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What we’ve enjoyed this month – April 2017

April is not the cruellest month, no matter what T. S. Eliot might think of things. And to prove it, here’s some of the most exciting modernist news around at the moment:

On which note…

There’s a new T. S. Eliot annotated edition out. Here’s what Prospect had to say about it.

The Lost Modernist

Check out the Guardian‘s review of the new David Jones biography.

Google Doodle

Google recently chose to honour Sergei Diaghilev on his 135th birthday. Read all about him here.

Rock and roll, Rimbaud

Patti Smith has only gone and bought Arthur Rimbaud’s childhood home, in the town of Roche.

And, as always, if you’ve news to share, then please drop us a line at

Resistant Writings: Reading the Politics of the Modernist Fragment after 2016

How can textual cultures escape complicity? This question seems more pressing than ever, as the entanglement of language and politics takes on its 21st century shape. The search for the word that, as Dada poet Hugo Ball put it, is “outside your domain, your stuffiness, this laughable impotence, your stupendous smugness”[1] is, of course, always one that is context-specific. Yet modernist poetics are uncannily relevant again, and not only in work such as Vanessa Place’s “Trumpist Manifesto”,[2] a retake of the avant-garde that leaves the reader suspended in a with Trump’s agenda. “Trumpism, like America, loves a winner, and Trumpism always wins,” she writes, using the president’s own tropes to excess, thus exposing their hollowness.

The texts that I find myself going back to are at the margins of the avant-garde canon despite being written by some of the big names of the time: they are “Denkbilder” (thought-images), so called because they capture the movement of thought as it arises from perceptions, sensations, and the tangible surroundings of urban life.

The Denkbild is liminal in several ways. Published in feuilletons – brief prose pieces with titles such as “Baustelle” (building site), “Frühstücksstube” (breakfast parlour)[3], or “Zwergobst” (dwarf fruit)[4] – it is non-narrative and non-fictional, linking it to the prose poem tradition; especially in Walter Benjamin’s case, Baudrillard is, of course, a main influence. These fragments intervene in a specific historical moment: they mark the challenge of developing a practice of thought in the face of the double-bind posed by the critique of instrumental reason on the one hand, and the appropriation by totalitarian fascism (and, in some cases, the complicity) of what Max Horkheimer calls “irrationalism”[5] on the other hand. Collections such as Adorno’s Minima Moralia, Benjamin’s Einbahnstraße and Kindheit in Berlin, Ernst Bloch’s Spuren and Erbschaft der Zeit, or Kracauer’s Straßen in Berlin und Anderswo attempt to define a new and oppositional practice of thought via writing.

I am interested in how we can understand these hybrid textualities as a modernist poetics-as-practice. Paradigmatic is Walter Benjamin’s association of short prose with a building site in Einbahnstraße. Understood as a “Neuordnung der Dingwelt” (new order of the world of things), this forges new connections instead of representing a given reality; it realizes the impetus of change via the fragmented textual constellation itself. In celebrating the moment of recognition and the ways in which material reality continues to reconfigure itself, Benjamin’s thought-images offer an alternative to the rigid worldview of totalitarian ideologies. Thus, personal relationships enlighten the intimidating urban labyrinth of an unknown neighborhood, as love literally divides space with clusters of light (“Erste Hilfe”). Of course, the messianic qualities are hard to overlook, as is a certain element of nostalgia when observing the ephemeral nature of human perceptions, which are irretrievably altered by habit and time (Fundbüro”).

Yet these apparently individualized visions carry a deeper political significance. It is no coincidence that they respond immediately to the rise of fascism. Without wanting to overburden the parallels to the 1920s and 1930s that keep cropping up in attempts to analyze the new nationalism of the 21st century, these modernist texts enter our present moment because of a shared ambition: to find a voice that resists the making universal of partial truths (or non-truths), but which also speaks independently and not just reactively.

Interestingly, this same ambition is at the core of one of the pivotal debates leads into the core of one of the pivotal debates about modernism and ideology in the 20th century, between Georg Lukács and Ernst Bloch, during which Lukács charged not only expressionism with fascist complicities. He also tied his argument to one particular text type, the aphorism, which, Lukács argued, by way of its precarious form encapsulated the decadence of modernist art. Hovering between philosophy and literature, social critique and aesthetic production, the Denkbilder are related to the aphorism and, as I would like to argue, prove Lukács to be a little short-sighted.

