The reconstruction of meaning amid « shells, bones and silence »: Woolf’s retrieving of reality among the relics of war


Virginia Woolf’s desert(ed) landscapes are fraught with dead animals and scattered bones that appear as the remnants of perverted sacrifices, distant echoes of ancestral rites, that have shed their meaning and become impossible to decipher. It is as if they bore testimony to an original, more primitive system of significance in harmony with the real, one that would have been lost and ought to be retrieved.
Throughout Woolf’s fiction, the looming threat of the two World Wars, their violence and induced grief, are constantly implied by the lingering presence of the aforementioned traces that foreshadow an impending and inescapable death. Moreover, the absence of landmarks in a society scarred by the war is echoed by the increasing misreading of signs that results from the emergence of advertising, a device inscribing on the world a new model of fragmented writing. As symbols are disconnected from their usual implied meaning, novels such as Mrs Dalloway or Between the Acts mirror a more general loss of values and expose the inadequacy of the signifiers of a language that rings hollow.
The proposed paper will investigate the ways in which Virginia Woolf’s fiction seeks to renew meaning by rebuilding a language able to articulate reality.

Les paysages désert(é)s de Virginia Woolf sont jonchés d’animaux morts et d’ossements éparpillés, véritables résidus de sacrifices dévoyés et échos de rites ancestraux qui semblent avoir perdu leur signification et sont désormais impossibles à déchiffrer. Ils apparaissent comme les témoins aveugles d’un système de sens originel, en adéquation avec le réel, qui en aurait été détourné et qu’il s’agirait de retrouver.
La fiction de Woolf est marquée par la menace insidieuse des deux guerres mondiales, et la violence et le deuil en sont sans cesse évoqués au travers de la persistance de ces traces qui présagent une mort imminente et inéluctable. L’absence de repères dans une société défigurée par la guerre est en outre traduite par le défaut d’interprétation des signes qui résulte des nouveaux oracles de la publicité, qui inscrit sur le monde les éclats d’une écriture fragmentée. Alors que les symboles sont déconnectés de leur signification habituelle, des romans comme Mrs Dalloway ou Between the Acts reflètent une perte de valeurs et de sens plus générale et dénonce l’évidement des signifiants d’un langage qui tourne à vide.
Cet article explore les stratégies d’écriture par lesquelles la fiction de Virginia Woolf tâche de renouveler le sens en reconstruisant un langage capable d’articuler la réalité.

Modernist Literature, War, Real, Semiotics, Reconstruction



The reconstruction of meaning amid “shells, bones and silence[1]: Woolf’s retrieving of reality among the relics of war

The recurring desert – or rather deserted – landscapes of Virginia Woolf’s fiction are fraught with decaying houses, abandoned objects and clothes, traces of a human presence that seems irretrievably lost. Given the historical context, it is easy to associate these ruins with a “waste land,” a no man’s land scarred by war and impossible to rebuild – save perhaps thanks to writing. In To the Lighthouse, the first World War is only hinted at, reduced to a mere echo in the distance, in the margin of the text – yet the rupture it introduced resonates throughout the novel; it is mirrored in the characters’ lives as well as in the structure of the book which is divided in three parts. Right in the middle, in “Time Passes,” the war appears as what deprives both the house and the text of their characters, whose death is only mentioned between brackets – these appear as a typographical means to elude war atrocities while at the same time reinscribing them quite obviously in a text that literally frames death. As the novel’s aspiring artist, Lily Briscoe, endeavours to retrieve what has been lost by painting the late Mrs Ramsay, that very line standing in the middle appears as what threatens but ultimately preserves the equilibrium – both breaking and bridging past, present and future.

In a similar attempt to represent the world devoid of human life, the interludes in The Waves depict a spectacular landscape that turns out impossible to account for, combining contradictory perspectives which thwart vision and prevent any rational representation on the reader’s part. Such a disruption of order implies that something has taken place, that the familiar world has surrendered to a mysterious – unnamed, and perhaps unnameable – event. The ninth interlude presents a desolate landscape where the dissolution of shapes and colours against an ineluctable invasion of obscurity submerging the earth recalls the “downpouring of immense darkness” in “Time Passes”: “Nothing, it seemed, could survive the flood, the profusion of darkness” (TL 103). Amidst the soot and ashes of this landscape, all in shades of grey and black, an empty snakeskin nailed to a wall, an isolated remain of an absent adder, stands out as a peculiar image:

The tree shook its branches and a scattering of leaves fell to the ground. There they settled with perfect composure on the precise spot where they would await dissolution. Black and grey were shot into the garden from the broken vessel that had once held red light. Dark shadows blackened the tunnels between the stalks. The thrush was silent and the worm sucked itself back into its narrow hole. Now and again a whitened and hollow straw was blown from an old nest and fell into the dark grasses among the rotten apples. The light had faded from the tool-house wall and the adder’s skin hung from the nail empty. All the colours in the room had overflown their banks. The precise brush stroke was swollen and lop-sided; cupboards and chairs melted their brown masses into one huge obscurity. The height from floor to ceiling was hung with vast curtains of shaking darkness. The looking-glass was pale as the mouth of a cave shadowed by hanging creepers. (W 181, my emphasis)

The image recurs elsewhere in the novel, as each character fantasises its own (self-)sacrifice, often in extremely violent terms, evoking maimed bodies nailed to the wall of childhood, of love, or of an antagonistic, highly-codified, and outdated society. These unperformed sacrifices surround and shed light on the seventh character, unvoiced yet at the very centre, Percival, whose anti-heroic death – falling off his horse – rings all the more absurd. In the above quotation, having shed a layer of its skin and got rid of what was dead and superfluous, the adder ought to be elsewhere, and its moulding might symbolise a form of rebirth, or even of resurrection, which is why I’ve always found the image striking, as both residue of a prosaic crucifixion and empty shroud of Christ. But here, the emphasis is laid on the emptiness. Images resulting from a general hollowing out are ubiquitous in the text, from hollow straws to narrow holes, empty shells and abandoned nests. The very place of the word “empty” underlines its importance.

Indeed, at the very end of the sentence, the adjective seems to refer back to the nail as much as to the skin, and overall the entire image is emptied of its symbolical force – the sign emptied of its meaning marks the failure of transcendence. “The light had faded”: no divine light might be shed on this desacralized crucifixion whose remains only are left for us to read; no vital light allows us to see through the adder’s skin, as opaque as a closed eyelid. On the contrary, a curtain of darkness covers the earth and clouds the mind. The world has been subjected to a double hollowing out: at once because of the absence of human beings, which haunt it from the depths of the looking-glass, and because of the loss of meaning of a well-known and distorted symbol; which in turn contradicts any possible redemption or future.

Woolf’s landscapes are fraught with dead animals and scattered bones that appear as the remnants of perverted sacrifices, distant echoes of ancestral rites, that have shed their meaning and become impossible to decipher. Numerous bones encroach upon the world of the living, from Jacob’s sheep jaw found on the beach[2] to the shadow of the boar’s skull in the Ramsey children’s bedroom.[3] Such figures also creep up as counterparts of traumatic historical events that they evoke without naming, events they conjure up without succeeding to ward them off.[4] The looming threat of the two World Wars, their violence and induced grief, are constantly implied by the lingering presence of these traces that foreshadow an impending and inescapable death that will not allow for any redemption (all the more since, because of the scale and new technologies of these conflicts, man appeared as the one crafting his own possibly complete annihilation). It seems to me that this clearly alludes to the meaninglessness of the war and the failed, uncalled for, ineffective sacrifices it brought in its wake, as innumerable soldiers were slaughtered on the altar of a society whose very foundations had been shaken.[5] Besides, these forms aren’t merely figures in the margin, but also persist as the symptoms of a forgotten reality, as the paradoxical modernist inscriptions of a general loss of meaning and values resulting from the increasing irrelevance of a language disconnected from the real that it betrays. It is as if they bore witness to an original, more primitive system of significance in harmony with the real, a system that would have been lost and ought to be retrieved. I hereby wish to investigate the ways in which Virginia Woolf’s fiction seeks to renew meaning by rebuilding a language able to articulate reality.

Although set in June 1939, Between the Acts’s pastoral landscape at first sight seems sheltered from the impending outbreak of the war – and yet the odd toad-snake chimera choking on the ground does appear as a threat, an uncanny anomaly (or “clocherie de la réalité” to use Lacan’s expression), a worrying figure representing the unrepresentable:

There, couched in the grass, curled in an olive green ring, was a snake. Dead? No, choked with a toad in its mouth. The snake was unable to swallow, the toad was unable to die. A spasm made the ribs contract; blood oozed. It was birth the wrong way round—a monstrous inversion. So, raising his foot, he stamped on them. The mass crushed and slithered. The white canvas on his tennis shoes was bloodstained and sticky. But it was action. Action relieved him. He strode to the Barn, with blood on his shoes. (BA 89)

This so-called “monstrous inversion,” whether hybrid totem, interrupted metamorphosis or aborted birth, is a liminal figure on the border between life and death, an image of Freud’s primitive taboo, both sacred and unclean.[6] Giles’s gesture on the one hand resembles a purifying ritual to annihilate the abject object threatening his integrity, and on the other hand an attempt out of the general apathy that paralyses civilisation during the rise of fascism.[7] It is an action reaffirming the self against the Other, the Enemy, lurking on the other side of the Channel and slyly creeping into the British society it will maim. The cows and nature surrounding the novel make it the perfect setting for the “rite of spring” to take place. However, the purifying ceremony is again ineffective, the trace only replaced by yet another trace, a persisting bloodstain[8]. The failure might be attributed to a lack of direction – and indeed, one may wonder, as Mrs Dalloway with her party:

And it was an offering; to combine, to create; but to whom?
An offering for the sake of offering, perhaps. (MD 103)

The question “to whom?” remains unanswered and resonates only in the blank between the two paragraphs, where it might echo Septimus’s identical interrogation: “[H]e, Septimus, was alone, called forth in advance of the mass of men to hear the truth, to learn the meaning, which now at last, after all the toils of civilisation—Greeks, Romans, Shakespeare, Darwin, and now himself—was to be given whole to… “To whom?” he asked aloud” (MD 57).

Over the following pages, Septimus’s body is pierced through by the elements; the sounds of the city become a mineral melody coming straight from the rocks on which lies the drowned body of the self perceived as another: “But he himself remained high on his rock, like a drowned sailor on a rock. I leant over the edge of the boat and fell down, he thought. I went under the sea. I have been dead, and yet am now alive” (MD 58-59). The trauma of the war has had the effect of a sea-change on Septimus, mirroring the change it imprinted on society as a whole. The war experience may have rendered him achingly aware of the beauty surrounding him after an unprecedented long time in the darkness of the trenches, it also remains as a wound that overturns the concept of religious offering and twists it into an absurd sacrifice of soldiers to the war, to society, and to “you” in general, crystallised in Dr Holmes as Septimus ultimately exclaims “I’ll give it you” (MD 127) right before jumping out of the window. With his suicide, Septimus might well extract himself from the anonymous crowd of soldiers deprived of their own personal experience by the new death technologies developed during the war, and by the scale of the slaughter they participated in. Thus, this final sacrifice could become a means to replay the collective death and to appropriate it by giving it at least some of the traditional, heroic nobleness it used to have in former battles.

In war contexts, nothing, it seems, makes sense anymore. This also contaminates the way language itself works. Indeed, ideologies manage to destroy the original meaning of symbols and signifiers in order to reinforce the political power of language.[9] Thanks to a mise-en-abyme, Between the Acts draws our attention to and exposes the automated system of political language. Indeed, a pageant staged by Miss La Trobe usurps the framework of Elizabethan (and more generally British) pageants, which underlines their similarities with the workings of the 1930s fascist and Nazi propaganda.[10] Both reduce the audience to passive spectators, simple consumers of the design presented to them, submitted to an obvious theme whose self-evident signification prevents them from thinking, overwhelmed with familiar images and colours which clog their vision, framed by the ritualization and repetition of the same, which eventually reassure them by comforting their place within the community. Whether it refers to the Church, the monarch or the fascist dictator, religious or civic pageants as much as propaganda celebrate the power of the ruler, making him retrospectively responsible for past victories and promising a virtuous and glorious future for a nation that comes together de facto under his yoke. Opposite the easy symbols of propaganda, which create mechanical automatisms that numb the minds of the people, Woolf on the contrary clutters her fiction with symbols that resist. Miss La Trobe’s pageant likewise strips the conventions of traditional pageants by hindering the identification of a recognizable “theme”. By blurring usual landmarks, the performance brings to our attention the vacuity lurking in ambush behind the signs, leaving its perplexed audience to wonder at a meaning that constantly escapes its grasp. Both the audience in the novel and we readers are left with no choice but to take up the hermeneutical quest and thus start reappropriating our ability for reflexion.

Moreover, the infringement of the present moment and of (fictional) reality into the pageant, which is constantly interrupted by comments from the audience, by the birds, cows or even the rain, and the intermingling of modernity and tradition, prevents repetition and shakes the symbolical power. The characters of the pageant are played by amateur villagers whose costumes emphasise artifice[11] by mimicking the doubling of the surface, reinforcing the opacity of the sign, and denouncing the illusion of theatre – and of meaning. Therefore, the feelings of the director, Miss La Trobe, waver according to the success of a shared vision or the failure of revelation. What she seeks is to make the scales fall from the audience’s eyes, and thus achieve a moment of vision akin to Woolf’s famous moments of being.

Such moments of being rip through the reassuring veil weaved out of familiar moments of non-being: they are “a blow”, not “simply a blow from an enemy hidden behind the cotton wool of daily life” but rather “a revelation of some order, […] a token of some real thing behind appearances” (MB 72). Woolf’s writing both exposes shallowness and inadequacy of language and becomes a token of that “real thing” hidden underneath its surface. Out of the “shells, bones and silence” (W 85) of worn out literary leitmotifs and signifiers, Woolf endeavours to reinstate symbolical depth and “make it real by putting it into words” (MB 72).

The absence of landmarks in a society scarred by the war is also echoed by the increasing misreading of signs that results from the emergence of advertising, a device inscribing on the walls of the city a new model of fleeting and fragmented writing. In Mrs Dalloway, the dark panels of the official car windows conceal a mysterious figure whose identity might only be revealed by next day’s “gossip columns”, while the general public’s attention is deterred by the plane advertisement, writing an ephemeral message of smoke that vanishes into thin air before it even ends. As much as symbols, words are disconnected from their usual implied meaning and make up a language that rings hollow, as “vans with the odd names of those engaged in odd industries – Sprules, Manufacturer of Saw-dust; Grabb, to whom no piece of waste paper comes amiss – fell flat as a bad joke” (VO 6). Whether serving a political or advertising agenda, words seem to have become subjected to the power-relations and exchange values that have seeped in and replaced the lost ritualistic aura of works of art.[12] To “make it real by putting it into words”, the signifier needs to be emptied of its hackneyed, perverted signified for the original meaning to be retrieved or reconstructed anew.

Between the Acts’ last sentences read: “Then the curtain rose. They spoke.” They point towards speech and silence it, replacing it with the blank page of the end. The curtain nevertheless rises, and the end period paradoxically opens up endless possibilities, inextricable from the writer’s desire to unveil what had been concealed by language. Woolf’s oblique references to the war aren’t limited to bombshells echoing in the distance, as the empty shells of words also reveal the gaping inherent to language. Indeed, when it comes to language and the real, it seems that one of the two always needs to be sacrificed on the altar of the other. Woolf’s endeavour to retrieve the lost meaning of language pertains to a typically modernist quest that exposes its inadequacy to, and rupture with, the Real. Banging together words that ring hollow, signifiers that are disconnected from their signified and from the world they are meant to articulate, the writer hopes to rekindle the spark of an original, pre-historical language and achieve a simpler, purer, almost inarticulate, “little language” (in Bernard’s words, The Waves).

In front of the threat of incoherence embodied by the war, which infects human bodies and the bodies of language, a return to the roots is necessary – and I shall end this presentation by reminding you of the old lady’s ancestral and wordless song,[13] outside a London Tube station:

The “voice of an ancient spring” conjures up the distant past, but also ushers in the future, if one considers the contemporary emergence of scat, a likewise wordless jazz improvisation where rhythm and sounds take over meaning.

War introduces a new paradigm that contraries semiotics[14] and deconstructs the familiar system of the meaning of signs. In that sense, Woolf’s writing appears as oddly poststructuralist, as it emphasises its own instability, it points towards the reality language fails to translate in a proto-Derridean deferral of meaning. To face the threat of dissolution that haunted the first example from The Waves, the solution might be found in the snakeskin, cleared of everything that clogged it, left on the paper as a trace of the inexpressible, as a form of writing without language, a shell whose very emptiness threatened syntactical order, only hinting at the ungraspable adder. Perhaps only by shedding its own skins of decaying meaning might writing retrieve a truer significance and reconstruct a new world, healed from the “shells, bones and silence” of the war.



[1] W 85.

[2] Jacob’s very own name, Flanders, might foreshadow his upcoming death on Flanders’ Fields, as several critics have noted: “Jacob’s patronym marks a destiny already reached, a death already undergone – Jacob’s doom” (Marcus 84). See also Briggs 142.

[3] It is striking that these fragments should be associated with children as transgressions concentrating what Julia Kristeva sees as the acme of abjection, when “la mort qui, de toute façon, me tue, se mêle à ce qui, dans mon univers vivant, est censé me sauver de la mort” (Kristeva 12).

[4] In that sense, such figures are close to that “something” akin to Julia Kristeva’s “abject” : “Surgissement massif et abrupt d’une étrangeté qui, si elle a pu m’être familière dans une vie opaque et oubliée, me harcèle maintenant comme radicalement séparée, répugnante. Pas moi. Pas ça. Mais pas rien non plus. Un « quelque chose » que je ne reconnais pas comme chose. Un poids de non-sens qui n’a rien d’insignifiant et qui m’écrase. A la lisière de l’inexistence et de l’hallucination, d’une réalité qui, si je la reconnais, m’annihile” (Kristeva 10).

[5] “a remark often recurring: how we’re being led to the altar this spring: its flowers will I suppose nod & yellow & redden the garden with the bombs falling—oh, its a queer sense of suspense, being led up to the spring of 1940—” (Diary v 264).

[6] See Freud.

[7] The image originates from September 4, 1935, as Woolf records it in her diary, where it is intrinsically linked to death and collective suicide/sacrifice: “We saw a snake eating a toad: it had half the toad in, half out; gave a suck now & then. The toad slowly disappearing. L. poked its tail; the snake was sick of the crushed toad, & I dreamt of men committing suicide & cd. see the body shooting through the water” (Diary iv 338). Hermione Lee comments: “[Woolf] kept coming back to the sickening, fascinating sight of the half-dead, half-ingested living corpse. She used it as an image of power and violence when she saw Bevin crushing Lansbury at the Labour Party conference in October: he was like a snake who swallowed a toad’ (Letters v 432). She used it for her own sense of being eaten alive, preyed on, by what she had created: ‘My book […] won’t finish; its like some snake thats been half run over but always pops its head up’ (Letters v 448). In Between the Acts, […] she brought the thing back in full technicolour, oozing with blood and gore, as an image of a ‘monstrous inversion’, an emblem for a paralyzed civilisation […] which the Fascistic male stamps on […]” (Lee 666).

[8] The stain recalls the one that lingers on the surface of the sea in To the Lighthouse, reflecting the blood shed by the soldiers during the First World War: “there was a purplish stain upon the bland surface of the sea as if something had boiled and bled, invisibly, beneath. […] It was difficult blandly to overlook [the intrusion], to abolish [its] significance in the landscape; to continue, as one walked by the sea, to marvel how beauty outside mirrored beauty within (TL 109).

[9] This gradual infection of language is something which Woolf herself noted as early as 1938 in a letter to her sister Vanessa Bell, deploring the fact that many of her artist contemporaries gave in to such ideological language: “All books are now rank with the slimy seaweed of politics; mouldy and mildewed” (Letters vi 294).

[10] See Miller.

[11]During the pageant, the audience recognizes figures in the play on two levels at once, seeing both the role and the actor’s everyday identity” (Callan 230).

[12] See Benjamin.

[13] This “inarticulate moan” seems to persist through time, and to grant narrative the power “not just to repeat the past but to resurrect it in another form”, according to J. Hillis Miller. He argues that the passage is derived from Richard Strauss’s song “Allerseelen” with the words by Hermann von Glim, and provides a translation beginning with “Place on the table the perfuming heather, / Bring here the last red asters, / And let us again speak of love, / As once in May”.

[14] The significance of discourse as an ideological construct is developed in Barthes’s semiotics. He stresses the difference between the “system” of a closed, monological, and rhetorical ideology that is meant to be implemented, and the “systematic” which comes into play as an “open language” (“du langage ouvert, infini, dégagé de toute illusion (prétention) référentielle”). In such regards, the corpses of animals become traces of signifiers (“poussière d’or du signifiant”), crushed signs spread out on the page aiming at creating an unlimited language (“illimiter le langage”). Between the Acts very last sentence marks the advent of a language “without ‘object’ and without ‘subject’” (“sans ‘objet’ [et] “sans ‘sujet’”) (Barthes 114-115, 11).



Barthes, Roland. Sade, Fourier, Loyola. Paris: Seuil, 1971.

Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1936.

Briggs, Julia. “‘Like a Shell of a Sandhill’: Woolf’s Images of Emptiness”, Reading Virginia Woolf. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006: 141-151.

Callan, Stephanie. “Exploring the Confluence of Primitive Ritual and Modern Longing in Between the Acts.

Freud, Sigmund. Totem et tabou. Interprétation par la psychanalyse de la vie sociale des peuples primitifs (1913), Paris, Petite Bibliothèque Payot, 1971.

Hillis Miller, Joseph. “Mrs. Dalloway: Repetition as the Raising of the Dead”, Fiction and Repetition – Seven English Novels. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982: 176-202.

Kristeva, Julia. Pouvoirs de l’horreur. Paris: Seuil, 1983.

Lee, Hermione. Virginia Woolf, Londres, Chatto & Windus, 1996.

Marcus, Laura. Virginia Woolf. Plymouth: Northcote House, 1997.

Miller, Marlowe A. “Unveiling ‘the dialectic of culture and barbarism’ in British pageantry: Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts”, Papers on Language & Literature, 34.2 (spring 1998): 134-161.

Woolf Virginia. The Diary of Virginia Woolf, 5 vols. Ed. Anne Olivier Bell and Andrew McNeillie. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1979-85. Abridged Diary.

Woolf, Virginia. The Letters of Virginia Woolf, 6 vols. Ed. Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann. London: Hogarth Press, 1975-80. Abridged Letters.

Woolf, Virginia. The Voyage Out (1915). Ed. Lorna Sage. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. Abridged VO.

Woolf, Virginia. The Waves (1931). Ed. Kate Flint. Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 2000. Abridged W.

Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse (1927). Ed. David Bradshaw. Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 2006. Abridged TL.

Pauline Macadré is currently a lecturer (PRAG) at the University of Reims Champagne-Ardenne. She defended her doctoral thesis on the representation of the real in Virginia Woolf’s fiction under the supervision of Professor Frédéric Regard at Sorbonne University in 2019 (Prix André Topia en Études Modernistes de la Chancellerie de Paris, 2020). Her research focuses on the place and authority of the female subject in the world and in writing, and explores the aesthetic and ethical implications of a non-anthropocentric perspective.

Obscene Modernity: Ezra Pound against the Great War


Following on observations on obscenity in Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s works, this article successively examines poems, and essays by Ezra Pound to show how the obscenity of war, and of the Great War in particular, is a trigger for a psychotic decompensation of both personal and collective delusions, a process that after a paroxystic moment of crystallization contaminates both his life and his work. It generates “fables of aggression” in the words of Fredric Jameson about Wyndham Lewis, or the critique of society and the economy that Tim Redman sees unfolding in Ezra Pound’s “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” as early as 1917 with the persona of E.P. and its pathological morbidity. According to Redman’s analysis of Pound’s turn to fascism, “so much of […] Pound’s transformation in thought is directly attributable to the shattering experience of the war”, so that one can trace the genesis of this “emotional reaction” in the work of Ezra Pound. At this historical turning point of the Great War, the obscenity of war implies both senses of the word’s etymology: ill-omened and abominable (or abject), the war becomes the event that entails a contradictory response, a divorce from the reality of the world that gives way to disconnected discourses of remediation and idealization, and a melancholic persistence in the moment of demystification and resignation from this world.

Dans le silage d’observations faites sur l’obscénité chez louis-Ferdinand Céline, cet article examine des poèmes et essais d’Ezra Pound afin de montrer comment l’obscénité de la guerre, et de la Grande Guerre en particulier, déclenche la décompensation psychotique d’illusions personnelles et collectives, un processus, qui, après un temps de cristallisation paroxiystique, contamine la vie et l’œuvre. Il produit des « fables de l’agression », pour reprendre les mots de Fredric Jameson à propos de Wyndham Lewis, une critique de la société et de l’économie que Tim Redan voit se déployer dès 1917 dans « Hugh Selwyn Mauberley » d’Ezra Pound avec la persona d’E.P. et sa morbidité pathologique. Selon l’analyse que fait Redman du virage fasciste d’Ezra Pound, « une large part de la transformation de la pensée de Pound est directement liée à l’expérience fracassante de la guerre », de sorte que l’on peut suivre la trace de cette « réaction émotionnelle » dans toute son œuvre. À ce tournant historique de la Grande Guerre, l’obscénité de la guerre s’exprime dans les deux sens étymologiques du terme : néfaste et abominable (ou abjecte), la guerre devient l’événement qui provoque une réaction contradictoire, une dissociation de la réalité du monde qui engendre des discours déconnectés de remédiation et d’idéalisation ainsi qu’une persistance mélancolique dans un présent de démystification et de retrait de ce monde.

Ezra Pound, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska,  American poetry, The Cantos, Fascism, The Great War or WWI


In the “Carnet du cuirassier Destouches”, Louis-Ferdinand Céline writes:

51) un fond de tristesse est au fond de moi-même et si je n’ai pas le courage de le chasser par une occupation quelconque il prend bientôt des proportions énormes
53) au point que cette mélancolie profonde ne tarde pas à recouvrir tous mes ennuis et se fond en eux pour me torturer en mon fond intérieur. (Céline123)

Sadness, melancholy, and torture are the key words of a few lines that detract from the general impression one has of his writings, their violence, their use of slang to the limits of intelligibility, and above all the ideological options that make them entirely unacceptable in a vast number of instances. In Céline, Philippe Sollers attempts, against all odds and very often in ways that fail to come to any kind of resolution, to redeem Céline’s antisemitism through the fascination exerted by his literary talent, and his commitment to the reinvigoration of the French language: “Céline engage contre le diable une lutte à mort pour conserver la musique de sa langue” (Sollers 11).

Le tragique, pour Céline, est que cette langue en voie de disparition traduit, dans le renoncement et la résignation, la volonté suicidaire d’un peuple. […] Si bien que pour obtenir « le rendu émotif intime », seule façon d’écrire en français selon Céline, mais pour combien de temps, outre le labeur accablant, il faut traiter l’Histoire en direct, se refuser aux romans historiques insignifiants, aux romans naturalistes arriérés dont les Français se bourrent. (Sollers 13)

What Sollers’s analysis does not fully confront, however, is precisely the nature of the historical event that condemns all those works to insignificance, the major discrepancy between the capabilities of language and the actuality of experience, that makes previous modes not only outdated but radically defective. Do we actually want to redeem Céline as Sollers repeatedly in his essays constructs him as a scapegoat whereby a community tries to atone for sins it keeps committing? Or rather do we want to face the obsenity of Céline’s discourse as the testimony to the inspeakable horror of actions that cannot be collectively disowned?

