The Pathic Receptacles of Modernism


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

            If we think of excessive plenitude, it is likely that Bataille will come to mind—the Bataille of La Part maudite:  “On the surface of the globe, for living matter in general, energy is always in excess; the question is always posed in terms of extravagance. The choice is limited to how the wealth is to be squandered.”[2] Bataille elaborates the implications of “extravagance” for the arts in his “Lettre à René Char sur les incompatibilités de l’écrivain”: “Today it is art alone which inherits, before our very eyes, the delirious role and character of religions. Today it is art which gnaws at and transfigures us, which expresses with its so-called falsehoods a truth that is empty at last of precise meaning.”[3] The key word, italicized by Bataille, is “delirious.” Bataille is by no means a zealot of the bacchannalia; he is as much a moralist as Mathew Arnold. But his is not the executive moralism of the ten commandments; it resembles, instead, a finger raised in silent summons, the cautionary reminder of another perspective on events and actions which is not to be legislated in advance of the specific occasion—which is, indeed, “a truth that is empty at last of precise meaning”; a power of withdrawal, a dissent that is not protest or (re)active opposition. Bataille may be said to be of the devil’s party, in Blake’s special sense. “NON SERVIAM is said to be the devil’s motto,” Bataille indicates. “If this is so, then literature is diabolical.”[4]

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

            In the North American imagination such unthinkable thoughts are polemically made out to be the special province of the French (or, in more sullenly generalized terms, typical of “continental” philosophy). But this is ludicrous: nothing is more extravagant than a literature that pitches vertiginously (to cite only one literary moment) from Hawthorne’s “Wakefield” to Melville’s “Bartleby” and Moby-Dick, Poe’s gothic miniatures, and Dickinson’s pornographically metaphysical versions of the Christian Hymnbook—not to mention the discerning aggravations of Walden and Leaves of Grass. Consider this, from Robert Frost (the representative poet selected for Kennedy’s presidential inauguration): “politics is an extravagance…an extravagance about grievances. And poetry is an extravagance about grief. And grievances are something that can be remedied, and griefs are irremediable.”[5] Frost’s sense of extravagance is simply going to the limit: “There’s always this element of extravagance. It’s like snapping the whip: Are you there? Are you still on?”[6] And again—in a beautiful vernacular: “That’s the height of it all, in whatever you do: ‘bet your sweet life,’ you know”[7] This bet is not that far removed from Mallarmé’s “hasard”: for Frost, as for the Frenchman with whom he is never associated, “The [poet’s] style is out of his superfluity. It is the mind skating circles round itself as it moves forward.”[8] That other crusty Yankee Henry Thoreau quoted with relish the English poet Carew: “we advance / Such virtues only as admit excess”[9]; at the end of Walden he laments, “I fear chiefly lest my expression may not be extra- vagant enough, may not wander far enough beyond the narrow limits of my daily experience.…for I am convinced that I cannot exaggerate enough even to lay the foundation of a true expression.”[10] And—to conclude this extravagent aside—William James remarked that “Had [man’s] whole life not been a quest for the superfluous, he never would have established himself as inexpugnably as he has done in the necessary.… Prune down his extravagance, and you undo him.”[11]

            As these extracts suggest, superfluity and extravagance are principles of creation. This is not particularly modern, and can be traced back at least as far as Plotinus, for whom the necessarily inexhaustible creative power of the primal One presses relentlessly on to the productive realization of every potential. “It is of the very nature of the One in its perfection to ‘overflow,’ producing in its exuberance the ‘other’.”[12] But the happy prospect of infinite superabundance becomes a vexing problem for finite beings like us: what do we do with the surplus? Taken as a question about temporality, this occasions an historical consideration: how does the past contribute to the totality of the present?—and is it a malignant part of the present whole? As artist and Blaue Reiter editor Franz Marc posed the problem in 1914: “The world is giving birth to a new time; there is only one question: has the time now come to separate ourselves from the old world? Are we ready for the vita nuova? This is the terrifying question of our age.”[13] The new world: a structure of antiphonal hopes, dreams, disturbances and ruptures for five hundred years; but only in this century did it become evident that the new world was everywhere, and could no longer be conveniently consigned to America. The “American century” was becoming a global destiny.[14]

            The nineteenth century had its own inklings about excess, played out in esoteric celebrations and moralistic denunciations across that terrain called “decadence.”[15] Symptomatically, decadence arrives in Europe in the form of an American, Edgar Allan Poe. Baudelaire, an immediate enthusiast, repudiates the charge of decadence. “The phrase ‘a literature of decadence’,” he writes in 1853, “presupposes an inevitable and providential process, like some inescapable decree; and what then could be more unjust than to reproach us for accomplishing the mysterious law?”[16] If decadence is the inevitable culmination of a process of development, can the norm then be defined as a case of arrested development? This is a suggestion, and at times an accusation, by modernist writers following the path of Baudelaire, for whom everyday life was decadent, its resplendant Victorian and Biedermeier excesses made transparent by their pervasiveness. “This is the true decadence,” Oscar Wilde declared in “The Decay of Lying”: “when Life gets the upper hand, and drives Art out into the wilderness.”[17]

            Wilde’s rhetorical fertility is itself a symptom of decadence, albeit decadence in the somewhat unfamiliar light of a bounty, but a bounty excessive with plenitude—extravagance as the favored measure. In 1914 Holbrook Jackson had the good sense to observe that “the effort demanded by even the most ill-directed phases of decadent action suggests a liveliness of energy which is quite contrary to the traditions of senile decay.”[18] “True decadence,” Jackson goes on to affirm, arises not out of senility “but out of surfeit.”[19] The stereotyped view of dissipated indolence, then, misrepresents the truth of decadence, which is the elaboration of complexity as intensity, and intensity as the measure of a body fortified with the exercise of its newly endowed faculties—a vision shared by those decidedly undecadent Americans, Thoreau and Whitman. It is Walt Whitman who offers a frank realization of the dilemma of decadence—decadence as decline—when he concedes of his self-portrait in Leaves of Grass as healthy, robust everyman, that the radiant physiology of 1855 yielded to “the pathology which was pretty sure to come in time from the other.”[20] The question of cultural progress and decline, then, is inextricable from the problem of the body. William Butler Yeats, with scrupulous delicacies of reserve, ventured that what others called “decadence” is what “I, because I believe that the arts lie dreaming of things to come, prefer to call the autumn of the body.”[21] 