They offer a poetics that develops not power, but strength of vision, because it is conceived from the wound; it is a “traurige Wissenschaft”, a sad science, that opens up new perspectives through the “splinter in the eye” which, according to Adorno, serves as the best magnifying glass. [6] Yet even if this poetics is based in a textual precariousness, it is no less forceful for it, aiming, as it does, to wrestle back from fascism the meaning of sensation, intuition, and the irrational. The poetic use of language opens up the possibility of a different kind of thought, focusing on the non-identical, on difference both in the poetics and the politics of these texts. Through their focus on materiality and sensation, the Denkbilder inscribe resistance into a historical reality that has been hijacked by national socialist ideologies.[7]

This highjacking becomes tangible in particular when Bloch, in his Erbschaft der Zeit, radicalizes Benjamin’s vision. He transforms the building site into a “Handgemenge”,[8] a physical fight against the intoxicating effect of unifying ideological concepts such as ‘soul’, ‘nation’, ‘the unconscious’, and a battle for a position from which to speak against totality. The ambition of these texts to “shock through their enigmatic form and thereby get thought moving, because thought in its traditional conceptual form seems rigid, conventional, and outmoded”,[9] therefore, is in many ways a tightrope walk. It looks to material being to retain its critical, forward-driving force; but it also works against the one-sidedness of a purely analytical or instrumental thought. The Denkbilder of these authors refuse to adhere to an irrationalism that has become complicit with the totalitarian state, which, as Horkheimer puts it, accepts individual suffering as necessity that can be transformed into a positive good.[10] It is therefore no coincidence that one important topic is that of intoxication (Bloch, Kracauer), which these texts try to resist. Instead of promising insights into some essential character of the world, the broken, fragmentary, material poetics of the Denkbild refuses complicity by working against the notion of totality as such.

These short forms, therefore, turn writing into an act of subtle civil disobedience. For Ernst Bloch, writing these fragments is literally an act of punching back. Considering the prevalence of short forms in the digital media, they are precursors on the search for modes of thinking, reading, and writing that can disentangle our speech from the warped public discourse of these times and today.

[1] Hugo Ball, “Dada Manifesto” (read at the first public Dada soiree, Zurich, July 14th 1916).

[2] Vanessa Place, “Trumpist Manifesto.” January 15, 2017.

[3] Walter Benjamin. [1928] 2009. „Einbahnstraße“. Werke und Nachlass. Kritische Gesamtausgabe, Band 8. Edited by Detlev Schöttker. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag.

[4] Theodor W. Adorno. [1951]  2003. Minima Moralia. Reflexionen aus dem Beschädigten Leben. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag.

[5] Max Horkheimer. (1934) 1993. “The Rationalism Debate in Contemporary Philosophy.” In Between Philosophy and Social Science. Selected Early Writings, translated by G. Frederick Hunter, Matthew S. Kramer, and John Torpey, Cambridge, 217-64. MA: The MIT Press.

[6] Adorno, 55

[7] Bloch, 16-18.

[8] Ernst Bloch. (1935) 1962. Erbschaft dieser Zeit. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 18.

[9] Theodor W. Adorno. (1974) 1992. Notes to Literature. Volume Two. Edited by Rolf Tiedemann, translated by Shierry Weber Nicholsen. New York: Columbia University Press. 323.

[10] Horkheimer, 222.


About the author

Katharina Donn is a lecturer and postdoctoral fellow at the University of Augsburg, Germany, and author of A Poetics of Trauma after 9/11 (Routledge, 2016). She has held visiting fellowships at the Eccles Centre for American Studies, the Institute of Advanced Studies at University College London, and a visiting professorship at the University of Texas at Austin. She is also active as European editor of U.S. Studies Online.

What we’ve enjoyed this month – March 2017

Here’s a round up of just some of the exciting news in modernist studies right now.

African Modernism

New Yorkers, do make sure to visit this exhibition on African modernist architecture.

Oh, Ezra

Read this review of Daniel Swift’s new book on Ezra Pound. Here’s one at the Guardian too.


Enjoy this obituary of the marvellous Frank Delaney, the creator of a wonderful series of podcasts about Joyce’s Ulysses.

And a reminder…

The Vanessa Bell exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery is now open!