In Pouvoirs de l’horreur, Julia Kristeva also devotes pages to Céline, as she examines the possible causes of the readership’s fascination for the work. Céline’s words function as catalysts or revealers of a place we refuse to travel, both inside and outside ourselves, which is made of inversions and perversions:

La lecture de Céline nous saisit en ce lieu fragile de notre subjectivité où nos défenses écroulées dévoilent, sous les apparences d’un château-fort, une peau écorchée : ni dedans ni dehors, l’extérieur blessant se renversant en dedans abominable, la guerre côtoyant la pourriture, alors que la rigidité sociale et familiale, faux masque, s’écroule dans l’abomination bien-aimée d’un vice innocent. Univers de frontières, de bascules, d’identités fragiles et confondues, errances du sujet et de ses objets, peurs et combats, abjections et lyrismes. A la charnière du social et de l’asocial, du familial et du délinquant, du féminin et du masculin, de la tendresse et du meurtre. (Kristeva 1980, 159)

What makes his writing so compelling is that it actualizes what she calls “ a black explosion” (159) that fails to reorder the organization it destroys, and performs the “apocalyptic collapse” which is the paroxystic instance of “a technique that is a way of being” (161-162). If we return to some works, Céline’s being most certainly the most radical, it is because they lay out in front of us the failure of rationality to grasp the mechanisms of their fascination and repulsion, as well as the potency of these mechanisms. Kristeva sets a tall task to the analyst as they are themselves caught in what she calls the “braid” (“tresse”) of abjection:

L’analyste, puisqu’il interprète, est sans doute parmi les rares témoins modernes du fait que nous dansons sur un volcan. Qu’il y puise sa jouissance perverse, soit ; à condition qu’il fasse éclater, en sa qualité d’homme ou de femme sans qualité, la logique la plus enfouie de nos angoisses et de nos haines. Pourra-t-il alors radiographier l’horreur sans en capitaliser le pouvoir ? Exhiber l’abject sans se confondre avec lui ?
Probablement pas. (Kristeva 1980, 247)

This is most probably the foundation on which any study of the genesis of many poets’ vision of the decay, and shipwreck of civilization can be built. The disgust for society, community, and the violence of descriptions of their decadence, are projections of a disgust from which the self cannot abstract, or substract itself.

No one is innocent of the “crime” which they wish to ascribe to “modernity,” in the words of Jean-Michel Rabaté, and the Great War plays a specific historical part in the recognition of this collective crime, so that our world, and its artefacts can be read as the elements of a “crime scene”. As he studies the emergence and the consequences of André Breton’s 1918 text entitled “Sujet”, Rabaté locates in the interwar years a turning point of the arts and literature that can be ascribed to a process of rejection and abjection defamiliarizing and de-realizing the world that surrounds us, as too horrible to be real. As Rabaté explains, “Sujet” is the transcription of the psychotic delirium of a traumatized soldier Breton met by chance in Saint-Dizier (Rabaté 240):

Il s’agissait d’un soldat traumatisé par le combat qui, en conséquence, avait cessé de croire à la réalité de la guerre. Pour ce patient, la seule manière de survivre psychiquement avait été de croire que la guerre n’était qu’un immense simulacre. Pour lui, les champs ensanglantés, les ruines et les cadavres n’étaient qu’une illusion théâtrale manipulée par des forces occultes. […] Le mécanisme de l’interprétation psychotique du monde suit la logique la plus inattaquable : comment le spectacle de massacres d’humains à une telle échelle pourrait-il être croyable? […] Dans « Sujet », on découvre que le monde entier est devenu un simulacre délirant. (Rabaté 241-242)

According to Rabaté, a number of hystericizing responses to the horror postponed then induced the paranoid reading of this psychosis which reaches out from the specific instances of individuals to the collective mind. Their expression may reside in obscenity as we commonly understand it, the exhibition of unbelievable spectacles that petrify and/or precipitate the viewer into disbelief and outrage.

Yet it will be our contention here, as we trace the genesis of this psychosis in the work of Ezra Pound at this historical turning point of the Great War, that the obscene lies in the double sense of the word’s etymology: ill-omened and abominable (or abject), the war becomes the event that triggers a contradictory response, a divorce from the reality of the world that gives way to disconnected discourses of remediation and idealization, and a melancholic persistence in the moment of demystification and resignation from this world. To this effect, I would like first to take into consideration the evolution of Blast, a little magazine which Pound edited and which had two issues (one before the beginning of the war, the other right after the death of his friend sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brezska in 1915): the two issues, as their tone varies, and they reposition the aesthetic options of early 1914 in front of the war and its consequences, are symptomatic of the historical, and aesthetic turn, that entails a more explicit assessment of modernity as obscene. Secondly, the memoir to Gaudier composed by Pound and published in retrospect, builds what we could call a monument against this obscenity, a book in the guise of a memorial as much as a memoir, in keeping with the memorials that pervade France, and were key not in the preservation of peace (their initial intention) but as reminders of an abjection that fostered more violence and horror. This second moment will allow me to return to Pound’s poems and notably, in a “A Draft of XVI Cantos,” to Canto 16 as it weaves references to the war into a morbid web of significance. This composition pertains to a psychotic ideological reconstruction akin to the de-realization at work in the traumatized soldier’s psychosis: integrating the obscene spectacle of dehumanization, it cancels it through its narrativization, fictionalization, and thus fails to disempower it. Although against the war in intent, the discourse is derailed into a violence that can but lead to more destruction, and will resurface years after, in the 1950s. The cantos are built to “shore against ruin,” to pick up T.S. Eliot’s words, to oppose obscenity, but they in turn are obscene insofar as they are omens for an abominable future. The trajectory is well summarized by Hugh Kenner in The Pound Era:

Six weeks after Blast was published Europe was at war.
End of a Vortex, though it was 1919 before Pound fully realized this bitter fact. By then he had a theme to animate what was to have been the Vorticist epic and became instead a poem on vortices and their fate: shaping of characterizing energies, and the bellum perenne that dissipates them. (Kenner 247)

What will be outlined, then, is the advent of an “everlasting war,” that pathologically entwines the negativity of experience and the stridency of expression into the hermetic combine of obscene poems.

Blast: the black explosion

 As is well known, Blast was a short-lived little magazine, mainly edited by Ezra Pound, and by Wyndham Lewis, as part of promoting Vorticism, a London-based alternative to Italian futurism, that took over some of its aesthetic options (notably the interest in geometrical form, and the fascination for movement and energy as elements to be integrated to the more static visual and literary arts). The name of the journal Blast was in itself reminiscent of these options, with the addition of an agonistic, or even belligerent overtone, as it explicitly referred to the aftermath of an explosion, its destructive and devastating power. As a theoretical imperative before any reconstruction of art, one found the transfer of an aesthetics of war and combat that the “blast” of the Vorticist bomb came to embody. The vivid pink cover, as has been remarked upon by many critics, was meant to draw attention, and to surprise. Monochromatic and geometrical it took over some of the new typographical habits but also rearranged them diagonally so as to lend dynamics to the static lay out of the journal.

And indeed if one looks at the various texts gathered in the journal, many of them take the form of manifestoes: a series of statements and injunctions towards the redefinition of the arts. Two texts function together as replications of similar choices in possibly different media: “Vortex Pound” and “Vortex Gaudier Brzeska.” They form a triptych with a third vortex, authored by Wyndham Lewis. In “Vortex Pound,” what is most remarkable is the commitment to modern technology, and the insistance on the arts’ adopting the “mechanics” of engines or “turbines” (Blast 153) The basic impulse comes from the refusal to persist in what is perceived as an overall inertia, the incapability of man to take his life into his own hands, to cease being the passive receiver of “impressions” to become an agent of expression or, in Pound’s words, direction (“DIRECTING,” [Blast 153]) . The goal of these assertions is obviously to undermine futurism, deemed to be a “dispersal” of energy (Blast 153), in favor of an aesthetics that would use the energy of the past, as it rushes into the present to significantly shape the future. Only a few months before the war, in our restropective glance, the emphasis on a perception of humanity as bogged in a quagmire of “spent” expressions and unable of actually expressing, with the power and « efficiency » of modernity (Blast 153).

The charge against futurism is in fact still more explicit in the second page of Pound’s “Vortex,” as he refines his definition into the very well-known concept of the “primary pigment” or the “primary form” (Blast 153) that reconstruct a classification of the arts overturning the then classical Hegelian hierarchy, and reinvesting the dynamics of the arts as reformulated by Walter Pater in Studies on the History of the Renaissance.


Conceptual clarity however is probably not the main trait of this capitalized organization of the arts, that belongs more to a scream of protest against existing organizations than to the well-reflected and unemotional assessment of artistic practices and their relations to the data of perception and emotion. The “Vorticist” returns not to the primitive arts (as his interest in the arts of the primitives may suggest it) but to primitiveness in the arts, a basic and radical foundation that could be compared, to pick up on the metaphor of the bomb and the blast, to the charge concentrated into the explosive device. What we experience as art would then be indeed the blast from the explosion, and its power is meant to blow us off in a similar manner. In retrospect, one cannot but acknowledge to what extent this metaphorical trend might have seemed relevant, or at least opportune, at a time of purely theoretical invention, to become entirely unacceptable once the devastation of the blast had turned into the matter of common knowledge and direct experience. The obscenity of such discourse, entirely unapparent in the spring of 1914, will force gestures of cancellation and self-censorship in 1915.

The Gaudier Brzeska counterpart of Pound’s vortex is centered on sculpture, and if one reads the text looking out for its own modes of metaphorization to formulate the aesthetic project, one encounters even more violent phrases to describe the stakes of artistic creation. intrinsically defined as a hunter engaged in a “fight” for survival (“His livelihood depended on the hazards of the hunt,” [Blast 155]) and “superiority” (Blast 156), man is envisioned as capable of unleashing “brutal” “energy” (Blast 155). In Gaudier’s intention though, in this specific text, the brutality of energy is related to a determination to exist in the fullest sense of the term. The desire is to live “life in the absolute” (Blast 155) and to experience “the intensity of existence” (Blast 155) in such ways as permitting the revelation of the “truth of form” (Blast 155).

In what emerges, in actuality, as a more focused, condensed, and clarified statement, Gaudier points at the endgame of Vorticism in terms that tie it to an agonistic fascination. Life is redefined as tensed between the experience of an “incessant struggle” and the fiction of a “conscious superiority” (Blast 156), that would allow the “will” of the artist who has “mastered the elements” of nature (Blast 156) to rule over the world in full deliberateness and controlled performativity. The pure shapes of the geometrical projection potentially would impose themselves on the shapeless masses of disorganized existence through the effectiveness of the “vortex” that channels energy into efficiency to actualize civilization’s imperial “embrace” of the world (Blast 156). In retrospect again, the discourse does transpire as a component of, rather than a counter discourse to, the pervasive ideologies that would promote wars as the rightful wars of civilization against the forces of disorder. Modern civilization according to Pound or Gaudier certainly is not what we understand as industrialized modernity, and see as the main cause for the Great War, but its modes and methods are strikingly akin to it. The shock of the experience of the war, rooted in the physical and material confrontation to what actually happens in conditions of “incessant struggle” (Blast 156), is all the more of a “blast” as it casts a deadly light on the dead-end of agonistics as a mode for the promotion of the arts. What could be part of a metaphorical web to push aesthetic changes and innovations cannot but be re-read literally (Jean-Michel Rabaté would say psychotically or in a paranoid way) as a radical threat to the integrity of the human in all its dimensions.

Consequently the second and last issue of Blast can be considered as the stage on which the tragedy of this reversal comes to completion, seals the fate of the arts into abjection, and condemns their expressions to obscenity. The pink of the first cover is gone, as well as, one might notice, the dynamics of the slant inscription of the magazine’s title. The color is drab, the brownish tone of mud: the design by Wyndham Lewis mixes forms of what could be the buildings of the modern city with the sleek long lines of canons and bayonets, the latter further defining themselves into extensions of the arms of soldiers whose grim faces are drawn flush with the structures that consctrict and threaten to crush them. The engraving is beyond the recognition of human frailty as it enforces humanity’s dissolution into the mechanized world that destroys it. These designs are echoed in the art work that is presented inside the issue, as for instance with the engraving by Christopher Nevinson entitled “On the Way to the Trenches” (Blast War Number 89). This aesthetics quickly becomes the trademark of the Vorticists at war. The perception of no future, in contrast with the projection and shaping of the future that was at the core of the first issue’s valuation of energy, is stressed in the broken lines that belie any idea of the “direction” intimated by Pound in his initial vortex (Blast 155). It is also to be seen in the full stop that closes the date of publication in a fairly unusual use of punctuation (“15 July.” [Blast War Number Front Cover]), and in the refusal to actually number the issue: the “war number” is not a second issue of Blast, but remains unnumbered, signalling the threat to continuity and serialization, the risk of final interruption, and the singularity of crisis.

The urgency of the issue’s overall discourse, and the artists’ turn to more violent and brutal imagery to convey the shock are perceptible, remarkably, in “The Exploitation of Blood” by Wyndham Lewis (Blast War Number 24). To provoke outrage and revulsion in the reader, he resorts to the ghastly vision of war profiteers, washing their “very dirty linen” in the “sacred blood” of the “Soldier” (Blast War Number 24). Conceptualized and capitalized, the soldier in the war becomes a heroic figure of abjection, as he is the creation of a demented world, both loved and embodying the most detestable in this world. His “blood” is sacred in the strongest sense of the term: revered and feared, to be adored, and to be kept at a distance untouched and untouchable. Obscenely “us[ing] the blood of the Soldier for [their] daily domestic uses” (Blast War Number 24), some “Blackguard[s]” attack the aesthetic decisions of such as the Vorticists on the grounds of their bellicist, violent, brutal rhetorics, and it is this assimilation which Lewis is trying to counter, while unwillingly confirming it. Indeed he cannot conceal the unease which stems from the factuality of such analyses: what passed for a strategy to change the forms of art has suddenly backfired into the promotion of a violence that cannot be sustained as part and parcel of an artistic purpose. Although he acknowledges that “the War may affect Art deeply” (Blast War Number 24), he denies the fact that it may close some avenues of development in a forbidding manner by radically questioning any claims to find art’s origins in the bestiality of the “incessant struggle” for survival (Blast 156). He clings to the fiction that “Life after the War will be the same brilliant life as it was before the War” (Blast War Number 24), although the very way he phrases it is paradoxical and disorienting:

The art of to-day is a result of the life of to-day, of the appearance and vivacity of that life. Life after the War will be the same brilliant life as it was before the War––it’s appearance certainly not modified backwards.
The colour of granite would still be the same if every man in the world lay dead, water would form the same eddies and patterns and the spring would break forth in the same way. They [the soldiers] would not consider it at all reasonable to assert that their best aimed “direct” fire would alter the continuity of speculation that man had undertaken, and across which this war, like many other wars, has thrown its shadow, like an angry child’s. (Blast War Number 24)

How can life “after” be modified « backwards »? What is modified « backwards » is in fact life “before” as it is automatically reconsidered and reinterpreted as the life that led to the war. Usurping the soldiers’ voices and belittling the war as childish tantrum of customary intensity, Lewis fails to assess the epistemological turn that the war actually performs by cancelling the possibility of seeing aesthetic options as disconnected from the historical conditions of their emergence.

In this perspective, the publication in the same war issue of Ezra Pound’s “Dogmatic Statement on the Game and Play of Chess” (Blast War Number 19) cannot be confined to the reading the poet officially foregrounded.

This text is not merely a masterful example of the Vorticist poem as dynamic, playing on syntactic juxtaposition and the quick succession of images and colors to convey the speed of perceptions, and inscribe movement into the “primary pigment” of poetry that is language (Blast 155). This analysis does stand as one looks at the poem in terms of form and technique, but one cannot help but find the semantics, and the very choice of the game of chess disquieting in their appropriation of the rhetorics of war. It is no breaking news indeed that the game of chess is a war game of entrenched soldiers and threatened super powers that will not hesitate to sacrifice pawns in the name of their protection and victory. Nor is it difficult to trace in the words “striking,” “clash,” “blocked” or “contest” the signifiers of combat embedded in the text of the poem. In 1915, can “holding lines” or “embanking” fail to echo the realities of the trenches? And can one remain indifferent to the highjacking of these realities of destruction and death as positive metaphors to define the new art? They are the symptoms of two contradictory injunctions that are being enforced simultaneously: the ethical compulsion to embed the war in every speech act as it comes to inform perception as a whole; the deliberate and untenable decision to pursue the metaphorization of the new art as an art at war and of war.

Similarly, the intertextuality of French medieval poet François Villon in another of Pound’s poems of the same war issue of Blast, “Et Faim Sallir le Loup des Boys” (22) ineluctably propels the reader out to the countryside of France, and the ravaged fields of the Somme, so pervasively present in the minds and conversations as to entirely eclipse the erudite reference to a more gentile medievalism.

This medieval Pound is one of the dark ages rather than the courtly love of Renaissance musings. The Dantean forest, which was fairly dark and forbidding already, is darker still as it fills with cannibalistic wolves. From being the instigator of machines that would formalize the scattered energies of a shapeless world, modernity rears its ugly head as “cowardly,” “insidious” and coercive. In 1915, in a significant manner, Pound’s exclamation “Merde!” summons the scatological into the poem, and initiates the obscene response to unspeakable crimes—Céline’s invective in Voyage au bout de la nuit is just around the corner. The cause of the breakdown is expressed in one line of tremendous pathetic import, which runs contrary to the antecedent clamors for impersonality and the banishment of affect from the poem: “Friends fall off at the pinch, the loveliest die” (Blast War Number 22). The caesura signs the rupture and discontinuity, the set phrase “at the pinch” in the middle of the line underscores the suddenness and contingency of experienced loss, the substitution of the superlative “the loveliest” for “friends” achieves the tragic generalization that turns the individual case into an emblem of collective experience. By becoming the abstract “loveliest,” the dead friend is this “boy” that stands for all the “boys” subliminally inscribed in the transcription from the old French in the poem’s title “Et Faim Sallir le Loup des Boys.”

The war number indeed revolves around the construction of this voice “from the trenches” which is a voice from the grave, and more generally from the massive graveyard that continental Europe has turned into. The second vortex by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (Blast War Number 33-34) is an instance of the heart-breaking letters from the front that fill the archives of the Great War, and the drawers of so many men and women at the time, at the same time as it is redolent of the agonistic delusions that had motivated the initial Vorticist manifestoes. Where energy allowed for a bragging assertive art manifesto in the first issue of Blast, it becomes the feeble spark that keeps a “small individual” barely alive, as we can read, but as the author deliriously denies.

I HAVE BEEN FIGHTING FOR TWO MONTHS and I can now gauge the intensity of Life.
HUMAN MASSES teem and move, are destroyed and crop up again.
HORSES are worn out in three weeks, die by the roadside.
DOGS wander, are destroyed, and others come along.

The “intensity of life,” so valued and asserted in the first vortex, is no more the moving inner power of the individual that makes him create beauty but a cruel force of nature that pays no attention to the distressing spectacle of “human masses” to be “destroyed” and left by the side of the road like horses, dogs, or so many superfluous units in the overall count of a sustainable global economy. Gaudier recognizes that the conditions cancel “artistic emotions,” but despite the unspeakable horrors of this massacre the denial persists:


And so does persist the claim that these circumstances do not change the options taken for art previously. The discourse on the absurdity of war fails to develop and morphs into a discourse of human expendability that one would hear again in Pound’s fascistic arguments on the superiority of geniuses, the necessity of their existence to the detriment of the insignificant existence of smaller men, the “Untermenschen” of German Nazi ideology in the 1930s and of American Aryan supremacy in the 1940s and 1950s. The focus on will and will power (“IT IS THE VORTEX OF WILL, OF DECISION, THAT BEGINS,” [Blast War Number 33]), Nietzschean in origin, pervasive in this text, as it is in Lewis’s attachment to a certain German culture (Blast War Number 24), or in Pound’s commitment to a prophetic dimension of the poet, emerges from the direct experience of the obscenity of war, and its immediate denial. Breton’s “sujet,” as analyzed by Rabaté, surfaces here too, as the sculptor de-realizes his own experience, and confuses the illness for a remedy: the battlefield of “Le sujet” has been turned by trauma and neurosis into this stage meant to wisen up the masses, as it has absurdly become, for Gaudier (and those who publish his prose), the locus for a collective cure.

The second page of Gaudier’s vortex from the trenches provides a visual model for this perversity of the reaction to the war and the confusion in values and significations which it entails.

(Blast War Number 24)

The “hill” is a dangerous place whose lines are “broken” by trenches and bomb holes, but its geometrical forms remain the forms of art; the wood of the gun butt is not pleasant to the artist as part of a weapon, but once broken off it can be turned into an object of pleasure and beauty through crafting and carving into geometrical “lines” and “planes”; the last words of Gaudier’s text repeat the basic tenet for Vorticist aesthetics, the formula defined by T.E. Hulme, picked up by Ezra Pound, and turned into a somewhat ineffective, but highly symptomatic mantra. The sculptor himself evidences the refusal to connect the aesthetic decisions to their ideological consequences. A striking footnote to this explosive act of faith, the editors of the journal, Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis, underscore the young scuptor’s vital if paradoxical commitment to his art with the official announcement of his death which they have carefully composed into a geometrical imprint on the page. “Mort pour la patrie” does slightly diverge from the official phrasing though (“mort pour la France”), as does the alliance of the French in the heading, and the English in the explanation: as appropriated by Pound, and possibly but less markedly by Lewis, Gaudier’s death becomes the objective correlative of a personal, and collective hallucination, that would believe that the structures of war could be dissociated from the realities of war; that one could keep preparing for war and never fight it again; or that the detestation of war to the point of violence would not be as obscene as the images from the trenches, as ill-omened and abominable.

A memoir: the crime scene

Thus Gaudier-Brzeska’s graveside, where his friends stand crying over the loss of the “loveliest” (Pound, Blast War Number 22) eludes the status of a place of mourning and recovery to become one of the “crime scenes” of “modernity” to return to Jean-Michel Rabaté’s words. Ezra Pound had met the young sculptor by pure chance at an exhibition at the Royal Albert Hall in London in July 1913. And this is how he describes the encounter in the memoir:

The very description of Gaudier’s intervention, as it is revisited after his death, confers him the quality of a supernatural being, he appears and disappears suddenly, he seems unreal, both violent and « gentle », a paradoxical creature that actually crystallizes the paradoxes he has come to embody in the poet’s mental construct. This design of the legend of Gaudier is notably exemplified in the various choices made by Pound for the editions of the memoir, including the latest edition published by New Directions under Pound’s supervision in 1970, as the poet looked back on a lifetime without his friend. The chosen illustration for the title page shows Gaudier “working on the Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound,” sculpting the shape of the poet’s head as he envisions it, literally creating the forms which the poet’s mind would to a large extent inhabit for the rest of his life. Symbolically, the sculptor stands as the maker of the poet’s head, potentially pointed out, in retrospect, as the force that would inflect the entirety of his thoughts. Similarly, the lay out of the adjoining page does not fully enlighten the reader as to whose memoir it is of whom, who is the author, who is the object of the book (and indeed the book gathers texts from Pound and from Gaudier). The names of the sculptor and of the poet are written in capital letters of the same size above and below a short title: A Memoir. One might venture that the two instances are on a structural level interchangeable and each the product of the other’s discourse. This interchangeability which makes Pound become Gaudier’s voice, and which turns Gaudier into the catalyst for Pound’s dejection and denial, finds its origins in the traumatic node of Gaudier’s death. The foreword, and the epigraphs that immediately follow (Pound 1970, 9) cast a different outlook on the significance of the memoir in Pound’s eyes, from the initial project of “emphasizing a few of Gaudier’s modes of work,” to a revaluation of the historical meaning of this work: the actuality of the work becomes a “footnote” to an alternative discourse. What is at stake is not just a “footnote” then despite the declaration in the foreword, but the main body of discourse that Gaudier’s death has allowed to produce. The book includes the memoir per se but reaches out more widely to cast a light on the whole of Pound’s production after the Great War, in all its perverse claims to beauty and exceptionality. By transfiguring Gaudier’s death, objectively in itself a footnote to the millions of dead in the war, into a key event to upset the world order, Pound substracts the collective dimension of the war to integrate it as a personal affront inflicted by all to the very few elect. Cattle instead of real men, in the Machiavelli quote at the bottom of the same page (“Gli uomini vivono in pochi e gli altri son pecorelle”), they do not deserve attention; real men are few, and the only ones to whom life is owed. Liminally, the poet lays down the foundation of his sacralization of Gaudier by performing the obscene gesture of lending greater import to the loss of one than to the massacre of millions.

Repeatedly though, as in the beginning of the 6th section of the memoir, Ezra Pound inadvertently recognizes the lack of rational foundation in what becomes a myth of anti-modernity. “My memory of the order of events from then on is rather confused,” he says (Pound 1970, 51), as if failing to recount Gaudier’s life in a chronological manner, or rather with the clarity that is associated with historical, or biographical enterprises. That may be because the enterprise is not aimed at producing more information about Gaudier (and indeed most of what one finds in the memoir is anecdotal). The intent is to fabricate a series of key moments, “luminous details” in Pound’s terminology, that recast the entire set of events, fictionalize them to utilize them as components for a alternative saga. Described further down as une “âme pure” (Pound 1970, 53), the Gaudier that emerges from the quagmire of the trenches, dead but also, if one may say, annointed in mud, this Gaudier is a modernist saint, an antidote to the contaminations of modernity, and not an emanation from this modernity that before the war was the motivation of the turn to geometry and dynamics. What the war produces is a complete reversal in Pound’s system of signification, one that is also an indicator of the inversion in his very conception of humanism.

In “Cantico del Sole,” a poem contemporary to the memoir, the incantation to the classics and what they could mean to America in 1920 wishes for the advent of an era that would pre-date the crime (or at least the event which is perceived as the crime), but it also underlines the delusion that lies in this wish, its impossibility.

The repetitivity points at the advent of obsession as the iterative summoning of the traumatic and attempt to overcome it. Coupled together, the two feed from one another, and construct the circle of non curative reneenactment, that prevents mourning and safe-guards the violence of the initial wound. The death of Gaudier is not to be overcome ever. At the end of section VI, Gaudier goes “back to his death” (Pound 1970, 54) as he returns to the front after having recovered from a wound: the phrase might seem innocuous at first reading but it conveys the radically thwarted causality that has come to inform Pound’s thought and consequently his writings. The manifestation of the dysfunction returns periodically, something visible in the 1970 edition of the memoir, as it gathers the introductions to all of the successive editions, and thus chronicles the circularity of impossible mourning. In 1918, Pound writes a first text for the memorial exhibition: Gaudier’s “death in action at Neuville St. Vaast is […] the gravest individual loss which the arts have sustained during the war” (Pound 1970, 136). In 1934, he writes a “postscript” to the edition, which opens with a renewed cry of despair: “For eighteen years the death of Henri Gaudier has been unremedied. […] The uncreated went with him” (Pound 1970, 140). As the death persists in its vividness, the perception of loss pervades not only the actual but the potential, transforming the poet’s world into a total memento of loss and absence. No sight is sightly any longer as everything is turned into a nauseating, negative, reminder of the missingness of the one. The famous “Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound,” although not Gaudier’s last work, remains in the eyes of the poet a “final manifestation” of what “the sculptor ‘sees’” that common men will never see, as he explains at the end of the description of the plates that illustrate the memoir (Pound 1970, 145). A masterful piece of art, and most probably one of Gaudier’s major pieces, Plate XIII in the memoir shows it on one side only (Pound 1970, 160), and no comment is made on its back, although it is where a discourse about Pound, and about the Vorticist project unfolds, but by 1918 this discourse has indeed become obscene in the more down-to-earth sense of the term. Shaped like an erect phallus, the hieratic head also speaks to the sexualized aggressiveness of Vorticism, and Pound’s promise, in Pavannes and Divagations, to rape “the great passive vulva of London” (Pound 1958, 204). The obscene image, and the obscene remark cannot hold after the war because this violence must be silenced. Silencing it gives it however more power to return and achieve the radical disconnection from the community of humans that would open the door to the stridencies of Fascism and anti-Semitism.

Canto 16 (1930) to Section: Rock-Drill De Los Cantares: black sun

In Soleil noir. Dépression et Mélancolie, Julia Kristeva analyses the psychiatric manifestations of melancholy, and depression, stressing the ambivalent relations between total apathy, and aphasia (that effectively prevent creativity), and active manifestations of the pathology (that are on the contrary productive, at times creative, and possess a high power of fascination, and persuasion). “La beauté [est] l’autre monde du dépressif” (Kristeva 107), and the quest for this beauty sets us in motion and fascinates us, in Pound’s case, but in Céline’s too, and Wyndham Lewis, or James Joyce, and the list of instances is indeed much longer. As a case in point, “Canto 16” takes the reader through familiar places and images with the confusing indeterminacy of a spatial and temporal collapse.

“Hell” and “hill” are interchangeable, as the Dantean hell of “Il Fiorentino” (Pound 1998, 68) merges with the nightmarish hills of the battlefront in France. The “howl[ing] against the evil” is doubled by an obstinacy to “gaze on the evil” (Pound 1998, 68) with a use of the definite article that foregrounds the specificity of this evil. But the howler and gazer is British mystical poet William Blake, and not the expected soldier witness. The transition-less movement between heterogeneous temporalities, places, characters, contributes at the same time to a defamiliarization that parallels the alienation of the traumatized, and to the assertion of a permanence of the horror.

