Loos (post 4)

The ending of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes takes on the issues of aestheticism and professionalization that we have been thinking about since the start of term. Lorelei leaves us at the close of the novel, spinning her diary toward closure: she says “good-bye” to the project of putting “down all [her] thoughts” in order to “make a book,” secure in the “feeling that, after all, everything always turns out for the best” (123). What exactly does this “best” look like for Lorelei, and why does her achievement of it necessitate her bringing the diary to a close? In her view, she is “so busy bringing sunshine into the life of Henry that . . . with everything else I seem to accomplish, it is all a girl had ought to try to do.” Obviously Lorelei elides much here, including her access to Henry’s finances, an access which allows her to work with Mr. Montrose “in the motion pictures” while participating in “society life with Henry” (117). As Mark McGurl notes, the novel is structured by “the series of predatory males who patronize [Lorelei]” for the sake of her education—this story is about the “about the acquisition of culture, an aesthetic education [. . .] the pursuit of intellectual improvement” (106-108). Put another way, Lorelei becomes a professional; I think it is crucial (beyond a necessity for the novel), that Lorelei caps her education by (1) writing a book and (2) achieving financial stability as she moves into the film industry. 

Lorelei isn’t publishing for money, but her status as recipient of patronage at least generates, and is at times even tied, to the fact of her writing. In my view, Lorelei has achieved aesthetic mastery by way of what is marked as a really bad diary-book: she has written a book and gotten paid to do it. Or perhaps just economic mastery—Lorelei skips the aesthetic part and goes straight to professionalization. A clunky final connection:  but what does this have to do with Loos’s positioning toward modernism? I’m thinking mostly here of money, education, and time. 

Situating modernism

Michael Denning tells us that rather than searching for representative authors and titles in order to delineate proletarian writing, it would be more useful to focus on the energies of the proletarian movement more broadly. This helps him to present Meridel Le Sueur’s work as an example of proletarian literature, or more particularly, Le Sueur as a literary practitioner of ‘left-wing regionalism’ (220). Denning underscores the importance of regional American politics for Le Sueur in fashioning a literary aesthetic, including in continuing a tradition of Midwestern women’s writing.

The sub-category of the ‘regional’ was especially interesting as we have been approaching the question via different writers and texts through the semester. There has been a great amount of attention on the metropolitan centers of canonical modernism in influential scholarship on the field but, as we have discussed, a significant amount of literary production that we are engaging with in the seminar does away with the need to concentrate conversations of modernism on these specific urban centers.

However, it might be worthwhile to complicate the expansion of the geographical imagination of modernism. Some questions I am thinking of are: would it be productive to think of the Midwestern setting of Le Sueur’s stories as comparable to the view of southern American life that Zora Neale Hurston provides us? What is at stake, for instance, by collapsing the car journey through the rural Midwest in “O Prairie Girl, Be Lonely” with the journey through the ‘muck’ in Their Eyes Were Watching God or will identitarian concerns continue to mark the contours of the field and modify its definitions? Might it be possible to refocus the expatriate framing of modernist writing to work towards a means for understanding exilic or cosmopolitan sensibilities from within a national framework? Is the national merely a sum total of regional expressions? Denning writes that the matter of the legacy of proletarian writing is a vexed one as many of these texts were ‘recovered’ by later generations: does a widening of the geographical scope make modernism a cohesive category that only makes sense as seen through its sub-categories?

Word/Event in Le Sueur

“Does one define proletarian literature by author, audience, subject matter, or political perspective? Is it literature by workers, for workers, or about workers?” (Denning, 201, emphases mine). These questions struck me as familiar to the identitarian concerns that dominate contemporary literature and scholarship; questions about how an author’s identity legitimizes or deligitimizes, provides an entrée or a barrier to objects of writing.

