If one of the prerogatives of modernist art was to ‘make it new,’ it was a prerogative marked by contradictions and multiplicities, new beginnings and, irrevocably, new endings. Advocating a radical rupture with the past, modernism in the arts parted ways with the subject’s teleology and the limitations of being human in the name of abstract formalizations that extricate the human subject from the burdens of corporeality. Permeating the first half of twentieth-century art is also the paradoxical negation of the body, on the one hand, and the voracious appetite for renewal and reinvention, on the other. This appetite or what Alain Badiou (2007), in his study of the twentieth century titled simply The Century, refers to as the ‘passion for the real’ (p. 38), hungers for a formalist reinvention of the artistic process that ‘wants to visibly idealize its own materiality’ (p. 50). In Badiou’s terms (2007), it is ‘the attestation of beginning as the intense presence of art, as its pure present, as the immediacy and presentness of its capacity…to revolve around the act rather than the work’ (p. 136). In its emphasis on immediacy, intensity, and artistic process, the modernist art is therefore the art of the present moment, of the great ‘now.’ To put it differently, its formalist peristaltic figuratively digests the past as the new future, turning the process of creative sublimation into the next ‘meal.’ As Badiou (2007) argues, ‘[t]he artist of the avant-garde is neither heir nor imitator,’ but rather a transforming presence that ‘violently declares the present of art’ (p. 135). Badiou here evokes Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc’s (1912) Blue Rydermanifesto in which they highlight the modernist artist’s ability to ‘expand the former limits of artistic expression’ in order to instigate a ‘desire to manifest in a material form the creative force as a light, fertilizing ray’ (p. 147).
While driven by the various cross-fertilizing of art forms, this manifestation is however frequently and carefully affirmed by what could be called a formal negation, whereby whatever exceeds the form is honed in by virtue of decorporealized abstraction. Or, as Badiou (2007) puts it, ‘its aim is nothing short of compelling humanity to some excess with regard to itself,’ an excess that simultaneously implies a radical negation of humanity qua humanity, but also ‘bears witness to the inhuman of the human’ (p. 161). In other words, to make it new, the modernist artist must affirm excess in the way that simultaneously subtracts the ‘most terrible suffering’ as a ‘creative virtue’ while reinventing humanity as a ‘multiplicity of formalizations’ rather than corporealities (Badiou 2007, p. 143). As Peter Childs (2000) emphasizes, modernist interest lies primarily in ‘abstract poetics’ that evoke the ‘workings of the mind rather than the body’ (p. 17). Accordingly, eschewing the body, modernist art feeds on the mind’s multiple intricacies and ambiguous multiplicity through a vigorous, albeit disciplined combination of art forms.
Poetry in particular plays an important role in modernist cross-fertilizations of formal negation. It not only serves as an important ‘arena of action,’ but it is also a site of linguistic rupture, as Marjorie Perloff (2003) notes in The Futurist Moment: Avant-Garde, Avant Guerre, and the Language of Rupture (p. 24). It reveals language as a codified invention that ‘brings forth…a coming to presence that was previously impossible’ (Badiou 2005, p. 25). I argue that such poetic coming to presence was particularly relevant to the early twentieth-century post-war ethos in America as it allowed for the kind of ‘poeticizing of sensations’ that were difficult to comprehend, as Hartley emphasizes in his 1921 Adventures in the Arts (p. 6). Responding to the increasing consumerist ethos of America, these sensations were subjected to a poetic digestion or flaying that simultaneously placated America’s cultural hunger for a literary past that would affirm its history of exile and cultural displacement.
In what follows, I trace the ways in which American modernist poetry relies on a symbolic flaying of the body while at the same time fostering an appetite for the inhuman, for the abstract ‘supreme fiction’ as Wallace Stevens has put it, to comment on the artistic process of creation as a moment of America’s cultural renewal and re-invention. Such a process, as T.S. Eliot (1919) has argued, inevitably requires an elimination of the poet’s subjectivity in order to bring forth the artistic process as ‘a shred of platinum,’ a kind of disciplined intensity which I call the ‘formulated flesh.’ Focusing primarily on the poetry of T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and Djuna Barnes, I suggest that such formulations not only drive the experimental aesthetic of American modernist poetics, but also point to its appetite for movement and multiplicity whereby time becomes space, weight a lightness of being, form an inhuman flesh. I explore their inhuman poetics through Badiou’s theorization of avant-gardes as caught up in the their appetite for parting with the old in the name of renewal, an agenda that inevitably re-inscribes what it so vehemently wishes to reject.