“The criminal” is also the victim, as he lies in the “lakes of acid,” that a page further are a “lake of bodies” (Pound 1998, 69): the corpse is the corpus delicti, the object of the “crimen” becomes tantamount to its perpetrator.

The loss of “face” is both the ultimate desecration inflicted on the body, and the ultimate dishonor which has made it lose “face.” With its “face gone,” the body is obscenely disfigured and sinned against, and obscenely punished for its unspeakable sins. The intensity of the contradiction cannot but produce the escapist liberation into an abstract, suspended, timeless and placeless world that could be seen as a paradise:

Blue sky, light air, peaceful heroes, nymphs, and quietness characterize this city of fiction, which one could read as the equivalent (if inverted in its imagery) of Breton’s patient’s imaginary battlefield. Imaginary peace is as shocking as it attempts to cancel the ethical imperative of the horrified “gaze” (Pound 1998, 68). Be it only visually through the increasing proliferation of ellipses, the poem shows the symptoms of disruption, denial, and threatening silence, as the artificial paradise dissipates, and the images and tales of the horror crop back up to the surface of the text (Pound 1998, 70). The list of names, and accounts of friends gone to war, be they dead, wounded, or none of the above, happen as a radical revision of the impersonality and emotionlessness of pre-war Imagism and Vorticism. The war is personal, although it affects the whole of the community: lived on the level of the individual, it is inconceivable, and obscene because concrete and factual.

“They killed him,” about Gaudier-Brzeska pulls his death out of the realm of the acceptable by making this criminal “they” an indeterminate pronoun that does not choose its side among nations. What made the discourse of war audible, maybe, as a political event, is suppressed to insist on the general criminalization of all in war without consideration for the wider context. “They” is the criminal other that leaves the door open to more discourses of paranoia. In Pound’s discourse, the bestiality of war is highjacked to feed into a discourse of general, blind indictment. It becomes an argument to cast the blame on the other, on modernity, and on a devalued humanity, that is left exposed to contempt and insult. This canto contains two pages that make up its core: written in French they are stylistically very close to the writing of Céline at the same moment. The writing in the vernacular (“l’français, i s’bat quand y a mangé.” [Pound 1998, 73]), the focus on body function and the hint of necrophilia, the description of men as animals (“Les hommes de 34 ans à quatre pattes//qui criaient ‘maman.’” [Pound 1998, 72]) simultaneously state the humanistic claim against war and undermine humanism: the obscenity is corrosive insofar as it attacks what it tries to defend. True to the pattern of traumatic non-closure, the canto ends on an intimation of the eternal return of the same, an endless beginning postponed, which entraps both poet and reader:

The horror of the war is this “black sun” that Kristeva shows as shining negatively on the world of the clinically depressed, but it is magnified into a radical unnameable as it now shines on all alike, and converges with the human condition. And so it returns in the 1950s with “Section Rock-Drill de los Cantares,” which takes over the artefacts of war and reactivates them, most remarkably with the evocation of Jacob Epstein’s sculpture. Rock-Drill began as a plaster figure representing a worker using a rock-drill that had been integrated to the art work in ready-made fashion. As a close collaborator of the Vorticists, Epstein subscribed to the initial claims in favor of geometrical stylization and a glorification of the mechanical. The first version was broken, what remained of the plaster figure being used to prepare the casting of a metal version made out of gun metal from guns taken in the war from the Germans. The machine had emerged as an instrument of destruction, and was removed. However gun metal became constitutive of the work to point at the major transformation brought about by war to the human body itself. Cast in metal, the work is lasting, as is the damage done to the human body that loses a limb in the process, but gains the shape of a fetus ensconced between its ribs. The “generation” from Pound’s Canto 16 is one placed under the sign of war, and the torso of Rock-Drill stands out as the endangered place of its emergence.

Only a few months ago, the war was over again, and on November 11, 2018, the toll rang for eleven minutes from all the churches in France, and it was rainy and muddy on the vast necropolises of Northern France as it had been on the battlefields of a century before. In these necropolises, as their name indicates, the dead have their own city where they live forever in silent battles that are never-ending. It is but one of the obscene spectacles that are the black suns of the world. This world is the improbable child born from a deformed body of gun metal, as in the second version of Epstein’s Rock-Drill. And it may be the point where the poetry stops, or in Pound’s case where it could have stopped: in its stead, there rose an alternative noise, fascinating and threatening, from the silence of depression that Kristeva mentions at the beginning of Soleil noir whereby nonsense becomes “evident” and “unavoidable” (Kristeva 1987, 13). Pound’s texts after the Great War are fragmented by this temptation of silence, elliptical and allusive, bogged in disruptive unintelligible ideograms and signs, but they are also unwillingly spreading the seeds of destruction and disorder, as the only sense they manage to retrieve from the carnage and the rubble is to promote the redemption of humanity through self-hatred and its own annihilation. A paradise that is an inferno, and where one “cannot make it cohere” (Pound 1998, 816).

« Mais les cadavres, que doit-on en faire?” asks Jean-Michel Rabaté, since the shipwreck is not as Breton’s “sujet” believes, only in the mind: one option would be to “decide the death of civilization, to decide on how to make it happen” (Rabaté 289), an ultimate gesture of obscene self-cancellation and collective suicide.


Works cited

Céline, Louis-Ferndinand. Casse-Pipe, suivi du Carnet du cuirassier Destouches. Paris: Gallimard, Folio, 1952.

Kenner, Hugh. The Pound Era. London: Pimlico, 1991.

Kristeva, Julia. Pouvoirs de l’horreur. Paris: Seuil, Points, 1980.

Kristeva, Julia. Soleil noir. Dépression et mélancolie. Paris: Gallimard, Folio, 1987.

Pater, Walter. Studies in the History of the Renaissance. London: Macmillan, 1873.

Pound, Ezra. A Memoir of Gaudier-Brzeska. New York: New Directions, 1970.

Pound, Ezra. Collected Shorter Poems. London: Faber, 1984.

Pound, Ezra. Pavannes and Divagations. New York: New Directions, 1958.

Pound, Ezra. The Cantos. New York: New Directions, 1998.

Rabaté, Jean-Michel. Étants donnés: 1. L’art 2. Le crime–La modernité comme scène de crime. Dijon: Les presses du réel, 2010.

Sollers, Philippe. Céline. Paris: Editions Ecriture, 2009.

Hélène Aji is Chair Professor of American literature at the Ecole normale supérieure in Paris, a member of UAR 3608 “République des savoirs,” and vice-president of the Institut des Amériques. She was Visiting Professor at the University of Texas at Austin in 2017 and has been a regular Guest Professor at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, Greece. In addition to articles on 20th- and 21st-century American poetry, she is the author of Ezra Pound et William Carlos Williams: Pour une poétique américaine (L’Harmattan, 2001), William Carlos Williams: Un plan d’action (Belin, 2004) and a book-length essay on Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier (Armand Colin, 2005). She co-edited several volumes among which a collection of essays on the poetry of John Ashbery (Ashbery Hors Cadre, Éditions Rue d’Ulm, 2021). She co-directs the book series “Intercalaires” (Presses de l’Université Paris Nanterre) and the book series “Seminal Modernisms” (Clemson University Press).











H.D. and D.H. Lawrence, eros and the war.


A little-known, brief but intense friendship took place between H.D. and D.H. Lawrence in the years 1915-1917. Many of H.D.’s wartime poems, like Lawrence’s wartime poems, were love poems with a strong agonistic drive, and they harked back to animistic times when magic and ritual still had a place. Both H.D. and Lawrence were acquainted with archaic Greek culture, a culture that predated utopian thinking and the idea of progress, a culture which could embrace contraries and decay with grace and a light heart. Tapping from different sources, they both arrived at a similar posture of defiance against utopian discourses of peace. As opposed to the ethos of progress and the aesthetics of control, they cultivated an apocalyptic belief in disaster as renewal. The present paper compares selected pieces from Lawrence’s Look, We Have Come Through! and from H.D.’s 1915-1917 poems (some of which published, others kept private).

On sait peu que H.D. et D.H. Lawrence connurent une amitié intense dans les années 1915-1917. Plusieurs des poèmes de H.D. dans ces années répondent à ceux de D.H. Lawrence, qui sont empreints d’érotisme agonistique associé à un primitivisme animiste où magie et rituel s’expriment pleinement. H.D. comme Lawrence avaient de solides notions de culture archaïque grecque, perçue comme un avant de la pensée utopique et du progrès, une culture de l’intégration des contraires et du principe de dissolution. Tout en ayant des lectures différentes, H.D. et D.H. Lawrence parvinrent à la même conclusion: la paix ne peut pas être un retour au statu quo ante. Plutôt que l’éthique du progrès ou l’esthétique de la maîtrise, ils cultivèrent une éthique du renouveau par la catastrophe. La présente étude compare des morceaux choisis tirés du recueil de poésie de Lawrence Look, We Have Come Through! et des poèmes de H.D. des années 1915-1917 (dont certains furent publiés et d’autres non).

H.D., D.H. Lawrence, Eros, war, 1915-1917, Presocratic Greek culture, Ionian philosophy, Empedocles



By all accounts[i], there was an intense friendship between H.D. and D.H. Lawrence in the years 1915-1917. In her associative, allusive memoir Bid Me to Live, written decades after the events at the instigation of Freud, H.D. takes great care not to pin down the nature of the feeling which existed between Lawrence and herself. “It was in your letters sometimes, when you weren’t angry with me” (BML 176). Was it companionship? Mutual admiration? Desire? At one point, the “it” is referred to as gloire, a specific light effect in religious painting. But the word’s extension in Bid Me to Live ranges far beyond painting: it refers to a form of genius, or a sickness, or (a page further) what is “both man and woman”, that is, what unites them in one creative impulse, in spite of the essential difference Lawrence insisted there had to be between the sexes: “Perhaps you would say I was trespassing, couldn’t see both sides, as you said of my Orpheus. I could be Eurydice in character, you said, but woman-is-woman and I couldn’t be both” (BML 176). However frustrating at times, the time spent with Lawrence was a decisive moment for H.D., and conversely, Lawrence “thought H.D. much the best of the Imagists since Pound had gone his own way” (Kinkead-Weekes 353), and an excellent critic of his own poetry.

At the outset of the war, D.H. Lawrence was involved in three main literary circles. One was the John Middleton Murry-Katherine Mansfield connection. The second was the Ottoline Morrell circle, with ties to Bloomsbury and Bertrand Russell; and the third revolved around the Imagistes anthologies, of which H.D. was an early associate. At the time, the influence of Bertrand Russell took Lawrence part of the way towards active involvement in reconstruction, progress and peace (Kinkead-Weekes 235-249) – but the apocalyptic mindset in Lawrence was too deeply ingrained to give reform a chance. The H.D.-Lawrence connection is less well documented than the Russell-Lawrence connection; were it not for the fact that H.D. rescued the Lawrences from utter destitution in 1917 (Kinkead-Weekes 409-410), it might have remained anecdotal. But there are telling echoes between Lawrence’s and H.D.’s poems. Many of H.D.’s wartime poems, like Lawrence’s wartime poems, were love poems with a strong agonistic drive, and they harked back to animistic times when magic and ritual still had a place. Both H.D. and Lawrence were acquainted with archaic Greek culture, a culture that predated utopian thinking and the idea of progress, a culture which could embrace contraries and decay with grace and a light heart. Tapping from different sources, they both arrived at a similar posture of defiance against utopian discourses of peace. As opposed to the ethos of progress and the aesthetics of control, they cultivated an apocalyptic belief in disaster as renewal. The present paper compares selected pieces from Lawrence’s Look, We Have Come Through! and from H.D.’s 1915-1917 poems (some of which published, others kept private), with a view to corroborating the spiritual kinship H.D. later commemorated in Bid Me to Live and in Helen in Egypt (1961).

 “Greek in its implication, but archaic Greek” (BML 162)

 Certain elements in the cultural influences of H.D. and D.H. Lawrence help to understand how they sublimated the violence in their lives and in wartime Europe in general. Which is not to say they welcomed it; but when it came to them, suffering, hurt, trauma could be read in terms of initiation or ritual. Consider “The Ladybird,” “The Man Who Died,” “The Woman Who Rode Away” and other tales of conversion in Lawrence, who was a good Bible scholar and knew the discourse of pain involved in classic Christian conversion. H.D. too had a fervent religious background (Martz xi); though not religious in the churchgoing sense, they were both inclined to believe in something bigger than themselves. This they both found in ancient Greek culture.

Among the classic sources known to D.H. Lawrence were James Frazer’s The Golden Bough and Jane Harrison’s Ancient Art and Ritual (Sagar 81, 84). However, the Presocratics, a cluster of philosophers including Thales, Anaximander, Pythagoras, Heraclitus and Empedocles, who lived in the 6th and 5th centuries before Christ, loomed large in Lawrence’s cultural consciousness in the years 1915-17. This is because in 1915, while he was discussing peace and the lasting restoration thereof with Bertrand Russell, the latter lent him a book on Presocratic or Ionian philosophy which profoundly changed his views on the universe[ii]. From then on, for months, Lawrence brimmed with this Greek-inspired philosophy, and it seems that this strongly appealed to H.D., whom he also met in 1915. “Ionian” is a word that can be found in one of her poems, the one entitled “Eros”, to which we will come back. H.D. had been a dedicated Hellenist since her University years, although reading and translating Greek had been more of a side pursuit – perhaps all the more so intensely pursued (Carr 56). She knew well the age-old Greek Anthology (Gregory 535, 537, 541), she was a translator of Euripides, and she was investing her strong knowledge of Sapphic literature in her poetry, which Lawrence knew and admired in his own fussy way (Kinkead-Weekes 417). Between 1915 and 1917, the two poets must have in some part synthesized what they each separately knew and loved in Presocratic Greek culture: the primitive religious aesthetics on one hand and the abstract, empirical, “dry” natural philosophy of the Ionians on the other. Distinguished Hellenists have devoted memorable pages to the treatment of Greek poetry and prose in H.D.[iii], and others have worked (as a peripheral pursuit) on Lawrence and early Greek philosophy.[iv] In the process of informing the nature of the exchange between Lawrence and H.D. in matters Greek, this paper seeks to identify a basic common denominator between these two strains of Greek culture before Plato, and to see how the common denominator was fleshed out in Lawrence’s and H.D.’s wartime poems, or indeed how it was fashioned by the exchanges and mirror-effects between their two poetic practices.

The poems: love and bitterness

The poems cited here are a selection based on likely writing times. We have a clear notion when Lawrence’s poems were written and published; it is more difficult to ascertain the timeline of H.D.’s poems. Lawrence’s “Song of a Man Who Has Come Through” is thought to have been written in 1915 (P 967); his “New Heaven and Earth” went though several rewritings over the war years, to be finally published in the 1917 Imagist anthology (P 970); “Craving for Spring” is thought to be a 1917 piece (P 975). H.D.’s “Eros” and “Amaranth” were written in 1916 and kept from public scrutiny until 1924 when they were partially published as expansions of fragments of Sappho (Martz xiv). Finally, “The Tribute” first appeared in November 2016 in The Egoist (Martz 616). “Eros”, “Amaranth” and “The Tribute” are long and complex poems that deserve more space than available here; the reader is referred to Louis Martz’s 1983 collection for closer scrutiny and more leisurely enjoyment.

In the case of “Eros” and “Song of a Man Who Has Come Through”, what is immediately striking is how religious the poems are. Both Lawrence and H.D. had renounced traditional Church worship but if anything it only made them more religious. However, the divinity of which the two poems are an evocation is a playful one, one that will manifest itself only to the worthy few, and at the cost of painful initiation. H.D.’s “Eros” indeed reads like a fragment from Sappho:

Keep love and he sways apart
in another world,
outdistancing us.

Keep love and he mocks,
ah, bitter and sweet,
your sweetness is more cruel
than your hurt.

Honey and salt,
fire burst from the rocks
to meet fire
spilt from Hesperus.

Fire darted aloft and met fire,
and in that moment
love entered us.
(Martz 317)

Lawrence’s “Song of a Man Who has Come Through” is personal and in the vernacular, but the “wind” which blows through all things and people alike, cracking them open to initiate new states of being, may be an avatar of H.D.’s Eros:

Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me!
A fine wind is blowing the new direction of Time.
If only I let it bear me, carry me, if only it carry me!
[…] If only, most lovely of all, I yield myself and am borrowed
By the fine, fine wind that takes its course through the chaos
of the world […]
The rock will split, we shall come at the wonder, we shall find
the Hesperides.
(P 204-205)

The divinity to which these two poems are a tribute is greater than any individual god: it is a cosmic principle, as vast as space in H.D.’s “Eros”, and as vast as time in Lawrence’s “Song of a Man”. It “takes its course through the chaos of the world”, unabashed by what humans perceive as waste or disorder. It is a force that cares nothing for humans but will transfigure one if one “yields” to it, if one allows oneself to be “hurt” by it. Then the “salt rock”, the bitter rock of inert matter, including the inert, uninitiated human body, will be split open. Then sweet and bitter will come together, “honey” and “salt”, human aspirations will be fulfilled, and peace found. “Hesperus” or “the Hesperides” stands for fulfilment and peace as the result of initiation, that which one achieves when one “has come through”, as the Lawrentian phrase goes. Though the two poems are about strife in love, they are also about war and peace; the question of how peace is to be achieved is prevalent on the poet’s horizon of expectations. They were written at a time when professed hopes of wrapping up the war before Christmas of 1914 were a distant memory, and one really wondered how peace was ever to be achieved with troops – Richard Aldington, H.D.’s husband, being one of them – now immobilized in trench warfare. The situation called for a major change, a conversion.

Love as sacrifice

Only a miraculous conversion in the world could bring about peace. The question was: how much violence could this process involve? This also applied, at the microcosmic level, to the life of the individual poet: the opening up to the “wonder” (“Song of a Man”) could bring about a phase of creative peace, but in itself was a daunting crisis to go through. The wartime poems corresponded to a personal crisis in H.D.’s life. Around the time when she had to leave her unfaithful husband Richard Aldington, she was in pain, but seeing beauty in this pain. “I love Richard with a searing, burning intensity,” she wrote to her friend and admirer John Cournos. “I love him and I have come to this torture of my free will. I could have forgotten my pride broken and my beauty as it were, unappreciated. I could have found peace with you. But of my own will, I have come to this Hell. But beauty is never Hell. I believe this flame is my very Daemon driving me to write. I want to write”(Carr, 836). Hurt and humiliated by the betrayal of her husband, she was in a state of perpetual fever that actually corresponded to a peak in her creative powers. “The hurt has freed my song”, H.D. is reputed to have said (Carr, 836). This is an Orphic topos, of course. In the story of Eurydice, Orpheus’ song was freed by the sudden loss of his wife to Hades. In the ancient myth as in these poems, as in Sapphic poetry, inspiration is derived from a sensation of burning loss, a pain inflicted by the desirable other.

Love as sacrifice is a central topos in H.D.’s and in Lawrence’s poetry of the war years. But while Lawrence’s approach is intensely erotic, personal, situational, a song of wonder and delight, H.D.’s lyricism is not only about emotion but also about process and ethos, or the relative functions and purposes of archetypal figures and objects in a world centered on the sacred. Impersonal forms are predominant, as are verbs describing predictable processes rather than subjective modalities. Articles are scarce, thus suggesting that the processes described are universal rather than specific. This is particularly striking in “Amaranth”, where the poet-priestess’s discourse is largely devoted to defining the processes at work in the world in order to act accordingly. It is about practice and knowledge; about ethics and aesthetics as well as episteme.

Let him go forth radiant,
let life rise in his young breast,
life is radiant,
life is made for beautiful love
and strange ecstasy,
strait, searing body and limbs,
tearing limbs and body from life;
life is his if he ask,
life is his if he take it,
then let him take beauty
as his right.
(Martz 313)

“Life is made for beautiful love/and strange ecstasy,/strait, searing body and limb,/tearing limbs and body from life”: one has to ask, who is it that is thus sacrificed? And what or who is it that carries out the sacrifice, the “searing”, the “tearing of limbs from life”? Who is the agent? The poem does not ascribe agency, but merely states the ineluctability of the sacrificial process. The figure of the young soldier – a thinly disguised Aldington, according to Helen Carr (837) – seems to be the agent of sacrifice, but a reading of the whole poem produces a different impression. The radiant soldier in a “strange ecstasy” may be making a holocaust of womanly beauty as he does of enemies’ bodies, but the adversary will ensure that the “tearing limbs and body from life” is his own fate too. The young man is the agent and the victim of this process, a process facilitated by the knowing prayer of the poet-priestess, who decides to let him go. He and his actions are her sacrifice to Aphrodite, her offering or “amaranth”: his limbs will be torn apart and his body from life too, in the end, in the same searing and tearing process in which he found ecstasy.

Technically, Lawrence’s poems predated those by H.D. on similar themes – it might even be that the communion of kindred spirits was only a one-way influence at times. Lawrence’s wartime writing also received much more immediate exposure than H.D.’s, who kept her poems to herself when they had too obvious a bearing on her disastrous relationship with Aldington. It is clear that H.D. was strongly impressed by Lawrence’s 1917 collection Look, We Have Come Through!, parts of which she had read as a reader of and substitute editor to The Egoist and Poetry, and that she allowed some of its motifs and images to filter into her own much more polished writing. Her concealed poems of the war years can thus be read as responses to Lawrence’s fiery, male-oriented erotic poems. They add complexity to the male-centered archetypal moments of conversion described by Lawrence in “New Heaven and Earth”, for example.

So I put my hand out further, a little further
and I felt that which was not I,
Ha, I was a blaze leaping up!
I was a tiger bursting into sunlight.
I was greedy, I was mad for the unknown.
I, new-risen, resurrected, starved from the tomb
starved from a life of devouring always myself
now here was I, new-awakened, with my hand
stretching out
and touching the unknown, the real unknown
(P 212)

In “Amaranth”, H.D.’s poet-priestess opposes her seriousness and refinement of understanding to Lawrence’s powerful sense of unconscious emergence, where the poet finds himself performing sacrifice though his primary intention was merely predatory. Eros, the trickster god alluded to in the poems quoted above, has expedients that are known to H.D.’s priestess but catch Lawrence’s lover by surprise. The latter perceives himself to be behaving like a tiger, unaware that the tiger is one of the shapes of shape-shifting Dionysus Zagreus in Orphic lore. Unwittingly, he not only carries out bloody sacrifice but embodies it, since Zagreus went through his metamorphoses at the moment of his death; the Christ-like overtones of “new-risen, resurrected, starved from the tomb” are not fortuitous, given the well-known continuities between the mysteries of Orpheus (and Osiris) and the central mystery of Christianity. Lawrence’s poem too is about mystical process but the speaker is merely a means for it, not the agent of it. There is little room for deliberate human praxis, unlike in “Amaranth”. But in spite of their remarkable differences, the poems suggest that H.D. and Lawrence shared the same agenda as regards wartime love poetry. Their writing posits the cosmic necessity of the sacrificial process, a notion Lawrence probably became familiar with as early as his first readings in anthropology and H.D. from avidly reading Sappho and Euripides. It is a notion, one might contend, that ran across much primitivist Modernist writing, no matter how strongly one objects to it in the 21st century. H.D. chose to present her persona as partaker in this process rather than its mere plaything; but in both treatments of the topos, the sacrifice, the tearing of live limbs in Dionysian ecstasy, is to be commemorated in itself.

“The Tribute”, or what it means to be at war

H.D. and D.H. Lawrence were very much aware of the possibility that the “wind”, call it Eros, call it love, or any other name for the primeval cosmic drive towards which their poems gestured, was extinct for good. Such anxiety is to be felt most acutely in “The Tribute”, a poem that appeared in The Egoist in the fall of 1916. “The Tribute” is a long and complex poem, worth pondering in its entirety. It describes the dreadful god-forsaken state of cities, in their squalor and decay, and the age-old processes which may be completing the decaying process, thus ultimately ushering the cities back into the realm of beauty and the sacred. It alludes to “the youth” which the cities have sent out to “strike at each other”; the reader of The Egoist could not but be reminded of the conscripted young soldiers, with a heightened suspicion that this was a sign of civilization coming to a chaotic end. But the modern-day, god-forsaken squalor can be “cheated”, temporarily defeated by sacrifice:

Ah, squalor was cheated at last
for a bright head flung back,
caught the ash-tree fringe
of the foot-hill,
the violet slope of the hill,
one bright head flung back
stilled the haggling,
one throat bared
and the shouting was still.
the boys have gone out of the city,
the songs withered black on their lips.
Could beauty be beaten out, –
O youth the cities have sent
to strike at each other’s strength,
it is you who have kept her alight.
(Martz 60, 68)

Are the “boys” a symptom of impending chaos, or are they the sacrifice itself? Are they the lamentable by-product of modern-day dinginess or are they the eponymous “tribute”? It is almost as if the wasteful horror of the war called for this archaeomodern[v] piece of anachronism; it is as if the war needed to be set in the context of ancient sacrifice ritual in order to make any sense. The poem describes the extraordinary measures the god-forsaken cities have to take in order to lure the gods back into them, gods who will not settle for less than human blood. If beauty is to be regained, then, the poems suggests, that would make sense of the offering of the city’s “youth”.

Lawrence’s 1917 poem “Craving for Spring” may be a response to “The Tribute”. It is true that the disaster of the war was on everyone’s mind, but Lawrence’s poem echoes distinctly with H.D.’s in its lyrical evocation of the war as a monstrous offering to unseen forces.

Show me the violets that are out.
Oh, if it be true, and the living darkness of the blood of man is purpling with violets,
if the violets are coming out from under the rack of men, winter-rotten and fallen
we shall have spring.
Pray do not die on this Pisgah blossoming with violets.
Pray to live through.
(P 225)

The late summer and autumn of 1917 was when the British fought their most horrifying battles to reclaim Flanders and went through months of trench life interspersed with artillery assaults which left no one unscathed. The Battle of Passchendaele alone claimed 275 000 British and ANZAC casualties (July-November 1917).[vi] So when Lawrence alludes to the casualties as « rack of men, winter-rotten and fallen… » it is no exaggeration: no one knows for sure how many died, and the rush of warfare, the weather conditions and the sheer number of corpses made it difficult to bury the dead properly. The allusions to violets, to be found also in H.D.’s “The Tribute”, is but one indication that the massacre could be read ritualistically, as sort of monstrous fertility rite, violets being used in ancient Greek blood rites to commemorate Attis, a vegetation god from Asia Minor.

H.D.’s and Lawrence’s wartime writing can be described as a duet, H.D. bringing Orphic lyricism and Lawrence Ionian cosmology to the duet. The Ionian Empedocles postulated forces called Love (philia) and Strife (neikos) to explain the ever-renewed combination of the natural elements and the fashioning thereby of all the things in the physical world.[vii] In Empedocles’ natural philosophy, Strife is the process of elemental separation, when the world is bare and objects and beings mere potentialities; Love is the phase of combination, where objects and beings come into existence in ever more complex forms. The undifferentiated – impure – commingling of elements, the “black” and “rotten” “squalor” of late-stage civilization, celebrated by Birkin with Baudelairian schadenfreude in Women in Love, is an extreme stage of Love, a final coming together of the elements on their way back around to dissolution and on to a new cosmic cycle. The beauties and the ignominies of love, or of human history, from this perspective, are mere by-products of matter folding and unfolding in time. The central process itself is the prime mover of nature, and must be acknowledged, more than the temporary shapes it produces. This cyclical approach to existence may have been a compensation of sorts, for the thwarted desires and the conflicts and the self-inflicted horrors which make peace, on the individual scale and on that of humanity as a whole, seem forever out of reach. In the face of it all, the poet acknowledges the beauty in the ever-renewed forms of matter, itself indestructible even as it is fashioned by contrary forces, call them creation and destruction, eros or sacrifice, or love and strife.



[i] Such accounts include H.D.’s own in Bid Me to Live, primarily, but also Mark Kinkead-Weekes’s Triumph to Exile p. 353 and 416-22, Louis Martz’s introduction to H.D.: The Collected Poems 1922-1944 p. xix-xxiv, and Helen Carr’s Verse Revolutionaries p. 791-794 and 869-871.

[ii] In an article entitled “‘A Prison for the Infinite: D.H. Lawrence and Bertrand Russell on the War”, Luke Ferretter briefly charts the history of Lawrentian scholars’ interest in the influence of Burnet’s book (section 17). Ferretter’s article is valuable not least for the emphasis it brings on the equal importance of Empedocles and Heraclitus in Lawrence’s valuation of the early Greek philosophers.