Le Sueur’s “I Was Marching” makes these questions explicit by performing its own status as a personal, non-fiction account of class mobilization. The piece opens with strong markers of truth-telling. Putting  “I” first–both in the title and the first sentence–shows that the narrator’s identity will be the source for the story’s narrative claims. By the third sentence, the narrator has confessed to her middle class origins–a confession that functions as a twofold authorization. First, the confession works as a traditional claim to the objectivity afforded to the outsider. Second, the confession works by laying bare the narrator’s culpability, and therefore counteracting the taboo which should operate against her account. Indeed the structure of the sentence enacts the reversal of this taboo. In the sentence starting with “If you come from the middle class,” the “as I do” is silent. The contortion of the seemingly confessional “I” comes again in “That is why it is hard for a person like myself and others to be in a strike”(158).

These formal moves are designed to draw attention to the epistemological battles at work in class warfare, in striking, and most of all in writing about class warfare and striking. “If you come from the middle class, words are likely to mean more than an event” opens the piece in order to set up an expectation that the story will provide a reversal. By the story’s end, the sentence “I was marching” seems to tell us that the reversal has happened (168). But of course, from the reader’s perspective–and the narrator’s confession of middle class origins seems intended to interpolate a middle class reader–words have been our only event.

Le Sueur (is) at a Distance

“I am putting down exactly how I felt,” the narrator (or is this the author, herself?) of Meridel Le Sueur’s “I Was Marching” writes of the piece (158). Yet, “I can’t describe how I felt,” she claims a few paragraphs later (159). Nonetheless, several paragraphs after this, she tries again: “I knew my feelings to be those belonging to disruption, chaos, and disintegration and I felt their direct and awful movement” (159).

This is a pattern of known and unknown feeling rehearsed throughout the piece: the narrator oscillates between precise articulation of her impressions and a resignation that they are beyond her comprehension. This results in a doubling of distance: the reader is both engaged with and alienated from the text, just as the narrator is in tune with and unrecognizable to herself. Le Sueuer offers us a new iteration of the narrative distancing with a proletarian edge. In “I Was Marching,” distancing emphasizes both the violent isolation of the unionists from an exploitative capitalist context—literalized with the barricade—and the narrator’s loss of self to the motivations of the masses. Distance from the self reaches its most extreme when the feelings of the individual body are lost—“I only partly know what I am seeing, feeling” —to the experience of the collective—“On my very body, I knew what they were doing, as if it had been communicated to me from a thousand eyes” (163-4). At the end of the text, the narrator notes (is the tone a celebratory one?) the singular “rhythm” of this amalgamated mass (165). There is an argument here towards a paradoxical individual collectively, as the individual repeatedly struggles to articulate individual impressions while concurrently participating a larger assemblage.

This is the distancing internal to the text, but what about the external distancing? Both informed and ignorant of the narrator’s shifting feelings, the reader’s relationship to and grasp on the text becomes tenuous. Is the effect merely to reproduce the insider/outsider feelings of the narrator, or is something greater occurring? What interpretive (perhaps political) work is demanded of the distanced reader?

For Hurston discussion and for next week

Many thanks to You Can Call Me Al and Plotinus Plinlimmon for their posts on Hurston and Sorensen. I don’t have an answer about “wake up callin’ me and Ah’ll be gone,” but maybe some one else will. As Plotinus suggests, it’s entirely appropriate that a probable allusion in Hurston should be both recognizale and untraceable to any particular origin. It points to “folk” material that every culturally competent person in the world of the novel can use; and insofar as we can’t quite use it, it marks a social boundary. Like the allusions we worried over in Eliot, these are forms of cultural capital.

I’d like to explore the issue Al raises about possessive desire further in discussion. Another way to think about it, which I’ll ask you all about, is to think about how the novel uses the two genres of Bildungsroman and love story. Janie’s Bildung is all about how to become an autonomous person in a sexually and racially oppressive society; the love story, by contrast, seems to climax in annihilation of the self (and of the lover), or at least in the yielding of the self to something else (cf. the pear trees in blossom at the start).