And, as always, if you’ve news to share, then please drop us a line at

Write Like a Lady: The Feminine/Feminist Creator and Mina Loy

If she could dress like a lady, why couldn’t she write like one?

– Alfred Kreymborg on Mina Loy


As Mina Loy began her flirtation with the Futurists, she joked about her identity as a writer with her friend, Carl, declaring, “I am so interested to find that I am a sort of pseudo Futurist. Couldn’t I become an absolutist or something as I evolve?” Loy never stopped resisting limiting categories as she pursued her creative work, yet critics frequently depict her using the very binaries she bucked. Although critics often describe Loy’s work, language and even typography as masculine, Loy was not simply defining herself by negating her femininity; instead, she was actively re-defining gender identities—particularly feminine identities—through the content and form of her poetry. Her poems “Parturition”, “Lunar Baedeker”, and “Gertrude Stein” are just a few of her texts that attempt to re-contextualize famous cultural figures, familiar symbols, and traditional forms in order to explore a more fluid construction of gender identity, but her exploration of gender construction becomes most transcendent in “Brancusi’s Golden Bird”. While Loy frequently espoused the modernists’ troubling views on eugenics in regards to gender, her stances on gender also promoted a notion of active femininity. As she outlines in her manifesto, Loy advocates a woman with an “indomitable will, irreducible courage, & abundant health the outcome of strong nerves”. By revisiting Loy through a close reading of “Brancusi’s Golden Bird”, we can better understand the development of modern(ist) feminism by reclaiming the chorus of forgotten voices like Loy’s.

We often examine the works of female writers to see how the texts represent the subjected subject, and our examination consistently circumscribes the texts through gendered language–even as we proclaim liberation. But like male writers, female writers cannot be reduced to a monolith defined by gender, and so by continuing to apply notions of what it means to write like a woman, we continue to ignore many of the techniques women writers have long employed. Although critics such as Carolyn Burke, Susan Stanford Friedman, and Natalya Lusty have done significant work for feminist interpretations, they have also continued to analyze the techniques of writers through a strict gendered binary; consequently, scholars continue to refer to the voices of female writers like Loy as masculine or masculinized, ignoring the feminine attributes she instills throughout her works. This and similar approaches to Loy’s texts erase the important work Loy accomplishes not to simply emulate traditional masculinity but to synthesize the male and female through language. While Ezra Pound referred to Loy’s approach as “logopoeia or poetry that is akin to nothing but language, which is a dance of the intelligence among words and ideas and modification of ideas and characters”, we can also understand Loy’s wordplay as gender play.

Loy’s logopoetic fusion of the gender binary flourishes in “Brancusi’s Golden Bird”. It is in this poem that Loy moves from masculinizing feminine symbols to feminizing masculine symbols. Loy opens the poem with an “aesthetic archetype” as a pseudo-thesis statement for the poem. Although many of her contemporaries “shuddered” and “derided” her grammatical choices, Loy’s refusal to conform to grammatical regulations allows her first lines to operate on multiple levels: “The toy/ become the aesthetic archetype.” The toy becomes both singular and plural, allowing the golden bird to become a metonym for artistic creation. Those familiar with the poem’s inspiration, Constantin Brancusi’s “Bird in Space”, might immediately imagine the looming golden crescent which penetrates the air—an archetypal phallic symbol. The sculpture became the focus of a U.S. legal case which attempted to challenge the official definition of ‘art’ for tax purposes. Instead of being categorized as a work of art, the sculpture was initially taxed as a “Kitchens and Utilities” item. As the case raged on within the courts, the “Bird in Space” became a stand-in—or archetype—for all modern art and its purposes.

Loy expands upon her initial thesis throughout the poem. As the “patient peasant God” “rubbed and rubbed” the bird, the poem takes on a masturbatory quality before Loy begins her transformation of the bird in flight. The masculine form (its beak-like form taking on a penetrative quality in Brancusi’s interpretation) is first stripped of its ornamentation–“unwinged   unplumed”—de-gendering the “lump” into pure act, “a nucleus of flight”. Loy then pivots and feminizes the bird by turning it into a breast, a curve, and a gong—feminine circles—before it completes as an “immaculate/ conception”—the ultimate female act without any male influence. The unproductive male sexuality is represented as a generative female, and so the previously masculine “archetype” becomes a feminine representation of artistic formation. Consequently, Loy creates a space for the modern(ist) female artist and feminine creation within a space that was commonly defined as explicitly and inherently male.

