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The Problem with Pleasure: Modernism and its Discontents, by Laura Frost

Gary Day delights in a critique that sweeps aside the perceived gulf between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture

Make it new,” Ezra Pound commanded Modernist artists. They did so, and critics have been trying to explain their work ever since. Traditionally, art was supposed to either portray the world or else inspire its audience with ideas of beauty, truth and goodness. Modernist art appeared to do neither. Paintings seemed to be a mixture of strange abstractions and savage distortions; novels appeared to have abandoned grammar and syntax as well as story and plot, while poetry had collapsed into a heap of broken images. It no longer even rhymed, for goodness’ sake.

Was this the end of civilisation? Well, yes, it was actually. The First World War destroyed the belief that history was progress and that human behaviour improved with each passing age. There was nothing beautiful or good about the dead at Verdun. How did one speak about such horrors? It was a question the German critic Theodor Adorno would later ask about Auschwitz. The tendencies that we associate with Modernist art – its difficulty, and even its silliness – were evident before 1914, but they were given a steroid boost by the mechanised slaughter in Flanders’ fields.

One of the main characteristics of Modernist art was its passion for experiment. The world had changed and so must art. However tempted we may be to think of the notorious complexity of Modernism as a form of intellectual indulgence, it was, in fact, a genuine attempt to find adequate forms of representation for discoveries such as those by Sigmund Freud in psychoanalysis and Albert Einstein in physics.

Frost’s readings are nothing if not bold. How outrageous to say that Gertrude Stein’s writing operates like tickling. Yes, tickling

But there are those scholars, most notably John Carey, who see Modernism as no more than an exercise in snobbery. Modernist art, he claims in The Intellectuals and the Masses (1992), was designed to exclude hoi polloi, which was the next best thing to exterminating them. James Joyce’s remark about Ulysses, that he’d “put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant” may seem to lend some support to Carey’s claim, until we remember that Joyce’s characters are as flawed and fleshy as those who outraged artistic sensibilities by having fun in Blackpool. Nevertheless, there is a case for seeing the development of Modernism as a reaction to the rise of popular culture. The one was demanding and uncompromising in its search for an authentic idiom for contemporary life, while the other was facile and distracting, relying on and reinforcing a set of stock responses.

Enter Laura Frost, pooh-poohing such nonsense. The idea that there is a fundamental opposition between Modernism and mass culture is a myth, albeit a stubborn one. This is not a particularly original idea: there are versions of it in Andreas Huyssen’s 1986 work After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism and, more recently, John Xiros Cooper in Modernism and the Culture of Market Society (2004). In fact, the argument was in danger of dwindling into a cliché. But not any longer: Frost has reanimated the whole debate. Critics aren’t expected to make it new but to make it known, and Frost does that with panache. What a performance. It is the textual equivalent of a Ruby Keeler tap routine.

Her time-steps transport us back to the early and mid part of the 20th century, showing us Joyce, Gertrude Stein, D. H. Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, Patrick Hamilton, Jean Rhys and Anita Loos as we have never seen them before. There are those who will object to this selection. Where’s Virginia Woolf, and what about Franz Kafka? But we can no longer confine our understanding of Modernism to a few greats. As Frost points out, the term has expanded to include writers who, although they may not have overturned established forms, nevertheless “participated in the same ideological discussions”. This book is her contribution to defining literary Modernism “more capaciously”.

Her readings are nothing if not bold. Fancy the audacity of making perfume central to a discussion of Ulysses. How outrageous to say that Stein’s writing operates like tickling. Yes, tickling. Read it and you will be won over. And what style. Eye-catching, exhilarating. Surely she can’t keep this up? It’s like a dancer doing endless wings. But Frost’s riff on the affinities between the erotic in Lawrence and E. M. Hull’s 1919 novel The Sheik shows that she can. So it continues. A high-kicking chapter on the nature of cinema in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World segues into a shuffle on Hamilton and Rhys before a spectacular finish on the ground-breaking titles Anita Loos wrote for silent cinema. Joyce was a great fan of her best-known work, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925), described by Edith Wharton as the Great American Novel. Apparently he liked its wordplay: “Eyeful Tower”. Who knows; perhaps it was a minor influence on the linguistic explosion that is Finnegans Wake.