As for recovery, neither blogger commented on the two documents of reception I placed on Sakai, so let me just underline their importance. Our discussion of Hurston has to reckon with at least four historical frames:

  1. The period of the novel’s setting, which seems to run roughly over the forty-five years up through 1928 (the likely date for the hurricane and Janie’s return).
  2. The field at the moment of publication in 1937, when the Harlem Renaissance is basically over and the cultural vanguard has moved off (and left). Wright’s review indicates how.
  3. The field in the epoch of recovery (late 1960s and early 1970s), when Hurston is made into an iconic African American writer and the signal Harlem Renaissance novelist. Walker’s Ms. article gives some clues about this climate for reading Hurston.
  4. The field we inhabit now, in many ways continuous with the one established by the 1970s but, as Sorensen suggests, perhaps even more sharply marked by conflict and dissensus over how to understand and value literary objects (texts, authors…).

Let’s try to make distinctions among these as we go along.

For next week

We’re going to rewind the clock by a few years to the early 1930s and sidle up to the apex of the cultural Left. “Sidle” because though I’ve put “Proletarian Literature” as the heading on the syllabus, we aren’t going to read any of the truly iconic documents of US proletarian literature. Hughes’s 1930s poetry and stories, as well Le Sueur’s texts, are also part of proletarian literature, but the core genres of this literature are a little different, what Michael Denning calls the strike novel and, especially, the ghetto pastoral. Denning’s chapter situates these various proletarian genres together.

Hughes forms a bridge from the Harlem Renaissance to the proletarian moment, biographically and in other ways. I’ve selected a few poems for you to read (including some that were literally published in the Proletarian Literature anthologies). Though a few of these are notorious, they aren’t “representative” Hughes; representative Hughes is constructed by bracketing this writing as a “phase,” leaving his early work (some of which we read in The New Negro) on the one hand, and poetry from World War II and after on the other. I’m asking you to read two very famous poems from his 1951 volume Montage of a Dream Deferred just so you have the contrast.

The ProQuest digitized version of Hughes’s Collected Poems is a horror (as is everything from ProQuest). You’ll find it slow and cumbersome to read in, and fundamentally hostile to poetry. The format also doesn’t accommodate some of Hughes’s most formally experimental poetry, which is typeset in multiple columns. These poems are left unreadable by the abusive digitization practiced by ProQuest.

I asked you to buy The Ways of White Folks and have suggested a few stories for us to read from the collection. I’m hoping you all did manage to get your hands on the book, since I’d like to pick one of those stories to spend time on in our discussion next week. Please let me know if you don’t have it.

The two selections from Le Sueur are on Sakai, as is the Denning chapter.

Last of all, and likely fated to be skipped by us, is a pointer to Gordon Hutner’s What America Read. This is an intimidatingly wide-ranging decade-by-decade survey of the “middle-class” fiction that was well-regarded and much discussed in its time, and which has subsequently been largely forgotten. The few pages I have suggested frame the bourgeois fiction of the 1930s against (and with?!) the proletarian movement. Hutner’s whole book is available on JSTOR.

Extimacy and Looking in Hurston

Leif Sorensen introduces the Lacanian concept of extimacy, in which something is intimate and yet exterior to the subject, as the uncomfortable driver behind Hurston’s scholarly reclamation. Quoting George Edmondson, Sorensen writes, “thinking through extimacy allows for an account of an encounter with a text in which ‘we experience the most intimate part of ourselves as something exterior'” (160).  While Sorensen goes on to locate Janie’s inner memorial of Tea Cake as an extimate moment in Their Eyes Were Watching God (161), I want to connect extimacy to looking in Hurston’s novel.