            The autumn of the body was for Yeats a vision of spiritual refinement, a Platonic overcoming of sensory confusion, a new lucidity. But from our perspective, it is the premonition of a profound restructuring of sensory ratios, the imminent “obsolescence” of the body as it is transfigured from organic unity to mechanical variety. Two years after Yeats’ essay, Henry Adams visited the Universal Exposition in Paris, a convulsive apparition which was to be repeated for him on a yearly basis thereafter. Confronting the hall of the dynamos, Adams felt his historical neck broken, as he put it, and found his entire education obsolete in the presence of “the new multiverse.” “The movement from unity into multiplicity, between 1200 and 1900, was unbroken in sequence, and rapid in acceleration,” he reflected. “Prolonged one generation longer, it would require a new social mind…it would need to jump.”[22] In one generation it was modern trench warfare that made the social mind jump. Since then, culture has been subjected to a series of “blows” which dislocate existing sensory ratios.[23] At the far end of this century of blows, it is getting difficult to imagine what a stable ratio of the senses might be, we’re so accustomed to rotary spin and redistribution of affect. What used to be military, in other words, has become the common repertoire of everyday life: the pulverizing of access routes and vantage points, the camouflage of concentrated forces and dissimulation of movement, along with reconstructive surgery and prosthetic technologies.

            As if in oracular confirmation of things to come, Baudelaire attested to a new “psychology of nerves” and “multiplied sensation,” and Walter Pater commended “a quickened, multiplied consciousness.”[24] Long before the historical catastrophe of world war, neurasthenic agitation was symptomatic not of crisis but of a contagious conformity. Nerves became the privileged medium of sensory awareness in the age of telegraph and telephone wires. In 1891 Hermann Bahr observed that “when classicism says ‘man,’ it means reason and feeling. And when Romanticism says ‘man,’ it means passion and the senses. And when modernism says ‘man’ it means the nerves.”[25] “We are in the age of nerves,” declared Vicente Huidobro in his “Ars Poetica.”[26] Gertrude Stein, reflecting on the syncopated time of jazz, notices that “this difference in tempo…does make anybody nervous.”[27] Paul Valéry acknowledged that “We are so bewildered by the chaos of stimuli obsessing us that we end by needing it”—adding, “We have lost the leisure to ripen[28]  Lacking such “leisure,” the artist reconceives the environment itself, in its industrial transfiguration, as the ongoing milieu of ripening; and the Futurists proclaim themselves “the primitives of a new sensitiveness, multiplied hundredfold, and…our art is intoxicated with spontaneity and power.”[29] 

            There are times in which the linear model of development is misleading, as when we attribute to a given artistic movement the vanquishing or overcoming of its predecessors. The audacious technophilia of Futurism is seen as a much later stage in the succession from Romanticism to Symbolism and Decadence. It can be illuminating to think Futurism while re-reading Walter Pater’s famous Conclusion to his book on the Renaissance). “How shall we pass most swiftly from point to point, and be present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy?” Pater asks. “To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.” “For our one chance lies in…getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time,” he declares. “Only be sure it is passion—that it does yield you this fruit of a quickened, multiplied consciousness.”[30] This incendiary fanning of life’s flame, compounding its pulsations, makes a claim we find as readily in Vorticism, Expressionism, and Surrealism. The final sentence of Nadja could be Pater speaking: “Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or it will not be at all.”[31]

            Nadja fulfills the aspirations of Joseph Conrad’s literary impressionism, aspiring “To snatch…from…a passing phase of life…the rescued fragment…of a sincere mood…to show its vibration, its color, its form; and…to disclose its inspiring secret.”[32] Conrad’s own narrative complexities toil with a nihilistic suspicion that these rescued fragments are orphans, belonging to no intelligible whole (or, as in Victory, the whole is depicted in Heyst’s vision of earth as “the appointed hatching planet of calumny enough to furnish the whole universe”[33]). At the same time, Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Lord Chandos bemoans his descent into fragmentation, which is significantly intricated with somatic analogies: “As once, through a magnifying glass, I had seen a piece of skin on my little finger look like a field full of holes and furrows, so I now perceived human beings and their actions. I no longer succeeded in comprehending them with the simplifying eye of habit. For me everything disintegrated into parts, those parts again into parts; no longer would anything let itself be encompassed by one idea. Single words floated round me; they congealed into eyes which stared at me and into which I was forced to stare back—whirlpools which gave me vertigo and, reeling incessantly, led into the void.”[34] Proust’s vast novel is a similar study in disorientation, the poetics of which is effectively expressed in Proust’s observation that “the absence of one part from a whole is not only that, it is not simply a partial lack, it is a derangement of all the other parts, a new state which it was impossible to foresee in the old.”[35] The situation is at once a crisis and a source of jubilation: a phantom sensation of the lost whole persists, but at the same time a “new state,” an emergent totality of another order, arises as apparitional palsy of the parts. Samuel Beckett (whose first book was on Proust) speaks with consummate succinctness of his own goal as the realization of a “Total object, complete with missing parts, instead of partial object.”[36]

            The vocabulary of purification is integral to the modernist drama of decomposition of forms. Long before Picasso declared his painting to be a sum of destructions, Mallarmé acknowledged that “Destruction was my Beatrice.”[37] In his case, one might say that intellectual fastidiousness pulverized the familiar world into granulated elements which enabled a more ravishing aesthetic to arise as an art of new combinations. During the same period, Paul Bourget’s influential studies of “contemporary psychology” encompassed decadence: “A decadent style is one in which the unity of the book is decomposed in favor of the independence of the page, where the page is decomposed in favor of the independence of the phrase, and the phrase in favor of the independence of the word.”[38] Nietzsche, who had broken with Wagner in part as a way of affirming his own French enthusiasms (famously championing Bizet over the Teutonic maestro), read Bourget and rewrote his passage on decadent style: “What is the sign of every literary decadence?” asked Nietzsche. “That life no longer dwells in the whole. The word becomes sovereign and leaps out of the sentence, the sentence reaches out and obscures the meaning of the page, the page gains life at the expense of the whole—the whole is no longer a whole.”[39] But what if we consider this in purely descriptive terms, alleviated from the unsavory connotations of decadence? To do so would allow us to think of the parts as elements in an awakening, not vestigial traces of obliteration; a reinitiation into pathesis, rather than a collapse of order.