[iii] One of the best examples is H.D. and Hellenism: Classic Lines, by Eileen Gregory, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

[iv] See for example Luke Ferretter, and earlier: Daniel J. Schneider, The consciousness of D.H. Lawrence: an intellectual biography, Lawrence, University Press of Kansas, 1986.

[v] a term coined by Jacques Rancière in « The Archaeomodern turn » (Walter Benjamin and the Demands of History, ed. Michael P. Steinberg, Ithaca, Cornell University, 1996, p. 24-40).

[vi] “The armies under British command suffered some 275,000 casualties at Passchendaele […] The Germans suffered another 220,000 killed or wounded. At the end, the point of it all was unclear. In 1918 all the ground gained there by the Allies was evacuated in the face of a looming German assault. Passchendaele would be remembered as a symbol of the worst horrors of the First World War, the sheer futility of much of the fighting, and the reckless disregard by some of the war’s senior leaders for the lives of the men under their command.” Roy, R.H., and Richard Foot, « The Battle of Passchendaele », Encyclopædia Britannica online, (last consulted 05.18.2017).

[vii] Burnet, John, Early Greek Philosophy, London and Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, 1892, 248-249.


Works Cited

Lawrence, D.H., The Poems, ed. Christopher Pollnitz, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2013. (P)

Kinkead-Weekes, Mark, D.H. Lawrence: Triumph to Exile, 1912–1922, Volume 2 of the

Ferretter, Luke, “‘A Prison for the Infinite: D.H. Lawrence and Bertrand Russell on the War”, D.H. Lawrence, his Contemporaries and the First World War, Études Lawrenciennes 46, 2015, (last consulted 02.02.2018).

H.D., Bid Me to Live (1960), London: Virago Press, 1984. (BML)

H.D., Collected Poems 1912-1944, ed. Louis Martz, New York: New Directions, 1983.

Sagar, Keith (ed), A D.H. Lawrence Handbook, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1982.

Carr, Helen, The Verse Revolutionaries: Ezra Pound, H.D. and The Imagists, London: Jonathan Cape, 2009.

Gregory, Eileen, “Rose Cut in Rock: Sappho and H. D.’s ‘Sea Garden’”, Contemporary Literature 27: 4, 1986, 525-552.


Noëlle Cuny teaches translation and Anglo-American literature and culture as an associate professor at UHA Mulhouse, France. After extensive work on D. H. Lawrence and on disciplinary hybridity in modernist writing, she became interested in the material conditions of the literary canonization process, namely, the magazines: first Lawrence’s own (very) little magazine, then the later and more ambitious Athenaeum and the early Adelphi. Noëlle Cuny’s latest publication as an editor is Modernist Objects, with Xavier Kalck and the French Society for Modernist Studies (2020).






Deconstructing consent: education, ideology and conflict in Jacob’s Room and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Olivier Hercend

Although war haunts the two authors in very different ways, Virginia Woolf and James Joyce concur on one fundamental point: they both endeavour to expose the ideological forces that divide people and prepare them to accept conflicts, with all their injustice and barbarity. Boys and young men in particular are taught to order and obey, to thrive on antagonism and self-identify through opposition to other groups. Drawing from the descriptions of Stephen’s and Jacob’s education in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Jacob’s Room, I will analyse how this subterranean yet pervasive influence is handled in both novels. As a matter of fact, from a very similar starting point, I will argue that the interactions which Joyce and Woolf choose to depict, and in particular the way in which their protagonists react to social pressures, beckon them in different directions. Faced with a war-torn Europe and a battered, divided Ireland, their denunciation of pre-war society highlights distinct artistic and social voices as poles of resistance, and these in turn underlie their stance towards reconstruction, on a personal as well as political plane.

Bien que la guerre hante les deux auteurs de façons très diverses, Virginia Woolf et James Joyce se retrouvent sur un point fondamental: ils entreprennent tous deux d’exposer les réseaux idéologiques qui divisent et préparent les hommes à accepter les conflits, avec leur cortège de barbarie et d’injustice. Les garçons et les jeunes hommes en particulier apprennent à donner et recevoir des ordres, à s’endurcir par l’antagonisme et à penser leur identité par rapport à divers « Autres ». Prenant appui sur les descriptions de l’éducation de Stephen et de Jacob dans Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man et Jacob’s Room, j’analyserai le traitement de cette influence, souterraine mais prégnante, au sein des deux romans. De fait, je souhaite montrer comment, d’un point de départ très similaire, les choix de Joyce et Woolf, les interactions qu’ils décrivent et en particulier les réactions de leurs protagonistes face aux pressions sociales, les entraînent dans des directions différentes. Confrontés à une Europe brisée par la Grande Guerre et une Irlande en proie aux conflits et à la division, leur dénonciation commune de la société d’avant-guerre laisse place à des voix artistiques et sociales distinctes comme poles de résistance, ce qui informe leur prise de position vis-à-vis de la notion de reconstruction, sur le plan personnel mais aussi politique.

Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Jacob’s Room, World War I, Ideology, Louis Althusser, Deconstruction


The First World war was a turning point in modernist thought. While many authors were already concerned with the violence that lurked in the heart of modern societies before 1914, this violence seemed confined to the dark recesses of what remained on the whole a “civilised” world.  Yet the barbarity of battles and the monstrous, inhuman workings of the war machine revealed something far more central and systemic. The honest, the educated and the god-fearing men raised by European societies could under orders lose any semblance of conscience and accept to kill or to die indiscriminately. Their blind obedience to commands, however ill-advised, and their more general acceptance of the necessity of conflict came as a shock to many observers. In Jacob’s Room, Virginia Woolf condenses this impression through the description of an absurd naval exercise:

“a dozen young men in the prime of life descend with composed faces into the depths of the sea; and there impassively (though with perfect mastery of machinery) suffocate uncomplainingly together.” (p.216).

The ironical mention of a useless “mastery of machinery”, which seems to go hand in hand with the loss of any sense of self-preservation, emphasises the absolute negation of the human element. But what is perhaps most unsettling in this uncanny scene is the passivity of these “young men”, “impassively” and “uncomplainingly” dying together. The negative prefixes imply another scenario, an expectation of protest or resistance of some kind. But the “machinery” works without a hitch.

The issue of conflict and blind obedience was by no means a new one, and the surge of violence came as much less of a surprise to those who lived on the margins of the self-styled “civilisation”. While this article will not venture to disentangle the threads of their complex origin, Joyce’s novels, starting with Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, were completed in continental Europe during and after the Great War, and it is undeniable that the violence of the conflict gave the tensions described within the novels a broader resonance. In My Brother’s Keeper, Stanislaus Joyce does, as a matter of fact, refer his brother’s non-partisan and grim view of his home-country to his more general “horror of violence” (p.261). What could be seen as the remnants of old grudges in a backwater corner of the great European civilisation became, partly through Joyce’s own artistic legacy, the symbol of a deeper and more general culture of violence, which as it appeared in all its indomitable horror, made it in turn much harder to imagine a peaceful solution to the Irish conflict. Furthermore, as Lyndall Gordon points out dealing with Woolf’s novels, the impossibility of accounting for the barbarity of the war through the lens of official history brought to the fore new, more cultural and psychological explanations, which represented a “critique of what history and newspapers accustom us to define as memorable.” [Gordon, 1984, p.161]. The same can of course be said of Joyce’s own artistic method, dealing with social issues through their translation into personal experiences.

Therefore, as the war unfolded, as it became clear that the ills of Europe had a deeper cause than a mere political crisis gone too far, and as the prospect of a consensual resolution of the “Irish question” became increasingly ephemeral, an interrogation imposed itself: how could further violence be averted? This question, of course, could only be answered by focusing first on the roots of such shockingly prevalent violence. Reconstruction, for Europe as an idea and as a “world to be lived in” [1], required a form of introspection. The social and political machines which had trundled so unfailingly towards a mass-scale war needed to be opened, their cogs examined and their underlying mechanisms brought to light. As Benoît Tadié puts it, repairing to the old notion of  Victorian “innocence” in the face of disaster was not an option: the ideology on which pre-war society functioned had to be questioned [Tadié, 1999, 159].

In this light, studying Jacob’s Room and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man side by side brings out a common thread. These novels, written in the wake of the war, both feature the trajectories of young men in the pre-war period, leading to a final disappearance, whether it be through “silence, exile and cunning” (p.208) in the face of an unbearable deadlock, or more directly due to Jacob’s death of the battlefield. In both cases, the tropes of the bildungsroman are subverted to denounce a certain type of society – not altogether an uncommon move, with such illustrious precedents as the death of Werther or Julien Sorel, as well as more topical examples like Ernest Pontifex’s stay in jail in Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh, which both authors cited as a source of inspiration. This generic leaning highlights the question of education, the seminal institution par excellence, inculcating values and social conducts which are used to explain the protagonist’s behaviour in later years. And as a matter of fact, I will argue that Woolf’s and Joyce’s depiction of the education system reveals the structural violence of this institution, and hints at its links with conflict – the stories ending either in the protagonist’s rejection of the society he lives in, or in his violent death.

That is what I mean by the word “deconstruction”, which I will use here in the very strict sense of: breaking down the institutional machine from the inside in order to see how its parts function together [2]. For behind the veil of disinterested knowledge which they don, Joyce and Woolf shed light on schools’ and universities’ relation to power and their reliance on physical and symbolic aggression. Instead of bringing up young people capable of critical thinking, they reproduce a patriarchal, bigoted and disciplinary social order that structurally fosters violence.

The institution of education

It is of course not unheard of for a novel to focus on other aspects of a character’s education than their purely intellectual accomplishments, which might not have the kind of narrative and dramatic interest that encounters and social ties have. However, both in Jacob’s Room and in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the content of the protagonists’ education is explicitly downplayed, more often than not for comical effects. For instance, Stephen, in his youthful ardour, instrumentalises the books that he reads, with no regard for their broader content: “retaining nothing of all he read save that which seemed to him an echo or a prophecy of his own state” (p.131). This of course highlights the question of the actual destination of the knowledge acquired through education. Jacob, who is learning Greek at Cambridge, uses his status to identify as an inspired intellectual. In front of his friends, he bravely asserts: “Probably […] we are the only people in the world who know what the Greeks meant” (p.102). But in the very same page, the narrative voice contradicts this lofty statement, remarking that “Jacob knew no more Greek than what served him to stumble through a play” (ibid.). The irony of the passage echoes Woolf’s reflections in her essay “On not Knowing Greek”, which starts with the idea that even English scholars would, in ancient Greece, “be at the bottom of any class of schoolboys, since we do not know how the words sounded” [Woolf, 1984, p.23]. The actual knowledge that classical studies bestow is in the end very restricted. It only holds value among the people who have learned it in the same way – the Greeks themselves would not recognise their mother tongue, spoken with an English accent. This is what I mean by the notion of “institutional” knowledge.

Indeed, by questioning the absolute value of knowledge, referring it back to how their budding protagonists make use of it, the two novels reveal the social forces at work in the education system. This change of focus is in itself an attack on the Victorian vision of knowledge and scholarly research, on the idea that it should be “disinterested” and guided by the sole voice of reason. As Christopher Butler argues in Early Modernism, Literature, Music and Painting in Europe, 1900-1916, the idea that “the arguments of reason (and of authority) are inherently likely to camouflage disreputable motives” was a fundamental aspect of modernist attacks on the economy of knowledge in their societies [Butler, 1994, p.91]. In the case of Stephen Dedalus, the tensions that underlie the problem of knowledge are dramatised, and uncover the “disreputable motive” of his teachers: his intellectual desire clashes with the power relations which his school imposes. In Chapter 2, after his return to school in Belvedere college, he is accused of having “heresy in his essay” (p.66), publicly shamed and implicitly threatened (as he is only in the school because of the Jesuits’ benevolence towards his family) and eventually forced to correct his statement in front of the class. However, the exact motive of the rebuke, the idea expressed, is reduced to a cryptic half-sentence “without a possibility of ever approaching nearer”. It may be argued that the context is not so hard to reconstruct for a contemporary or anyone versed in ecclesiastical matters – the question is that of the relation between the soul and the Creator, and whether not being able to reach Him is the same as never being able to approach the divine, the latter being of course constitutive of Stephen’s own experience of religion rather than the Jesuit’s doxa, and preparing his final decision to abandon priesthood as a career. Nevertheless, by leaving aside the content of Stephen’s essay, the text highlights the “submission” that the young boy is forced to accept, in order to “appease” his teacher (ibid.). What he learns is not so much to reflect on religion but to bow to a certain ritual, correcting himself under the instructions of the teacher and “knowing” what he can and cannot say – the teacher’s first suggestion being that “Perhaps [he] didn’t know” about his heresy (ibid.). From that perspective, such reflections as that of Hugh Kenner, who asserts that objectivity in Joyce is dependent upon “rituals of language” [Kenner, 1978, p.14] are to be taken very concretely: Belvedere college dictates both what is true and how truth is acquired, the rituals by which it is asserted.

Hence, what appears once the question of knowledge is sidelined are the multiple, complex and ubiquitous rituals of education, and their links with other institutions. In that respect, it is very interesting to see that both Woolf and Joyce emphasise the close contact between educational institutions and the Church. The relation is explicit in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, since Stephen is sent to religious schools and set to become a priest; but even in Jacob’s Room, the very close ties between education and religion are striking. Cambridge is introduced through a Chapel service. And just like in Belvedere college, the question of pure faith is immaterial: what is described is the ceremonial and the order which this service imposes. In the two paragraphs in which the scene is described, the word “orderly” recurs three times –“In what orderly procession they advance”, “inside the Chapel all was orderly”, “all very orderly” (pp.38 & 39) [3]. Once again, the concrete and material structure of the social ritual overshadows its symbolic meaning. As a matter of fact, the Church itself is only marginally associated with a doctrine: rather, it represents a particularly obvious form of social and cultural machinery, with its impact on places, on language and on people. This primacy of form over content is closely linked with power relations, as Paul B. Armstrong highlights: “The politics of modernism is determined not exclusively […] by the themes [explored] but rather by the way in which problems of power and authority are staged for the recipient” [Armstrong, 2005, p.172]. The dons at Cambridge, whatever it is they teach, can be considered “priestly” if their touted search for knowledge leads them to patronise their students, and ask that their ideas be accepted on pure faith. Woolf points out the paradox of their underlying and well-hidden “disreputable motives”: “men would respect still. A woman, divining the priest, would, involuntarily, despise.” (p.52) [4]. There are however two sides to this story: on the don’s end, of course, is self-deception; but no less on the side of the “men” who “respect” it. Like the soldiers, unquestioning and impassible, some force is at work to make them accept the submission that is asked of them and the vertical relation of power which their teacher entertains with them. It is this force which I will argue is at stake in Joyce’s and Woolf’s criticism of the education system.

The education system as an Ideological State Apparatus

However necessary, the attacks that both authors level at the education system, bringing to light its hypocrisy and underhanded manipulation of students, are not an end in and of themselves. Crucially, it does not explain why such hypocrisy went unnoticed, why the dons or Jesuits were obeyed. To come back to the metaphor with which I introduced the problem, schools and universities are only cogs in a wider machinery, which informs them and in turn rests on their support. As Pamela Caughie puts it in  Virginia Woolf and Postmodernism, Literature in Quest & Question of Itself, behind individual attacks on rules or ideas, Woolf’s primary objective is to be understood as “layers of discourse” [Caughie, 1991, p.98], transcending punctual instances to form a system which involves places, bodies and utterances alike. Likewise, in her analysis of culture within Joyce’s works, Cheryl Herr affirms the need to forget the transcendent purposes of the Church and the arts in order to think in terms of “institutions”, vying for power in a very concrete cultural space [Herr, 1986, p.222]. As it is not a meagre task to examine these workings both in their unity and diversity, comparing two parallel but by no means identical cases, I will proceed using the notion of Ideological State Apparatus, as developed by Althusser in “Idéologies et Appareils Idéologiques d’Etat” [Althusser, 1976, p.81]. I think this notion, whatever its intellectual limitations [5], does justice to Joyce’s and Woolf’s reflection on three critical points. Firstly, it acknowledges the agency of material structures and spaces, which play an important role in both novels. Secondly, through the concept of “interpellation”, it provides a concrete and cogent representation of the way in which institutions impose roles on individuals. And finally, it negates the question of intention, of a sort of conscious plot to make men wage war, and focuses on the autonomy of the ideological apparatus, with its aim of reproducing the power structure, and making all individuals, both the teacher and the student, partake in it.

The education system, then, makes its influence felt on spaces, defining, limiting and separating – once again to the detriment of the avowed goal of letting knowledge transcend all barriers. The college rooms, dormitories, corridors and courtyards of the different establishments, from Conglowes to Cambridge, play a very important part in Jacob and Stephen’s upbringing. They divide the world between those who can or cannot afford to go to school – a purgatory where Stephen finds himself at the start of Chapter 2 in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – the strong and the weak students – Stephen finding himself thrown off the sports field into an adjacent ditch at Conglowes (p.11) – and of course between men and women. These differences are part of its rituals, becoming a sort of second nature that instils an impression of innate hierarchy. During the Chapel service, as his eyes wander, Jacob notices a number of women in the chapel – wives and family of Faculty members – and compares their presence to that of dogs: “No one would think of bringing a dog into church.” (p.40). The shocking nature of the comparison stresses how embedded the “order” of the “orderly” service is in the young man’s mind: the divisions which it creates between the initiates and the profanes (etymologically: those who aren’t supposed to enter the temple) is so strong that they might as well be of different species.

Indeed, these spaces do not only passively stand as barriers between social spaces: as Woolf well knows, every Oxbridge lawn has its beadle, an instance actively putting people in their place. It can of course be a human judge, like the teacher calling Stephen “heretic”, but those epiphenomena are merely the liminal guardians of institutions which function on their own. In chapter 3 of Jacob’s Room, young Jacob looks out of the window of his accommodation and “[feels] himself the inheritor” (p.57) of the college’s history. The mere view outside the window fashions him as a member of his college. And as he walks in the corridors, his footsteps on the floor are described as announcing him “with magisterial authority”: “the young man” (p.59). This parallel between the material sound of his steps, which situate him in space, and their symbolic “announcement”, which defines his social status as a “young man”, illustrates the essential link between the material and the social in Woolf’s description. There is something inherently sensual and physical about belonging to a college, and something inherently symbolic and identity-defining about the specific way in which an undergraduate paces about the corridors of his college. But accepting the view from one’s room and taking up that particular gait, submitting to that form of institutional interpellation, also carries obligations. Not only are there spaces where the undergraduate belongs, there are also spaces where he should be. In a very Althusserian fashion, this submission translates into answering to one’s name. When Jacob is late for Mr Plumer’s Sunday luncheon at the start of chapter 3, his name precedes him; the don asks: “does anybody know Mr Flanders?” (p.40). Roll calls and and name-lists do not simply mean that a student has to study and write essays. The whole machinery invokes the individual and demands his presence, in a system where every cog has its function, as the  dash in Mr Plumer’s reflection “if no don ever gave a luncheon party –” (p.41) ominously implies. Neither he nor his students are particularly happy to have lunch together, but the social rituals must be renewed and the order reproduced for the new undergraduates as it was for their elders, regardless of individual preferences.

This idea of impersonal forces stemming directly from places and interpellating the individual at a specific place with specific demands is even more explicitly referred to in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. No subtle instances like that of the footsteps in the corridor at Belvedere: voices rise directly from institutions and “urge” Stephen in different directions:

“When the gymnasium had been opened he had heard [a] voice urging him to be strong and manly and healthy and when the movement towards national revival had begun to be felt in the college yet another voice had bidden him be true to his country […] In the profane world, as he foresaw, a worldly voice would bid him raise up his father’s fallen state by his labours” (p.70)

The voice of the gymnasium, unlike the previously mentioned voices of his father and teachers, is not the attribute of a character but of an institution. These voices dictate a behaviour through a form of identification: as a man, he should be “manly”, as an Irishman, “true to his country” – the possessive here directly links the demands made upon him to an identity. And of course, these different influences coalesce in his identification with his father’s name, his social status and the social, personal and possibly financial debt that this name carries with it [6].

Finally, these forces concur to reproduce the power structure, using both social incentives and threats to beckon individuals into partaking in the social system. In Stephen’s case, once again, Belvedere school makes no secret of the social power which it can bestow to those who submit to its doctrines. The bright young man is coaxed towards the career which the Jesuits want for him through very direct mentions of the influence which he will be able to wield. As the director of the school explicitly states: “No king or emperor on this earth has the power of the priest of God.[…] What an awful power, Stephen!” (p.133). The repetition of the word “power” – which the traditional comparison with that of kings defines as spiritual power as opposed to material power – and the very ambivalent adjective “awful”, implying a form of warning but also, etymologically, of reverence, reveal the underlying motivations of the pedagogue. Furthermore, the link between power and interpellation is explicitly stated: the change of situation would translate into a change of name, which appears in Stephen’s mind after the meeting: “The Reverend Stephen Dedalus, S.J.” (p.136). The suffix to his name becomes the symbol of the shackles – golden and “awful” as they may be – that young Stephen comes to fear. And, if we are to complete the cycle, his fear materialises when he walks past the Jesuit house and wonders “which window would be his” (ibid.) if he were to join them. The paragraph ends with his decision to prefer “wandering” to the monastic cell: places, social functions and names form a whole, wielding power within the Irish social structure, and it is this web, this system, which he chooses to escape.

The effect is understandably more diffuse in Jacob’s Room, as Jacob himself does not escape the system. Nevertheless, small side-scenes abound in the novel, often bringing into focus the margins of the world in which he belongs. In Cambridge, a number of passages focus on the parties thrown by dons in their rooms. Among them is a crucial, if as always very lightly sketched, moment. Among the alumni that Pr. Sopwith has invited, one of them is “the unsuccessful provincial” (we can already note the definite article, attributing a pre-existing social paradigm to the character) which the don calls using his old university nickname: “Chucky”. And the narrative voice remarks that, although not his real name, it “brought back […] everything, everything, ‘all I could never be’” (p.51), adding that the man would “save every penny to send his son” to Cambridge (p.52). Here again, the institutional power of Cambridge translates into a name, which itself belongs to a place – it has no value outside the walls of the college – and which is linked with a promise of social status. The irony being of course that the promise is illusory, that Cambridge only comes to represent what this provincial, middle-class man “could never be”, since he is bound to the position of “unsuccessful provincial” – the very name “Chucky” has a condescending ring to it. But whatever his actual place within the system, the man is ready to reproduce it, saving to send his son, probably back to the same subaltern position, but at all costs partaking in the prestigious system. Incidentally, this suspicion on Woolf’s part vis à vis the social ramifications of the education system may account for her personal unwillingness to accept the honours which were sometimes proposed to her. Lyndall Gordon explains this refusal saying that: “She would not allow herself to be used as an exception” [Gordon, 1984, p.258]. The “exception”, just like the “unsuccessful provincial”, is one of the archetypes of university life, and by accepting this position, Woolf understood that she would be contributing to the very system she criticised.

A society founded on violence

Now that we have understood the ways in which Woolf and Joyce enact a relatively coherent and thorough critique of the education system in their societies, what remains to be seen is the link between these attacks and the Great War. One very simple aspect of this relation is the fact that the conflict served to popularise new ideas, giving open-minded thinkers new perspectives on pre-existing social facts. For instance, in Reading 1922: A Return to the scene of the modern, Michael North reminds us that the treatment of “shell-shock” victims became the centre of an acute psychological debate, along the lines traced by the Freudian school of psychoanalysis, on the relation between reason and behaviour [North, 1999, p.69]. As its influence waned in the domain of psychology, the dominance of conscious reason in the field of knowledge was necessarily shaken. However, as I have asserted at the start of this paper, the war was not simply a pretext. On the contrary, its gruesome consequences both gave modernist writers a sense of urgency, of a question that must be asked, and brought to light the structural violence of the world they lived in. The education system beckons young men into accepting a predetermined place in society, but it also accustoms them, from an early age, to symbolic and physical violence, and prepares them to obey and submit in times of war. In both novels, any sign of resistance to the master or the unwritten laws of the class leads to a flare of aggression; and these short outbursts come with an equally brutal insight of the darker facet of the social order – the core of brutality on which the institutions of civilisation are erected.

Coming back to chapter 2 of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where Stephen was accused of “heresy” by his teacher, we can see the indirect but essential link between symbolic acts of violence and actual physical aggression. The teacher’s remark is a prime instance of symbolic violence in speech, as theorised by Pierre Bourdieu [Bourdieu, 1982, p.79]. He makes Stephen submit to his viewpoint through a combination of humiliation in front of his peers, cultural imposition – interpreting his failure, as a form of ignorance, before he has a chance to speak out for himself – and implicit material threats. It may also be argued that he underhandedly refers Stephen back to earlier memories of school-life, where violence is a lot more concrete. The parallel between this scene and the one in Conglowes were he is called a “schemer” and promised a whipping is uncomfortably established at the back of the reader’s mind. However, there is no need to go so far to find actual violence: in the very next paragraph, as Stephen is debating the worth of different writers with his friends, one of them recalls the teacher’s words and uses them to beat him into submission. The form that this interrogation takes is shocking, not only because of its violence, but also because of how that violence is embedded within the same structure of indoctrination that the school itself uses. As he is kicked and caned with a stick, Stephen is told to abandon his belief three times:

“-Admit that Byron was no good.
-No. No.”

The religious and profane intertext of this scene of confrontation is of course extremely pregnant, pitting Stephen as either a Christian martyr or a modern Don Giovanni in front of the statue of the commander, refusing to repent three times. But the contrast between the actual situation and its allegorical value is by no means an artistic ornament: it reveals that even schoolboys, although they don’t master the subtle tactics of persuasion that their Jesuit masters use on them, are perfectly aware of how things work in their school. The truth in matters of the mind is to be imposed by violence. Education is a matter of forcing children to submit to higher authorities. This is where the social machinery behind the education system reaches its limit: in forcefully reproducing the social structure, in meeting any factor of heterogeneity with violence, it impedes any kind of dialogue other than these brutal extortions of confessions. In Ireland, it supports the endless cycle of violence that plagues the country, and undermines any political solution to its ills. But it is the same problem in the whole of Europe, where the same system leads to the same results.

Woolf depicts the mechanisms of violence in a very similar way in Jacob’s Room, but she is more explicit in giving them a wider symbolic meaning. After the very uncomfortable scene at Mr Plumer’s, where he is made to feel the tightness of the social structure around him, Jacob suddenly has a vision of “the world of the elderly”:

“sure enough the cities which the elderly of the race have built upon the skyline showed like brick suburbs, barracks, and places of discipline” (p.44)

Not dwelling on the fact that, once again, the social world appears as a set of places defining people’s identities – a soldier in a barrack, a prisoner perhaps, or at the time maybe a pauper, in a “place of discipline” – what is incredibly striking is the absolute continuity that this vision creates between the university and the institutions where one either partakes in or submits to state violence, what Althusser calls the Repressive State Apparatus [Althusser, 1976, p.81]. As Woolf stated in her earlier short story “The Mark on the Wall” – incidentally a wartime story –, the Sunday luncheon in Victorian society, with its artificiality and constrained rituals, was a symbol of the entire social structure, the very basis of the “real”, and the standard for all the other social ceremonies, including “leading articles, cabinet ministers” (p.6) and all of the political powers that led Britain to war. Moreover, what Jacob’s Room adds to very broad conflation of events and rituals is a unifying factor: “discipline”. Just like in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, a purely cultural opposition, against Mr Plumer’s “six-penny weeklies” (p.43), becomes symbolic of a wider issue. What Jacob actually finds shocking is not Mr Plumer himself but “the world of the elderly – thrown up in such black outline upon what we are” (p.44). Jacob does not only see these barracks and “places of discipline”; he is outlined by them, his identity caught within the lines that they trace. He will accept them and accept the place they assign to him until the end, the day the barracks makes a soldier of him and sends him to his death.

