Project Panel at the Modernist Studies Association Conference 17


19-22 November 2015


Ulrika Maude (University of Bristol):
‘D. H. Lawrence, Blood Wisdom and the Phenomenology of Illness’

Elizabeth Barry (University of Warwick):
‘Death as Displacement: Psychoanalysis, Modernism and Old Age’

Kirsty Martin (University of Exeter):
‘Not the sense of well-being”: T. S. Eliot and Happiness’

Laura Salisbury (University of Exeter):
‘Slow Revolutions: Modernism and the Weight of Embodied Thinking’


Modernist formal and thematic innovation is indebted to medical and psychoanalytic discourses of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. These discourses reconfigured, often in revolutionary ways, understandings of both pathological and everyday being-in-the-world, with a new emphasis on the embodied mind.

Writing to Ernest Collings in 1913, D.H. Lawrence declared that his ‘great religion’ was a ‘belief in the flesh, as being wiser than the intellect’: while we can ‘go wrong in our minds’, he argued, ‘what our blood feels and believes and says, is always true.’ Lawrence’s emphasis on ‘blood wisdom’ and the ‘great nerve centres of the body’ can be read in the context of his own experience of illness. While illness rarely takes centre-stage, it haunts Lawrence’s work: ‘one sheds one’s sickness in books’, he comments in a 1913 letter, ‘repeats and presents again one’s emotions, to be master of them’. Maude’s paper will analyse the phenomenology of illness in Lawrence’s writing, and consider its impact on his early modernist aesthetic.

Barry’s paper will reflect on Freud’s beliefs about the impossibility of successful psychoanalytic therapy in old age. On the one hand, the fear that an ‘accumulation’ of relevant psychic data over the course of a life might be so vast as to be impossible to analyse challenges positivist notions about development and autobiographical memory. On the other hand, the supposed waning of the subject’s drives, which drains them of the libidinal energy necessary for psychoanalytic change, also surfaces in early twentieth-century writing. These ideas will be examined in the work of Proust, Thomas Mann and Beckett.

In ‘The Dry Salvages’ (1941), T. S. Eliot emphasises the importance of what he calls ‘the moments of happiness’.  Yet no sooner has he mentioned happiness than he is at pains to point out what it is not.  It is ‘not the sense of well-being, /Fruition, fulfilment, security or affection...’.  Partly as a result of such negations, Eliot’s work has rarely been considered in terms of happiness, and is more frequently studied in relation to anxiety and distress.  Contextualising Eliot’s work in relation to early twentieth-century medicine and economics, however, Martin will argue that his tangled poetics of happiness sheds light on the meaning of well-being in the early-twentieth century.

Aldous Huxley states that ‘[s]peed [...] provides the one genuinely modern pleasure’, and it has been a critical commonplace to read modernism as a reflection of the shock of the new and of a fast-paced present. In its analysis of planes, trains, and automobiles, ragtime and jazz, telegraphs and telephones, recent scholarship has investigated how modernity produced accelerated lives, while shaping a revolutionary aesthetic capable of registering those lives’ sensations. Salisbury’s paper, however, examines modernism’s concern to explore slowness as a way of attending to the embodied mind. Exploring modernism’s attention to the revolutions of stilled, impeded, or suspended time, this paper shows how Beckett and Woolf make use of a peculiarly embodied thinking as a way of slowing, taking or gathering time, rather than simply allowing time to pass.

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