            Dadaist Richard Huelsenbeck insisted that “The best and most extraordinary artists will be those who every hour snatch the tatters of their bodies out of the frenzied cataract of life, who, with bleeding hands and hearts, hold fast to the intelligence of their time.”[40] Such intelligence is to be understood as the disfiguring power of the cataract, in which disfigurement is taken in the modernist sense as a newly disclosed power of creation—“the terrible, thrilling monster of life’s vitality” as Max Beckmann called it.[41] “All that the rest forget in order to make their life possible,” wrote Rilke, “we [artists] are always bent on discovering, on magnifying even; it is we who are the real awakeners of our monsters… it is they, the monsters, that hold the surplus strength which is indispensible to those that must surpass themselves.”[42] Indeed, “Pathology is rapidly becoming the basis of sensational literature,” Oscar Wilde presciently noted in 1887, “and in art, as in politics, there is a great future for monsters.”[43]

            Self-overcoming was a programmatic feature of modernism from Rimbaud onward. For Rimbaud the path from “I” to “other”—from humanist subject to modernist monster—was the road to bounty; as it was for Whitman, imagining that to contain multitudes was necessarily to inhabit an expanded self (but Leaves of Grass only fitfully approximates the plenitude of Gargantua and Pantagruel). The modernist trajectory develops a consistent insight: there is not a “natural” person who is educated and acculturated to develop certain innate abilities; rather, one seizes the person one becomes in ritual supplication—a process memorialized by the prevalence of the “mask” in Gourmont, Wilde, Yeats, Pound, Eliot, Pessoa, and others.[44] One of the most powerful artistic resolutions of modernism was to spurn the Romantic faith in a primal soul, a “deep self” lurking below the crust of socialized personality (a position institutionalized by Eliot in “Tradition and the Individual Talent”). Modernist epistemological radicalism is best summarized by Nietzsche: “there is no ‘being’ behind doing, effecting, becoming; ‘the doer’ is merely a fiction added to the deed—the deed is everything.”[45] Gertrude Stein is not often thought of in connection with Nietzsche, but she repeats his claim: “one has no identity…when one is in the act of doing anything. Identity is recognition… I am I because my little dog knows me.”[46] Her entire work—exquisitely anatomized by Stein herself in Lectures in America—is a vast demonstration of what it means to hold strictly to the proposition of a creative act not grounded in the dialectical echo-chamber of ego-building. It is because the depth psychology model is so prevalent that Stein has been incompletely assimilated to the modernist canon, her robustly tactile exuberances unconducive to the thematizing of idealism in crisis. Her work is monstrous—that is, it raises issues associated with the grotesque: excess or deficit, too much or not enough.

            Robert Musil’s Ulrich, the man without qualities, observes that “Our civilization is a temple of what would be called unsecured mania, but it is also its asylum, and we don’t know if we are suffering from an excess or a deficiency.”[47] This is the perennial question of any new world mentality, as any vita nuova must contend simultaneously with amputation and abundance, collapse of a reassuring order and exuberant discovery of new orders. The excessive challenge of such claims is registered as trauma, to which there are two responses, each with biodynamic implications. The first is most succinctly put in the biological dictum, phylogeny is recapitulated in ontogeny: the individual is a fragment of a whole; but, prior to detachment, rehearses the whole in its embryological development. The problem with this (to follow Jean Starobinski’s helpful scrutiny) is that “Making the most remote past coefficient to our most intimate depth is a way of refusing loss and separation.”[48] This (ontogenetic) response to trauma concludes that there is no trauma, that it is all a dream, a fear not a hurt. It also replicates totality in the image of the great chain of being, in which the well-formed work is a localized recapitulation of universal principles, extending the regulative unity of the whole into all the parts that compose and affirm it.

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

            It is in this spirit—and in explicit acknowledgement of the grotesque, or the discordant form—that the Romantic insistence on organic form arises. Friedrich Schlegel goes so far as to maintain that “the highest beauty, indeed the highest order is then ultimately only that of chaos, that is to say, a state awaiting the touch of love to unfold it into a harmonious universe.”[49] Schlegel validates process over thing, energy over outcome, a view further celebrated in Emerson’s ecstatic encomium to the poet, “resigning himself to the divine aura which breathes through forms” and thereby “sharing the path or circuit of things through forms.”[50] Such a recognition endows the arts with an inconceivable bounty: not only any form, but any subject, is quickened with latent intensity. The divine emanation does not disappear, it is reborn in every material instance—and materialism is itself reconceived under the sign of a redemptive superfluity, creation as the practice of excess. Emerson speaks of “defects and deformities” as signifying exuberance, the base and the obscene becoming illustrious.[51] Victor Hugo, likewise, held that “The beautiful has but a single type, the ugly a thousand.” “What we call ugly…is a detail of a great ensemble that escapes us, which harmonizes not with man but with the whole of creation. This is why it ceaselessly presents us with new, if incomplete, prospects.”[52] 