Before focusing on individual poets and their inhuman appetites, it might be useful to contextualize the relationship between the modernist appetite for experimentation, movement, and multiplicity, on the one hand, and its hunger for what Badiou (2007) calls the ‘formalizations…far removed from the business of the humans’ (p. 160). In fleshing out what I call the ‘inhuman appetite’ of modernist poetics, I draw on Badiou’s (2007) notion that modernist art privileges form as ‘the highest destination of the subject’ which ‘bears witness to the inhuman within human’ (p. 160), a notion that, while providing a sumptuous food for thought, needs further interrogation, especially when examined in relation to the glocal specificities and aesthetic choices of poets like Eliot, Stevens, and Barnes.
The Avant-Garde Peristaltic of American Modernism
Historically, the events and the aftermath of the First World War propelled many a modernist artist’s desire for exceeding the limitations of humanity, a desire that, of course, frequently re-inscribed what it lamented in the first place. Viewed in this context, the war represented the ultimate break with what Hobsbawm (1995) calls ‘the great edifice of nineteenth-century civilization’ (p. 22), but it also became a power symbol of the limitations of language to represent such events. Early twentieth-century literature reacts to this incapacity with a turn inward. Further instigated by Freud’s founding of psychoanalysis, this turn ushers in avant-garde movements that were often referred to as modernist or ‘modern’ (Delville 2008). In Virginia Woolf’s (1925) terms, ‘[f]or the moderns…the point of interest lies very likely in the dark places of psychology’ (p. 632). The human psychology of the early twentieth century is indeed fragmented, decentred, marked by mobility and movement.
This movement is reflected not only in the mass migrations precipitated by the war, as Europeans move across the ocean to America, and Americans travel to Europe to escape the economic Depression, but also in avant-garde movements that embrace speed and mobility as a way to cope with the increasing mechanization and commodification of art. As critics have argued (Hobsbawm 1995; Childs 2000), the First World War was a major event shaping the literature of the early twentieth century, propelling artists to question human values and traditions in the light of destruction and a pervading sense of ennui brought on by the spread of mass culture and consumerism. Many poets and writers saw the beginning of the twentieth-century as a cultural ‘wasteland.’ Badiou (2007) furthers the idea by suggesting that the war ushered in a crisis of identity that had to be staved off through the ‘break with any notion that there exist formal laws of the Beautiful’ and ‘that art is the highest destination of a subject’ (p. 134-35). While Badiou (2007) follows the tendency of much critical scholarship that treats modernist avant-gardes and their aesthetics mainly through a Euro-centric lens, a lens that takes a rather unified, albeit cosmopolitan approach to modernist experimentation, I argue that such an approach tends to homogenize, if not ghettoize modernist artists under the umbrella term ‘experimentation’ or ‘experimental poetics,’ while frequently ignoring the author’s ‘localized’ poetics, to paraphrase Hartley (1921). 1
For American poets (whether they were a part of the European expatriation like T.S. Eliot and Djuna Barnes, or stayed home like Wallace Stevens), the emphasis on transgressing the limits of humanity through art was specifically inflected by the propelling of America onto the world stage as the beacon of technological progress and movement. As Gertrude Stein (1935) emphasized in her seminal essay, “How Writing Is Written,” the twentieth-century was first and foremost ‘American’ (p. 490):
…the United States had the first instance of what I call the Twentieth Century writing. You see it first in Walt Whitman. He was the beginning of the movement. He didn’t see it very clearly, but there was a sense of movement that the European was much influenced by, because the Twentieth Century has become the American Century. (p. 490)
Accordingly, while the 1920s expatriation in European art meccas like Paris, London, and Berlin provided American artists with an escape from the world of consumerism and advertising, it also served as a means of reconnecting with the mythical America, a ‘country they had “lost,” the home to which they couldn’t go back again ever’ (Cowley 1934, p. 12). In her study of the 1920s American expatriation to Paris, Elizabeth Hutton Turner (1988) further elaborates on the relevance of American artists’ nostalgia for their American-ness by pointing to the ways in which ‘America’s ultimate understanding and acceptance of her own modernism was not accomplished in isolation but in the shifting perspectives brought about by the transatlantic crossing’ (p. 167).