Frost shows that the space between Modernism and mass culture is just the right distance for them to dance together. Think Astaire and Rogers. Whether it’s Stein’s Tender Buttons or Rhys’ Voyage in the Dark, the cerebral and the carnal keep perfect time with one another in the same work. Hence Stein is Modernist to the extent that her work is opaque and hermetic but popular to the extent that it evokes the sensuous delights of a stick of rock. Rhys’ characters frequent the cinema but refuse its promise of escape, thereby aligning themselves with the sort of discomfort and confusion that Modernist writers sought to create in their works.

Frost’s key term is “pleasure”, a term that is very difficult to define. Freud is consulted and so is Roland Barthes, but pleasure remains fugitive and ultimately puzzling. There’s also the question of how central pleasure is to our understanding of Modernism. Were the writers of that period really so worried about it? That there were different kinds of pleasure didn’t seem to bother T. S. Eliot, who read Sherlock Holmes and Jacobean drama with equal avidity. The Hungarian critic György Lukács thought that Modernism suffered from a preoccupation with the self. The same observation applies to pleasure, although it conveys a more limited sense of the self than is found in Joyce or Woolf.

Pleasure is more usually associated with the study of popular culture, where it has a fairly limited analytic value. Indeed, it became a justification for consumer society rather than a critique of it, and if we lose critique, the possibility of change recedes. Modernists were critical of their society because they believed it denied humans fulfilment, a notion that is barely comprehended by the term “pleasure”. That this led some writers to embrace fascism and others to espouse socialism and still others to reject politics altogether is yet further proof of Modernism’s infinite variety. We all want pleasure, but to make it the goal of life shows a certain poverty of ambition.

None of this is to detract from Frost’s achievement, part of which is to make us more aware of the complexity of pleasure. Fresh, invigorating, witty and profound, her book impresses on every page. You will want to argue with it but you will learn from it, too. This is criticism at its very best and it deserves to top any reading list on Modernism.

The author

Author Laura Frost

Associate professor of literary studies at The New School for Liberal Arts in New York City, Laura Frost grew up in Seattle and its suburbs “before grunge and before the Microsoft millionaires. Now I live in New York, in downtown Manhattan, with my six-year-old son and my husband, a professor who specialises in computer vision and artificial intelligence. We’ve spent the past couple of summers in San Francisco, which is a real treat. Summer is said to be the worst time to be here, but I love the moody weather, the fog, the topographical drama.”

She adds: “I’d love to live in London, the first major cosmopolitan city I knew. Museums, art and theatre all seem more accessible there than in New York. I like the deep history of the place, the bookstores, the street culture, and the fact that you can see a play in a pub.”

Her scholarly inclinations began at home. “Everyone was reading all the time: my father is a professor of oceanography, my brother is a librarian and writer, and my mother teaches English literature and is one of those amazingly creative, energetic teachers.

“One formative experience was going to Plymouth, England for a year. Plymouth itself was no great joy, but I went to a good school, Devonport High School for Girls, and had a fantastic headmistress who taught English literature: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton. In school back home we had been reading books like The Clan of the Cave Bear, and suddenly here was this woman thundering about how ‘the Arch-fiend lay/Chain’d on the burning lake’. A couple of times she rhapsodised, misty-eyed, about Rupert Brooke, the flower of British manhood tragically cut down, as if it had happened yesterday. It was riveting, and I think that experience had a lot to do with my continuing on in the field.”

Frost took all three of her degrees at Columbia University. “Right - talk about an intellectual DON’T! What can I say? I was young and foolish and watched too many Woody Allen movies. But New York felt vital to me, and I was also toying with the idea of pursuing journalism, so it seemed to make sense.”