            The challenge and potential of chaotic multiplicity is taken up by Yeats in “The Emotion of Multitude.” By multitude Yeats means creative fertility as the power of suggestion in “vague symbols that set the mind wandering from idea to idea, emotion to emotion.”[53] Yeats would have us feed off sublunar changes, seeking the nutrient of novelty not in things themselves but in the motion they incite—a motion incarnated, for many in the fin de siècle, in Wagner’s operas, in which the underlying mood is one of farewell, Abschied, Liebestod, Sehnsucht (later rendered more popular, because domesticated, by Puccini). “[S]o leben wir und nehmen immer Abschied,” we read in the last line of the eighth Duino Elegy (we live here always taking leave). Rilke’s poetry is notable for its mood of resignation and release, but without Wagner’s racial and cultural baggage. For Rilke, farewell to human affairs is the event of welcoming a cosmic transfusion, evident in that cluster of fragments from 1913 which rehearse the opening of the Duino Elegies. In the earlier configuration of Malte, the bedridden child is alarmed by “Das Große,” the tumor-like phantom of an alternate life “growing out of me…like a second head,” into which the feeble blood of one body is forced to work for two.[54] This monstrous carnal insistence is expanded to vast extra-human dimensions in the poems. “Do the tides in my blood ebb and flow / With the starry order?” The chastizing resolve is “to accustom my heart to its distances. Best / to live in the terror of stars.”[55] Mandelstam makes a similar resolution, confronting the inebriated boiling of his blood:


Our essences are weighed,

out in the impartial ether—

star-weights tossed onto

suddenly quivering scales.


And the ecstasy of life

is the triumph of the end—

the body remembering

its immutable homeland.[56]


Finally, if maternity was accorded greater force and dignity than as sentimental icon, Mina Loy’s great poem “Parturition” would be as widely known as Prufrock. In Loy’s account, giving birth (“a circle of pain / Exceeding its boundaries in every direction”) is “Vitalized by cosmic initiation.”[57] Anguish-resignation-reception-creation: these are the constituent vehicles to which Loy, Rilke, and Mandelstam attest—primary features of a reanimating dis-corporation. Even in their agony they are affirmative in a way that Baudelaire’s homage to Pascal is not: “Pascal’s abyss went with him at his side, / closer than blood—alas, activity, / dreams, words, desire: all holes!”[58]

            The labor of a new creation is a struggle, an agon and an agony. “Do I move toward form, do I use all my fears?” writes Muriel Rukeyser in a late poem.[59] The fears, the traumatic residuum of creation in vitro, are roused to a heightened exacerbation in modernism as it labors under the imperative to make it new. The poet and artist are no longer operating under a crafts dispensation, but are compelled by a sense of the sacred emancipated from religious supervision. Bombast and charlatanism are recognizable risks. Octavio Paz traces analogy as the impetus common to religion and art. By instigating a recognition of correspondences, analogy affords access to incommensurate realms, preserving the legibility of texts which are sacred to others but not to us. “Poetry is the other coherence, made not of reasons but of rhythms. And there is a moment when the correspondence is broken; there is a dissonance which in the poem is called ‘irony,’ and in life ‘mortality.’ Modern poetry is awareness of this dissonance within analogy.”[60] Analogy is vehicular, but it is also a vehicle of dispersion and collapse. To lend assent to the ensuing Heraclitean flux is to be roused by a continual shower of novelties, but it also means bidding farewell to the equally copious cascade of familiar departing and declining things. It is in this quasi-Wagnerian mood that Osip Mandelstam poignantly observes, “Literary forms change, some forms give way to others. But every change, every such innovation, is accompanied by bereavement, by a loss.”[61]

            My concern here is with the pathic dimension of generic bereavement, with the fact that aesthetic receptacles hurt when they undergo developmental transfiguration. The hurt is commensurate with the body because subjectivity is spread out across a grid of cultural transmitters, freestanding receptacles endowed with the power of sentience. By the turn of the century the average Joe, the common integer of Vitruvian Man in postures of stalwart mastery amidst the modern dynamos, like the stable body of the traditionally sanctioned writer or artist, was being monstrously augmented with alien endowments, experienced initially in decadence as the stimulation of phantom difference.[62] Simultaneously with the rise of these phantom claims, the new technologies were refabricating the bodily alignment with cultural wardrobe, an encounter from which the body emerges as biologically unfit for what are now called “future technologies,” and it begins to assume a remedial relation to social skills.[63] It is in the arts, I propose, that this remedial relation assumes a chronic and conspicuous aspect, rendering modernism in the arts an uncanny forecast, in formal generic terms, of acquired immune deficiency syndrome. That is, the antibodies that had made the hard crust of artistic genres into such infallible transmitters of cultural blueblood break down, in modernism, casting off their shells, becoming susceptible to invasion from an immanent manifold of viral energies. I don’t want to overextend the analogy (not that it isn’t already crushed under the weight of metaphoric excess); suffice it to say that in modernism we arrive for the first time at something like a mutation of artistic forms from which no genres are immune, and this mutation is evidence not of some “experimental” mood or distemper of public spirit but is an acute materialization of pathic intensity, a rupturing of genre that tells us, poignantly, that art is of the body and the body’s traumas extend to the art.

            It would be misleading to propose that the artwork is a secondary or mimic body, an understudy in the life cycle, or a vaporous animation like the Egyptian ka and the Greek psyche. What happens to the body does not pass undisturbed into art: the relation is not reflective, but one of evident cultural intervention. But the importance of the somatic with respect to art is more than illustrative. The labor of creation extends pathic sensitivity from artist to work, particularly in times when the security of traditional models is under challenge and an emergent mode is compelled to manifest—as an incorporated principle—its own modus operandi, the autopoetic vindication of its own existence. This is why, for instance, the gestural typology made visible by Jackson Pollock elevated action painting to the status of a salutary culmination of modern art. When the artwork itself manifests a poetics, a tacit procedural credo, the “idea” is inseparable from the matter at hand, and the body becomes the proximate orientation (as in Charlie Parker’s heroin addiction bestowed to bop along with the music). The work itself may not bear any obvious imprint of the body, but it serves nonetheless as pathic receptacle, transmitting in its own “lower frequencies” the animating episodes of corporation, incorporation, and discorporation.[64]

            In The Struggle of the Modern Stephen Spender advances the thesis that “The modern aim was essentially the re-invention of reality: re-presentation of the shapes and forces of a new world, and also of a modern kind of sensibility.”[65] Spender inherits many of his views from Eliot, whose “dissociation of sensibility” looms large here; and, like Eliot, the “feeling” in question is emotional, having no reference to pathic sensibility, the feeling of the body.[66] It is most keenly in the symptoms and initiatives of bodily feeling, however, that we can recover the implications of modernism as a re-invention of reality. With the new points of orientation to modernism made available by considerations of race and gender, as well as the acknowledgment of provincialism as a contributing factor,[67] the modernist literary work is less convincingly seen as a secure expression of the autonomous subject in a freestanding artifact. It is more and more discernable as a pathic sanctuary—receptacle of corporeal damage, but also a space of shelter and recuperative delay. 