However, as Cowley’s (1934) memoir reveals, the cosmopolitan ethos of American modernity is precisely what triggered a sense of hunger for a more ‘localized realization,’ to use Hartley’s (1921) terms (p. 64); hence, Stein’s emphasis on Whitman’s salient contribution to the complex peristaltic of American modernism. While fed by transcontinental politics, this hunger called for a localized poetics of abstraction that remained grounded in America’s mythical past, or what Lea Oser (1998) refers to as its ‘spiritual frontier’ (p. 21). As Oser (1998) puts it, ‘[it] cultivat[ed] a mode of spiritual inquiry in which the frontier has been internalized’ (p. 19). As I suggest, this mode of inquiry permeated the poetry of not only expatriate writers like T.S. Eliot and Djuna Barnes, but also the works of Wallace Stevens who continues to be hailed by critics as the national homebody, the guardian of ‘mak[ing] it old’ instead of new (see Perloff 1996, p. 14). Nonetheless, whether writing from abroad or from home, these poets negotiate the cosmopolitan facet of European modernism by attempting to stave off America’s increasing lust for consumption through the process of a rigorously formalized abstraction, a process that simultaneously emphasizes the importance of its mythical and looming, albeit problematic presence.
From the Cosmopolitan to the Lost American: T.S. Eliot’s Formulations
As Gertrude Stein (1935), the master of modernist pyrotechnics, noted, not only was the twentieth-century American, but it was also defined by movement, contemporaneity, and what she calls the ‘immediate present’ (p. 491). If art is to be modern, Stein emphasizes, it must express the ‘inner-time sense of contemporariness’ by experimenting with form, breaking the syntax to achieve the ‘immediacy of description’ (p. 491), eliminating punctuation to represent the present as movement, and mobilizing nouns through the use of the present participle to highlight action. Crucial to the poetics of time, however, is also the spatialization of time through poetic condensation or ‘subtraction,’ to use Badiou’s words. This poetic subtraction allows for representing contemporaneity in its spatial capacity as memory, but also (ultimately) as politics.
Much has been said about the role that avant-garde manifestos played as socio-political and poetico-philosophical recipes in the modernist appetite for poetic renewal, but also for the ‘protection of the unnameable,’ to quote Badiou (2007) (p. 135). In Badiou’s (2007) view, they became a ‘rhetorical devise serving to protect something other than what it overtly names or announces’ (p. 135). While Badiou deploys avant-gardes primarily as group endeavours, it is worth investigating the ways in which individual artists scripted their own blanket recipes to ‘protect something other than what it overtly names or announces’ (Badiou 2007, p. 135). In this respect, T.S. Eliot’s (1919) essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” provides an interesting insight into the appetite for an (in)human(ist) aesthetic. In the essay, Eliot formulates one of the primary tenets of American modernist poetics by highlighting the importance of flaying America’s consumerist appetite for excess into, not a body politic , but a body poetic or what I call ‘formulated flesh.’ He writes:
‘The mind of the poet is a shred of platinum. It may partly or exclusively operate upon the experience of the man himself; but, the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates; the more perfectly will the mind digest and transmute the passions which are its material. (Eliot 1953, p. 27)
In this passage, Eliot demonstrates the importance of flaying the physical in order to transcend humanity by means of a poetic appetite that exhibits the mind’s ability to digest the vulgar and corporeal facet of passions while transmuting them into metaphysical formulations that enflesh the poet’s ‘spiritual frontiers,’ to use Oser’s (1998) terms (p. 21).
For Eliot, ‘[p]oetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things’ (Eliot 1953, p. 30). His poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1917) exemplifies this process by flaying Prufrock’s wandering mind through the free verse whereby Eliot re-creates Prufrock’s intense comings and goings or what Stein (1935) calls the ‘inner-time sense of contemporariness’ (p. 494). This contemporariness, however, is persistently projected onto a public space that turns private. But it also brings us back to Whitman’s “Song of Myself” (1855) and its speaker’s celebration of the mythical America as the grand frontier.
As Oser (1998) points out, in spite of Eliot’s acceptance of British citizenship in 1921, it is important to note that Eliot remained a soulful resident of St. Louis. While Eliot was certainly critical of America’s consumerist culture, his imagery remained ensconced within the American landscape. To put it in his terms, ‘[his] urban imagery was that of St. Louis, upon which that of Paris and London have been superimposed’ (qtd in Oser 1998; p. 10). Not surprisingly, Eliot’s Prufrock draws on American models since ‘European models, with their familiar genius loci,provided only a limited assistance in this process’ (Oser 1998, p. 7).
