captures the object with a shocking indifference to the object’s condition.” We will encounter Jünger at some further length anon; relevant now is his statement that “[t]his second, colder consciousness shows itself in the ever more sharply developed ability to see oneself as an object.” In addition, the Neue Sachlichkeit made recognizable the condition of artificial organs and how their imbrication with the human sensorium produced a prosthetic body; for the German avant-garde of New Objectivity, this takes the shape of the New Man.
Jünger’s engagement with the camera’s eye is telling (or showing), for stripped of affect as it is, cold modernism may and in this book does at times look like a viewing machine, an apparatus built to resemble the body, or a dress. If Woolf’s circle approached the idea of “the world seen without a self,” cold modernism does at times appear as a picture without a viewer: in the course of his discussion of the still life qua genre, Norman Bryson notes that its “illusionism implies an object world that has dispensed with human attention.” Bound to still life, “trompe l’oeil so mimics and parodies the sense of the real that it casts doubt on whether the subject has a place in the world” (“TSL,” 230). “[I]t is as though we were shown the appearance the world might have without a subject to perceive it, the world minus human consciousness, the look of the world before our emergence into it, or after our death” (230). Bryson repeatedly casts the effects in thermometric terms: “Things present themselves as not awaiting human attention, or as abandoned by human attention,” and as a result “objects lose the warmth of connectedness with the human sphere: a kind of heat-death spreads out through matter” (229). The genre involves “the most chilling . . . kind of vision one may encounter in European painting, and perhaps in world art” (234–35).
For all this I do not propose the existence of a cold modernist school. There were no cold modernist manifestos, and while there were Vorticist dances (even as we await description of their particular forms—probably a derivative of the trendy Parisian Apache dances of the 1910s—one can bet they left bruises), no one ever danced a cold modernist tango. Italian Futurists had a menu, but despite this introduction’s reference to a refrigerator, my first chapter’s deployment of the amuse-bouche, and a later reference to profiterole, no one ever sat down to a cold modernist dinner.
Nor is it the case that these characters necessarily influenced each other, although in multiple cases they crossed paths. Lewis and Loy met in Montparnasse as part of the circle of young art students; Loy would go on to write a laudatory poem about Lewis’s drawing The Starry Sky, and later still attempt to purchase one of his works. Chanel and Jünger attended the same parties, while Bellmer and Balthus skipped the same parties: each have tenuous relations to surrealism, even as both were friends with Paul Éluard, and seem to have comported socially themselves in parallel fashion: “Balthus, who was so different from Bellmer and yet so similar in his secretive, correct, and proper manner.” Bellmer, in Berlin at the same time as Lewis, later illustrated some works by the marquis de Sade, who as we’ve seen was the subject of Balthus’s brother’s scholarship. I’m not arguing for a web of influence, but all of this does pertain in the sense that I am arguing for something more than a zeitgeist. Cold modernism has not registered in our account of modernism as it should—that is this book’s premise—but the recognition of it may inevitably be marred by cold modernism’s own imperviousness.
And this is the problem with which it begins. If “the essence of Modernism lies . . . in the use of characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself”; or if “Modernism manifests itself whenever a text chooses to demonstrate that one of its primary purposes is to expose the factitiousness of its own local procedures”; or if modernism lies in the “articulation of the conditions of representation within representation itself,” cold modernism may best function as a means of recognizing that no individual’s world exists in order to acquiesce.
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