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

            Two diagnoses result, corresponding to the old and new renditions of modernism. The first is the functionalist model of compensation, which surreptitiously recapitulates the great chain of being on a strictly social level. Repeated ad nauseam in thumbnail histories of modernity, this version was sanctioned by the tremendous authority of T.S. Eliot, who celebrated Ulysses for its invention of mythical form as a way of compensating for the anarchy of modern life. Wallace Stevens, likewise, defined mind as “a violence from within that protects us from a violence without.”[68] In this theory, the malignancies of modern life (seen as a combination of accelerated industry, urbanization, imperialism, and total war) confront the artist with an overwhelmingly menacing reality, confining response to a compensatory mimicry; so the artist damages the artform, much as statesmen destroy their nations. This is, of course, a crude variant of the Marxist dialectic of base and superstructure, the sublimated familiarity of which has surely contributed to the prevalence of the functionalist model of cultural compensations. Furthermore, the thought of sublimation suggests that the hegemony of the Freudian topos of psychodynamics also reinforces the sense that art is compensation on one level for damages inflicted on another level.

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

            When, I wonder, will we stop being medical technicians of modernism and become its homeopathists and therapists, its fellow convalescents? There are, after all, such enormities of trauma in works like Nightwood and Spring and All and The Good Soldier that the pretence to apprehend them under the disposing framework of professional expertise is like prescribing an increased dosage of morphine for a terminal case so as to quickly move on to the next patient. But when works like these set out to re-invent the real, their reinvention does not stop at the parameters of the text; they keep reinventing themselves in a viral insistence that increasingly implicates the reader, a reader who ceases to be a reader and becomes at once a witness, an attendant, a confidant, and a freshly opened wound. They persist, paradoxically elaborating with great patience the suddenness of being stricken.[69]

            When Virginia Woolf says in A Room of One’s Own that the book must be adapted to the body, it sounds like a belated recognition of what was already conspicuous in modernist practice.[70] It’s not that Woolf was inattentive; in fact, it’s surprising even now how little attention has been paid to the cardiac dimension of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, nearly a century after its publication, as though the very word “darkness” overshadowed the rest of the title, just as we tend to think of Kurtz with his gangrenous soul as the main character. But it is manifestly Marlow’s tale, a tale of his own initiation into mysteries that are dark because they are inscrutably corporeal. In a commonly overlooked detail late in the story, as Marlow is following Kurtz’s track in the dark toward the rituals underway around the fires, his agitation is momentarily dispelled, and he is pacified by something integral to Conrad’s title: “I remember I confounded the beat of the drum with the beating of my heart, and was pleased at its calm regularity.”[71] A minor detail with major consequence: ostensibly a story about the atrophy of the European soul, metaphorized in the title as a spiritual journey to the heart of darkness, Conrad’s book has buried in it this convalescent incident: inside the metaphor is a body, the panicked body of the narrator, for whom the jungle rhythms afford a cardiac tranquility. Consider, then, another storytelling scene, as Quentin and Shreve in Absalom, Absalom! rehearse the Sutpen blight, pacing “slowly on in that rhythm which not the eyes but the heart marks and calls the beat and measure for.”[72] Consider, also, the zoomorphic junctures in Nightwood by Djuna Barnes, a book sentient with animated postures of distress, its characters coagulating into a collaborative grief that “love and life are a bulk of which the body and heart can be drained.”[73] Barnes’s characters collectively animate a single torment, despite their mutual incomprehension—a structure also adopted by Virginia Woolf in The Waves[74] and clarified by Rilke, who observed of Rodin’s sculptural groups that “parts of different bodies, brought together by inner necessity, become for him a single organism. A hand laid on the shoulder or limb of another body is no longer part of the body to which it properly belongs: something new has been formed from it and the object it touches or holds, something which was not there before, which is nameless and belongs to no one.”[75] This eerily neutral lasciviousness is a sinister undertone in the poems of T.S. Eliot. There is an opulence of dismemberment in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “Gerontian.” Prufrock moves about in a fogbound ruination that assumes human form only by analogy with an evening “spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherised upon a table.” Dismemberment is the norm: “I have known the eyes already, known them all,” he laments. “[T]here will be time / To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.” When eyes and faces circulate on their own in a plastic hypersocial region like this, Prufrock’s most affirmative moment is the recognition that “I should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of ancient kingdoms.”[76] But for the thematic congruity with Prufrock, one might attribute the physical deterioration of the old man in “Gerontian” to his age, as he notes “I have lost my sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch: / How should I use them for your closer contact?”[77] But the condition is not personal, it is environmental. In the world of “The Hollow Men”:


The eyes are not here

There are no eyes here

In this valley of dying stars

In this hollow valley

This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms.[78]


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


               Tout ce qui jamais fut déchiré

en moi s’est déchiré

tout ce qui jamais fut mutilé

en moi c’est mutilé.[79]