In this respect, Prufrock’s love song unfolds as a melancholy parody of Whitman’s multitudes, his spreading all across America. Whitman’s speaker celebrates the body as he proclaims:
I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul,
The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are with
me, The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I translate
into new tongue. (Whitman 1961; p. 30, sec. 21, lines 421-423)
If Whitman is ‘the poet of the body and …of the Soul,’ Eliot is the poet of the mind. What Whitman revels in, Eliot cynically rejects. His Prufrock is no ‘turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking and breeding’ savant (Whitman 1961; p. 31, section 24, line 498). Unlike Whitman’s hedonistic speaker, Prufrock loathes his aging body; he loathes his impotence, his inability to make a decision, to make a pass at the ‘women who come and go speaking of Michelangelo’ (Eliot 1917, p. 13, lines 13-14).
Contrary to Whitman, Eliot repudiates the organic; he is done with the body that weighs the poet down, that takes him through the ‘half-deserted streets’ and ‘the muttering retreats of restless nights’ (Eliot 1917, p. 13; lines 4-5). He is not spreading across America in Whitman’s rhizomicjoi de vivre; he is ‘a patient etherized upon a table’ ready to undergo the surgery of artistic recreation (Eliot 1917, p. 13, line 3). Viewed in this context, we can say that Eliot aligns poetry with a figurative flaying of the personality of the poet by way of purging the gaze—both public and private—that consumes him.
Eliot’s Prufrock descends rather than ascends: he is far too human, far too flawed. He is no Whitmanesque hero who in his largesse becomes the crowd. On the other hand, Prufrock, while strolling through the melancholy city and its ‘half-deserted streets,’ feels indicted by the public gaze, by the ‘women who come and go speaking of Michelangelo.’ He feels his multitudes constrained by ‘The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase’ (p. 15, line 55). As Whitman’s speaker luxuriates in multiplicity and screams with pleasure, Prufrock mumbles and whines: ‘An when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,/When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall/Then how should I begin/To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?’ (p. 15, lines 56-58). As the lines suggest, Eliot’s mapping of Prufrock’s mind intersects with his artistic appetite for poetic flaying: for a pathological resection of Prufrock’s body. Prufrock’s body, no matter how it wriggles and writhes in desperation, must be eaten like the ‘cakes and ices’ (p. 15, line 77).
But Eliot’s appetite does not stop at cakes and ices. He is relentless in peeling off the superficiality of the everyday consumer—the common, low-brow man. Prufrock’s shrinking rather than ever-increasing body is flayed not only semantically, but also structurally. His preoccupation with time is persistently mapped onto claustrophobic spaces that hungrily await renewal.
And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create.
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea. (p. 14, lines 22-45)
While the last four lines of the stanza rely on repetition, they introduce a quasi-regular rhyme that playfully mocks the inhuman appetite of the poet to ‘murder and create’ (p. 14, line 27), but also symbolically reduces Prufrock’s human flesh to a poetic enfleshment or, to use Eliot’s words, ‘a formulated phrase’ (p. 15, line 67). For American modernists like Eliot, the process is however also an ethical gesture, a gesture that allows for an escape from the ever-consuming body (read: America) to the realm of clothed, enfleshed ideas. Particularly important to this process is Eliot’s spatialization of Prufrock’s mind at the expense of his body that is consumed, flayed, and surgically reduced to a ‘formulated phrase.’ Eliot here inscribes the poetic flaying vertically through rhyme and horizontally through a combination of repetition (that in a Steinian manner is a repetition with a difference as exemplified in ‘vision and revision’) and alliteration (‘talking of a toast and tea’), which create the visual image of a cross upon which Prufrock is pinned like a bug, ‘wriggling on the wall’ (line 69). 2
Viewed in this light, Eliot’s Prufrock exemplifies Badiou’s (2007) notion that ‘knowing how to endure the most terrible suffering is a creative virtue, and that nothing of value would exist were it not exposed to excess. Here,’ Badiou writes, ‘we find that particular sort of stoicism which encourages desire to extort from life all the intensity it contains’ (p. 143). To paraphrase Badiou (2007), language has a date with the Real, but the consummation of the affair never quite happens: like Prufrock’s mermaids who sing, but not to him. Consequently, Eliot’s flaying of Prufrock’s mind points to the modernist artist’s need to rebel against the consuming body—be it physical or textual: his balding head, his thinning hair, his arms and legs growing thin, but also ‘the formulated phrase’ to which he is reduced (line 67). Poetry, on the other hand, has the power to change the excess of the corporeal by means of poetic subtraction: it thus has the power to rebel against the weight of the body by becoming what Badiou (2007) calls a ‘creative wager’ of change (p. 144).