As its title suggests, there is lots of looking in the novel—it is often suffused with desire and directed at Janie’s body. Indeed, the novel’s first chapter introduces its protagonist as the object of her former neighbors’ curious gazing, which quickly turns sexual. As the novel progresses, Janie’s body often gets defined or at least characterized by other people’s vision, beginning with her inability to find herself in a photograph because, as she relates, “Ah didn’t know Ah wuzn’t white” (8). As her oppressive marriages take their toll on her, however, Janie begins to withdraw from that exterior image, finding refuge in remove. Upon realizing her disappointment in Jody, Janie also realizes “She had an inside and an outside now and suddenly she knew how not to mix them” (72). This withdrawal continues until “one day she sat and watched the shadow of herself going about tending the store…while all the time she herself sat under a shady tree” (77). Her actual body becomes exterior to herself, but she is able to recover the former intimacy between her self and her body after Jody’s death. She does so by looking, for “Years ago she had told her girl self to wait for her in the looking glass…Perhaps she’d better look” (87). This seems to be an extimate practice in self-preservation, and Tea Cake aids the recovery of her body by encouraging her to “go tuh de lookin’ glass and enjoy yo’ eye yo’self” (104). This extimate recovery seems helpful in articulating Janie’s sense of self, and is perhaps an “allegory of recovery” that doesn’t need a dead object (Sorensen, 161).

 

 

[An aside: the ending of chapter 12 (115) struck me as wildly familiar (“Some of dese mornin’s and it won’t be long, you gointuh wake up callin’ me and Ah’ll be gone”). I think it’s because it was a popular refrain in American music, but I also feel like Hurston is making a reference that I am completely missing. Regardless, here are some examples of the phrase in songs:

Gospel group The Caravans seem to have been the first to use to line: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S-jYeFFfJTo

Followed by Texan psychedelic rock band, the 13th Floor Elevators: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=topjN0k8S6o

Final example for now, the Velvet Underground: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L9_yRIzfPf0

I am clearly a little obsessed, but my internet sleuthing couldn’t turn up any answers as to why Hurston’s line feels like a reference to something. It seems like a blues trope but I couldn’t find a song she might be alluding to, although it does bring up interesting questions about Hurston’s frame of reference as opposed to Eliot, Moore, or Barnes.]

Interpersonal Possession in Hurston

Leif Sorensen, in detailing the nuances of revival, observes that “the act of recovery ends up looking less like a gesture of fealty…and more like the act of possession” (140). Sorensen aligns this tendency toward possession with the notion of author functions, but also with interpersonal desire. The 75th anniversary edition of Their Eyes Were Watching God includes one cover blurb from Alice Walker: “There is no book more important to me than this one.” Such a blurb demarcates the book’s importance as related to Walker’s interpersonal ownership of it; the book belongs to Walker because she loves it. I’m interested in how to read the issues of possession that Sorensen identifies alongside Zora Neale Hurston’s grappling with possession in the novel.

While possession is woven into many scenes in Hurston’s text, it is very prevalent in descriptions of romantic relationships. With Logan, marriage is a transaction between him and Janie’s grandmother, meant to protect her (15). With Jody, Janie recognizes “all dis bowin’ down” as what she is forced to do because of his attempts to own her (87). Nevertheless, neither marriage constitutes full possession; she leaves Logan and tells Jody “you don’t half know me atall” (86). It’s with Tea Cake that true possession, “a self-crushing love,” occurs (128). Nevertheless, even this form of possession feels ambivalent. She claims that the dog “killed her after all” by killing Tea Cake, and yet she survives him and claims possession of him: “he could never be dead until she herself had finished feeling” (193).

How are possession and submission framed in the text through romantic, heterosexual relationships? In what ways is possession marked as inevitable and simultaneously figured as impossible? To what extent does Janie both desire and dismiss possession? We could relate this to Sorensen’s commentary on the novel’s critiques of consumer culture (and think back to how possession, or lack thereof, worked in The Ambassadors). But I’d also like to discuss the question Hurston raises of how desires for and against possession operate within intimate relationships and within traditional gender constraints.

Walrond and Access

Imani Owens describes reviews of Eric Walrond’s Tropic Death that object to the impenetrability of his experimental prose style. “[T]hese reviews reflect a desire for the accessibility and verisimilitude that many readers had come to expect in literary representations of the folk” (109). She goes on to say, those reviews “may also exemplify the presumption that the literary tricks of high modernism were out of place in the hands of black writers.” What does it mean for a text to be accessible? I think about access a lot (more during this last week). Part of the problem with the word access is that it fails to name an actor—it’s as if the word is in a kind of state of permanent passive voice. Access is often granted to the agent able to summon the most institutional power.