Feminine creation has historically been erased or reduced to the margins, but recent attempts within feminist criticism, gynocriticism, and modernist scholarship to reclaim forgotten texts have been slow to recuperate Mina Loy. As Loy explored feminist theories and texts by Margaret Sanger and Havelock Ellis, Loy admitted, “what I feel now are feminine politics—but in a cosmic way that may not fit anywhere”. Loy’s feminism was frequently an effort to see where the modernist woman fit. Loy countered reductive notions of femininity and used her works to counter assertions of male superiority. By deconstructing these limiting roles, Loy opened the world for female writers to take center stage. Writers like Loy—Gertrude Stein, Nella Larson, and Marianne Moore—endeavored to operate outside binary identities, and so they, too, incorporated their own variances of Loy’s notion that to be a modernist woman in the early twentieth century was to be a creator.


About the author

Margaret Mauk is a doctoral student in Florida State University’s literature program. She studies 20th-century British and Irish literature with a particular focus on modernism, motherhood, and identity formation. She is the recipient of the May Alexander Ryburn fellowship. Her work has been presented at Feminisms and Rhetorics, the North American James Joyce Conference, and University of Portsmouth’s Orphan Identities Symposium. She is currently blogging her prelim process while sometimes tweeting as @QuestionMauk

What we’ve enjoyed this month – February 2017

The cold, dry days of January are finally behind us.  Celebrate the arrival of February with some of our recommended reads:

Sussex Modernism

Check out Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion, the new superb looking exhibition by Sussex’s Hope Wolf. Featuring Dali, Woolf, Picasso, and many, many more.

McGahern and Modernism

Was John McGahern really a modernist? Read this review of Richard Robinson’s new book on the author.

Woolf Works

Don’t forget — Wayne McGregor’s wonderful Woolf Works is back at the Royal Opera House. We saw it last time; highly recommended.

“More refined than Brutalism, less picturesque than Postmodernism…”

The eternal question: what exactly is late modernism? This excellent article attempts to find out in its discussion of modernist architecture and listed buildings.

And finally….

Reminder: here at BAMS we have two PGR posts up for grabs in the upcoming elections. Details are here.


What we’ve enjoyed this month – January 2017

Start 2017 with our round-up of modernist news. And, as always, if you’ve something to share, email us at

The Clown Prince of Modernism

Settle into this review of a biography of Jean Cocteau, recommended by the Wall Street Journal.

Jens Risom

Celebrate the life of Jens Risom, the modernist interior designer, who designed some of the earliest mass-produced modernist furniture items.

Degas to Picasso

Take a trip to Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum and see the new spring exhibition, ‘Degas to Picasso: Creating Modernism in France‘.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Centenarian

The Guardian was among publications to mark the centenary of Joyce’s Portrait. Read Colm Tóibín on the novel here.

Bureaucratic modernism

H. G. Wells is now, as of January 1st 2017, out of copyright. Read up on modernism and copyright in this book, and watch out for more authors’ work entering the public domain over the coming years.


‘CHRONITIS’: Myles na gCopaleen à la recherche du temps perdu

2016 has been a year of anniversaries for Irish modernism studies, dominated by the Easter Rising commemorations. Though it is perhaps not quite as prominent, among these there have also been a sequence of celebrations of #Flann50: the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Brian O’Nolan, an Irish modernist who is mainly referred to by his pseudonym, Flann O’Brien. This might be the last article to mark that anniversary which comes out this year, and I want to use it to remember not Flann O’Brien but Myles na gCopaleen. This is because, for many readers, it was Myles who died on April Fool’s Day in 1966 (now celebrated as ‘Myles Day’ in Dublin). Remember that, after At Swim-Two-Birds in 1939, Flann O’Brien did not produce another novel until 1961. In contrast, Myles and his satirical Cruiskeen Lawn column appeared several times a week in the Irish Times for a quarter of a century (not to mention his popular 1941 Irish-language novel, An Béal Bocht, or the plays he wrote under that name).