Poetry as Supreme Fiction: The Abstract Human in Wallace Stevens
Wallace Stevens is perhaps one of the ultimate master-minds of this creative wager. As Marjorie Perloff (2003) emphasizes, ‘the Stevens text subordinates such traditional lyric features as meter and qualitative sound repetition to the articulation of complex and ambiguous meanings’ (p. 26). Stevens (1993) hungers for the opportunity to transcend the weight of the flesh through poetic abstraction or what he calls in “Of Modern Poetry” (1923) the act of ‘finding what will suffice’ (p. 115, lines 1-2). As in Eliot’s Prufrock, movement is what is essential to Stevens’s radical flaying of the poetic persona, but while it certainly exemplifies action, in Stevens, it also calls for its very opposite: stillness. To ‘construct a new stage’ (line 11), Stevens tells us, the poet has to part with restlessness, voracity, and desire. Or as he puts it, he has to transmute the ‘insatiable actor’ into ‘a metaphysician in the dark, twanging an instrument…wholly/containing the mind’ (p. 115, lines 12; 20-23). In other words, he has to do away with the human appetite and its excesses by transforming the embodied actor into a philosopher king, a ‘twanging’ metaphysician whose concern is with the instrumentality of ideas rather than their performance.
As he says: ‘It must/Be the finding of a satisfaction, and may/Be a man skating, a woman dancing, a woman/ Combing. The poem of the act of the mind’ (p. 116, lines 25-30), the dance evoking here the ‘very spacing of thought,’ to use Badiou’s (2005) terms (p. 26). Badiou (2005) describes dance as the very ‘metaphor of thought,’ but also as a kind of ‘innocence, because it is a body before the body. It is forgetting because it is a body that forgets its fetters, its weight. It is a new beginning because the dancing gesture must always be something like the invention of its own beginning’ (p. 58). Like a dance, Stevens’s poetry refers to music to evoke the feeling of movement as a metaphysical rather than bodily experience. Stevens persistently connects the metaphysics of the soul with musical expression. Where human language fails, music takes on the role of a ‘superior language’ since ‘language is an inadequate instrument for capturing the precise nature of the emotions expressed by music’ (Budd 1995, p. 144).
Therefore, ‘the ultimate poem is abstract,’ as Stevens tells us in the poem of the same title. The poem’s artistic value does not lie in its creator’s identity (as the Romantics would have it: modernist poets are not legislators a la Shelley; they are transformers, as Perloff (2003) emphasizes), but in the complete castration and flaying of the personality of the poet. This is perhaps best exemplified in Stevens’s poem titled “Men Made out of Words.” Life, Stevens emphasizes, is a proposition; we are alive only in the moment of forgetting our physicality, ‘the sexual myth’ as he calls it (p. 143, line 1). As humans, we access life in its constructed form of propositions and meditations. ‘We are the mimics/Clouds are pedagogues’ as he writes in “Notes toward a Supreme Fiction” (p. 161, section IV, line 17). In other words, our identity is a ‘supreme fiction.’ But as Stevens suggests in “The Ultimate Poem Is Abstract,” we are the composers of our ‘supreme fictions.’ It is the act of composition that becomes the ultimate wager of creativity, that ‘bears witness to the inhuman within the human,’ to quote Badiou (2007) (p. 161).
According to Badiou, modernist avant-gardes ‘devoted themselves to finding the formula; …this explosion in language whereby one word, one word alone, is the same thing as a body’ (147). As Stevens’s poetry shows, this ‘explosion in language’ is reflected in the modernist penchant for trans-mediality rather than a particular medium or artistic form. In fact, the transgression of the classicist decorum, of respecting literary or artistic forms, is the ultimate recipe for cooking up transformation. Djuna Barnes’s collection, The Book of Repulsive Women: 8 Rhythms and 5 Drawings (1915), provides another example of the ways in which the use of various media, ink drawings in Barnes’s case, allows the poet to flay the body by means of visual severance of the idea from the weight of the physical body and its appetites.