We are scholars of modernism, a movement (pace David) that emanates smug satisfaction about its inaccessibility. Of course, modernists are less interested in total inaccessibility and more interested in creating a very limited community of access. I have also been thinking, since our conversation on Melanctha, about how we (as current or future) teachers, should bring racially violent texts into a classroom. The text of Melanctha will be available in very different ways to people who have experienced racialized violence and those who haven’t—this is also a question of access. I also suspect that no insignificant part of access (be it literary or architectural) is experienced somatically.

“The Palm Porch,” like other texts of Walrond that Owens describes, “emphasizes the fraught relationship between black bodies and the modernity they help to facilitate, even as they are deprived of its promises” (108). “The Palm Porch” compounds this by taking racialized sex workers as its subject. The “hardness” of the story is as much to do with a reader’s relationship to slavery—whether it be a direct generational relationship or a cultural knowledge—as experienced through the body. Tropic Death’s reviewers, I contend, were as uncomfortable with how it made them feel—physically—than they were with the difficulty of the text.

Hutchinson (post 3)

Hutchinson suggests that Gates and Baker “explicate[d]—or, more accurately, invent[ed]” an “‘autonomous’ African American literary tradition” that incorporates the writers of the Harlem Renaissance even though many of the same writers “explicitly rejected” the existence of such a tradition (4-5). In Black and White, Hutchinson details the “institutional matrix” and the “multilayered exchange” through which black writers  “define[d] themselves” in their own, often conflicting, “terms” in relation to American culture (387-398). I am interested in an implicit question of Hutchinson’s: within “a pluralistic, hierarchically racialized nation of composite cultures,” how can any literary or cultural “tradition” form or maintain? As I see it, Hutchinson argues for complexity. No matter the context, more or less, culture is simply too varied, too flush with constant and troubled exchanges of capital, for us to pin down, for example, any literary movement that is remotely “autonomous,” or perhaps even definable at all. 

In order to explore these issues of categorization, we can consider the ties between The New Negro and our work with Barnes and Hemingway. As we know, in our time was published in Paris in a series of chapbooks claiming to represent the state of “English prose” as collected by Ezra Pound. How does such a series operate in relation to an anthology like The New Negro?  Hutchinson’s thinking calls into question an autonomous black literary tradition in the US, but what about the notion of an English literary tradition? Pound and Hemingway are from the US, despite their affiliation with Paris, and so too are most of the writers (and visual artists) that Pound featured. And the nation is clearly central to Hutchinson’s argument. As he puts it, “the vectors of social power were being organized increasingly along national lines” (11). And yet, Hutchinson is quick to point out that “American nationalism” is always “a realm of conflict.” Considering this instability, how do we organize our object of study as students of literature? What is the relation between tradition—broadly defined, impossible to define—and prestige? More questions, as usual, than answers. 

Abstract for Gertrude Stein’s “Melanctha”

This paper is interested in exploring how the modernist preoccupation with experience is mediated through racially defined physicality. It foregrounds the radical potential of ‘wandering’ in the text to destabilize empirical knowledge and articulate a notion of ‘uncertain’ wisdom. The paper asks: in a representative text of a literary movement characterized strongly by international movement, what is the transformative value of wandering the streets of the contained, provincial Bridgeport? Do modes of language use in the text, such as repetition and racial adjectives, enable the characters to break ‘type’? How does wandering in a ‘local’ space create a liminal spatiality beyond dominant systems of gender and race categorization? I argue that a focus on racially defined domestic or national spaces is productive for modernist writers such as Gertrude Stein in developing aesthetic positions on experience and knowledge.