            The instances I have cited from Conrad, Eliot, Barnes, Woolf, Rilke, Césaire, all testify to a migratory corporeality, a phantom itch collectively scratched; evidence of a diffuse but densely implicated structure of pathic resonance. Subjectivity is always in transitive suspension, on its vibratory web of semiotic transmitters, just as the body is constantly being displaced in the aesthetic microclimates of culture, the tidepool sanctuaries along the rim of historical turbulence, the site of those great mid-19th century visions of dark recuperation, Arnold’s “Dover Beach” and Whitman’s “Sea Drift” poems. In the modernist anthropology of our cultural endowment the dispersed elements of sentience, like the dismembered parts of Osiris, are deputized to bear witness to a whole which is inconceivable, presenting the enigma of a totality grown exorbitant in droplets. The perplexing interplay of presence and absence, the mismatched parts of a “discrepant engagement” (to use Nathaniel Mackey’s term for the asymmetrical prowess of a cross-cultural modernism[80]), and above all the paradoxically enabling trauma of productive loss—these are the conditions latent in that startling question Nietzsche’s madman asks in The Gay Science: “Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon?”[81] That sponge is now the Promethean dominant, the global electric skin imposing an unmanageable inflation of pathic receptivity, while at the same time the aesthetic is supplemented by its anaesthetic double. As we struggle to negotiate the dialectic of modest flesh and presumptuous incorporation—suffering an excess of deficiency, sensing the kenosis or emptying of things, an evacuation at the heart of the world—the works of modernism begin haunting us again, prompting reveries of mutilation such as Faulkner supposes in Absalom, Absalom! with its “diffused and scattered creatures drawn blindly limb from limb from a grab bag.”[82] The acute disabling of forms, legible in that trauma of genres for which modernism is famous, is a disabling that strangely quickens and enhances the sensational fragments of what remains—pathic receptacles of a recuperative distancing which is not alienation, but the space necessary to feel that tingling evoked by Giorgio de Chirico: “Perhaps the most amazing sensation passed on to us by prehistoric man is that of presentiment. It will always continue. We might consider it as an eternal proof of the irrationality of the universe. Original man must have wandered through a world full of uncanny signs. He must have trembled at each step.”[83] 


[1] It is “a grand, hyperbolic undertaking”—as Thomas Harrison characterizes Expressionism in 1910, The Emancipation of Dissonance (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 212.

[2] Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share Vol. 1, tr. Robert Hurley (New York: Zone Books, 1988), 23.

[3] Georges Bataille, “Letter to René Char on the Incompatibilities of the Writer,” tr. Christopher Carsten, Yale French Studies 78 (1990), 35.

[4] Bataille, Ibid., 34. 

[5] Robert Frost, “On Extravagance,” Collected Poems, Prose, and Plays (New York: Library of America, 1995), 904.

[6] Frost, Ibid., 907.

[7] Frost, Ibid., 910.

[8] The Letters of Robert Frost to Louis Untermeyer (London: Jonathan Cape, 1964), 166 (March 10, 1924).

[9] Henry David Thoreau, Walden (New York: Library of America, 1985), 386.

[10] Thoreau, Ibid., 580.

[11] William James, The Will to Believe, in Writings 1878-1899 (New York: Library of America, 1992), 555.

[12] Lia Formigari, “Chain of Being,” Dictionary of the History of Ideas Vol. I (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973), 325. As Plotinus puts it, “The One ‘overflows’ and its excess begets an other than itself” (The Essential Plotinus tr. Elmer O’Brien [New York: Mentor, 1964], 107).

[13] Franz Marc, “Forward to the Planned Second Volume of the Blaue Reiter,” The Blaue Reiter Almanac ed. Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc, New Documentary Edition ed. Klaus Lankheit, tr. Henning Falkenstein (New York: Viking, 1974), 260.

[14] It was in fact the phenomenon of American globalization that prompted Bataille to make an explicit link between his thesis of extravagance and this historical pressure: “The industrial development of the entire world demands of Americans that they lucidly grasp the necessity, for an economy such as theirs, of having a margin of profitless operations” (The Accursed Share, op. cit., 25-26).

[15] The scholarship on decadence is considerable, but two works stand apart for their clarity and judiciousness: Decadence, The Strange Life of an Epithet by Richard Gilman (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979) and Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-Garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism by Matei Calinescu (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1987).

[16] Charles Baudelaire,  Selected Writings on Art and Artists tr. P.E. Charvet (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), 188-189.

[17] Oscar Wilde, “The Decay of Lying,” The Artist as Critic: Critical Writings of Oscar Wilde ed. Richard Ellmann (New York: Random House, 1969), 301.

[18] Holbrook Jackson, The Eighteen Nineties: A Review of Art and Ideas at the Close of the Nineteenth Century (New York: Mitchell Kennerley, 1914), 77. In his elegy for Mallarmé, Remy de Gourmont proposed that “In the final analysis, the idea of decadence is identical to the idea of imitation. [but in the case of Mallarmé] the idea of decadence has been assimilated to its exact opposite—the idea of innovation.” Selected Writings ed. and tr. Glenn S. Burne (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1966), 71.

[19] Jackson, Ibid., 78.

[20] Walt Whitman, “Preface, 1876,” Poetry and Prose (New York: Library of America, 1982), 1008.

[21] W. B. Yeats, Essays and Introductions (New York: Macmillan, 1961), 191.

[22] Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams ed. Ernest Samuels (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973), 458, 498.

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

[24] Walter Pater, The Renaissance ed. Adam Phillips (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 153. On Baudelaire, see Peter Nicholls, Modernisms, A Literary Guide (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 8.

[25] Hermann Bahr, cited in William R. Everdell, The First Moderns: Profiles in the Origins of Twentieth-Century Thought (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 100.

[26] Vicente Huidobro, Selected Poetry ed. David Guss (New York: New Directions, 1981), 3.

[27] Gertrude Stein, Lectures in America (New York: Random House, 1935), 95.

[28] Paul Valéry, “Politics of the Mind,” The Outlook for Intelligence ed. Jackson Mathews, tr. Denise Folliot & Jackson Mathews (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), 112.

[29] Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà, Luigi Russolo, Giacomo Balla, Gino Severini, “Futurist Painting: Technical Manifesto 1910,” Futurist Manifestos ed. Umbro Apollonio (New York: Viking, 1973), 29. This manifesto originally appeared in English in the catalogue for a Futurist exhibit at the Sackville Gallery in London, March 1912.

[30] Walter Pater, The Renaissance, op. cit., 152.

[31] André Breton, Nadja tr. Richard Howard (New York: Grove Press, 1960), 160.

[32] Joseph Conrad, “Preface to The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’,” The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1963), 13.

[33] Joseph Conrad, Victory (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1963), 180.

[34] Hugo von Hofmannsthal, “The Letter of Lord Chandos,” Selected Prose tr. Tania and James Stern (New York: Pantheon, 1952), 134-135. 