Finally, the link between Cambridge as an institution and the war constitutes a possible key of interpretation for a more poetic passage within Jacob’s Room, illustrating the abstract yet overwhelming influence of the social order. As the “orderly” procession walks across the Chapel, an enigmatic image intrudes, featuring a different yet strangely similar crowd:

“… If you stand a lantern under a tree every insect in the forest creeps up to it – a curious assembly, since though they scramble and swing and knock their heads against the glass, they seem to have no purpose – something senseless inspires them. […] [T]hey amble round the lantern and blindly tap as if for admittance, one large toad being the most besotted of any and shouldering his way through the rest. Ah, but what’s that? A terrifying volley of pistol-shots rings out […] a tree has fallen, a sort of death in the forest.” (p.39)

The absence of any connection between the two paragraphs, emphasised by the suspension points,  and the paratactic description of unrelated events, leave the text open to different kinds of reading. Nevertheless, the parallel is easily drawn between this lantern and the “brightness” that the top of King’s College Chapel is said to cast over its surroundings (p.38). Thus, like the insects, young men scramble towards the light, “inspired” by a power known only to them, and which makes no sense to the exterior observer. They blindly fight to be admitted closer and closer to the ambiguously desirable light of the lantern – which can of course kill them. And then, just as senselessly, pistol-shots ring out and death occurs in the forest. The haunting, intrusive ghost of meaningless death pervades the “assembly”. Without reason, but led by an internal regulatory principle of violence and competition, these creatures edge their way towards their demise. This superimposed vision, obtained through the inherently modernist technique of “montage”, as studied by David Trotter in Cinema and Modernism [Trotter, 2007, p.140], creates a direct, emotionally charged equation between the absurd violence of nature and the social rituals of “civilised” life. That is the answer which Jacob’s Room gives to the question of the “meaning” – or lack thereof – of the Great War, and the reason why the novel can be read as a radical denunciation of its society in the light of that conflict.

Ideology and “positions”

The question of modernism in its relation to politics can be rephrased in the light of the present analysis. Although these texts are not “political”, in the sense in which Woolf’s and Joyce’s contemporaries understood the term – and let us remember Jacob’s hatred of the “beastly” Wells and Shaw (p.43) as well as Stephen’s distrust towards Irish politics –  it is necessary to think of both Jacob’s Room and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as novels written during a time when violence flared, and what had perhaps seemed like small, localised spaces of brutality within a civilised world suddenly revealed their deep links with the entire social system. For both authors, shedding light on these links was an artistic endeavour, requiring a new take on narrative, poetic and stylistic strategies. As Jean-Michel Rabaté puts it, Joyce was starting an insurrection “within language” [Rabaté, 1984, p.126]. But, however abstract this translation into the field of language and arts may seem, an insurrection within language is still a form of insurrection. Here again, the vocabulary of Althusser comes in handy. It enables us to transcend the binary opposition between the political statement and the notion of a “disinterested” form of art, through the concept of “positioning” or “prise de position” [7]. Neither novel may be directly about the Great War, but its occurrence as an event presented all contemporaries with a choice, before which which there was no neutral ground. And rather than uphold the values and social forces which they suspected had led to the conflict, both authors chose to analyse these forces, deconstruct the workings of such institutions, and denounce their pernicious effects. One may argue that they  did not fight head on, letting readers draw conclusions from the individual stories of their protagonists; but there can be no doubt that these stories beg the question of how to confront the essential violence of European societies, both at the individual and the collective level.



[1]    Cf “The Mark on the Wall”, The Mark on the Wall and Other Short Fiction, p.6

[2]    The term “deconstruction” is of course borrowed from the Derridean vocabulary. Although its use here is effectively restricted to that of a historicisation and breaking down of a system’s pretension towards self-sufficiency, I do not believe that this simplification betrays the original meaning of the process (see for instance the “deconstruction” of science to reveal the political, economic, scientific and religious “adventure” that constitutes phonocentrism, in De la grammatologie [Derrida, 1967, p.141]).

[3]    Incidentally, the word “orderly” is a very charged one in Woolf’s vocabulary. Taking up a passage from The Waves, Jessica Berman shows how it partakes of a certain masculine ethics directly linked with war. As Bernard puts it: “ it is a mistake, this extreme precision, this orderly and military progress; a convenience, a lie” [ in Berman, 2001, p.154]. The orderly way of thinking which he has learned is in itself a construct, with “military” ramifications.

[4]    The critique of teaching as a form of preaching was in fact a deep and far-reaching topic in Woolf’s political thinking throughout her life. Ten years after Jacob’s Room, in a letter to Ethel Smyth, written on  May 18, 1931, her opinion is stated with just as much virulence: “What I can’t abide is the man who wishes to convert other men’s minds; that tampering with belief seems to me impertinent, insolent, corrupt beyond measure” [in Berman, 2001, p.114]

[5]    One of the main shortcomings of the Althusserian vision of power, at least in his first period, is its implication of a static and monolithic ideological system, justly analysed by Foucault in Histoire de la sexualité, 1 La volonté de savoir. Imagining an almighty power on the one side and the possibility of a unitary resistance on the other is glossing over the primarily local aspect of power-relations, and the local, individual “foci of resistance” which they  necessarily give birth to [Foucault, 1976, p.123-128]. This essential connection between power and resistance was phrased in explicitly Althusserian terms by Jean-Jacques Lecercle, who uses the notion of “counter-interpellation” to situate the instance of resistance directly in the exchange which interpellation creates [Lecercle, 1999, pp.108-111]. However, both in Jacob’s Room and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I think one can argue that the institutions are depicted in a very adversarial way, focusing on their monolithic aspect, so that the broad strokes of Althusser’s theory are sufficient, if not perhaps more loyal to the authors’ perspective than finer analyses.

[6]    On Stephen’s relation to debt, and his constant oscillation between acknowledgement and evasion of his and his father’s name, cf Rabaté, 1984, esp. pp.110-114 and pp.133-140.

[7]    Although the notion of “position” in Althusser is of course already present in his texts written in the 1960’s, I think the later definitions of the term, especially the one given in “Être marxiste en philosophie” [Althusser, 2015, pp.260-261] are more directly pertinent to my point here, especially since they stress the topical and “practical” nature of positions, their direct link with a specific and concrete situation.



Althusser, Louis, “Idéologie et Appareils Idéologiques d’Etat” in Positions, Paris: Editions Sociales, 1976

—, Être Marxiste en Philosophie, Paris : PUF, 2015

Armstrong, Paul B., Play and the Politics of Reading: The Social Uses of Modernist Form, Ithaca, NY et Londres: Cornell University Press, 2005

Bourdieu, Pierre, “Production et reproduction de la langue légitime” in Ce que parler veut dire, Paris : Arthème Fayard, 1982

Butler, Christopher, Early Modernism: Literature, Music, and Painting in Europe, 1900-1916, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994

Caughie, Pamela L., Virginia Woolf and Postmodernism: Literature in Quest and Question of Itself , Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991

Derrida, Jacques, De la grammatologie, Paris: Minuit, 1967

Foucault, Michel, Histoire de la sexualité 1 : La volonté de savoir, Paris : Gallimard, 1976

Gordon, Lyndall, Virginia Woolf: A Writer’s Life, Oxford: OUP, 1984

Herr, Cheryl, Joyce’s Anatomy of Culture, Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1986

Joyce, James, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Oxford: OUP, (1916), 2000

Joyce, Stanislaus, My Brother’s Keeper, London: Faber and Faber, 1958, 1982

Kenner, Hugh, Joyce’s Voices, Londres: Faber, 1978

Lecercle, Jean-Jacques, Interpretation as Pragmatics, Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1999

North, Michael, Reading 1922: A Return to the scene of the modern, Oxford: OUP, 1999

Rabaté, Jean Michel, Joyce : Portrait de l’auteur en autre lecteur, Petit-Roeulx : Cistre, 1984

Tadié, Benoît, L’expérience moderniste anglo-américaine (1908-1922), Formes, Idéologies, Combats, Paris: Editions Didier, 1999

Trotter, David, Cinema and Modernism, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2007

Woolf, Virginia, Jacob’s Room, Oxford : OUP, (1922), 1994

—, The Mark Upon the Wall and Other Short Fiction, Oxford: OUP, 2001


Olivier Hercend is a senior lecturer at Nanterre Université. After completing his PhD at Sorbonne Université in 2019, he is working on its publication with Classiques Garnier, under the title A Modernist Economy of Reading: Joyce, Woolf, T.S. Eliot. He is co-editing a collection entitled The Wanderings of Modernism, with Clemson University Press, has published articles and book chapters (in French and English) on modernism and literary theory, and is also the treasurer for the Société d’Etudes Modernistes. He is also a novelist.

Gender and war: modernist reconfigurations in Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier (1918) and Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood (1936)


The early years of the twentieth century witnessed the boundaries between masculine and feminine roles in Western society being more keenly contested than ever before, as women encroached further into the public sphere and were increasingly vocal in their demands for political rights and representation. The Great War brought this tension  into sharper focus as it paradoxically fostered both a culture of bellicose manliness, while at the same time offering women the possibility of escaping the domestic space and gaining in agency and empowerment. The question of gender and war was also one that engaged and inspired male modernist writers, who frequently « sexed » their aesthetic response to the horror of combat as they posited the compensatory value of art in a time of crisis. Women novelists such as Djuna Barnes and Rebecca West also gave expression to the contemporary struggle over masculine and feminine identity within the context of war but their stance, it will be argued, was somewhat different. Critical of the Great War’s politico-patriarchal imperatives, they also viewed the period as a time and space from which alternative gender configurations might be effectively articulated.

Au début du XXe siècle, quand les femmes s’investissent davantage dans la sphère publique et revendiquent plus haut et plus fort leur droit à une représentation politique, les frontières entre les rôles octroyés aux hommes et aux femmes sont plus que jamais contestées. La Grande Guerre fait ressortir cette tension car elle encourage à la fois la culture de la virilité belliqueuse tout en offrant aux femmes la possibilité de s’échapper de la sphère domestique et de gagner en autonomie. Cette interrelation féconde a interpellé et inspiré les écrivains modernistes masculins, qui formulent souvent leur réponse à l’horreur des tranchées en termes sexués, tout en affirmant la valeur compensatoire de l’art en temps de crise.
Le regard des romancières telles que Djuna Barnes et Rebecca West porte également sur la question l’identité masculine et féminine dans le contexte de la guerre, mais leur prise de position est quelque peu différente. Critiques à l’égard des impératifs politico-patriarcaux de la Grande Guerre, elles considèrent cette période comme un espace-temps qui permet l’émergence de nouvelles configurations sociétales et genrées.

Djuna Barnes, Nightwood, Rebecca West, The Return of the Solider.  T.S. Eliot, T.E. Hulme, Ezra Pound, May Sinclair, Great War, gender.



The early years of the twentieth century mark a period in Western society where the boundaries between masculine and feminine roles were being more keenly negotiated than ever before, as women moved further into the public spaces of workplace and university and were increasingly present on the political stage (Bockting 21). The Great War brought this tension into sharper focus as it engendered a culture that at once celebrated virile prowess and yet offered many women the possibility of jettisoning the domestic realm as the demands of total war took them to the factory or field ambulance. World War One also lies at the heart of literary modernism, providing impetus and inspiration for modernism’s experimental aesthetic and ideological underpinnings: it is indeed « the great modernist subject » (Goodspeed-Chadwick 17). However it is also one from which female writers have historically been marginalized, just as more broadly speaking, male experience and male writing have long constituted the archetypal modernist text (Felski 10). The following article aims to offer a tentative exploration of the complex interelationship between, modernism, gender and war while also showcasing lesser-known writing on war by women. Starting with male modernists’ twin responses to the horror of the trenches and anxiety over shifting gender paradigms, it will then move on discuss how those paradigms were rearticulated and traditional norms reinstated within a context of war. The article will then turn its attention to the women writers’ reaction to combat: what was their take on the period and how was it received? Lastly in the wake modernism’s recent historical turn and its reevaluation of the current’s female protagonists, it will make a case for the significance of the women writer’s view.

T.S. Eliot’s now famous 1923 apology of Ulysses as “mythic method” established an important critical paradigm for reading the modernist text in the wake of what the poet termed “the immense panorama of futility and anarchy” that was modernity post World War One. In proposing something “stricter” than the conventional realist novel, argued Eliot, the artwork might just counter the hopelessness and chaos of a fallen world and offer “a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving shape and significance” (484, 483)—not just a “heap of broken images”, as the poet famously put it in The Waste Land published the year before before—but a real reconstruction of sorts to “shore” against the “ruins” of civilization (l.22, 430). Of course, Eliot’s comments on Ulysses apply as much to his own work as to Joyce’s: as modernist scholar Alex Goody has noted, the battlefields of the Great War  “echo thematically and aurally through The Waste Land” (58). At the same time, this richly intertextual poem offers art as aesthetic compensation for “futility and anarchy” as the “individual talent” of the poet refashions and pays homage to literary “tradition” (Eliot 1921).

This high modernist notion of ordered reconstruction in the face of chaos was often articulated in gendered terms, and not surprisingly so, since “during this period Western society was struggling over where to draw the boundaries between masculine and feminine identity” (Bockting 21). As Margaret Bockting has stressed, the pre-war years saw a significant influx of women into the public sphere:

By the 1910s, greater numbers of women than ever before were attending colleges, earning wages in industries and professions, receiving access to birth control information (and sometimes contraceptive devices) and demanding (and in some states exercising) the right to vote and hold political office. (22)

For modernist theorists such as Eliot, Pound and T.E. Hulme writing around the time of the First World War, the “feminine”—sentimental excess and its aesthetic avatars, decadence and romanticism—, became a leitmotif in their writing on artistic practice as something to be kept at bay. Eliot’s “classicism,”[i] T.E. Hulme’s apology of the “hard and dry” (126), and Pound’s insistence on the importance of writing to be sober and unadorned—“austere, direct, free from emotional slither” (12)—can be viewed as a figurative expression of a broader resistance to female encroachment into the public space[ii]. It finds a “real-life” corollary in the masculinist triumphalism that Theodore Roszak has termed the “compulsive masculinity” of early twentieth-century political rhetoric (92).[iii]

In the face of challenges to conventional gender identities, the early decades of the twentieth century witnessed a reinforcement of the Victorian notion of the separate male (public) and female (private) spheres, with the war in particular offering the opportunity for men to reassert their masculine credentials in active combat. The “ideology of male violence” (Bockting 23) was buttressed by the still popularly held Darwinian belief that man “is more courageous, pugnacious and energetic than woman” (Tylee 124). Militarism was applauded precisely because it encouraged bellicose manliness:

The War emphasized an essential difference between men and women. Women were not combatants […] The war reasserted gender distinctions that women had been contesting: women were frail and had to be defended by strong protectors, who were prepared to kill or die on their behalf. (Tylee 253-254)

Military propaganda posters of the period on both sides of the Atlantic contributed to constructing the war as a male initiation rite at the same time as they reinforced difference and, crucially, a hierarchy of gender that glorified the man’s role. One 1917 American poster featuring a radiant young woman sporting a male sailor’s uniform bears the caption “GEE!! I WISH I WERE A MAN I’d JOIN THE NAVY BE A MAN AND DO IT UNITED STATES NAVY RECRUITING STATION.” [iv] The implication is not only that maleness is superior and preferable—the envy of women—, but that masculinity is not automatically attributed: rather, it needs to be maintained, earned even, by performing manly deeds (“be a man and do it”).

A second poster[v], this time dating from 1915 and targeting a British audience, also elicits the perceived complicity of the female population to encourage more men to enlist. The poster highlights men’s role as guardians of the weaker sex, as a woman and her offspring look out from within the confines of a clearly delineated domestic space at a regiment of soldiers marching off to war. The mother, the embodiment of passive, helpless British womanhood, enjoins her spouse to go and fight.

Of course, the “gross dichotomizing” (Fussell 75) of this ideological message was only part of the story. Their theoretical formulations notwithstanding, male modernists’ artistic output during and in the immediate follow-up to the Great War often offered a more complex response to the crisis in gender identity. T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, the title piece in PRUFROCK and Other Observations, (1917) and dedicated to “Jean Verdenal 1889-1915”, a military doctor and a friend of the poet who died in the trenches, portrays a very different form of masculinity to that celebrated in warmongering rhetoric or in Eliot’s writings on poetic practice discussed earlier. As his name suggests, Prufrock displays flaws traditionally associated with femininity: he is prudish, cowardly (“And indeed there will be time/To wonder, ‘Do I dare?’ and, ‘Do I dare’”, l. 38) and feeble (“They will say: ‘But how his arms and legs are thin!’” l. 44), at the same time as being both lured and spurned by indifferent womanhood (“I have seen the mermaids singing each to each/I do not think they will sing to me” l. 124-125).  Equally significant is the role accorded the androgynous visionary Tiresias, “old man with wrinkled dugs” (l. 228) in The Waste Land—“the most important personage in the poem” according to Eliot’s notes (n. 218)— and a source of unity rather than anxiety in the work.

However, just as the feminine was beginning to make ambiguous inroads into male modernists’ wartime production, so too were women making advances into the public sphere. Journalism and diaries of the period reveal the extent to which war offered women the possibility of escaping the home and gaining entry in “male centres of power” (Tylee 14), be it in employment in the munitions industry and other previously male-dominated professions, or even across the Channel in France, nursing wounded soldiers or driving ambulances.[vi] In fact, as Tylee notes, so momentous was the experience of female empowerment that “many women who lived through the period saw the War itself as overriding their interest in women’s suffrage.” (14)

In “Hands that War”, an article that appeared in the Daily Chronicle in 1916, journalist and modernist writer Rebecca West stresses the heroic contribution women made to the war effort, describing the harsh and hazardous twelve-hour shifts they endured in munitions factories: “surely never before in modern history can women have lived a life so completely parallel to that of the regular Army,” exclaims West, before enjoining the state to remember “the cold fact that they face more danger every day than any soldier on home defence has seen since the beginning of the war” (Young Rebecca 382).

Yet as scholar Suzanne Raitt has argued, those women who did play an active role in the war effort nevertheless often found themselves faced with the humiliation of their own perceived inferiority: “femininity is repeatedly experienced and represented as shame at times of social and cultural crisis” (66). Modernist May Sinclair’s poetic dedication “To a Field Ambulance in Flanders”, included in A Journal of Impressions in Belgium (1915), the memoirs of the short period she spent there,[vii] speaks eloquently of frustration and regret at not being able to participate more fully in the war, and a sense of women’s own lowly status on the front:

I do not call you comrades,
Who did what I only dreamed.
Though you have taken my dream,
And dressed yourselves in its beauty and its glory,
Your faces are turned aside as you pass by.
I am nothing to you,
For I have done no more than dream (l. 1-8)

The female speaker in Sinclair’s poem portrays herself as “trumped” by the seductive appeal of danger, personified as a bewitching temptress, far more irresistible than a real woman:

Your faces are like the face of her whom you follow,
The Beloved who looks backward as she runs, calling to her lovers
The huntress who flies before her quarry, trailing her lure (l. 9-12)

Indeed, the challenge to what Paul Fussell has termed the “simple antithesis” (82) of the official war narrative, a potentially radical moment of promise and opportunity—the risks outlined by West notwithstanding—would prove largely short-lived. As modernist scholar Maren Linett notes, the return to peace saw a backlash against women working: “were they to take jobs from wounded former soldiers? Ought they not to return home and bear children to replace the young men lost in the war, to shore up the nation’s health and pride?” (5).

As regards the construction of the canon of war literature and the literary history of the period, a similar trajectory may be observed, with women’s writing under-researched compared to that of their male counterparts. This is perhaps, as Angela K. Smith suggests, “because women are not obvious participants in the popular mythic representations of the war” (3)—even if the trench experience was one encountered by less than half the total male population and “the roster of major innovative talents who were not involved with the war [as combatants] is long and impressive”, including “Yeats, […] Pound, Lawrence and Joyce […] the masters of the modern movement” (Fussell 313-14).[viii] Thus, as Julie Goodspeed–Chadwick has noted, “canonical collections of war poetry and war writing have historically elided women” (17). Women have been denied space in the traditional literary representations of the Great War because while they lived through it, they did not take part in it directly. Moreover, the New Critical approach, long the dominant “academic discourse” of modernism, laid an emphasis on textual, and by extension cultural, unity, locating modernist artistic triumph in its ability to the transcend the “ruinous vulgarities of modern life” (McDonald, 192), just as Eliot’s essay on Ulysses had argued back in 1922.

Recent re-evaluations of modernism are however increasingly challenging this androcentric “received narrative” (Lamos 2):

What once seemed the exclusive affair of ‘modern masters’, the ‘men of 1914’ (as Wyndham Lewis called them) now stands revealed as a complex of inventive gestures, daring performances, enacted by many who were left out of the account in the early histories of the epoch, histories offered first by the actors themselves and later produced within academic discourse, willingly guided by the precedents of eminent artists. (Levenson 3)

With the historical turn in modernist studies, modernist texts are now being recognized as the site of other forms of reconstruction. The journalistic and fictional writings on World War One by two female modernists, the British writer Rebecca West (1892-1983) and the American Djuna Barnes (1892-1982), not only demonstrate the role of women as critical contemporary commentators on the war, but also show how the ideological “struggle” over the boundaries of male and female roles at play during wartime offered the possibility of new configurations of gender identity, not just the dogged reiteration of well-worn stereotypes. West and Barnes bring the war into the domestic sphere and take the traditionally feminine out onto the battlefield. In laying bare the limits of “compulsory masculinity,” they put forward a bold denunciation of the perversion and inhumanity of warfare, refusing, as West puts it in an article in the liberal American magazine New Republic in 1914, to “scuttle for safety towards militarism and orthodoxy”.

This article entitled “It Is Our Duty to Practice Harsh Criticism” strikes a chord with Eliot’s essay, previously discussed, in its insistence on the redemptive power of creative practice:

Indeed, if we want to save our souls, the mind must lead a more athletic life than it has ever done before, and must more passionately than ever practise and rejoice in art.

But whereas for Eliot, art is posited as a compensation for the horrors of modernity, West’s piece, which she subtitles “a literary manifesto for the ages”, explicitly champions the political role art has to play in wartime in challenging the recourse to comforting old order certitudes—what she acerbically terms the “convention of pleasantness”—when faced with “disgust at the daily deathbed” of the trenches:

Life will be lived as it might be in some white village among English elms; while the boys are drilling on the green we shall look up at the church spire and take it as proven that it is pointing to God with final accuracy.

It is this same quaint rural idyll that West seeks to disturb in her first novel The Return of the Soldier, published in 1918. The text, which takes place almost entirely in the domestic sphere of Baldry Court, an English stately home and is narrated from the viewpoint of Jenny, cousin of the eponymous soldier for whom she harbours unrequited feelings. Recounted through Jenny’s conventional upper middle-class voice, itself positioned on the peripheries of the action, The Return of the Soldier has tended to be read as “woman’s novel”, dealing primarily with emotions and sentiment (Smith 171). Into this ostensibly safe and orthodox frame, however, West brings disruption in various guises. This is by no means the glorious return of the warrior:  Chris Baldry, the archetypal soldier of the title, is shell-shocked. Since he is suffering from amnesia, his married life with his “beautiful doll-like” wife Kitty (Smith 172) and his devoted cousin Jenny, the narrator of the novel, has been completely erased from his memory. Instead, he recalls his working-class childhood love, Margaret Allington, the once-beautiful innkeeper’s daughter, now a jaded and dowdy middle-aged woman, whose inferior class status is scornfully and patronizingly underlined by Jenny in the early stages of the novel:

The bones of her cheap stays clicked as she moved […] though she was slender there was something about her of the wholesome endearing heaviness of the draught-ox or the big trusted dog. Yet she was bad enough. She was repulsively furred with neglect and poverty. (25)

In his shell-shocked state, Chris rejects life in the big house—which, as Angela K. Smith convincingly argues, functions as a metonym for the “upper-class Edwardian society” (172)—preferring the “Utopian classless world” embodied by Margaret, and which offers the reader the tantilising vision of what another kind of social structure might possibly look like. This idyll finally comes to a close following a consultation with Gilbert Anderson, a psychiatrist called in by Kitty and Jenny as a “last resort” (Smith 174), who bluntly spells out the reason for the soldier’s amnesia: “‘Quite obviously he has forgotten his life here because he is discontented with it.’” (125) Not surprisingly, it is Chris’s childhood sweetheart —the only woman who truly connects with what Anderson terms his patient’s “‘deep […] essential self,’”— that correctly ascertains how he may successfully be returned to reality: “‘She continued without joy. ‘I know how you could bring him back. A memory so strong that it would recall everything else—in spite of his discontent […] Remind him of the boy.’” (127-128). In an act of heroic selflessness—as curing Chris means relinquishing all claim over his present life—Margaret shows him a jersey and a ball belonging to his infant son, now deceased.

For Kitty, who “suck[s] in her breath with satisfaction,” the end of amnesia signifies an uncomplicated return to the social and gendered status quo “‘He’s cured!’ she whispered slowly. ‘He’s cured!’” (140). However this glib triumphalism is undercut by the narrative voice, which couches Baldry Court, symbol of class privilege and site of an loveless marriage, in menacing, carceral terms: “[an] overarching house […] a hated place to which, against all his hopes, business had forced him to return.” (139). Moreover, being cured not only means being condemned to stifling social conformity and sham connubiality, it also implies being physically and mentally apt enough to return to the war, “that flooded trench in Flanders under that sky more full of flying death than flying clouds, to that No Man’s Land where bullets fall like ran on the rotting faces of the dead…” (140). Chris will be sent back to France a man again—“every inch a soldier” as the narrative voice bitterly claims (140).[ix] However the ambivalence of this “return” to gender certitudes underscores its uneasy status as an ill-fitting role. Chris’s masculinity is expressed oxymoronically: he wears a “dreadful decent smile.” (140) The novel’s dénouement also appears to sound the death knell for the possibility of another form of society, symbolized by Chris and Margaret’s rekindled romance, beyond the strictures of class-ridden Britain. As Wyatt Bonikowski has noted:

The novel is not just about the shock of war but also about the shock of shifting values of gender and class and the overarching power of the state that, especially in a time of war, has an interest in keeping those values rigidly in place. (107)

At the same time however, the voluntarily pat ending suggests “those values”, embodied by Kitty, the least sympathetic and authentic of the novel’s characters (“the falsest thing on earth” according to the narrative voice [136]) have also been irrevocably undermined. In so doing West empties the marriage plot—backbone of the nineteenth-century feminine ideology—, of all its remaining éclat and legitimacy. She also grants narrative and diegetic agency to traditionally marginalized female figures —the spinster and the working-class woman.  Indeed, the novel is arguably just as much Jenny’s story as Chris’s as it charts, à la Bildungsroman, her gradual shedding of class prejudice as she learns to appreciate Margaret’s worth beneath the “repulsiv[e]” veneer of “neglect and poverty.” It is a trajectory of self-discovery that concludes in the sexually ambiguous recognition of their mutual lost love object: “We kissed, not as women, but as lovers do; I think we each embraced that part of Chris the other had absorbed by her love.” (138). Crucially, morever, it is not the rigid values of the Edwardian era nor the “mythic method” of Antiquity that offer solace through structure but the character and narrative role of Margaret, the working-class dowd: “at her touch her lives had at last fallen into a pattern; she was the sober thread whose interweaving with our scattered magnificences had somehow achieved the design that other wise would not appear.” (109)

Djuna Barnes similarly sought inspiration from the societal margins in her novelistic exploration of war. Unlike The Return of the Soldier which views the war from the Home Front, Barnes’s novel Nightwood (1936) takes its narrative into the trenches where hegemonic representations of Great War masculinity are satirized through the wartime recollections of one of the text’s characters, the cross-dressing Matthew O’Connor, a central narrative presence in the text who is commonly viewed by critics as its “Tiresias figure” (Madden 178).  In one particular vignette, partially excised by publisher T.S. Eliot in the original edition, O’Connor tells the story of a fellow soldier, the “girlish boy” MacClusky (95), whose improbable performance of masculinity earns him a croix de guerre.[x] It is because he panics or goes “all of a fluff”—a term which suggests conjointly femininity, animality and triviality—that he causes the Germans to flee, as they believe a man who uses a gun the wrong way round must be mad:

He’d been standing in the middle of a bridge trying to think where the war was coming from when a douse of Germans loomed up, trying to make the bridge before MacClusky found out, and there he was, the poor frail, gone wild in the centre of the pontoon, and instead of shooting—and why should he know one end of a gun from another—he just went all of a fluff, if you can call murder fluff and swung the heft around and began banging their heads off, and they flew like crazy because even a war has certain calculable reactions processes and this wasn’t one of them, so off they flew, seeing what they though was a wild man in their midst who had no respect whatsoever for the correct  forms of slaughter. So he held the fort, as it were, swinging away with the butt of the thing. (276)

As Margaret Bockting has argued, this “atypical combat story parodies both the concept of ‘true’ manliness as well as the idea that war cultivates a healthy masculinity” (34). A figure who, like O’Connor, collapses the gender tensions between active male and female passive roles, MacClusky neither converts to heterosexuality nor knowingly shoots at anyone. In fact MacClusky’s initiation into belligerent manhood (figured here by a slang term for the onset of puberty—balls dropping) brings him not pride and glory, but “misery and horror”: “And [the butt] got about, and all of us grinning because we knew it was the moment his balls fell out with misery and horror that he got the idea” (277). Significantly, it is precisely during the ceremony where MacClusky is awarded the military cross by a general —the juncture that in a more conventional war narrative would form the apotheosis of valour— that the narrative descends bathetically into camp excess. So shocked is MacClusky by the sharp pinprick of the cross on his chest that he recoils in horror and bursts into floods of tears:

He had forgotten what where he was standing and what he was waiting for, when down on his breast flew the croix de guerre with a pin in its tail and at that he gave a jump back that carried him a foot out of line, and […] tears spurted out of him right forward like a lemon. I’ve never seen any tears like those before in my life, though it is the way a boy cries who’s been queer all his hour. (277)

An episode where perversity, obscenity and absurdity happily co-exist, it figures the perversity, obscenity and absurdity of war itself.