So it seems just as appropriate to recollect Myles as it is to celebrate Flann. Cruiskeen Lawn runs to somewhere between two and four million words. Modern readers are likely to encounter it in one of several slimmed-downed compilations produced after his death, but there are two occasions when O’Nolan chose to reprint anthologies of Cruiskeen Lawn himself. The first was in 1943 when he published this bilingual anthology, which, as Steven Curran has argued in Éire-Ireland (and as its headline suggests) may well be an attempt to sharpen the focus on the satirical persona of Myles by cutting back on the supporting cast:


Front cover of the 1943 anthology of Cruiskeen Lawn

The second occasion was in 1959-1960, when O’Nolan republished about sixty columns in four numbers of a short-lived periodical which was called Nonplus, edited by the novelist Patricia Murphy (née Avis).


Front cover of Nonplus 2 (Winter 1960)


The older O’Nolan also preserves a particular flavour of Cruiskeen Lawn by favouring some types of column over others. Whilst the Brother appears here and there and Keats and Chapman feature twice, just as in 1943, the republished columns are predominantly complex and multilingual satirical sallies into heavyweight topics: aesthetics, language, literature, politics and the national culture. (I should note that it’s been suggested that many of the more ‘literary’ columns were written by co-author Niall Montgomery.)


Some of this reprinted Nonplus material had already been published not once, but twice. This creates unusual effects. One such doubly reprinted column appeared first in 1946 (and this is the version that O’Nolan republishes in Nonplus, but more on that later) and again in 1958. It’s a set of preoccupations about posterity and maturity combined with strange recollections on time that turns into a plagiarising pastiche of the theories of W. B. Yeats.


Sufficiently interested? Okay, I’ll try to summarise.


On 7 August 1946, we find Myles ‘in my office in the Scotch house’ worrying about ‘myself, my future, my writings’ and becoming irritated by the fact that:

I am very ancient yet I never seem to grow old enough. Why, bless me – I occasionally come across something that is new to me! Honest! Certain small grains of knowledge have eluded me, sundry minute subfacts are yet to be gathered into the vast intellect which reposes, were it but known, behind the most beautiful face in the world!

Suitably dissatisfied that he does not feel ‘quite mature’, Myles sends for the proprietor of the pub, Foley, and asks to be put in a whiskey barrel to mature more quickly. Foley refuses, having not ‘a square inch of space in the cellars’. Myles, thinking of ‘some other way of maturing more quickly’, reflects that ‘maturing is not solely a matter of time, but the time factor is important and it happens I know him well’.


He recalls the role of the ‘time factor’ during a strike on the Dublin docks when ‘there was a lot of extra time being imported for building contracts’. Of course, with no-one to transport all that time, ‘do you know what happened? It went bad’. Dealing with this ‘bad time’ caused a further dispute between the ‘time factor’ and the ‘mairrchints’. The ‘time factor’ successfully claimed its right to payment by invoking the ‘war clause’. But the bad time lingered on uncollected as, after all, ‘there was no provision in the rates for wet time’. Of course, in all of this the time factor did ‘himself a lot of hairrm with the mairrchints’.


After some reflections on humanity’s conflicts, happiness and civilisation, Myles then locates ‘in an old diary of my own’ a fragment about how ‘all happiness depends on the energy to assume the mask of some other life’ and how ‘Active virtue, as distinguished from the passive acceptance of a code, is therefore theatrical’. It’s all obviously lifted from Yeats and Myles spends the next four hundred words extensively plagiarising Yeatsian dialectics, invoking ‘the ridiculous Camus’ and declaring that he, Myles, alone ‘has the honour to be a saint and proposes to climb without wandering to the antithetical self of the world’.


On 14 April 1958 Cruiskeen Lawn returns to the same material, freshly retitled ‘Chronitis’. Myles reports to his readers that ‘the other day I went – á la recherche du temps perdu, perhaps – into my old office, the Scotch House: the place once wittily I had called Grandeur de Foley’. This is a clear signpost that material is about to be pillaged from an older column. However, ten years on, Myles’s plagiarised worrying is very subtly different:

Yes, worrying. About myself, my writings, my poetry, my future. You see, I have the impression of having been here a long time, yet do not seem to be growing old enough. Extraordinary complaint if you like but I have no corns or ulcers and I am still encountering things which are quite new to me. Surely this is embarrassing immaturity and damn the thing else? Am I inexperienced? Callow? Or is this … innocence?

Whereas the younger Myles says ‘I am very ancient’ in 1946, twelve years later the older Myles has, more vaguely, ‘the impression of having been here a long time’. Rather than being ‘very ancient’ but somehow not ‘growing old enough’, he does not feel old at all and is instead beset by an ‘embarrassing immaturity’. O’Nolan has aged twelve years, but Myles has regressed to a state of childlike innocence. Cruiskeen time, it seems, runs backwards.