[35] Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past I, tr. C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983), 333.

[36] Samuel Beckett and Georges Duthuit, Three Dialogues (London: Jonathan Calder, 1965), 101.

[37] Stéphane Mallarmé, letter of May 27, 1867, Selected Letters ed. and tr. Rosemary Lloyd (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 77. Compare Picasso’s nonchalant declaration, in 1935: “In my case a picture is a sum of destructions” (“Conversation with Picasso,” Art in Theory 1900-1990 ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood [Oxford: Blackwell, 1992], 499).

[38] My translation. Paul Bourget, Essais de psychologie contemporaine I (Paris: Plon, 1901), 20. “Un style de décadence est celui où l’unité du livre se décompose pour laisser la place à l’indépendance de la page, où la page se décompose pour laisser la place à l’indépendance de la phrase, et la phrase pour laisser la place à l’independance du mot.”

[39] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Case of Wagner in Basic Writings ed. and tr. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Modern Library, 1968), 626.

[40] Richard Huelsenbeck, “Collective Dada Manifesto” (1920) tr. Ralph Manheim, The Dada Painters and Poets ed. Robert Motherwell, 2nd ed. (Boston: G.K. Hall, 1981), 243.

[41] Max Beckmann, “Creative Credo” (1920), Art in Theory 1900-1990 ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), 267-268.

[42] Rainer Maria Rilke, letter of Nov. 18, 1920, tr. Violet M. MacDonald, The Modern Tradition ed. Richard Ellmann and Charles Feidelson, Jr. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965), 24. A strikingly similar formulation is ventured by the composer Arnold Schoenberg: “Art is the cry for help of those who experience in themselves the fate of humanity. Who wrestle with it instead of accommodating themselves to it. Who do not bluntly serve the enigma of ‘dark powers,’ but who plunge into the running machinery to grasp its construction. Who do not avert their eyes to protect themselves from emotion, but rather open them wide to tackle what has to be tackled. But who frequently shut their eyes to perceive what the senses do not convey, to behold within what only seemingly takes place outside. And within, inside them, is the agitation of the world; what breaks through to the outside is only its echo: the work of art” (cited in Thomas Harrison, 1910, The Emancipation of Dissonance, op. cit., 66). Harrison says of Schoenberg that “It was precisely because he was so attached to the principle of harmony—and suffered rather than extoled his estrangement—that he gave voice to the dissonance that was his grief” (213).

[43] Oscar Wilde, I Can Resist Everything Except Temptation, And Other Quotations from Oscar Wilde ed. Karl Beckson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 135.

[44] The most succinct assessment of the contingencies of modern selfhood may be Robert Musil’s well-known passage: “There’s no longer a whole man confronting a whole world, only a human something moving about in a general culture medium” (The Man Without Qualities tr. Sophie Wilkins (New York: Knopf, 1995), 234.

[45] Friedrich Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals I.13 in Basic Writings, op. cit., 481.

[46] Gertrude Stein, “What Are Master-pieces,” Writings and Lectures 1909-1945 ed. Patricia Meyerowitz (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971), 148-149.

[47] Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities, op. cit., 834. Note that the English “asylum” lends a prejudicial air to Musil’s “Verwahrungsanstalt,” which would be more accurately rendered “protective institution.” Musil’s term deliberately plays on the previous adjective “unverwahrt”; together, they lend semantic force to the equivocation of the entire assertion.

[48] Jean Starobinski, “The Inside and the Outside,” tr. Frederick Brown, The Hudson Review XXVIII: 3 (1975), 334.

[49] Friedrich Schlegel, “Gespräch über die Poesie,” in Lilian R. Furst, ed., European Romanticism (London: Methuen, 1980), 93. 

[50] Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Poet,” Essays and Lectures (New York: Library of America, 1983), 459. Emerson’s essay implicitly recapitulates, without acknowledgment, the terms of Schiller’s “Stofftrieb” and “Formtrieb” generating between them the antiphonal frictions of creative arousal—teeming stuff and intelligible order—superseded by and resolved into the reconciling posture of the Spieltrieb, the play-drive.

[51] Ibid., 455.

[52] My translation. Victor Hugo, “Préface [à Cromwell],” Théatre complet I (Paris: Gallimard, 1963), 420, 421. 

[53] W. B. Yeats, Essays and Introductions, op. cit., 216.

[54] Rainer Maria Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge tr. Stephen Mitchell (New York: Vintage, 1990), 61.

[55] “Wechselt Flut und Ebbe / in meinem Blut nach dieser Ordnung?” “[ich will] mein Herz gewöhnen an sen Fernstes. Besser / es lebt im Schrecken seiner Sterne.” R. M. Rilke, “Unwissend vor dem Himmel meines Lebens.” Another uncollected poem, “Wir sind nur Mund,” revisits the vast heart whose “great beat is broken up in us / into tiny beats” (“großer Schlag ist in uns eingeteilt / in kleine Schläge”).

So reißen wir uns immer wieder los

und sind nur Mund. Aber auf einmal bricht

der große Herzschlag heimlich in uns ein,

so daß wir schrein . . .

Und sind dann Wesen, Wandlung und Gesicht.

(“So we always tear ourselves loose / and are nothing but mouth. But suddenly / the huge heartbeat secretly bursts in on us / so that we scream… / And then we’re being [or essence], change, and face.”)

[56] Osip Mandelstam, #156, Complete Poetry tr. Burton Raffel and Alla Burago (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1973), 151.

[57] Mina Loy, The Lost Lunar Baedeker ed. Roger L. Conover (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996), 4, 6.

[58] Charles Baudelaire, “The Abyss” [Le Gouffre] tr. Robert Lowell, The Symbolist Poem ed. Edward Engelberg (New York: Dutton, 1967), 138. “Pascal avait son gouffre, avec lui se mouvant. / —Hélas! tout est abîme, —action, désir, rêve, / Parole!” Lowell obviously augments Baudelaire’s text, but his addition of “blood” and “holes” is very much in the spirit of modernist agony I am tracing here.

[59] Muriel Rukeyser, “Double Ode,” A Muriel Rukeyser Reader ed. Jan Heller Levi (New York: Norton, 1994), 274.