This article has argued for the importance of taking gender into consideration when examining the interrelationship of modernism and war. Long side-lined by both high modernism and its academic legacy, and the canon of Great War literature, there has been a renewed critical interest in female modernist war writers in recent years, concurrent with the historical turn in modernist studies and the shift away from more exclusively aesthetic readings. Women writers such as Rebecca West and Djuna Barnes offer an alternative to the critical paradigm that typically saw modernist texts as offering a compensatory artistic reconstruction in the face of a chaotic world. In a deconstructive stance that engages critically with wartime ideological construction of gender, their writings give expression to the struggle over masculine and feminine identity of the period and suggest the possibility of alternative gender configurations, and more broadly, a challenge to the predominant social and class values of their day, suggesting the possibilty of the emergence of a truly modern world.



[i] Eliot’s 1916 lecture notes on French Literature which can be read as an early articulation of his own literary agenda, championed the value of form and restraint in art—“Classicism”—as opposed to the ‘Romanticism’ of a Rousseau-esque personal and egalitarian impulse. See Potter (218).

[ii]  As T.S. Eliot put it trenchantly in correspondence with Pound “I struggle to keep the writing [of The Egoist] in Male hands, as I distrust the Feminine in Literature” (Eliot, 1988, 96). The Letters of T.S. Eliot vol.1, 1898-1922, ed. Valerie Eliot (San Diego, New York, Londres, Harcourt Brace Jovanvitch, 1988), 96.

[iii] For a discussion of gender in the essays and correspondence of Eliot and Pound, and their influence on modernism in the academy, see McDonald. For analysis of Hulme, see Scott (98-99).

[iv]  Christy, Howard Chandler (1917), “Gee!! I Wish I Were a Man I’d Join the Navy”, lithograph. Library of Congress, accessed 31/05/17. Public domain.

[v]  E. V. Kealey. “WOMEN OF BRITAIN SAY – ‘GO!’”, published by the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee, London. Poster No. 75 Imperial War Museum, Accessed 31/05/17. Public domain.

[vi] the rush of women into engineering and explosives began in the autumn of 1915 and by 1916 there was actually a shortage of female labour in the textile and clothing trades, as women moved into more lucrative munitions work … also increasingly replaced men in private, non-munitions industries like grain milling, sugar refining, brewing, building, surface mining and shipyards” (Braybon 45-46).

[vii] May Sinclair was sent back after only seventeen days.

[viii] I do not mean to suggest that these writers were not affected by the war, any more than the women writing at the time were. Simply, by sheer dint of being men, their status as commentators on the war was perceived as having greater legitimacy. My thanks go to Jennifer Kilgore for her insightful remarks on this point.

[ix]  “Go[ing] back to that flooded trench in Flanders under the sky more full of flying death than clouds, to that No Man’s Land where bullets fall like rain on the rotting faces of the dead” (140).

[x] An added irony is that this most improbable tale may actually be based on lived experience that literary critic John Holms recounted to Barnes (226).



Barnes, Djuna. Nightwood. The Original Version and Related Drafts. Edited by Cheryl Plumb. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive, 1995.

Bockting, Margaret. “The Great War and Modern Gender Consciousness: The Subversive Tactics of Djuna Barnes” Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal vol. 30, no. 3, September 1997, pp. 21-38.

Bonikowski, Wyatt. Shell Shock and the Modernist Imagination: The Death Drive in Post-World War I British Fiction. Oxford: Routledge 2013.

Bonnerjee, Samraghni. “ ‘The Lure of War’: British Nurses and their March to the First World War Front”. Unpublished paper.

Braybon, Gail Women Workers in the First World War: The British Experience. Totowa, NJ: Barnes & Noble, 1981.

Cambridge Companion to Modernist Women’s Literature. Edited by Maren Linett. Cambridge, Cambridge UP, 2011.

Eliot, T. S. “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” The Egoist, vol. VI. n°4 September  1919, pp. 54-55; vol VI n° 5, December 1919, pp. 71-72.

– – -.“Ulysses Order and Myth.” The Dial, November 1923, pp. 480-484.

– – -. Selected Poems. London: Faber & Faber, 1954.

– – -. The Letters of T.S. Eliot vol.1, 1898-1922, edited by Valerie Eliot. San Diego, New York, London:  Harcourt Brace Jovanvitch, 1988.

Fussell, Paul. The Great War and Modern Memory. Oxford, Oxford UP, 1977.

Goodspeed–Chadwick, Julie. Modernist Women Writers and War: Trauma and the Female Body in Djuna Barnes, H.D., and Gertrude Stein. Baton Rouge : Louisiana State University Press, 2011.

Goody, Alex. Modernist Articulations: A Cultural Study of Djuna Barnes, Mina Loy and Gertrude Stein. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Hulme T.E.  “Romanticism and Classicism” (c.1912), in Speculations: Essays on Humanism and the Philosophy of Art, edited by Herbert Read, New York: Harcourt & Brace, 1924, pp. 113-40.

McDonald Gail. Learning to be Modern, Pound, Eliot and the American University, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.

Lamos, Coleen. Deviant Modernism, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998.

Levenson, Michael (ed. & introd.), Cambridge Companion to Modernism, 2nd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2011.

Madden, Ed. Tiresian Poetics: Modernism, Sexuality, Voice, 1888-2001. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson U Press, 2008.

Pound, Ezra. Literary Essays. London: Faber & Faber, 1954.

Potter Rachel.  Modernism and Democracy. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2006

Raitt, Suzanne. “‘Contagious Ecstasy’: May Sinclair’s War Journals,” in Women’s Fiction and the Great War, ed. Suzanne Raitt and Trudi Tate (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).

Roszak, Theodore. “The Hard and the Soft.” Masculine/ Feminine Readings in Sexual Mythology and the Liberation of Women. Edited by Betty and Theodore Roszak. New York: Harper, 1969, pp. 87-104.

Scott, Bonnie Kime. The Women of 1928. Bloomington & Indianapolis:  Indiana U Press, 1995.

Sinclair, May A Journal of Impressions in Belgium. New York: Macmillan, 1915.

– – -. “Dedication (To a Field Ambulance in Flanders”, March 8th 1915, in 19-20 in Tim Kendall, Poetry of the First World War. An Anthology. Oxford, OUP, 2013.

Smith, Angela K. The Second Battlefield: Women, Modernism & the First World War, Manchester & NY: Manchester UP, 2000.

Tylee, Claire M. The Great War and Women’s Consciousness. Basingstoke: The Macmillan Press Ltd, 1990.

West, Rebecca. “It Is Our Duty to Practice Harsh Criticism. A Literary Manifesto for the Ages.” New Republic, November 7, 1914. Accessed 04/02/18.

– – -. The Young Rebecca: Writings of Rebecca West 1911-17 edited by Jane Marcus. New York: Viking, 1982.

– – -. The Return of the Soldier (1918). London: Virago, 2010.


Margaret Gillespie is an English lecturer at the Université de  Franche-Comté, where, with Nella Arambasin, she coordinates, the Normes et créativités axis of the Centre de Recherches Interculturelles and Transdisciplinaires (ea3224). Author of a PhD on Djuna Barnes, she has published broadly on modernism and gender and has also co-edited several volumes in the fields of gender and cultural studies.



“That was thinking in Spanish”: Translated Style and Interlingual Strangeness in Hemingway

Nathaniel Davis

This paper looks at translation strategies used by Hemingway for representing foreign speech in his fiction. In For Whom the Bell Tolls and A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway renders Spanish and Italian dialogue in a kind of pidgin English, exposing the syntax and character of the foreign language through literal translation and techniques of “verbal transposition.” The choice to accentuate these interlingual traces through lexical and syntactical strangeness is obviously intended to mark the alterity of the dialogue, but it also serves a stylistic function, allowing Hemingway to introduce strange and ungrammatical language into the otherwise sober English narration. Hemingway’s use of this effect is expanded in For Whom the Bell Tolls, where this odd, almost creolized style is also apparent in the protagonist Robert Jordan’s interior monologue. This transgression of linguistic norms is justified here as representing Jordan’s personal experience of language attrition—the distortion or loss of one’s native language due to extended immersion in a second language; but when Hemingway allows this translated style to stray into the third-person narration, the device becomes a pure stylistic exercise. These sections reveal how Hemingway exploits the international and interlingual alterity of foreign languages and foreign characters in order to extend the experimental core of his project of developing a unique modern English prose voice—following in part from the early influence of Gertrude Stein’s linguistic estrangements—without sacrificing the larger realist frame that grounds his novels in tradition.

Cet article examine les stratégies de traduction utilisées par Hemingway pour représenter le langage étranger dans ses œuvres de fiction. Dans Pour qui sonne le glas et L’Adieu aux armes, Hemingway rend les dialogues espagnols et italiens dans une sorte d’anglais pidgin, exposant la syntaxe et le caractère de la langue étrangère par le biais de la traduction littérale et de techniques de « transposition verbale ». Le choix d’accentuer ces traces interlinguistiques par des étrangetés lexicales et syntaxiques vise évidemment à marquer l’altérité du dialogue, mais il remplit également une fonction stylistique, permettant à Hemingway d’introduire un langage étrange et non grammatical dans la narration anglaise, par ailleurs sobre. Hemingway utilise davantage cet effet dans Pour qui sonne le glas, où ce style étrange, presque créolisé, apparaît également dans le monologue intérieur du protagoniste Robert Jordan. Cette transgression des normes linguistiques est justifiée ici comme représentant l’expérience personnelle de Jordan de l’attrition linguistique—la déformation ou la perte de la langue maternelle due à une immersion prolongée dans une seconde langue ; mais lorsque Hemingway permet à ce style traduit de s’égarer dans la narration à la troisième personne, l’artifice devient un pur exercice de style. Ces sections révèlent comment Hemingway exploite l’altérité internationale et interlinguistique des langues et des personnages étrangers afin d’étendre le noyau expérimental de son projet de développement d’une voix de prose anglaise moderne unique—suivant en partie l’influence précoce des éloignements linguistiques de Gertrude Stein—sans sacrifier le cadre réaliste plus large qui enracine ses romans dans la tradition.

Ernest Hemingway, Interlingualism, Polylingualism, Translation, Transposition, Language attrition, Polyglossia, Dialogue, Style, A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Green Hills of Africa, The Sun Also Rises.



Hemingway’s fiction often features anglophone characters in polylingual situations. In France, Spain, Italy, Cuba, and Tanzania, they meet, observe, and interact with non-English speakers—sometimes using English, sometimes using French, Spanish, Italian, and other foreign languages. When the dialogue takes place in a foreign language, Hemingway employs several different methods to render it in English. At times it is translated into clear and fluent English; elsewhere the translation is literal or sounds slightly unnatural; sometimes the dialogue is rendered in a strange sort of pidgin English. The techniques Hemingway uses to represent foreign dialogue correspond to the cultural, formal, and stylistic dynamics of his fiction. In this paper, I’ll be looking at the translated dialogue in his war novels: A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Figure: Meir Sternberg’s spectrum of literary representations of polylingualism (232)

In an article from 1981, Meir Sternberg introduced a useful taxonomy for literary representations of polylingualism. He presents a scale of techniques, ranging from the direct inclusion of multiple languages within a text—“vehicular matching”—to the flattening representation of a polylingual situation in a monolingual text—“homogenizing convention” (232). Sternberg’s spectrum of the integration or effacement of foreign languages in literary texts resembles somewhat Lawrence Venuti’s schematic model of translation, which, following Friedrich Schleiermacher and Antoine Berman, he organizes between the opposed poles of domestication and foreignization (see, e.g., Venuti 20 ff.). Sternberg is addressing the extent to which authors, not translators, allow foreign languages to exert their presence in a literary text.

Hemingway often utilizes two of Sternberg’s techniques: “selective reproduction” and “explicit attribution.” The former is represented by Hemingway’s tendency to include certain foreign words in the translated foreign dialogue:

“Anything happen at the encierro?”
“I didn’t see it all. One man was badly cogido.” (The Sun Also Rises 197)

“You should not let us talk this way, Tenente. Evviva l’esercito,” Passini said sarcastically. (A Farewell to Arms 43)

“You are a man of intelligence.”
“Intelligent, yes,” Agustín said. “But sin picardía. Pablo for that.” (For Whom the Bell Tolls 95)

“Good shot, B’wana,” he said in Swahili.  »Piga m’uzuri. » (The Green Hills of Africa 41)

This approach exploits the exoticism of foreign words for stylistic effect. What is interesting, however, is that Hemingway sometimes chooses to include more obscure terms that will likely not be familiar to anglophone readers (i.e., he is not just inserting a “gracias” or “buona sera” here and there).

In “explicit attribution,” an author translates the foreign language into English, but diegetically marks it as foreign. This is also used extensively by Hemingway:

“Where the hell is Cohn?”
“I don’t know,” Mike said. “I’ll ask. Where is the drunken comrade?” he asked in Spanish. (The Sun Also Rises 127)

“Come, come,” he said. “Don’t be a bloody hero.” Then in Italian: “Lift him very carefully about the legs. His legs are very painful. He is the legitimate son of President Wilson.” (A Farewell to Arms 50)

“Maria,” Pilar said. “I will not touch thee. Tell me now of thy own volition.”
“De tu propia voluntad,” the words were in Spanish. (For Whom the Bell Tolls 174)

While Hemingway’s use of these two methods is interesting in itself, I want to focus on a liminal category between the two: that of “verbal transposition,” which Sternberg defines as “the poetic or communicative twist given to what sociolinguists call bilingual interference” (227). Instead of directly borrowing foreign words (selective reproduction) or marking translated passages as having foreign origin (explicit attribution), transposition mimetically reflects polylingual speech within a monolingual text. The dominant language of the text becomes a translated target language, undergoing “foreignizing,” to use Venuti’s term, in order to reflect the linguistic alterity of the source language. So, in Hemingway’s case, foreign dialogue taking place between his characters is translated into English in a manner that marks it as foreign.

Transposition represents a more intricate polyglossic distortion than selective reproduction and explicit attribution, and is used by Hemingway to reflect deeper levels of immersion in a foreign culture. It is most prevalent in his war novels, and especially in For Whom the Bell Tolls. The pseudo-colonial adventurism of The Green Hills of Africa and the bourgeois-bohemian expat tourism of The Sun Also Rises both represent leisure-time experiences of the foreign. The war novels, on the other hand, describe the voluntary engagement of an American protagonist in European military conflict—a deeper, more committed experience of cultural and linguistic immersion, which perhaps led Hemingway to explore more advanced techniques of polylingual representation.

Sternberg details the various types of interlingual interference that create the transposed effect: “phonic or orthographic idiosyncrasy”; “grammatical irregularity and ill-formedness”; “lexical deviance”; as well as “stylistic features that are contrary to the ‘spirit of the [target] language’” (227–28). What unifies these various traits is their mimetic nature: they do not directly transfer foreign language, but are rather a “stylized mimesis of form” (228).

While Hemingway’s use of transposition is most noticeable in For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), it is already present in A Farewell to Arms (1929). The most common effect here is a slightly unnatural phrasing in Italian dialogue, as in the following conversation between the protagonist Frederic Henry and an Italian barman. The slight awkwardness here is due to a literal translation that retains the lexical and syntactical form of the original without exchanging it for a more natural-sounding English equivalent:

“Tell me,” he said, “what is happening at the front?”
“I would not know about the front.”
“I saw you come down the wall. You came off the train.”
“There is a big retreat.”
“I read the papers. What happens? Is it over?”
“I don’t think so.”
He filled the glass with grappa from a short bottle. “If you are in trouble,” he said, “I can keep you.”
“I am not in trouble.”
“If you are in trouble stay here with me.”
“Where does one stay?” (205–6)

Hemingway chooses to render the Italian dialogue with slightly strange forms, like “What happens?” instead of the obvious, more natural choice of “What’s happening?” Likewise, he goes with “I can keep you” instead of the more fluent translation “You can stay here.” This refusal of fluency and naturalism represents Hemingway’s attempt at foreignizing the dialogue, employed here as a stylistic effect that simulates the perspective of a second-language speaker. A more pronounced example is the translation of the “pidgin Italian” spoken to Henry by an Italian captain:

The captain spoke pidgin Italian for my doubtful benefit, in order that I might understand perfectly, that nothing should be lost.
“Priest to-day with girls,” the captain said looking at the priest and at me. The priest smiled and blushed and shook his head. This captain baited him often.
“Not true?” asked the captain. “To-day I see priest with girls.”
“No,” said the priest. The other officers were amused at the baiting.
“Priest not with girls,” went on the captain. “Priest never with girls,” he explained to me. He took my glass and filled it, looking at my eyes all the time, but not losing sight of the priest.
“Priest every night five against one.” Every one at the table laughed. (6–7)

Here, Hemingway renders the dialogue with literal translation not only in order to reflect the foreignness of the speech, but also to highlight its original non-fluency.

A passing diegetic remark towards the end of A Farewell to Arms shows, I believe, that Hemingway was aware of the distorting effects of translation in his dialogue. When Henry and Catherine Barkley are fleeing the hotel, they run into the second porter, who brings them an umbrella, and then, speaking English, makes the awkward remark: “Don’t stay out in the storm. You will get wet, sir and lady.” Henry, the first-person narrator, then remarks: “He was only the second porter, and his English was still literally translated” (231). Presumably, the idea here is that he has translated the Italian “signore e signora” and applied it in a manner that does not work in English.

It’s hard to know how to read this. Literal translation is presented here as a mark of immaturity, because the young man is “only the second porter,” and because “still” implies that he will stop doing this as his English improves. However, the remark comes after more than two hundred pages during which Hemingway has used literal translation or mistranslation as a stylistic effect. This can perhaps be read as an intradiegetic joke on Hemingway’s part, acknowledging either his stylistic technique or his own insecurity about his knowledge of Italian (which was limited).

In For Whom the Bell Tolls, the verbal transposition is much more apparent, partly due to Hemingway’s decision to render the Spanish second-person familiar with the archaic “thou” form. The technique is introduced in the first pages of the novel: when Anselmo insults Pablo, the protagonist Robert Jordan notices the old man’s speech slipping into a dialect of “old Castilian” that Hemingway renders throughout the novel with an array of inconsistently employed archaisms:

The old man turned toward him suddenly and spoke rapidly and furiously in a dialect that Robert Jordan could just follow. It was like reading Quevedo. Anselmo was speaking old Castilian and it went something like this, “Art thou a brute? Yes. Art thou a beast? Yes, many times. Hast thou a brain? Nay. None. Now we come for something of consummate importance and thee, with thy dwelling place to be undisturbed, puts thy fox-hole before the interests of humanity. Before the interests of thy people. I this and that in the this and that of thy father. I this and that and that in thy this. Pick up that bag.” (11)

While the use of the “thou” form is the primary trace of the verbal transposition employed here, this is only one aspect of the strange archaic style that Hemingway develops, which is augmented by words like “nay” and ungrammatical phrases like “many times.” Hemingway also makes the odd choice to represent Spanish curses with generic placeholders (“this and that in the this and that . . .”) instead of translating the literal meaning or swapping for a colloquial equivalent in English. Later in the novel he also adds “selective reproduction” to the mix, retaining certain curses in the original Spanish instead of translating them.

In an even more bizarre translation decision, Hemingway often translates certain Spanish words for their English phonetic equivalent, even when this phonetically similar word has a different meaning or function. For example, the Spanish “raro” is translated as the English “rare” when the original meaning is closer to “weird” or “strange”; and “mucho” is translated as “much” even when the English syntax would call for a different word:

“Thou art a bicho raro,” Robert Jordan said . . .
“Very rare, yes,” Pablo said. “Very rare and very drunk. To your health, Inglés.” . . .
He’s rare, all right, Robert Jordan thought, and smart, and very complicated. (212)

“How do they look to you?” he asked.
“That,” said Robert Jordan, pointing to one of the bays, a big stallion . . . “is much horse.” (13)

Edward Fenimore has called this “phonetico-semantic translation,” (75) since it is based on phonetic resemblance rather than literal meaning. As Fenimore explains, this usage reflects “the view from without [of] the non-Spanish looking in upon the Spanish world; . . . the value of phrase and idiom is in the effect produced on a consistently assumed English ear” (73).

While the stylistic effect is certainly strange, it is important to note that, as translation, this technique manages to capture subtleties that would otherwise be lost. For example, translating “raro” as “rare” reflects the cognitive frame of an anglophone listener who understands “rare” and “weird” simultaneously and eventually substitutes the former for the latter in a process of private creolization that will be familiar to any speaker of a second language. And in translating “mucho” as “much” in the second example here, Hemingway captures the original’s colloquial conflation of quantitative and qualitative, which would be lost if it were translated with an English colloquialism like “That’s a hell of a horse.” By permitting stylistic strangeness, Hemingway allows for innovative, “foreignizing” translation solutions that retain important semiotic elements of the polylingual speech.

The pseudo-creolization of English that results from Hemingway’s use of interlingual transposition in For Whom the Bell Tolls serves several aesthetic functions, three of which I would like to address briefly here: 1) a reflection of Robert Jordan’s psychological state and personal experience of language attrition; 2) a stylistic device that estranges English within a conventionally realist frame; 3) a formal expression of war.

Firstly, although the book is narrated in the third person, the narrative perspective essentially corresponds to Jordan’s subjectivity. In the first draft of the novel, Hemingway began writing in the first person, but changed his mind after a few pages, crossing out the “I”s and replacing them with “he”s (Reynolds 300). The events are described from an external perspective, but the narration often blends with Robert Jordan’s inner thoughts. The creolized English of the translated dialogue thus can be seen as a reflection of Jordan’s personal experience of “language attrition”—the distortion or loss of one’s native language due to immersion within a second language. In his mental processing of Spanish, Jordan no longer translates to fluent English: the words linger in a limbo state of semi-translation. This linguistic interference also reflects Jordan’s psychic state. In conversation with the Soviet journalist Karkov, Jordan says, “My mind is in suspension until we win the war” (245). He occasionally reflects on his civilian life in America as though it were a distant dream. The English language, which connects him to home, has become clouded and confused.

Beyond the translated dialogue, Jordan’s language attrition sometimes passes over into the narrative voice. In the following passage, a free indirect record of Jordan’s inner thoughts is distorted by transposed Spanish—a distortion that is acknowledged by the narration, presumably giving voice to Jordan’s self-reflective thinking:

It probably had been good for them to have been together last night. Yes, unless it stopped. It certainly had been good for him. He felt fine today; sound and good and unworried and happy. The show looked bad enough but he was awfully lucky, too. He had been in others that announced themselves badly. Announced themselves; that was thinking in Spanish. (137)

As in the earlier examples from A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway purposefully chooses unnatural English phrasing to foreignize the language. Here, however, the intention is not to mark the language’s foreign origin, but rather to represent the state of interlingual confusion that disturbs Jordan’s thought processes. It is also altogether possible that the language attrition, presented here as Jordan’s, was actually happening in Hemingway’s head: that, after hours of writing stylized archaic dialogue and clumsy “translatese,” Hemingway slipped involuntarily into transposed Spanish, checked himself, and decided to leave it as an expression of Jordan’s interlingual conflict.

While the involuntary interlingual transposition is acknowledged here and marked as such, elsewhere in the book it is not, and simply becomes a feature of the book’s overall stylistic idiosyncrasy. In the following passage, the narration again fuses with a free indirect record of Jordan’s thinking, but the transposition that features throughout is left unacknowledged:

Pilar did not even speak to him. It was not like a snake charming a bird, nor a cat with a bird. There was nothing predatory. Nor was there anything perverted about it. There was a spreading, though, as a cobra’s hood spreads. He could feel this. He could feel the menace of the spreading. But the spreading was a domination, not of evil, but of searching. I wish I did not see this, Robert Jordan thought. But it is not a business for slapping. (173)

Here we have a generally confusing stylistic strangeness (the spreading was a domination of searching?) with clear traces of Spanish transposition, again serving to highlight Jordan’s experience of language attrition and the cognitive difficulty it creates for him.

In other passages the transposition begins in the dialogue and transfers over into the narration, which no longer bear a clear connection to Jordan’s inner thoughts. The passage below follows from a longer passage of transposed dialogue between Jordan and Maria. It is less clear here that the linguistic strangeness represents a transposition from Spanish: it reflects the archaic style of the dialogue as well as a broader process of pseudo-creolization, which appears to now be liberated from Spanish, inventing its own hybrid English:

Now as they lay all that before had been shielded was unshielded. Where there had been roughness of fabric all was smooth with a smoothness and firm rounded pressing and a long warm coolness, cool outside and warm within, long and light and closely holding, closely held, lonely, hollow-making with contours, happymaking, young and loving and now all warmly smooth with a hollowing, chest-aching, tight-held loneliness that was such that Robert Jordan felt he could not stand it and he said, “Hast thou loved others?” (70-71)

In passages like this one, it becomes clear that Hemingway is not only concerned with representing the linguistic alterity of Spanish; rather, transposition and the translation process it entails are simply starting points for his own explorations of the stylistic effects of non-standard linguistic usage.

This experimental strain can be traced back to Hemingway’s earliest writings, including early stories that show the influence of Gertrude Stein with their use of repetition, parataxis, and short, declarative statements. There is something in the above passage of what Wyndham Lewis called the “infantile, dull-witted dreamy stutter” that Hemingway stole from Stein (24)—and we can also see some of Hemingway’s trademark non-standard usage techniques, such as showing affect with long polysyndetic sentences. But the interlingual experimentation of the novel has led him towards newer, less familiar kinds of lexical and syntactical strangeness.

In her article “Ninety Percent Rotarian: Gertrude Stein’s Hemingway,” Marjorie Perloff has shown how, in his early work, Hemingway adopted experimental stylistic elements from Stein but fitted them to a more accessible, more classical, and more conservative model of modernist writing (Perloff 680 ff.). In his use of verbal transposition here, we find something similar: by smuggling in non-standard linguistic forms under the guise of transposed foreign dialogue or interlingual distortion, he develops another method of inserting strange and experimental stylistic elements into his work in a manner that does not upset the fundamental realist universe of his fiction.

Beyond style, the interlingual tension of For Whom the Bell Tolls can be seen as a formal reflection of war. There is both polyglossic and heteroglossic diversity in the novel: in the cohabitation and interanimation of Spanish and English, and in the simultaneity of different English styles and voices. In the transposed dialogue, the Spanish resists effacement, distorting the syntax of the English that has vanquished it through translation. Recalling Max Weinreich’s famous comment that “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy,” the shifting heteroglossic surfaces of Hemingway’s war novels also offer symbolic enactments of the hegemonic struggles at the heart of the conflicts they recount.

Works cited

Fenimore, Edward. “English and Spanish in For Whom the Bell Tolls.” Journal of English Literary History, vol. 10, no. 1, 1943, pp. 73–86.

Hemingway, Ernest. A Farewell to Arms: The Hemingway Library Edition. Scribner’s, 2012.

———. For Whom the Bell Tolls. Scribner’s, 1940.

———. The Green Hills of Africa. Scribner’s, 1935.

———. The Sun Also Rises. Scribner’s, 1926.

Lewis, Wyndham. “Ernest Hemingway: The ‘Dumb Ox.’” Men without Art, edited by Seamus Cooney, Black Sparrow, 1987, pp. 17–40.

Perloff, Marjorie. “Ninety-Percent Rotarian: Gertrude Stein’s Hemingway.” American Literature, vol. 62, no. 4, 1990, pp. 668–83.

Sternberg, Meir. “Polylingualism as Reality and Translation as Mimesis.” Poetics Today, vol. 2, no. 4, 1981, pp. 221–39.

Venuti, Lawrence. The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation. Routledge, 1995.

Weinreich, Max. “YIVO and the Problems of Our Time.” Yivo-bleter, vol. 25, no. 1, 1945, p. 13.