Abstract for Katherine Anne Porter’s “Hacienda”

This paper pursues the question as to whether Katherine Anne Porter offers a productive critique of post-revolutionary Mexico in her short story “Hacienda.” Based off her own experience spent with a film crew at the Hacienda Tetlapayac, Porter’s narrative simultaneously collapses and estranges her own voice from the narrator’s, consequently demonstrating how art can elucidate or elide the truth of a given reality. This paper centers on the figure of Kennerly, who pathologizes the Mexican environment around him: a move that paradoxically reflects his own pathology. Porter positions Kennerly as the central connection between biased filmmakers and corrupt governments to make a larger point about the infection inherent to propagandist art and the unequal labor systems it occludes. Ultimately, this paper argues that Porter, through her narrator’s spectating of Kennerly, diagnoses the specific ailments in the institutions of “Hacienda,” and gestures towards her experiential narrative as a possible treatment.

Stein Riffs on Modernist Art Criticism

The question of genre in Stein’s “portraits” has not been of great interest to those few literary scholars who have written about these texts, largely, it would seem, because they take Stein’s own generic designation at face value. However, the way that Stein’s so-called “portraits” were initially published, and then reproduced, seems to point to another generic category for the texts: that of art criticism. What I will argue in this paper is that the emergent practice of modernist art criticism is a productive generic point of comparison for Stein’s portraits, of which I take “Matisse” and “Picasso” to be the signal examples. An attention to the context in which these pieces were first published—a special issue of Stieglitz’s Camera Work—will help me demonstrate how Stein’s diction and thematics is far more interested in that most urgent and anxious genre of the early decades of the 20th century, than in the literary character sketch or even the visual portrait, as other scholars have suggested.

Abstract for Bodies, War, and Humor in Nightwood

In Nightwood Djuna Barnes uses humor to articulate anxieties around individual and national identity. Her humor presents as exaggeration and dislocation—her jokes deploy many of the techniques of defamiliarization that mark modernist fiction. Most notable is her description and use of bodies (especially disabled, dislocated, or infirm bodies) as metaphor for the discordant and disorienting assemblages that formed national identities in the inter-war period in which she wrote Nightwood. For example, Jenny Petherbridge, the scheming widow who inserts herself between Nora and Robin, “had a beaked head and the body, small, feeble, and ferocious, that somehow made one associate her with Judy; they did not go together” (71). She isn’t whole, she cannot be contained. Barnes uses unsettling contrasts, exaggerated racial and national caricatures, and absurd associations as mimesis of the uncertainty around identity and embodiment generated by the conditions of past and immanent war.

Abstract on Hemingway

My essay considers the formal and material conditions that established Ernest Hemingway’s writing as literary in the 1920s. Moving through examples of experiential writing by Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, in addition to the comparand of WWI British soldier-poets, I suggest that US modernist literature becomes modernist when it transforms problems of ethics, such as racial violence and the violence of war, into problems of representation through experimental formal techniques that trouble the relationship of language to reality. For Hemingway in in our time/In Our Time, following Stein in “Melanctha,” at issue is an inability to fully experience circumstances of violence. Turning to the publication history of in our time/In Our Time, I conclude by tying the formal strategies engendered by Hemingway’s failures of experience during WWI with the material strategies that marked his fiction’s transition from coterie writing to literature—a status that persists even now, one hundred years on.

Abstract for Tension in Katherine Anne Porter

Previous scholarship on Katherine Anne Porter’s short stories suggests that Porter’s portrayal of ambivalence models a mode of experience that rejects snap judgments and embraces distancing practices. Porter’s stories, however, consistently couch distanced experience within an atmosphere of tension. By deconstructing the distancing tools used to create tension in Porter’s “Flowering Judas,” such as suspension and contradiction, this paper considers Porter’s method as an exploration of the moral/personal risks such distancing can entail. Distancing is often used to escape traditional constraints, claim masculinized authority, or to defend oneself when in a vulnerable position. Nevertheless, distance itself ultimately leads one closer to the very influences that inspired distancing in the first place. While Porter engages in modes of distancing, she articulates them in the language of tension in order to illustrate the outward complicity that comes from internal ambivalence.