Myles in 1958 paves the way for some relativistic distortions when he starts discussing ‘the experience of duration’ and the ‘expositions and expostulations of men such as Minkowski, Einstein, Eddington’. Then, instead of re-using its material he recalls, in new words, experiencing the events of the 1946 column: ‘I had all this disquiet many space-years ago on another visit to the Scotch House’. That is, the events of the earlier account which he plagiarised at the beginning of this new column. This new and old account also includes the story about asking Foley to ‘put me into bond’, and eventually the same account of the dispute over ‘bad time’ starts up again. To describe both columns as a sequence:


  • Myles visits the Scotch House in 1946 where he reflects on maturity and time
  • In 1958 he describes a new visit to the Scotch House ‘à la recherche du temps perdu’, but the textual account of the new visit is plagiarised from the previous one
  • The actual 1946 visit is then described again in the 1958 narrative as a recollection
  • However, in the course of this recollection the column metamorphoses into a verbatim repetition of the 1946 version as if the first column had simply started up again
  • Now return to the beginning: Myles visits the Scotch House in 1946 where he…


The later column ends before we are treated to the same Yeats material but the wording running up to it is identical to the earlier column, apart from the added joke: ‘Any reader with time on his hands might send me some. I’m serious!’. It’s as if there is simply no space (or perhaps time) for the 1946 column to be repeated in full.  To put it another way: the first visit is the textual basis for the second visit, but the first visit returns a second time when it is recollected separately in the text, only for that recollection to turn back into the first visit.


So despite Myles’s promise in 1946 that ‘there won’t be any loop-holes’, the doubling of the two visits to the Scotch House and the way that the later column bleeds back into the earlier version does indeed produce a loop in time. Thanks to the shunting back-and-forth between the event itself and its written depiction at the start of the 1958 column, we can imagine both visits as repeatedly layered on top of each other: taking turns as the event described and the material describing the event.


Irish Times, 7 August 1946 and Irish Times, 14 April 1958

This loop is discernible only when the first and second versions of the column are read alongside each other, and it appears that O’Nolan used this reprinting opportunity to maximise the possibility of this happening. For as mentioned earlier parenthetically, in Nonplus the column which is republished is an exact replica of the 1946 version and not the 1958 version. O’Nolan reprints the first version at a point when the second version is relatively close to hand – having been published in the Irish Times only two years ago – thus completing the ‘sequence’ and closing the loop which he opened fourteen years previously.


It’s sometimes suggested that O’Nolan re-uses old Mylesian material simply out of convenience or a lack of creativity. But his doing so in order to construct an infinite sequence of visits to the Scotch House (no doubt, he made quite a few) demonstrates that he is up to something much more ingenious than that. By reprinting the first version, and not the ‘plagiarised’ second, in Patricia Avis’s periodical, he is revelling in this practice rather than making any attempt to conceal it.


Nonplus 2, p. 54


Did I mention that the Scotch House pub itself is actually advertised in the same issue of Nonplus­­ on the page after the Cruiskeen Lawn extracts? Just in case, presumably, any reader wanted to try out the whisky or the loophole for herself. Given all this confusion of space and time, it seems fitting to conclude my #Flann50 commemoration with Myles’s own warning about relativity in the 1958 version:

One reads that Newton distinguished two kinds of interval-distinguishing events – distance in space and lapse in time. But what is it that lapses? The time-space men confute Newton and say there is in fact one interval. Do you know, it would put years on a man.

About the Author

Tobias Harris is an M.Phil student at Birkbeck College, University of London, completing a thesis about Brian O’Nolan and his international influences. He has published an essay in the Parish Review and a review in the James Joyce Broadsheet. Tobias attends both of the Joyce reading groups at Senate House, London.

A History of Wasted Multitudes: Don DeLillo’s Underworld


The Triumph of Death, Pieter Bruegel the Elder.


“People look at their garbage differently now, seeing every bottle and crushed carton in a planetary context”

Don DeLillo’s 1997 novel Underworld, in the words of Salman Rushdie, “contains multitudes”. It begins at a New York baseball game in 1951, where a black teenager called Cotter is bunking off from school. He’s skipped the turnstiles at the Polo Grounds to witness the “shot heard around the world” – Bobby Thomson’s winning homer ­­-­ which sparks wild scenes of elation and misery. The ball is lost in the crowd never to be found, sunk into the ripples of history. DeLillo’s fiction picks up where facts remain blurry, and Cotter emerges from the game with history’s lost baseball in hand, cockily spinning it on his finger.