Nathaniel Davis is Lecturer in the English Department of the University of Fribourg and holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Pennsylvania. He is a research associate of the ILCEA4 laboratory (Université Grenoble Alpes) and has had articles on modernism, the avant-garde, and translation appear in the Journal of Modern Literature, French Forum, and Paideuma. He edited the 2016 and 2017 editions of Dalkey Archive’s Best European Fiction anthology.

“From Vision to Inheritance”: “Nixon in China” at the Opéra Bastille Paris


Opera, U.S.-China relations, Modernism, John Adams, Alice Goodman

Nixon in China, Opera, John Adams
Paris, Opéra Bastille, march 25th- April 16th, 2023


President Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to China was perceived at the time as an epoch-making event. Diplomatic relations between China and the United States had been suspended in the wake of Mao’s 1949 victory against Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek),[1] who still had U.S. backing despite his obvious inability to regain control of the mainland. Meanwhile, the Vietnam War had come to a diplomatic and military impasse; having taken over from Lyndon B. Johnson whose presidency was arguably destroyed by the Tet Offensive (1967), Nixon felt under pressure to end the hostilities. His bold plan to strike up an alliance with the People’s Republic of China came at a time when Mao was eager to regain the upper hand in the disastrous aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, which had started in 1966 and had caused the rise of a radical faction led by Jiang Qing (Chiang Ch’ing), Mao’s wife. A diplomatic rapprochement between the two countries was the logical next step: it was seen by the U.S. as a way of tipping the regional balance of power in its favour by driving a wedge between the PRC and the USSR, whose attitude towards the Maoist regime oscillated between lukewarm support and overt hostility; and it promised to end China’s decades of isolation while shoring up Mao’s authority against internal dissent. Carefully engineered behind the scenes by then National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s trip to Beijing none the less came as a shock to the international community ; the unlikely spectacle of a Republican president shaking hands with Zhou Enlai (Chou En-lai), the Premier of Communist China, drew gasps from global audiences when it was televised on February 21st , 1972 – a show of goodwill meant to erase the humiliation suffered by the Chinese at the 1954 Geneva Conference where Secretary of State John Foster Dulles had refused to greet Zhou. In the short run, Nixon’s encounter with Mao led to few tangible results apart from a vaguely worded communiqué, but its cultural impact was considerable. Mainland China had been out of bounds to Americans – indeed to most Westerners – since the 1949 Maoist takeover, and the bewildering news that filtered out of the country at the height of the Cultural Revolution had given the impression that the PRC was radically alien and incomprehensible; in a speech given a few days before his flight to Beijing, Nixon tellingly compared himself to the Apollo 11 astronauts, like an explorer planning another Moon landing. The new spirit of détente finally permitted American artists to visit the country and interact with their Chinese counterparts. Eugene Ormandy, then music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, toured China in 1973; on his return, he introduced American audiences to the new repertoire stemming from the Cultural Revolution, particularly the Yellow River Concerto which he recorded the following year with pianist Daniel Epstein. American critics wrote scathingly of what they took to be third-rate imitations of late Romanticism, but Chinese audiences were much taken with what they heard, and Western art music has remained wildly popular in China ever since.

When director Peter Sellars came up with the idea of writing an opera about these events over a decade later, Nixon’s public relations triumph had been overshadowed in the public mind by the Watergate debacle, which led to his resignation in 1974. Meanwhile, Mao’s death (1976) and the end of the Cultural Revolution had significantly transformed China; along with other members of the Gang of Four, Jiang Qing had received a death sentence, later commuted to life imprisonment (she committed suicide in 1991). This raised the important question of tone. It would have been easy to write a satirical piece about a group of discredited politicans shamelessly preening in the limelight, but composer John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman were adamant that they wanted to lift the story to another plane, treating their characters as archetypes of the human condition rather than caricatures with merely topical significance. Despite their youth and inexperience – Adams was thirty-seven when he stared working on Nixon in China, Goodman was twenty-six, and neither had yet written anything for the operatic stage – their collaboration resulted in a brilliant heroic piece which bears little resemblance to the “CNN opera” for which it was initially mistaken. A PhD student at Cambridge University, Goodman had been at work on a dissertation on the sixteenth-century poet Thomas Nashe, and her beautifully crafted libretto – one of the masterpieces of the genre, and fully comparable to W. H. Auden’s and Chester Kallman’s The Rake’s Progress (1951) – betrays her familiarity with Early Modern literature ranging from Elizabethan drama to Metaphysical poetry; like the late Geoffrey Hill, whom she married in 1987, she took a keen interest in the writings of Charles Péguy and G. K. Chesterton, some of whose aphorisms incongruously find their way into Mao’s cryptic utterances. Trained in the Minimalist tradition, Adams was increasingly dissatisfied with what he felt to be its limitations; his recent compositions – such as Harmonium (1980), a three-part choral symphony based on poems by John Donne and Emily Dickinson, and Harmonielehre (1984), an ironically lush and tonal tribute to Arnold Schoenberg’s music theory textbook – suggested that he was much more interested in reviving large-scale musical forms and revisiting the late Romantic canon while building on the work of the musical avant-garde. Together, they conceived a three-act historical opera whose overall structure would not have surprised a 19th-century audience; it includes arias, ensembles, grand choral passages, orchestral interludes, and even the obligatory ballet when the American delegation attend a performance of The Red Detachment of Women. The huge orchestra is alive with a rhythmic energy which owes as much to Stravinsky as to the legacy of Minimalism, combined with remarkable melodic invention and a wide range of tone colours reminiscent of Wagner and Richard Strauss (the “Sword Motif” first heard in Das Rheingold makes a pointed appearance as Nixon exits Air Force One, and a quotation from Salome conjures up a surprisingly decadent mood when the protagonist of The Red Detachment of Women finds herself stranded on a tropical island). Altogether, Nixon in China is not the epitome of postmodernism for which some critics have taken it, but a clear forerunner of what Marjorie Perloff calls “twenty-first century” (or “second-wave”) “modernism,” in which “the possibilities of chant and charm, zaum and word magic, […] are once again invoked.”[2] Irony there most certainly is, along with verbal and musical humour, but the opera’s dominant characteristic is its deep seriousness of purpose, and while Chou En-lai’s final aria includes a reference to “cage-birds” – a nod to an earlier American composer with a keen interest in Chinese culture – none of it is “for the birds” since it appears haunted by a near-mystical premonition of transcendence, as in a strangely inverted Pentecost: “Outside this room the chill of grace/ Lies heavy on the morning grass.”

Since its 1987 premiere, Nixon in China has worked its way into the standard operatic repertoire, particularly in America where it has frequently been revived (the original Sellars production was reprised at the Met in 2011 and later released on DVD). Europe has clearly followed suit, as the current Paris Opéra production attests. Indeed, the opera’s French production history is particularly telling: it was first seen in 1991 at Bobigny’s MC93 (a highly regarded youth and community centre with a strong interest in the performing arts), then revived in 2012 at the Théâtre du Châtelet, before making its appearance on France’s premier operatic stage on March 25th, 2023. Casting choices reflect the rapid canonisation of a work that can now be regarded as a classic of twentieth-century opera. At the 1987 premiere in Houston, Texas, the roles of Nixon and his wife Pat were sung by talented but relatively unknown singers: James Maddalena had been associated for over a decade with regional companies such as Boston Lyric Opera but had not yet risen to national prominence, and Carolann Page was mostly known for her appearances in Broadway and Off-Broadway productions. By contrast, the 2023 Paris production has world-renowned baritone Thomas Hampson and soprano Renée Fleming in the leading roles, both of them particular favourites of French audiences after long and distinguished careers spanning several decades. In the meantime, the rapid march of history has inevitably affected the way in which Adams’s first opera is received. Formerly regarded as America’s most questionable and scandal-prone president, Nixon no longer holds that dubious honour in the post-Trump era, and the parlous state of Chinese-American relations now makes the early 1970s appear like a long-lost age of innocence. The once controversial topic of Nixon’s China policy no longer arouses strong feelings as the events of 1972 have receded into the past, and 2023 audiences are unlikely to feel a personal connection of any kind to characters whose public careers ended long before their time. Overall, Nixon in China can no longer claim the allure of the contemporary; it is neither new enough to shock listeners unused to Adams’s musical language nor topical enough to comment directly on current events; instead, it now has the kind of landmark status that we associate with the great Wagnerian music dramas of which the composer is obviously so fond, and it falls to the interpreters to reinvent its connections with the world we presently live in, with its very different challenges and opportunities. As Valentina Carrasco’s production attests, this can be liberating for the performers who no longer feel compelled to recreate Nixon’s visit to Beijing with the painstaking attention to detail that was such a striking feature of the original production. As Renée Fleming told Ben Miller, “We all know what happened, we’re familiar with the piece, and now we can think about it in a different way.”[3]In the opening scene, audiences no longer see a realistic depiction of Air Force One; instead, they are shown an enormous black eagle which simultaneously recalls the national emblem of the United States and introduces the bird or flying motif that subtly runs through the entire libretto: as Neil Armstrong famously said, “The Eagle has landed,” or very nearly so.

Carrasco’s staging is not meant to illuminate history; it assumes a certain degree of familiarity with it – much as productions of Verdi’s Don Carlo presuppose that modern audiences know about the Spanish Inquisition – so that history can become metaphor, as when she evokes the colourful episode known as “ping-pong diplomacy” to illustrate the give-and-take between two cultures, represented by rival teams whose red and blue uniforms eerily recall current American politics. At the same time, history is explicitly invoked to put the opera itself into perspective, like a cultural artifact whose meaning can only be revealed by careful contextualisation. In Act 1, Scene 2, the split-level stage shows both Mao’s private library, where he politely receives his American visitors, and a fiery underworld where opponents are beaten up (or worse) while politically suspect books and musical instruments are cynically destroyed: Mao’s impressive stacks are no more than trompe l’oeil as the only book that matters in 1970s China is the Little Red Book. Later, in Act 2, the performance of The Red Detachment of Women, a Maoist ballet (here rewritten as an opera), is accompanied by projections of archival photographs recounting the persecution of political opponents during the Cultural Revolution, interspersed with footage of the Vietnam War. Later still, the interval between Acts 2 and 3 is replaced by a lengthy excerpt from the 1979 documentary about Isaac Stern’s visit to China,[4] in which an elderly Chinese musician tells a harrowing tale of brutality and cultural suppression at the hands of the Red Guards. None of these choices is anticipated by the libretto or score. To be sure, Adams and Goodman had no intention of defending the Nixon administration – Henry Kissinger bears the brunt of the attack as he is reduced to a grotesque caricature, a stock operatic villain who disappears into the bathroom in Act 3, never to be seen again. Likewise, they clearly refuse to be complicit with the crimes of the Maoist regime. Goodman’s rewriting of the Red Detachment libretto comically emphasises its lurid sensationalism, near-pornographic treatment of sexuality, and overall tastelessness, while Adams’s setting pokes fun at the clumsy, overblown music; the performance denegerates into chaos when Chiang Ch’ing interrupts it with a demented rant about herself and her political ambitions. However, the point of the satire is that The Red Detachment of Women is a ludicrous piece of kitsch – the deadliest sin of all according to the Modernist worldview – and that it collapses of its own accord under the weight of its aesthetic contradictions, not because it is toxic propaganda. The footage of Isaac Stern interacting with Chinese musicians complicates this point by emphasizing that, for all its claims of ideological purity, the Cultural Revolution was deeply ambivalent about Western influence: the extent to which European-style art music was suppressed at the time indicates that it was already an object of deep fascination, and Maoist “model works” such as the Red Detachment of Women and the Yellow River Concerto openly emulate late Romantic Russian composers in a calculated challenge to the USSR’s perceived artistic supremacy. However, Adams and Goodman could not possibly have been aware in 1987 of the extent to which the Chinese approach to musical aesthetics was influenced by questions of cultural nationalism, many of them hotly debated many years before Mao’s rise to power, as this point did not attract critical attention until the late 1990s, long after the Houston premiere. In this instance, Carrasco identifies one of the blind spots of the original work – one for which its authors cannot be blamed as it merely reveals the limitations of the historical knowledge available at the time – and seeks to correct the resulting imbalances by resorting to overt didacticism. Thereby, she runs the risk of taking the Red Detachment parody rather too seriously and, in particular, of obscuring its meta-theatrical role, which is crucial as it functions as a clear example of what not to do in an opera which, like the Maoist “model works,” tries to devise an appropriate way of dealing artistically with questions of cultural identity. (Having Pat and Richard Nixon leaf feverishly through the Opéra’s Nixon in China programme as they struggle to make sense of the plot is a nice touch, but one that is lost on a theatrical audience in a large house such as the Opéra Bastille.)

Fortunately, these are momentary lapses, and the production as a whole does come across as “a bit madcap […] in a good way,” to quote Renée Fleming. Pat Nixon’s Act 2 aria, “This Is Prophetic,” is a particularly delightful moment as the First Lady is joined on stage by a giant Chinese dragon which eventually lies down at her feet, charmed by the creamy splendour of Fleming’s voice. The sympathetic reinvention of Mrs. Nixon as an inspired poet gifted with visionary powers is already a striking feature of Goodman’s libretto, but Carrasco takes the process to its logical conclusion by turning the stoic housewife into a playful, flirtatious magician who, like Rossini’s Armida (another one of Fleming’s roles), cavorts with mythological creatures in an enchanted garden. Earlier in Act 2, during the visit to the glass factory, a transparent curtain studded with shiny baubles – or are they ping-pong balls? – descends shortly before Pat’s optimistic profession of faith, “I treat each day/ Like Christmas”: the trite phrase is treated as a recipe for visual magic. Overall, with its blend of humour, slapstick, and fantasy bordering on magical realism, the production bears the hallmark of La Fura dels Baus, the Catalan theatrical group with which Valentina Carrasco was associated for twenty years before turning her attention to opera. The Hispanic influence is particularly welcome since it recalls Adams’s growing interest in Spanish-speaking cultures, as evidenced by later works such as El Niño (2000), whose bilingual libretto heavily borrows from Latin American poetry, and A Flowering Tree (2006), which is based on a legend from South India but was developed in close collaboration with Venezuelan musicians. For all its concern with cultural otherness, Nixon in China largely inhabits a bipolar world where China and the United States consistently occupy centre stage; it tells a tale of Americans abroad in which foreign travel serves in part as an opportunity to look at America from afar, as when Nixon spends his first few minutes on Chinese soil fantasising about the TV audience back home. Carrasco’s recognisably Hispanic take on the opera thus introduces a third-party perspective, as the original Peter Sellars production, with its heavy reliance on Americana, most emphatically did not. Carrasco’s Nixon in China is a retelling of the story for a globalised, largely non-American audience for whom the familiar narrative of Nixon’s trip to China has become “mythology,” “a constellation of communally shared perceptions and responses in much the same way that the mythological lore […] of preindustrialized societies was a symbolic expression of the collective experience of a tribe,” to quote the composer.[5] This mythology, however, no longer reflects the exclusive interests of “a  [single] tribe, a city-state, or […] a nation”; instead, the emphasis falls on the pluralistic nature of a community which does not insist on uniformity as a condition for sharing, as in a Benjaminian “constellation.”

Musically speaking, the Paris production is hard to beat. In addition to Fleming and Hampson – with his beautifully sung and dramatically convincing portrayal of Nixon – the very strong cast includes Kathleen Kim as Chiang Ch’ing, John Matthew Myers as Mao, and Xiaomeng Zhang as Chou En-lai. A veteran of the 2011 New York production, Kim shines in the dramatic coloratura of her Act 2 aria while doing justice to the surprisingly sensual and emotional music Adams lavishes on her character in Act 3; hers is a complex, unpredictable Chiang Ch’ing, an “unknown” woman whose repressed humanity shines through despite her terrifying bursts of murderous rage. Myers cuts an improbably athletic figure as Mao when he participates in an impromptu game of table tennis at the end of Act 1 or indulges in a bit of dirty dancing in Act 2, and Xiaomen Zhang brings the opera to an eerie, subdued close with a moving performance of his final aria. However, the chief glory of the performance was Gustavo Dudamel’s masterly conducting of a difficult and multifaceted score: his is undoubtedly the best orchestral reading of this opera so far, not excepting the composer’s own. A longtime collaborator of John Adams, and the current music director of the Paris Opéra, Dudamel is certainly responsible for bringing Nixon in China to the Opéra Bastille, and he deserves much of the credit for what Adams himself, having attended the premiere, hailed as an unqualified success.


[1] Thoughout this review, the Pinyin transliteration of Chinese names is used to refer to real-life (historical) figures. Alice Goodman’s libretto uses the Wade-Giles system; her spelling has been retained whenever characters from the opera are mentioned.

[2] Marjorie Perloff, Twenty-First Century Modernism. The « New » Poetics (Oxford : Wiley-Blackwell, 2002), 153.

[3] Ben Miller, “Renée Fleming Adds a New Role to Her Repertoire: Pat Nixon,” The New York Times, March 24, 2023.

[4] Murray Lerner, From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China, 1979.

[5] John Adams, “Doctor Atomic and His Gadget,” The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, Yale University, Whitney Humanities Center, 2009, 45.

Mathieu Duplay is Professor of American Literature at Université Paris Cité (formerly Université Paris Diderot – Paris 7). His latest book, Les Oeuvres scéniques de John Adams: l’opéra et les frontières du littéraire, was published by Honoré Champion (Paris) in 2023. Mathieu Duplay currently serves as President of the French Association for American Studies (AFEA).


Bombs, Shapes and Sounds: A joint analysis of Gregory Corso’s “Bomb” and Allen Ginsberg’s “Hum Bom!”


This study offers an exploration of two works, both composed by Beat writers: Gregory Corso’s “Bomb” and Allen Ginsberg’s “Hum Bom!”. While both are centered around bomb-themed variations, they display two different poetic strategies. Corso’s work is a visual poem, taking the shape of a nuclear mushroom cloud, whereas Ginsberg’s work is a sound poem in which is developed a profound work on sonorities and rhythm. This article analyzes those two different but complementary strategies which form the core of the work and beliefs of both poets and study these added dimensions to the written word as well as their respective poetic functions and experimentations.

Ce travail se propose d’étudier deux œuvres d’écrivains de la Beat Generation : « Bomb » de Gregory Corso et « Hum Bom! » d’Allen Ginsberg. Bien que tous deux soient construits autour d’une variation thématique sur la bombe, ils utilisent deux stratégies poétiques différentes. Le premier est un poème visuel, prenant la forme d’un champignon nucléaire, tandis que le second est un poème sonore dans lequel est développé tout un travail sur le son et le rythme. Cet article analyse ces deux stratégies différentes mais complémentaires qui se retrouvent au cœur du travail et de la philosophie de chaque poète et explore ces dimensions ajoutées ainsi que leurs fonctions et expérimentations poétiques respectives.

Keywords: Beat Generation, War Poetry,  Visual Poetry, Sound Poetry,  Counter-culture,  Poésie de guerre, Poésie visuelle, Poésie sonore, Contre-culture


The so-called Beat Generation, the group of artists which became famous in the late 1950s, can be described as a direct product of World War II. Their works are indeed characterized by a quest for freedom, equality and awareness, partly as a response to the horrors of the war. This influential group also took part in a long-time and virulent anti-war activism as can be seen in the works of artists orbiting around this wide group such as the painting/installation created by Wally Hedrick titled The War Room, The Revolutionary Letters of Diane di Prima, the lyrics of Ed Sanders’ band The Fugs, Tuli Kupferberg’s humorous book 1001 Way to Beat the Draft or Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s broadside “Where is Vietnam?”. In that context, two poems stand out for the new dimensions they add to the written word and by summoning the readers’ senses participation: Gregory Corso’s mushroom-shaped poem “Bomb” and Allen Ginsberg’s heavily cadenced piece ‘Hum Bom!”. Arguing that both poems are transgressing and expanding poetical conventions, this paper is thus an exploration of these two bomb-themed poetical works, with a particular focus on the stress and tensions the two poets worked with in their respective compositions. Beginning with Coro’s “Bomb” before moving towards a study of Ginsberg’s “Hum Bom!”, this paper will also underline how the poems’ shapes and sounds form the core of both poet’s poetical and political stances.

Gregory Corso, often called the fourth member of the Beat Generation along with Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, played an important and distinctive part in the poetical field by the end of the fifties. After a rough start in life, including incarcerations where he discovered poetry, he set himself up in Paris, in a seedy nameless hotel he called himself the Beat Hotel (Miles 2002, 106) where he composed his poem “Bomb”—first edited as a broadside by Lawrence Ferlinghetti for City Lights (Skau 2005, 72) and then published as a foldout in Corso’s third poetry collection The Happy Birthday of Death. One striking feature of this particular poem is its shape—a feature that was of utmost importance for Corso who wanted his poem to be printed on a single sheet to make it look like a mushroom cloud (Corso 2003, 111), a shape easily and immediately recognizable, echoing the design of the book’s cover. Corso was confronted to formatting problems for the publication of his poem, writing for example “NO MAGAZINE WOULD PRINT IT AS I wanted” in a letter (138) and suggesting that he should print it himself in order to obtain the mushroom cloud he had in mind (111). Another example of the importance of poem’s shape is Ferlinghetti’s letter in which he accepted to print it as a broadside and included a sketch suggesting the overall mushroom form the poem should take once published (Columbia 2010). All those elements point to the central importance of shape for Corso’s poem: a reference to the global context of nuclear threats— “America first with the bomb” Corso would write in 1963, ironizing on the nationalist slogan (Corso 2003, 335)—but also to his immediate environment at the time he composed this poem. On September 2nd, 1958, Corso wrote to poet Peter Orlovsky, who was also Allen Ginsberg’s lover, about his time in Paris:

Dear Peter, Paris in an uproar. Arabas FLN have taken to war in city, they have in past week killed ten cops and four soldiers (mostly on dark streets and in Metros). Yesterday they blew up around here and killed nine. (Corso 2003, p. 136)

He would also write a letter to Donald Allen on the same day, detailing the dreadful situation (“Paris teeming with war. Arabs killing police and soldiers and blowing up cafes”) (136), and would also describe his terrifying experience in Paris in a similar letter to Ferlinghetti:

Paris is boiling with trouble, Arabas have placed their war here. Last night cafe a block away blown up, dead nine. They are killing soldiers in Metros, and many police. (136)

And with this poetic gesture, Corso also placed himself in the tradition of pattern poetry, defined as the harmony between the meaning of words and their physical representations; the most famous example is George Herbert’s “Easter Wings” published in 1633, and later Guillaume Apollinaire would give his pattern poems the name of calligrams. Though pattern poems originally use geometric figures,[1] the mushroom shape gives a stronger impact to the poem’s ideas and visually builds the reality of the bomb’s threat. To a certain extent and because of the importance of form in Corso’s poem and its theme, “Bomb” can be compared with Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s work “A Tumultuous Assembly” composed after World War I. Indeed, besides the fact that both have been produced after a war, both focus on the interplay between words and their representations on the page. But while the Italian futurist deconstructs, Gregory Corso reconstructs a representation of war. Considering words as more than words, using them as raw materials to build a physical and symbolic representation in a context of war was also practiced by other poets, such as e.e. cummings who worked on the typographic aspect of poetry in his war poems like “a Woman”. In fact, just like Rick Rylance stated in War Poetry, “modern approaches to familiar problems adjust our sense of their importance” (Featherstone xiii), and Corso did just that: he pushed his readers to see and feel a physical representation of a new but familiar threat.

But what is even more interesting with Corso’s “Bomb” is his deliberate choice to represent a mushroom cloud as a poem—the paroxysmic symbol of annihilation of existence, of the destruction of mankind, and thus of literature, as a literary object. This gesture is a reversal one; Corso hijacked the tradition of pattern poetry which is usually an ode to an object or an animal and dedicated his poem to an anti-poetic but, and this is important, a human, creation. The content of the poem itself seemed to have suffer from the explosion: “grassy clarion air”, “marble helmsmen” (Corso 1960, 32-33)… It is as if the explosion had scattered and blended words throughout the mushroom cloud, leaving the poem in a state of confusion and the reader in stunned position.

This provocative take on poetry and war goes even further in the language of the poem itself, with the poet addressing directly the bomb in ambiguous lines (“O Bomb I love you”) (32-33) or even showing pity to it (“Poor little bomb”) (32-33). Corso’s dark humor builds against preconceptions—as a bomb cannot be loved (reminding a famous line from Dr. Strangelove which would appear six years later)—but also against his peers’ conceptions since it seems to go opposite to pacifist notions and anti-war movements. This explains why the audience—consisting of members of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament—was shocked when Corso read it in public: “they showed their feelings by removing their shoes and throwing them at Gregory, calling him a fascist” (Miles 2000, 113). Though this story may have been exaggerated, Gregory Corso was indeed insulted and “jeered” (Hugh-Jones); and a review in Time magazine considered the last lines as an example of “Beat Blather” (Kraemer Hoff 211). But it seems that this part of the audience misunderstood Gregory Corso’s point. As he wrote: “A parody really, but they couldn’t get it—anyway, it did bug them” (Corso 2003, 105). First, the poem is mostly ironic, as is the antithetical title of the volume, in the same vein as Stephen Crane’s poem “War is Kind”. For example, Gregory Corso frequently used apostrophe and lyrical pronouns to imitate an ode, like in the line “O Bomb thy BOOM his tomb” (Corso 1960, 32-33). The gap between the language, its musicality and the tricky subject of the poem adds absurdity to the very act of bombing and to the Cold War arms race: the poem, imitating a love poem, is therefore flirting with craziness—Corso sometimes referred to his poem as his “crazy “Bomb” poem” (Corso 2003, 105). Some lines also reveal this surrealist situation, using the power of humor to denounce, as in “I want to kiss your clank eat your boom” (Corso 1960, 32-33), and avoiding lamentations; a poetic choice he explained:

[…] the only way for me to do this was not to say “O Bomb how terrible you are,” but to say “O Bomb I love you, I want to put a wig of goldilocks on your baldy bean, a lollipop in your furcal mouth…” (Corso 2003, 355)

Moreover, Corso wrote in one of his letters that the poem is “all about the bomb being lonely and sad because everybody wants to die by cars drowning electric chairs, but not by Bomb” (Corso 2003, 105). The same idea is to be found at the very beginning of the poem in the line “you’re no crueler than cancer” (Corso 1960, 32-33); for Corso, death is death and it is already omnipresent. What is more is that, in this poem, the bomb is not to blame because it simply is a human creation, a growth or an extension of knowledge and a mirror of mankind. For example, a line like “bomb / you are as cruel as man makes you” (32-33) invites the reader to think about who is really to be blamed. Corso is thus pointing at the ambiguity of fearing the bomb but not who created it—and he composed a poem in a mushroom cloud shape to that extent: a product of mankind which, like bombs, is simply a human creation, the main difference being that one is an opening and the other a destruction. This paradoxical situation also echoes Diane di Prima’s “the vortex of creation is the vortex of destruction” in her “Revolutionary Letter #12” (20); and Corso’s poem seems to bear this motto throughout the lines and the chosen shape, as the creative impulse is crystalized in a destructive shape, and destruction is immortalized in a creative work. This endless mirror effect plays like a kaleidoscope, the form reflecting mankind’s potential auto-annihilation, the poetic gestures inviting reflections after reflections, the paradoxical view of the bomb as an artifact to celebrate… As he wrote: “my Bomb poem is a hundred different poems” (Corso 2003, 211). But this poem is not a direct pamphlet against the bomb, offering “no impetus to fight to change the system” according to Christine Hoff Kraemer (211). Corso even stated that this poem was not meant to be neither political nor lampoonist:

If I start with hating it [the bomb], with the hate of it, I get no farther than a piece of polemic, a political poem—which I usually fall flat on. That’s not a political poem exactly, that “Bomb” poem”. (Miles 2000, 107)

On the contrary, the subtlety of the poem is Corso’s insistence that the bomb is a creation we all should embrace and welcome, that we must learn to live with it and look into our own creations—according to Corso, we could even laugh at/with it:

That I am unable to hate what is necessary to love
That I can’t exist in a world that consents
A child in a park        a man dying in an electric-chair
That I am able to laugh at all things (Corso 1960, 32-33)

In other words, if we are to embrace human creations such as a poem, we thus should be welcoming the bomb as part of our own existence— that is to say to avoid the hypocrisy of celebrating the best while hiding the worst, to see them as two sides of the same coin and to accept that they live together: it is “necessary to love” it, there is no escape. Corso declared in this context that the poem’s “content is one of love, love for life, love for man” (Corso 2003, 133). This is conveyed by the numerous and various references to scales (from neutrons to the universe), places (from the Bronx to Istanbul), eras (from swords to the bomb) and religions (from Zeus to Buddha).