[60] Octavio Paz, Children of the Mire tr. Rachel Phillips (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991), 56.

[61] Mandelstam, “About the Nature of the Word,” Selected Essays tr. Sidney Monas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1977), 67.

[62] Difference in decadence is invariably recognized in a process of assimilation—its “decadent” excess, its notoriety, being attributable to a reversal of socially dominant priorities, such that this assimilation is not that of other to self but vice versa: the decadent posture is precisely that of “going native,” of undergoing a conversion to dangerously alluring alterity. Anatole Baju, the socialist editor of Le Décadent, found his platform in the affirmation that “Man becomes more refined, more feminine, more divine” (Barbara Spackman, Decadent Genealogies: The Rhetoric of Sickness from Baudelaire to D’Annunzio [Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989], viii). The identification of spiritual ascendancy with feminization and cultural refinement was debated in the United States in terms of neurasthenia, a discourse which medicalized the dialectic of production and reproduction as masculine purpose versus feminine masquerade and ostentation (see Tom Lutz, American Nervousness, 1903: An Anecdotal History [Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991]). In Europe the dialectic extended to forms of primitivism, Orientalism, and fashion (see Peter Wollen, “Out of the Past: Fashion/Orientalism/The Body,” Raiding the Icebox: Reflections on Twentieth-Century Culture [Bloomington: Indiana University Press], 1-34; “Mass Culture as Woman: Modernism’s Other” by Andreas Huyssen, After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism [Bloomington: Indiana University Press], 44-62); and Mark M. Anderson, Kafka’s Clothes: Ornament and Aestheticism in the Habsburg Fin de Siècle [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992]). 

[63] The technological invasion of the body has been a consistent preoccupation for Paul Virilio, who maintains that “the boarding of the metabolic vehicle is literally an act of piracy” (Speed and Politics tr. Mark Polizzotti [New York: Semiotext(e), 1986], 89). More recently he has criticized prosthetics,  nanotechnology, and other biotechnologies as “technical fundamentalism.” “Bringing the body and its vital energy up to speed with the age of instant teletechnology means…abolishing the classic distinction between internal and external”—bringing with it, in Virilio’s view, a “new eugenics…that would extend the pleasure principle and so-called gratification handed down from the age of the consumer society [into] a sort of perpetual stimulation” (The Art of the Motor tr. Julie Rose [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995], 118, 106, 129). The resulting state of infantile dependancy was forecast by Wyndham Lewis in The Doom of Youth (London: Chatto and Windus, 1932). For further reflections on the cultural polemic of infantilization, see Jed Rasula, “Nietzsche in the Nursery: Naive Classics and Surrogate Parents in Postwar American Cultural Debates,” Representations 29 (Winter 1990), 50-77.

[64] Ralph Ellison’s eponymous narrator concludes his novel with the insinuation that “on the lower frequencies, I speak for you” (Invisible Man [New York: Vintage, 1989], 581). The triadic configuration I offer on the subject of embodiment is indebted to Philip Fisher’s terms entanglement, sheltering, and recovery in “The Recovery of the Body,” Humanities in Society I.2 (Spring 1978), 133-146.

[65] Stephen Spender, The Struggle of the Modern (London: Hamish Hamilton 1963), 133.

[66] T. S. Eliot comes close to a pathic image when he says that “the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones,” but with a sense of the exigent pressure of the past as well (“Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Selected Essays 3rd ed. [London: Faber & Faber, 1951], 14).

[67] Race and gender are now ubiquitous categories in the study of modernism. On provincialism, see Robert Crawford’s illuminating study Devolving English Literature (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992).

[68] Wallace Stevens, The Necessary Angel (New York: Knopf, 1951), 36.

[69] Suddenness attests to “the nonidentity of aesthetic experience and historical meaning,” as Karl Bohrer puts it (Suddenness: On the Moment of Aesthetic Appearance tr. Ruth Crowley [New York: Columbia University Press, 1994], x).  Consequently, aesthetic activity cannot be held accountable for historical disfigurations (see Leo Bersani’s vital book The Culture of Redemption [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990]); nor, conversely, can the appeal to history justify or explain art. It is in the space of this mutual incommensurability that I locate the pathic dimension, a space that merits a reconsideration of the sublime. In light of modernism, the sublime returns as the 18th century’s unique contribution to pathesis. See Jean-François Lyotard, The Inhuman: Reflections on Time tr. Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991), who tellingly observes, “The paradox of an art ‘after the sublime’ is that it turns towards a thing which does not turn towards the mind” (142).

[70] “The book has somehow to be adapted to the body,” writes Virginia Woolf, after observing the pliability which the fledgling genre of the novel offered the woman writer. A Room of One’s Own (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1957), 81.

[71] Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (London: Penguin, 1983), 106.

[72] William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom! [The Corrected Text] (New York: Vintage, 1990), 236.

[73] Djuna Barnes, Nightwood (New York: New Directions, 1946), 158.

[74] “For this is not one life; nor do I always know if I am man or woman, Bernard or Neville, Louis, Susan, Jinny, or Rhoda—so strange is the contact of one with another” (The Waves [New York: Oxford University Press, 1992], 234).

[75] Rainer Maria Rilke, Where Silence Reigns: Selected Prose tr. G. Craig Houston (New York: New Directions, 1978), 105. 

[76] T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” The Complete Poems and Plays (London: Faber and Faber, 1969), 13, 14, 15.

[77] Eliot, “Gerontion,” ibid., 38.

[78] Eliot, “The Hollow Men,” ibid., 84.

[79] Aimé Césaire, “Dit d’errance,” The Collected Poetry tr. Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), 254. “Everything that was ever torn / has been torn in me / everything that was ever mutilated / has been mutilated in me” (255).

[80] Nathaniel Mackey, Discrepant Engagement: Dissonance, Cross-Culturality, and Experimental Writing (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

[81] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science tr. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1974), 181 (#125). 

[82] William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!, op. cit., 71.

[83] Giorgio de Chirico, “Mystery and Creation,” in Art and Theory 1900-1990 ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, op. cit., 61.