Modernism, she agrees, retains its power to unsettle, shock and surprise. “Even though generations of scholars have studied and published on Modernism, the works themselves remain resistant in certain respects. That’s a deliberate effect. The work should not unfold too easily: it is meant to be a challenge. Joyce supposedly remarked, ‘I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.’

“That said, for academics, it can be hard to access the sensation of disorientation we felt when we initially encountered these texts. The best way to feel the shock of the new is to read these books with first-timers, with students. It’s interesting that students are still initially stumped by literary Modernism, given that so many of its techniques have been absorbed into mainstream culture. We are accustomed to complex plotlines and shifts between different points of view and time periods in film and television. Graphic novels, such as those of Art Spiegelman, are notably fragmented and non-linear. But something as subtle as Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is difficult for most students to grasp.

“I often use the analogy of a puzzle to describe the reading effects of Modernism, but of course, the puzzle can’t exactly be solved. It’s more like a puzzle with pieces missing. That’s what keeps us coming back to these works.

“Right now our horizon of the new is still largely defined by Modernism. The tricks of Post-Modernism are all there. No one has come up with anything to top it. Sure, there’s metafiction and hypertext, and other digital gimmicks such as novels written in tweets and so on, but the basic conceptual innovations have their roots in Modernism. That’s not to say Modernism will never be eclipsed. It just hasn’t happened yet.”

Frost has won awards for teaching as well as for her scholarship. Asked if she feels that good teaching is as valued in the academy as research, she observes: “Academia requires a peculiar skill set: you’re supposed to cloister yourself to do your research and write, but you’re also asked to be charismatic and attentive in the classroom. Teaching well, as we all know, is enormously time-consuming, and it is basically invisible labour in terms of the institution.

“Right now, as higher education is under tremendous pressure to prove its worth, or, more depressingly, its utility, I do worry about what will happen to the quality of the face-to-face encounter between teachers and students. The few online lectures that I’ve seen are not especially strong. There’s something about the chemistry of the classroom, the real-time experience, that’s hard to replicate online; I fear we may be facing an Invasion of the Moocs. But honestly, I am more concerned that as higher education tries to meet its clients’ desires, which may or may not be intellectually sound, the research piece, traditional scholarship, will not be adequately supported, especially in the humanities.”

Do monographs get easier to write after the first one? Frost responds: “In my case, no. My first book came together fairly quickly. I had the general idea for the second book quite early on - I knew I wanted to write on a broad paradigm of Modernism - but several life events slowed down my progress. I was living a couple blocks from the World Trade Center in 2001; my plan for 11 September was to go to the library to watch Rudolph Valentino movies for what would eventually become a chapter on D. H. Lawrence in The Problem With Pleasure. That plan didn’t work out, and I was blown off course for several years after 9/11; I moved apartments many times, had a child, changed jobs, yada yada. So the concept was there a decade ago; it just took me a long time to settle down and write the damn thing. But the third time’s a charm, I hear.”

Invited to reveal her favourite pastimes, Frost recalls, “Before my son appeared on the scene, I kept up with contemporary theatre and art, and I wrote some art criticism. Last year, when Christian Marclay’s real time film The Clock was playing 24 hours a day at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, I went from 5.30 to 8.30 on a Sunday morning, because that was when I could get away. Ten years ago, I would have camped out for the whole thing. Anyhow, not surprisingly, the early morning shift featured a lot of alarm clocks and men shaving: not as racy as the 10pm to midnight sequence, I’m sure, but it had its own little surprises, including a clip from Joseph Strick’s 1967 film of Ulysses at 7/49: a shot of Blazes Boylan’s amorous letter, in ‘bold hand’, to Molly. I’m also interested in the immersive turn in theatre and entertainment in general -Punchdrunk, Secret Cinema, and all that - and why audiences are drawn to those kinds of vicarious experiences right now.”

Karen Shook

The Problem with Pleasure: Modernism and its Discontents

By Laura Frost
Columbia University Press, 304pp, £24.00
ISBN 9780231152723
Published 9 July 2013

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