Abstract on Marianne Moore

Recent studies have read Marianne Moore’s poems as didactic works about an object or animal, and find the source of her pedagogy in public institutions like museums and libraries. Her poems use the disparity or digressive nature of a collection to give readers a fuller sense of each object, instead of describing them on their own. This paper complicates such understandings of Moore’s pedagogy, arguing that the poems require a reader to participate in their linguistic world in order to form the text’s subject, rather than acting as a curious spectator. In “Like a Bulrush,” “The Fish,” and “An Egyptian Pulled Glass Bottle in the Shape of a Fish,” Moore educates her reader through a poetics of immersion, replacing literal descriptions of the object with a didactic form of portrayal that exploits the potential for ambiguity in her constrained stanzas, and the indeterminate presence of the poem’s subject.

Towards a spatial reading of “The Sound and the Fury”

Jean-Paul Sartre’s essay provides illuminating insight into the treatment of time in The Sound and the Fury. I am wondering if it might be productive to think of spatiality also in conjunction with the theoretical emphasis that has come to be placed on the temporality of the novel. What would an engagement with the spatiality of the text do to the ‘metaphysics of time’ (18) that Sartre reads as Faulkner’s metaphysics? Is the ‘ineffable present’ (21) a cluster of rootless, place-less moments?

Sartre writes that Faulkner’s worldview can be compared to that of a man in a convertible, looking backward, images and moments passing him by, his present composed of the past. It might be relevant to note here that Quentin’s section, which forms the major part of Sartre’s engagement with the text, is indeed majorly set in modes of transport. This is important because these spaces are not merely incidental or fleeting spaces of no consequence, they are crucial to establishing what Sartre reads as Faulkner’s worldview of ephemerality.

As Quentin negotiates what it means to be a Southerner in Boston, he makes a phenomenological observation on race while riding the train that being black is not so much a form of behavior as it is ‘a sort of obverse reflection of the white people he lives among’ (83). A couple of pages later therefore when Quentin notes that a black man touched his knee while getting out of the train, it is a significant accounting of the network of relations that populate a space. The instance brings the reader back to a physically anchored ‘present’ within the stream-of-consciousness monologue. I will not go so far as to state that Sartre is making a case for transcending space but perhaps it might be useful to explore how temporality is mediated through space.

Diegetic noise amidst narratorial quiet

In our first class, we listed, as one of the identifying features of modernism, a distanced and detached narrator. While we’ve thought of this distanced narrative position as ironic and/or aestheticizing, we have also seen (via Hemingway) how distanciation might be a posture that marks instead a painful attachment to the story being told.

These features of the “modernist narrator” were on my mind in Benjy’s section of The Sound in the Fury. The difficulty of the chapter is largely due to the overabundance of unmediated dialogue–the absence, therefore, of Benjy’s voice. Benjy’s narration offer a reprieve both in the form of (limited) narrative clarification, and in the form of quiet. The cacophony that we hear, as readers of the chapter, comes from the dialogue of the other characters that surround Benjy. The style of Benjy’s narration, meanwhile, is lucid and pared down in what we would now consider a distinctively modernist poetics: “I could hear Queenie’s feet and the bright shapes went smooth and steady on both sides, the shadows of them flowing across Queenie’s back” (11).

But what is interesting about Benjy as ‘modernist’ narrator is that his style evinces the familiar quiet of poetic distanciation while, in the diegesis of the novel, he is making a near-constant nonsensical cacophony. Benjy is at a distance even from his own noise, which he seems to make unconsciously, and with which he does not identify: “I wasn’t crying, but I couldn’t stop” (21); “my throat kept on making the sound…it kept on making it and I couldn’t tell if I was crying or not” (40). If the other characters would attribute Benjy’s involuntary cries to his disability, the book shows us that Benjy is not alone in producing involuntary noise: “When Dilsey moaned Luster said, Hush, and we hushed, and then I began to cry and Blue howled under the kitchen steps. Then Dilsey stopped and we stopped” (33); “Gimme that bottle to stop by mouth before I holler [TP said]” (40). Like the Hemingway narrator which notes a sunny pink wall in the midst of a battle, it is the contrast between diegetic cacophony and narrative quiet which seems to qualify Benjy as a prototypical modernist narrator. And maybe this same contrast is also what marks Benjy’s experience as a prototypically modern one.