“Corpses, ‘Shock-Abbreviated’ Bodies, and Vacant Spaces”: Djuna Barnes’s Poetic Cabaret
Djuna Barnes wrote The Book of Repulsive Women in 1915, almost six years before she left for Paris on a journalist assignment from McCall’s. While Barnes was a dedicated journalist, novelist, and playwright, poetry remained a constant throughout her life. In her lifetime, she published 68 poems and was famous for revising the same poem over and over again (Herring & Stutman 2005, p. 9). In the 2005 edition of Barnes’s collected poems, Phillip Herring and Osias Stutman (2005) refer to her obsessive rewrites: ‘she’d change her writing over and over until the room was ten feet high with one canto’ (p. 9). Like Stevens, Barnes is interested in the musicality of poetry. She is well aware that a good poem sings because ‘language, as an infinite power devoted to presence, is precisely the unnameable of poetry,’ to quote Badiou (2005) (p. 25). Barnes is not interested in the capacity or lack thereof of language to represent. Rather, she is intrigued by its incapacities, by the ways in which the desiring, hungry body overwhelms the thinking subject.
However, as in Eliot’s or Steven’s poetry, the physical body, while occupying a prominent place in Barnes’s poems, must be disposed of in the process of poetic (in)digestion. Rebecca Loncraine (2003) rightfully suggests that, in spite of the permeating body imagery, Barnes is more interested in the bodily decay than its liveliness. She writes: ‘her poems present live bodies as decaying flesh, while corpses have a perverse vitality. Her muse is a dead woman’ (p. xii). Not only is The Book of Repulsive Women preoccupied with the decaying body as a necessary preamble to poetic enfleshment, the collection also exhibits the drive for what The Blue Almanaceditors and authors, Marc and Kandinsky (1912), referred to as ‘expand[ing] the former limits of artistic expression’ in order to ‘manifest in a material form the creative force as a light, fertilizing ray’ (p. 147). Apart from being a feast of forms and ideas, the collection also reacts to the increasing mass commodification of American culture: its consumerism and/as spectacle (see Casseli 2009).
Pervading the collection is a sense of bodily excess and urban degradation. “From Fifth Avenue Up” explores the Fifth Avenue through the lens of a ‘belly bulging’ streetwalker (Barnes 2003, p. 12; line 47). The poem is weighed down by the woman’s ‘sagging…bulging’ body and the ‘over-hearts left oozing/At [her] feet’ (p. 11-12, lines 31; 29-30.). The simple rhyming scheme further mobilizes the woman’s walk, a mobility that is simultaneously blocked by the human body pregnant with excess or ‘orgy,’ as Barnes puts it, (p. 12, line 36). Although Barnes links the woman’s belly ‘bulging stately/Into space’ with the mass commodity culture of America (p. 12, line 47-48), this consumerist orgy must end with the streetwalker’s ‘plunging grandly out to fall/upon [her] face’ (p. 12, lines 43-44). Consequently, the black-and-white illustration that accompanies the poem further disposes of the sprawling, bulging body through the disciplined cutting of the woman’s body. As the black color slowly but resolutely invades the white space, the woman’s body is consumed by the visual form that figuratively eats the human subject. As Casseli (2009) acutely points out, Barnes’s poetry ‘make[s] a spectacle of the…decadence in which American modernism always suspected to have its roots while recoiling from that very thought’ (p. 81).
We see a similar dialectic in Eliot’s Prufrock and Steven’s creative metaphysics. But while both Eliot and Stevens strip the body of its accoutrements, Barnes throws it in our face, forcing us to acknowledge it, to digest it visually. As exemplified in “From Third Avenue On,” the consumer gaze is ironically disposed of by transforming the body into a ‘vacant space’ (p. 16, line 22). This vacancy or emptying is once again accomplished through the double subtraction of the corporeal by means of the verse and the accompanying drawing which reduces the female body to a decentred, stick figure. Martyniyuk (1998), for example, notes that most of the drawings in the collection not only have ‘clear borders,’ but their ‘images challenge these borders with off-center subjects and large areas of white blackness or unbroken blocks of black background’ (p. 62). The emphasis on off-centeredness and vacant spaces transforms the corporeality of the subject into a poetic dance of intensities. Such a poetic dancing is further exemplified in Barnes’s poem, “To a Cabaret Dancer.” Like Whitman’s “The Song of Myself,” Barnes’s “Cabaret Dancer” enfleshes her own plurality by gesturing outside the limits of the poetic form towards the potentiality of the visual form of a black and white ink-drawing that feeds on her twirling, singing body. In this, the drawing simultaneously revels in the visualization and musicalization of the poetic, or what Wolf (1999) calls the ‘intermedial drive’ (p. 43).