The first of many multitudes comes from a moment of historical parallax, from a simultaneous shot half a world away.  At the same time as the game, the first atomic detonation is successfully completed in the Soviet Union, triggering a Cold War narrative which engulfs the underworld of American consciousness for the next half-century.

The simultaneous image of American baseball and Russian nuclear testing creates a kind of antinomy – two contradictory forces which paradoxically allow for the other’s existence. After the baseball match, Underworld works backwards through a swansong of Cold War paranoia, spanning glasnost, Watergate, Civil Rights, Vietnam, JFK’s assassination, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. The conflicting politics and images of these eras are suspended in a form which presents them as unresolved, in spite of all efforts to narrate their endings or draw a line under them. The tensions of an un/ending history are played out, with the threaded passage of the lost, stolen and sold baseball traced along the way.

Underworld often delves into an everyday scene of one social epoch and holds it up for scrutiny, highlighting the hypocrisies it contains. In one scene, a group of New York artists obtain unseen footage of JFK’s assassination. They decide to install it on multiple screens throughout a building on a continuous loop, imbibing the exact moment over and over again when the metal hits forehead, when the president gets “wasted”. The tape contrasts with another scene in which news footage of a Texas highway killer is looped on TV screens in living rooms across America. Underworld dwells on the popular media fascination with murder details, those overplayed clips and gruesome headlines, raising questions about the complicity of our gaze in giving an act authenticity:

And you keep on looking. You look because this is the nature of the footage, to make a channelled path through time, to give things a shape and a destiny.

These episodes tie into a broader cinematic aesthetic, a vital component of DeLillo’s writing, which swerves between perspectives, conjuring up clashing worldviews. The novel’s quotidian chat and heap of broken images at times resembles the eclectic energy of a beat poem. Yet these disparate fragments and images manage to collectively build up with orchestral majesty into a historical chronicle – it is at once impressionistic yet concrete. Underworld contains the details of “History” in its unwavering certainty – the bullet puncturing Kennedy’s skull – alongside its shifting, protean narratives and half-remembered memories. We find that the present, like the form of the novel is “all falling indelibly into the past”.



The first cover of Underworld was adorned with the dark spectres of the World Trade Center, with those twin towers, now fallen to the past, fading up into a shadowy sky. They stand both solid and ethereal, caught between histories, as a monument to capital and destruction. After the towers fell the 9/11 commemoration was created with ideas of history, memory, and absence in mind. The memorial is called “Reflecting Absence”, displaying a self-conscious empty space – two pits in the ground, resembling a subverted gravestone plunging downwards, an imprint denoting where something was. The Holocaust Mahnmal in Berlin assumes a similar aesthetic, its grave-like stelae resembling both the ruins of buildings, as well as a structure which has never properly been formed. As a monument it is a type of anti-matter, a negation, which still demands a presence.

These monuments to monolithic lost histories encompass what Peter Boxall has astutely traced as a central part of Underworld – the relationship between waste and abundance. Drawing from the ideas of Beckettian antimony, Boxall puts forward the paradoxical proposition that “waste offers itself as a limit to abundance only to the extent that waste itself becomes abundant”:

Waste cannot sustain itself in any simple sense as the opposite of abundance, as the wasting or dwindling in which abundance finds itself negated or extinguished. Super-abundance is limited and challenged by the waste that abundance itself produces. […] Underworld is a novel about waste, and about the ways in which the oppositions between waste and abundance, between what one keeps and what one discards, between what one values and what one excoriates, evade our attempts to separate them, to keep them compartmentalized. Waste spreads virally through the novel, reaching tentacularly into all the forms of plenty – economic, cultural, aesthetic and political – that the novel charts and performs.