Though this “love for man” is, as he wrote in his poem, a consequence of his role as a poet (Corso 1960, 32-33), this nevertheless results into a paradoxical feeling of humanity within the idea of the bomb. According to him, he chose to conclude the poem with “bitterness”, after struggling between “light or profundity” and “humor”, (Corso 2003, 112) because “[…] in the hearts of men to come more bombs will be born” (Corso 1960, 32-33). However, the poet admitted in a letter that someday the poem might end in a lighter way (Corso 2003, 112), creating therefore a global and universal poem that would be adaptable as time went by.

Another interesting feature of this poem is that it also plays on sounds, as the last part mimicking explosions with the help of capital letters, onomatopoeias and assonances clearly shows:

O resound thy tanky knees
BOOM ye skies and BOOM ye suns
BOOM BOOM ye moons   ye stars BOOM
nights ye BOOM   ye days ye BOOM
BOOM BOOM ye winds   ye clouds ye rains
go BANG ye lakes   ye oceans BING
Barracuda BOOM and cougar BOOM
Ubangi BOOM   orangutang
BING BANG BONG BOOM bee bear baboon
ye BANG ye BONG ye BING (Corso 1960, 32-33)

This tends to demonstrate that two dimensions are at work in Corso’s poem: the immediate visual shape and its sonorous quality. In fact, as Gregory Corso put it himself: “when it’s read, it’s a sound poem” (Miles 2000, 107). As a consequence, not only are the words colliding into one another building the dense mushroom cloud in terms of meaning, but their sounds also provide the poem with a new layer of texture. Corso’ poem then invades the reader’s sense and perceptions to pervade their minds with a new reflection on the bomb—it is both an explosion of the senses and an explosion of the mind.

The playing on sounds is the main characteristic of Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Hum Bom!”.[2] Allen Ginsberg is mostly known for his long groundbreaking poem “Howl”, as well as for his lifelong anti-war activism. He participated in many public protests, especially against the Vietnam war and, of course, many of his poems convey his active pacifism. One example is from “America” where he addressed America just like Corso did with the bomb: “America when will you end the human war? / Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb” (Ginsberg 154). In the same poem, Allen Ginsberg already played with sounds and meaning, transforming “Ugh” to “Hah” to a final “Help”:

That no good. Ugh. Him make Indians learn read. Him need big black
Niggers. Hah. Her make us all work sixteen hours a day. Help. (156)

But the protest poem “Hum Bom!” appears to deepen Ginsberg’s exploration of sound poetry. This poem has a rather peculiar history as it was written over a twenty-year period: a first part was composed in 1971 (1004-1005), a second one (which was modified in the final version) in 1984 (1005-1007)[3] and a last part in 1991 (1007-1008). Furthermore, at least two parts were composed in response to a conflict. The first was written just after Allen Ginsberg visited the Jessore Road refugee camp during the Bangladesh Liberation War (Allen Ginsberg Project 2018) and, according to him, this part “codifies a longer improvisation in a Southern church at an antiwar rally marking U.S. carpet-bombing North Vietnam” (Hoffman 145). The last part is a straightforward reference to the Gulf War, as can be understood from the explicit mentions of Saddam Hussein and George H. W. Bush:

Saddam said he hadda bomb!
Bush said he better bomb!
Hadda get ridda Saddam with a Bomb!
Hadda get ridda Saddam with a Bomb!
Saddam’s still there building a bomb!
Saddam’s still there building a bomb! (Ginsberg 1007)

It seems that the 1984 part was specifically written for a recording with Elvin Jones, hence the dedication. But this is also the year the New York Times published a blacklist of people banned from “government-sponsored overseas speaking engagements”, which included Allen Ginsberg (Miles 2002, 510-512).

Ginsberg’s aim in this poem is to mimic the sounds of wars through repetitive lines and the omnipresence of alliterations and assonances; meant to be read out loud—as showed by Ginsberg’s own various renditions[4]—the poem can therefore be situated more precisely between a performance poem and a sound poem. In fact, the very title sets the mood. First of all, it reveals the importance of sound as an evolutive quality of a word since “Hum Bom!” later becomes “Whom bomb?” in the poem (Ginsberg 1004). This evolution implies that Allen Ginsberg put the emphasis on the very sounds of the words, free from their spellings, to indicate that the phonemic realization of the words is of significance here, perhaps even more than their meanings. The original title chosen for this poem was “Hūṃ Bom!”, a spelling which is to be linked with Allen Ginsberg’s practice of Buddhism, since it is usually used in mantras like “oṃ maṇipadme hūṃ”. During a 1993 reading, Ginsberg also explained:

And then the.. continued consideration with a poem I had begun, May 1971, and then added every ten years a new section, based on the Shaivite cry when Shaivite saddhus in India in the burning grounds smoke a chillum of marijuana, they raise a clay pipe to their foreheads and say “HUM BOM!” or “BOM BOM MAHADEV!” (The Allen Ginsberg Project 2017)

He also declared in an interview that chanting was a link to yoga and meditation which led to experiments like “Hum Bom!” (Portugés 131). This point is interesting because it blends the horror of war and the calm of meditation, materialistic destruction and spiritual awareness—a mantra being a spiritual tool to be repeated rhythmically and continuously, just like the poet does in this poem. The orality of the poem is also underlined on the page in the spelling of expressions like “whydja”, “hadda” or “wanna” (Ginsberg 1007), and in his performances, one can notice that Allen Ginsberg hammers a kind of playful, primitive rhythm that progressively evolves into a more aggressive pattern. Indeed, Ginsberg expands several rhythms, from very distinct accentuated words to violent contractions like “whatdid” or “musta” (1006). In that sense, words like “whom” or “bomb” offer a structural rhythm for the poem which can lead to multiple interpretations, from an angry crowd of striking workers to an ironic and aggressive cheerleading.[5] In fact, the difference between the usual accentuation of a word and Ginsberg’s own accentuation led Patrick Dunn to write that “patterns of pitch accent are repeated, often without concern for their pragmatic meaning” (84). The aim of Allen Ginsberg in his readings of this poem is mostly on hammering natural sounds, with a focus on emotion, implying that the emotional response to the sounds is more powerful than to the concrete meaning; one of the reasons why this poem evokes sufferings and destructions so strongly without even mentioning them directly. Moreover, and as can be heard in the second part, rhythm is also a fundamental feature of the poem:

Who said bomb?
Who said we hadda bomb? (Ginsberg 1006)

In the audio version, Allen Ginsberg insisted on the syllabic division of the lines, playing with rhythm. While the first verse in the example above contains three syllables, the second one doubles it. Another interesting example can be found in the first part:

What do we do?
You bomb! You bomb them! (1005)

The rhythmic pattern here is almost jazzy, due to a virtual offbeat implied by the first exclamation mark:

What do we do?
1    2   3   4
You bomb! You bomb them!
1       2  (0) 1      2        3

The powerful sonorous quality of the poem is thus intrinsically linked to its rhythmic construction, working as a basic structure to convey the idea of war, of bombing and of destruction. Furthermore, it seems that ‘Hum Bom!” could be read (or heard) like a modern “Beat! Beat! Drums!”, the famous poem written by Walt Whitman:

Beat! beat! drum! – blow! bugles! blow!
Through the windows—through doors—burst like a ruthless force,
Into the solemn church, and scatter the congregation,
Into the school where the scholar is studying; (Whitman 237)

At least five elements in this poem are to be found in Ginsberg’s “Hum Bom!”: a very specific rhythm—Michael Moon speaks of “martial rhythm” (237), a shared emphasis on sounds (for example the alliterations in [b] in the first verse), an extensive use of repetitions and anaphora (like “through” or “into the”) as well as of exclamation marks, and a direct bond with the reader/listener.

This last point leads us to the particular use of pronouns in “Hum Bom!”. Allen Ginsberg uses two main pronouns in the poem, “we” and “you”, and he plays on what these pronouns refer to. Sometimes we understand that they refer to countries or political institutions though sometimes, they refer to individuals against the institutions responsible for the bomb, implying therefore the active participation of the reader/listener. If we take examples from the first and second stanzas, as well as from the third and fourth ones, there is a kind of (distorted) mirror effect between them (Ginsberg 1004-1005):[6]

                First stanza

Whom bomb?

We bomb’d them!

               Second stanza

Whom bomb?

You bomb you!


                Third stanza

What do we do?

Who do we bomb?

                Fourth stanza

What do we do?

You bomb! You bomb them!

This split reaches a climax in passages where the pronouns “we” and “you” disappear to become “they”, as to separate “they” (who are responsible for the wars) from “we” and “you” (the poet and the reader/listener):

They wanteda bomb!
They neededa bomb!
They thought they hadda bomb!
They thought they hadda bomb! (1006-1007)

But the notion of camp is totally wiped out when it comes to the victims of wars, reinforcing the idea that death knows no boundaries, as shown by the use of pronouns in the following passage:

Whom bomb?
We bomb you!
Whom bomb?
You bomb you! (1005)[7]

The third part sounds like an aggravation of the bombing in the sense that Ginsberg builds a progressive outburst of apocalyptic sounds and meanings:

Armageddon for the mob
Gog & Magog Gog & Magog
Armageddon for the mob
Gog & Magog Gog & Magog
Gog & Magog Gog & Magog
Gog Magog Gog Magog
Gog & Magog Gog & Magog
Gog Magog Gog Magog
Gog Magog Gog Magog
Gog Magog Gog Magog
Gog Magog Gog Magog
Gog Magog Gog Magog (Ginsberg 1008)

This is no coincidence then that Armageddon is a reference to a well-known biblical prophesied battle between good and evil, and that Gog and Magog—respectively an individual and a place considered as enemies of “the people of God to appear at the end of the historical process” in the Bible (Railton 23)—is also a prophecy for the end of days. It should be noted that this religious and apocalyptic vocabulary is also at play in Corso’s “Bomb”, as Christine Hoff Kraemer rightfully analyzed in her essay (Kraemer Hoff 229). Moreover, Gog and Magog, “the forerunners of the Last Judgment” (Foster Damon 162) are to be destroyed in a biblical fire (162). “Gog and Magog” slowing evolving into a condensed “Gog Magog” in Ginsberg’s poem can also be a reference to an undivided entity named Gogmagog, a giant from the Albion (162). This, of course, reminds us of William Blake’s own depiction of Gog and Magog in his own poetical prophecies, gathered in what is called William Blake’s prophetic books. By the end of “Jerusalem”, Blake mentioned directly is own personal mythopoeic vision of Gog and Magog:

“Where are the Kingdoms of the World & all their glory that grew on desolation,
The fruit of Albion’s Poverty Tree, when the Triple Headed GogMagog Giant
Of Albion Taxed the Nations into Desolation & then gave the Spectruous Oath” (Blake 746)

Then again, “GogMagog” appears to be the bearer of destruction and “desolation”—and knowing the lasting influence of William Blake on Allen Ginsberg’s life and poetical erudition,[8] such an intertextual reference tends to insist on the timelessness of the message. This particular poetic construction, both in sound and meaning implies two things. First, it underlines the reality of the conflicts and erases the frontiers between poetry and reality, poetical prophecies and modern politics, which is emphasized not only by the overall war sounds of the poem or the tone of Ginsberg’s reading, but also by actual mentions of Saddam Hussein and George H. W. Bush in the second part of the poem, making them part of an anti-war poem for both the sounds of their names and their political embodiments:

Saddam said he hadda bomb!
Bush said he better bomb!
Saddam said he hadda bomb!
Bush said he better bomb! (Ginsberg 1007)

Allen Ginsberg’s imaginative creation is thus here a symbol of real wars. Not only does Ginsberg used political leaders as poetic tools to explore the sounds of their names and to underline in the same gesture their responsibilities towards the world as well as the absurdity and danger of such a concentration of destructive powers, but he also placed them on the same apocalyptic level of annihilation with biblical prophecies, blurring the frontier with reality, calling to the readers’ and audience’s imagination and thus increasing the impact of his messages. Then, it also shows that, as a poet, Allen Ginsberg considered that he had a responsibility (as Hussein and Bush had) regarding wars. To that extent, it is worth noting that Allen Ginsberg’s own name appears at the end of the poem, where the incantatory question “who wanteda a bomb?” is partially answered:

Ginsberg says Gog & Magog
Armageddon did the job. (Ginsberg 1008)

In fact, by including the sounds of his name, as well as Hussein’s and Bush’s, the poet composed a poetic structure in which names are real incarnations of wars and palpable figures; whether it be Allen Ginsberg denouncing wars or Hussein and Bush making it, they are all taking part in them, their own names being symbolically at the core of the horrors. Those last two lines also introduce the poet in the tradition of the prophetic bard warning the rest of the world, trying to convince us through the power of sounds—and also positioning Ginsberg back in the primitive realm of oral poetry. While this posture of Ginsberg as a poet-prophet is not new in his career, he directly experimented this position when he chose to read this poem during one particular American moment: the ceremonial first pitch of a baseball game. Indeed, invited in 1994 by the Giants to read a poem and throw out the first pitch, Ginsberg delivered his “Hum Bom!” in front of an unusual audience of nearly 30.000 baseball fans. And just like Corso had experienced with his “Bomb”, Ginsberg was booed the entire performance—before throwing a “perfect, bounceless first ball” (Miller). Ginsberg told a reporter that he had chosen to read this specific poem for this particular occasion “because it is a sound poem that would echo properly through the stadium and penetrate everybody’s skulls” (Miller), underlining his public mission as a poet-prophet.

To a certain extent, Gregory Corso’s and Allen Ginsberg’s poems can be seen as complementary: while one stresses the visual display of words on the page, the other focuses on the penetrative sound for the ear; Gregory Corso sculpted the page in order to graphically impact the reading process, while Allen Ginsberg gave to words a powerful sound incarnation to evoke wars—giving shape and sounds to ideas. But while both poems are bomb-themed and both of their authors share the same so-called “Beat” label, their poetic and semantical conceptions are very different and unfold in almost opposite directions. Corso’s poem, indeed, embraces self-annihilation as part of mankind and contemplates death as an omnipresent, inevitable reality, no matter the form it takes and therefore inversing the usual view on such a process. In that sense, the shape of the bomb acts like a visual shock for the reader and the poem is built from fragment of words, absurd juxtapositions and layers of confusion, reinforcing in return the very shape of the poem and establishing the bomb as a complex postmodern symbol.[9] On the contrary, Ginsberg’s poem is an overtly politically-engaged sound pamphlet. And while Corso’s “bomb” “den[ies] the agents of destruction both credit and responsibility” as Michael Skau pointed (1999, 131), “Hum Bom!” is a hypnotic, aggressive and sonorous poem denouncing the powerful men of the world who are able to annihilate life in a few seconds. More than that, Ginsberg placed himself in a bardic tradition, the poet who knows and who warns us about the madness of times. In that sense, the poem’s sound variations are working on multiple levels: getting into the heads of the audience with catchy rhythms and an overflow of assonances and alliterations, hammering the ultimate danger of the bomb by imitating war sounds and involving personal responsibilities—both political leaders’ and citizens’. In other words, this is an omnidirectional preach addressed to the world, figuratively and literally, asking us to take actions to fight against a global threat. Nevertheless, both poets highlighted an omnipresent component of modern society in their poems and introduce their audience to what constitute a new paradigm in a warfare era: embrace it, or fight it.



[1] “Among the shapes commonly represented in such poems have been axes, eggs, spears, altars, wings, columns, pyramids, diamonds, and other geometric figures.” (Preminger 607-608)

[2] A rendition of it by Allen Ginsberg can be heard here: Kintzer, Assaf. “Allen Ginsberg – Hum Bomb.” Youtube (8 Jul. 2013),

[3] See: Ginsberg 2006, 577 for the unaltered version.

[4] Bono also performed it a few years ago The Allen Ginsberg Project. « Hum Bom – (Bono & Juan Felipe Herrera). » The Allen Ginsberg Project (9 Apr. 2017), as well as Ai Weiwei very recently (The Allen Ginsberg Project. “Hum Bom”. Youtube (3 Nov. 2022)

[5] A type of poetic construction Ginsberg would also use in his most famous poems like “Howl” or “America” for example, the two poems being written with extensive use of anaphora.

[6] Emphasis mine.

[7] Emphasis mine.

[8] For more on this topic see: Ferrere, Alexandre. “Visions, Symbols and Intertextuality: An Overview of William Blake’s Influence on Allen Ginsberg”. Empty Mirror (2019)

[9] For more on this topic, see: Kraemer Hoff, Christine. “The Brake of Time: Corso’s Bom as Postmodern God(dess)”. Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. 44, No. 2, Poetic Self and Public World in Three Poets (Summer 2002), pp. 221-229.



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Columbia’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library. « Bomb: The Making of a Gregory Corso Poem. » Columbia University Libraries (20 Febr. 2010)

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Ginsberg, Allen. Collected Poems: 1947-1997. New York: Harper Collins, 2006.

Hoffman, Tyler. American Poetry in Performance: from Walt Whitman to Hip Hop. University of Michigan Press, 2011.

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Modernist Reconstructions

This chess set (photo © Jennifer Kilgore-Caradec), produced by Henriot in Quimper during the 1930s, was designed by Jeanne Malivel (1895-1926) and Pierre Abadie-Landel (1896-1972). Jeanne Malivel’s crucial role in creating the Ar Seiz Breur  (the Seven Brothers) arts movement in Brittany is  celebrated this spring at the Bibliothèque Forney in Paris, in an exhibition devoted to her brilliant but short-lived artistic career of approximately one decade. Her early works feature testimonial sketches of wounded soldiers that she helped to reconstruct—and heal—as a volunteer nurse during World War I.  In addition to being an accomplished painter with watercolors and oils, from her studio in Loudéac she also created  modernist reconstructions of traditional Breton folk arts through diverse techniques, including engravings, embroidery, ceramics, and Breton Art-Deco furniture design—even  to such fine detail as hinges, locks, and keys. Many of these works figured in the room she actively promoted and designed  for the Brittany Pavillon, Ty Breiz, at the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris in 1925. 

Most of the articles in this number refer to writers active from the time of World War I to the period of high modernism in the 1920s, but the wars discussed range across the twentieth century, through the Cold War, and  including the first Gulf War (1991).  The thematic idea for this number, as well as a number of contributions, originated at the SAES 2017 in Reims. The Société d’anglicistes de l’enseignement supérieur had chosen as its theme  “(re)construction(s)” and,  conjugated by the Société d’études modernistes for its first SAES workshop, the notion of  “Modernist Reconstructions” emerged.  Some of those who participated in the workshop were delighted to discover the stylish architecture of modernist reconstructions that Reims offers, as well as the stained-glass Chagall windows in the Cathedral, with their hue of medieval  blue. Readers unfamiliar with the SEM, which co-sponsors this seventh number of Arts of War and Peace, may discover more about the association, founded in 2013,  at

Hélène Aji contributed a piece suggesting that the obscenity of World War I unfolds as a kind of psychosis in Ezra Pound’s mind, becoming visible in his poetry as early as 1917, and resulting in a fascist reconstruction within his works. Noëlle Cuny‘s paper focuses on the friendship between H.D. and D.H. Lawrence during the years 1915-1917,  her influence on Lawrence’s writing, and the attraction of classical Greek culture for both poets. Nathaniel Davis offers an exploration of language registers and foreign accents as reconstructed in Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. Alexandre Ferrere parses the representations of nuclear war in a poem by Gregory Corso and then Allen Ginsberg’s experiences with sound poetry in a pacifist protest poem composed from 1971 to 1991.  Margaret Gillespie‘s paper examines works by Rebecca West and Djuna Barnes, and their portrayals of gender identity, as a counter to more stereotyped representations of women during the period of World War I and the period that followed. Both West and Barnes put forward “a powerful denunciation of the perversion and inhumanity of warfare.” Olivier Hercend turns to Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, showing how they were appalled by violence and how their texts promote introspection about the war and the public discourse and ideology that enabled it. Pauline Macadré examines several novels of Virginia Woolf, finding remnants of violence as a way of re-enacting the reality of war and warn about propaganda, while evoking also Woolf’s own “waste land”.

Two reviews offer other perspectives. Olivier Hercend gives insights for  Modernist Objects (2020), edited by Noëlle Cuny and Xavier Kalck.  Mathieu Duplay reviews the first performance of Nixon in China at Opéra Bastille in Paris.

There are also  new poems by Ron Smith whose collection That Beauty in the Trees will appear in April 2023.  Monique Lojkine-Morelec brings  a new French translation of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land  that  will be appreciated by students and critics alike.  Eliot’s original notes  were apparently a kind of farcical addendum to the poem, ensuring in 1922 that the work contained enough pages to be published in an individual volume, and here Lojkine’s detailed notes offer considerable clarity and insight.

In jest, let it also be mentioned that the centennial celebrations for the poem The Waste Land almost coincide with the first decade of Arts of War and Peace. Sylvain-Karl Gosselet, Mark Meigs and I, together with all the contributors for this number,  wish you excellent reading.

Jennifer Kilgore-Caradec



Olivier Hercend
Deconstructing consent: education, ideology and conflict in Jacob’s Room and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Pauline Macadré
The reconstruction of meaning amid “shells, bones and silence”: Woolf’s retrieving of reality among the relics of war

Noëlle Cuny
H.D. and D.H Lawrence, eros and the war

Hélène Aji
Obscene Modernity: Ezra Pound against the Great War

Nathaniel Davis
“That was thinking in Spanish”: Translated Style and Interlingual Strangeness in Hemingway

Margaret Gillespie
Gender and war: modernist reconfigurations in Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier (1918) and Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood (1936)

Alexandre Ferrere
Bombs, Shapes and Sounds: A joint analysis of Gregory Corso’s “Bomb” and Allen Ginsberg’s “Hum Bom!”



Olivier Hercend
Modernist Objects, edited by Noëlle Cuny and Xavier Kalck

Mathieu Duplay
“From Vision to inheritance”: Nixon in China at the Opéra Bastille 



Ron Smith
Three Poems



Monique Lojkine-Morelec
T.S. Eliot, Terre en déshérence / The Waste Land (1922)




Book Review: « Modernist Objects, » edited by Noëlle Cuny and Xavier Kalck.


Noëlle Cuny and Xavier Kalck (eds.). Modernist Objects. Clemson, SC: Clemson University Press, “Seminal Modernisms”, 2020. 256 p. ISBN: 978-1-949979-50-3. £90.



In the second of his 1929 “Cartesian meditations”, Edmund Husserl presented his transcendental phenomenology of the object as “cogitatum”, around which the mind creates an “intentional horizon” of complementary facets and projections. He proposed that no object is ever “given”, grasped once and for all by our perception, but always in a process of being illuminated, as its horizon becomes ever wider and richer through experience. In reading Modernist Objects, one is reminded of this notion, which echoed a wider modernist preoccupation with the depth and complexity of things. Indeed, it is one of the great strengths of the book, that its editors and contributors never take their objects of study for granted, but instead endeavour to delineate wide, rich and compelling constellations of potentialities around them, deepening our understanding of objects, object-theory, and, crucially, of modernism.

The first compliment that should be made to Modernist Objects concerns the open-ended and fascinating array of items – both as material things and objects of study – with which it deals. Throughout the pages, readers encounter a dizzying palette of objects, from lyres to magazines, Chanel dresses to cotton cloth, slick Bibendum chairs and pirogues to surreal orgasmic beauty toasters and the poems thereof, and from fully built houses to Louis Bourgeois’s “femmes-maisons”. This juxtaposition in itself questions the boundaries between the artwork, the commodity and consumable, the private belonging, even the refuse. Furthermore, the analyses reveal the depths behind the word “object”, the many modalities of “thingness” that modernist writers and artists came to approach. We are made to wander in mazes of shapes and colours and textures, guided by the well-presented and beautiful illustrations (a crucial addition to the book, which must have taken a great deal of time and effort to assemble and get the rights for, so bravo to the editors!). We navigate through practical usage and symbolic meaning, the use-value and trade-value and the fantasies sold by advertisement or fiction, the individual or collective processes of creation and crafting, of consumption, disintegration and Beckettian existential “wear and tear”, or oppositely of repurposing and recycling. Objects are caught up in dynamics that transcend their materiality, betraying emotional attachments – as exemplified by Pavlina Radia’s notion of “affective mobilities” – or even obsessive violence, in the case of Le Corbusier’s vengeful murals in Eileen Gray’s “E-1027” house. As a matter of fact, another profound achievement of the book is its ability to go beyond the status of objects as what is simply there. As Nonia Williams penetratingly argues, modernist texts tend to dwell on the specific and pervasive “thingness” of the absent, the fake, the forgotten or lost object. This echoes the bold and intriguing proposal of Louise Kane to introduce the language of computer-sciences to the treatment of modernist magazines, going beyond temporal and technological linearity to better define the complexity of modernist reading experiences. The culmination of such a movement is perhaps Rachel Bowlby’s fascinating reflection on the phantasmagoric signifier that is the “Test-tube baby”, a thing which exists nowhere, but dramatically shaped the imaginary background behind new processes in science, especially artificial insemination and in-vitro fertilization, and the enormous paradigm shift that led to the dissociation between sexuality and procreation in the 20th century. Such visions remit to our own epoch, of interpenetration between the actual and virtual in the age of the Metaverse, and ever wilder fantasies surrounding the real or imagined results of science.

These distinct perspectives also highlight and build upon very different theoretical conceptions of the object, which the book intertwines in compelling ways. Theories from the start of the 20th century, such as the Bergsonian musings on the organic and mechanical in Le Rire, recur in the artistic thoughts of Fried and Wyndham Lewis, as Martin Schauss argues, while the Benjaminian meditations on modernity serve to reconsider the experience of gazing upon objects and the duality of modern commodity culture, for instance in Justine Baillie’s analysis of Good Morning Midnight. The book features cogent re-appropriations of classical theories of the object, such as Marx’s insights into commodity culture (which perhaps could have been approached more actively, since passages of the Capital such as the famous scene of the dancing table constitute some of the more important roots of modern interest in the agency of objects), Baudrillard’s vision of consumption, as well as psychoanalytical theories of object-relation, most notably a very interesting use of Winnicott in Lynn Somers conceptualization of the art of Louise Bourgeois. These are placed in constant dialogue with more recent developments, in Queer theory, the feminist reversal of Hegelian aesthetics developed by Naomi Schor, as well as newer conceptions of the object, in computer theory or in the thinking of Bruno Latour, whose ideas underlie the very interesting concept of “objectionable objects” in Douglas Mao’s chapter. Perhaps a small remark on that point concerns the introduction, where, however difficult the task, readers might have benefited from a slightly more panoramic view, stressing these theoretical echoes and the intellectual horizon that they delineate.

For the ultimate aim of Modernist Objects lies perhaps not so much with the objects themselves, as with the profound insights that we can receive from them, into the world that these objects inhabit: into the relations which they materialize, those to which they testify through their existence, and those which they create. Ultimately, the entire book does what Douglas Mao expresses when he questions the notion of “aristocratic” autonomy of the object, of the artist, and of the public within modernism. Lynn Somers proposes to take up the notion of “adjacency” theorized by Edward Said, to shed light on the interdependence and “mutual tension” in the object world, bringing forth a web of open-ended interplay, beyond intersubjectivity, breaking boundaries between actors and objects. This materializes throughout the chapters in many different ways, from Jennifer Kilgore-Caradec’s musings on the “formative” value of the lyre, to Martin Schauss’s notions of cycles, the sets of market-dynamics, social rites and transmissions which intertwine the world of people and that of things. It appears in the concepts of “reflections” and “protocols” which Louise Kane takes up from the language of computers and applies to the montages of modernist magazines. And it acquires an illuminating concreteness in Yasna Bozhkova’s analyses of Baroness Elsa’s “Ready-To-Wear poem-objects”, conflating performance, commodity and craft in this great insight, wherein modernist art is in essence being “worn”. Indeed, from Beckett’s notion of “wear and tear”, to Sasha’s weariness and worn identity in Good Morning Midnight, to Louise Bourgeois’s instructions regarding the fact that her statues should be moved and handled, it is interesting to see how the idea such as that of “wearing”, in all its forms, pervade Modernist Objects, linking the thing and the human in a larger array of disseminating potentialities.

In the end, Modernist Objects leaves the reader with powerful insights, and yet more powerful questions waiting to be answered. As one raises the eye from the book, gazing one last time at the mysterious, machine-like cover image by Suzanne Bellamy, one is sure indeed that the cogs in one’s mind will still be turning long over its fascinating content.