The Sound and the Fury, and the Future

Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury is a novel of time, Sartre writes, in which “the present… is full of holes and, through these holes, it is invaded by things past, which are fixed” (20). Even more unstable than a narrated present is the anticipated future, which, Sartre claims, is “decapitated,” simply removed as a possibility in the novel (23).

Yet, how does such an illustration of non-progressive time withstand the addition of Faulkner’s “Appendix?” Sartre wrote his essay before the appendix’s addition in 1946 (though reprinted it afterward), in which time’s stagnation within the novel appears far more muddled. There is a sort of quasi-time travel happening with the addition of the appendix, which, upon the time of writing it, looks backwards to Caddy’s divorce in 1925 and disappearance in 1940 (332), but which simultaneously, when taken alongside the original 1929 publishing of the prior four sections, occupies an actual future narrative. Sartre’s argument hinges on the stylistics of Faukner’s text—the remixed chronology of events, the emphasis on past tense—to claim that Compson futures are unimagined and unattainable: are “blocked off” (25). Yet, the appendix reveals via its content, and in similar stylistic shifts of tenses from present to past and back, that these futures, once blocked in 1928, do literally exist, realizing in Jason’s sullen occupation of a cluttered office in 1943 (333-4). There is future here; there is the progression of time here. Though written as a later addition, to dismiss the actualization of the future presented by the appendix as something conceived only after The Sound and the Fury’s publication in 1929 is to dismiss what, in Faulkner’s words, is “the key to the whole book” (323). If the key to the book is this presentation of the future (as now past, but a nonetheless relative future to the prior sections), how does that change our understanding of how time operates within the novel? Now a remixing of past, present, and future—not just an interruption of a fractured, stale present by a fixed past—how can we (re)conceive the trajectory, and apparent tragedy, of the Compson family?

Collage and Marianne Moore

Hugh Kenner writes that The Waste Land “invaded and availed itself of the British literary tradition” and produced “a novelty of surface” (66-67).  Eliot address this aesthetic of a new thing made from old parts in the final flurry of quotations, when the speaker declares, “These fragments I have shored against my ruins” (430). This fragmentary style has become a hallmark of modernism, and Marianne Moore’s poems fit nicely with this technique at first glance. Her work comes with an apparatus of notes, and her poems are sprinkled with excerpts displayed quite conspicuously between quotation marks. Her notes, like Eliot’s, are often citations, but where Eliot urges his readers to avail themselves of his secondary sources—both explicitly and through his citations’ specificity—Moore does not seem overly concerned with her readers actually finding the quotation in its original form. For example, Moore ends her notes to “An Octopus” by writing, “Quoted descriptions of scenery and of animals, of which the source is not given, have been taken from government pamphlets on our national parks” (109). This seems to suggest that while it is not necessary to trace a quotation back to its source and context, as in Eliot, one must know that these pieces of text came from somewhere else. Thus, collage seems to be a more apt concept for Moore’s poetics than fragments, for a fragment is a broken piece, an object that testifies to its isolation and incompleteness. Collage, on the other hand, emphasizes the rejoining of pieces; it comes from French, meaning “pasting, gluing” (OED, “collage, n.”). Moore’s poetry is less concerned with invading tradition, preferring to find new expression through reconstruction, gathering “real toads” to fill the “imaginary gardens” (27). Even poems without notes, like “The Fish,” have an element of collage, both in the range of imagery and in the almost dissociative compression and precision of her verse. In “sun, / split like spun” (41), the vowels and consonants ricochet and recombine: “split” loses its “lit,” which shifts to “like,” and the “sp” reemerges at the end of the line to rejoin the “sun” at the stanza’s beginning.