Boxall links this “tentacular reach” of waste to the underhistory (or underworld) of our most unreachable places – our subconscious, our memories, our past and forgotten histories. Significantly, the capacity of waste may give these half-formed things a semblance of expression or at least something which strives towards it. We can trace Beckett’s influence in this instance, in which a poetics of exhaustion, of failure, paradoxically becomes something coercively creative and relentless. There are multiple images of this frictional yet productive relationship in Underworld. One in particular concerns a waste development worker watching the garbage pile up high on the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island:

He found the sight inspiring. All this ingenuity and labor, this delicate effort to fit maximum waste into diminishing space. The towers of the World Trade Center were visible in the distance and he sensed a poetic balance between that idea and this one.

9-11-memorialIn DeLillo’s writing we can witness a panoramic expanse which captures the two shrines of capital: its lofty accumulation of wealth and its multiplying by-product of waste, in one cinematic shot. Instead of viewing these two monuments as contrasting they somehow manage to merge, to become co-dependents, animated by the ‘same idea’. Both structures anticipate the other – the towers reveal the destructive path that abundance leads to and the landfill underlines the creative forces which waste provokes: “In our age, what we excrete comes back to consume us”. Boxall expertly captures the poetry in this relationship:

The central drama of Underworld, its task as well as its beauty, is to choreograph this movement between cultural value and cultural waste, to provide a poetic form in which the continuity between the World Trade Center and the Fresh Kills Landfill can emerge alongside the opposition between them. Nick Shay reflects, at the close of the novel, that “waste is the secret history, the underhistory”.

Underworlds spread throughout the nervous system of the 20th century, panning over the contemporary concerns of late capitalism and the end of history, exhausting them whilst emphasising an indefatigable quality therein. Cultural lines between American and Russian, east and west, local and global, black and white, man and woman, are eroded in the broader arc of the mutually destructive and creative forms of waste and abundance.

Accumulatively, through DeLillo’s distinctive cinematic collage of 20th century American history, we can begin to understand how identity is formed through the creative capacity of waste. There is the nuclear waste which provides that distinctly American “existential threat”, or the mafia underworld threat of being “wasted” as Nick Shay assumes his father was, or the garbage waste of the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover which is locked away in order to protect his privacy from anti-establishment anarchists. Or there is the quotidian waste that gathers around our lives and begins to define us – our recycling which has an aura of the cosmic about it, our garbage which betrays our habits and preferences, or our nostalgic keepsakes, like a worthless and priceless baseball, which manages to contain both a historically concrete fact and a fantasy of endless, wasted imagination.


About the author

Liam Harrison has recently completed an M.Phil in Anglo-Irish Literature at Trinity College Dublin with a thesis on Samuel Beckett and Tom Murphy. He is a member of the TCD post-graduate Beckett reading group, writes Dublin theatre reviews for The Reviews Hub, and earns his bread at the Irish publisher Gill. He occasionally tweets as @liamllewelyn

What we’ve enjoyed this week, #9

Settle into December with this selection of modernist goings-on:


Modernism in Vienna

The LA Review of Books this week reviewed Marjorie Perloff’s new book, Edge of Irony: Modernism in the Shadow of the Habsburg Empire.


Take me  to the church on time…

A new book discusses St Peter’s Seminary, a modernist cathedral in Cardross, described as ‘both Scotland’s best and worst 20th century building and still continues to captivate’.


Grand Designs

This 1960s modernist home in rural Wiltshire is up for this year’s RIBA House of the Year Award.


Sunshine Modernism

If Wiltshire isn’t to your taste, what about jetting off to Hawaii to experience the work of ‘the undisputed master of Hawaiian modernism‘, Vladimir “Val” Ossipoff.



And finally….

Congratulations are due to Paul Saint-Armour, who won the 2016 Modernist Studies Association Book Prize for his book Tense Future: Modernism, Total War, Encyclopedic Form.



What we’ve enjoyed this week, #8

A round up of some modernist happenings we’ve spotted this week.



If you aren’t there in person, make sure to follow along with #MSA18.


Modernism in Japan…

See this great piece in the Japan Times about the forgotten women of Japanese modernism.


…and in Mexico

Paint the Revolution, 1910-1950′ is a retrospective of Mexican visual artists of the first half of the twentieth century.


Get your glad rags on

Head to the Fashion & Textile museum in Bermondsey and enjoy its JAZZ AGE: Fashion & Photography exhibition.


And finally…

Elton John. Yes, you read that correctly. The Tate Modern is showing a collection of his ‘unrivalled modernist photography‘, including images from Brassai, Imogen Cunningham, André Kertész, Dorothea Lange, Tina Modotti, and Aleksandr Rodchenko.


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