In its emphasis on the potentiality of thought as illuminating movement and/or blinding stillness, “To a Cabaret Dancer” presents a concatenation of mediated forms wherein the visualized poetic rhythm creates a space where the artistic and philosophical synthesis participates in a meta-critical reflection on the dialectic of life and death, movement and stillness, fleetingness and permanence—all of which are important staples of modernist art. Alain Badiou’s (2005) notion of poetry as a genre that ‘makes truth out of the multiple, conceived as a presence that has come to the limits of language’ (p. 20) is particularly useful here. It returns us to the formal enfleshment of what is unnameable, what is hidden in language (i.e. the creative idea). In the poem and its visualization, dance gives way to yet another art form—singing. But as in Stevens’s “Of Modern Poetry,” the dancer’s song must be killed for the sake of stillness anticipating movement: ‘Until her songless soul admits/Time comes to kill:/You pay her price and wonder why/You need her still’ (Barnes 2003; p. 22, lines 38-42; p. 22). The figure of the singing cabaret dancer is flayed into a poetic text that swirls and dances. For modernist artists, the flaying of flesh is what Kandinsky (1912) called ‘the final goal’ (p. 190). Barnes accomplishes this deed in the poem titled, “Suicide,” in which the body is flayed twice over through references to Corpse A and Corpse B. Corpse A has a ‘little bruised body like/A startled moon’ (p. 23, lines 4-5). The comparison of the bruised body to the startled moon is further sublimated in the second stanza when Corpse B is compared to a consumable. ‘She lay out listlessly like some small mug/Of beer gone flat’ (p. 24, lines13-14). Not only is the body of Corpse B shrinking, but it is also like a flat beer: simply unpalatable.
As in Eliot’s and Steven’s poetry, the physical body must be digested by means of creative sublimation. This sublimation dispenses with excess, yet does not cease hungering for a fertilizing ray, a dawn of a new culture that would return America to its pristine utopian paradise, the past that has never been. While it is undeniable that the transnational aspect of modernism and its cross-fertilization contributed to the avant-garde cosmopolitanism, to suggest that poets like Eliot, Stevens, and Barnes were not touched by their cultural topography would be facetious at best. Eliot, in spite of his British citizenship, fostered his attachment to his native St. Louis through his writing; Stevens remained the homebody-poet incarnate. Barnes, on the other hand, returned to Greenwich Village in the 1930s to turn into a ‘mortician of modernism’ (Herring & Stutman 2005, p. 9), spinning morbid images into figurative bodies written on cereal boxes, shopping lists, and unpublished cantos. Although American modernists searched for international influences, the question of renewal was nonetheless localized, as Hartley (1921) and Cowley (1934) suggested, in the politics of American identity, specifically in its relationship to the landscape as an extension of the body as a frontier. The frontier pertained not only to America’s Puritan heritage and its particular, appetite-less relationship to the body, but also to its (equally paradoxical) emphasis on freedom. In addition, as the First World War propelled America onto the world stage as the ultimate beacon of technological progress and consumerism, it is not surprising that American modernist poets like Eliot, Stevens, and Barnes searched for influences elsewhere, yet drew on their own topographies in hope to ‘remake the past and not to imitate it’ (Oser 1998, p. 17). Whether expatriated or not, they remained obsessed with the grand Americana: the body incarnate, the landscape whose topography they found so fallibly human, yet inhumanly appetizing.
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(1.) My argument is in line with the recent collection of essays on geo-specific concerns of modernisms, Geomodernisms: Race, Modernism, and Modernity, edited by Laura Doyle and Laura Winkiel (2005), in which the editors and contributors highlight the importance of acknowledging the specific glocal and regional facets of modernist writing and art
(2.) Eliot’s Puritan background underlines his work. As Oser (1998) notes, themes of crucifixion permeate Eliot’s poetry as a critique of America’s consumerist excess and loss of the Puritan principle (p. 35).