A Girl's Guide to Modernism's Grammar: Language Politics in Experimental Women's Fiction

By Carson, Susan | Hecate, January 1, 2004 | Go to article overview
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A Girl's Guide to Modernism's Grammar: Language Politics in Experimental Women's Fiction


Carson, Susan, Hecate


In 1917, a writer in the New York Evening Sun indicated that 'some people think that women are the cause of modernism, whatever that is.'1 The statement indicates an early linking of 'modernism' with 'women' and signals that both entities are problematic. The use of the noun 'cause' is instructive: women are the thing, a kind of yeast, from which modernism, in all its strangeness, results. Nearly one hundred years later, this linking of women and modernism is a familiar trope that has been soundly critiqued, both positively and negatively, for example by way of pathologies of madness.2 Yet disputation over modernism continues to inform literary discourse, and recent interventions by feminist scholars into such debates indicate that the relationship of women and modernism is still contested.

This paper is interested in representations of modernism and modernist literary strategies in Australian women's fiction, arguing that a narrow and constricting definition of the term 'modernism' has obscured the connections between Australian writing and European modernist practices. Work by women writers is at the centre of this debate because, at least between World War I and World War II, women writers were often progressive in their creative practice, yet their experimental work battled for recognition in an entrenched realist and masculinist literary establishment. Not only were women writers subject to the literary equivalent of "levers of power" in the art world (John Williams' term for the institutional repression of interwar progressive women artists),3 but their work was constrained, as it still is, by the very language of the terminology and a history of relations with that term in Australia. My argument proposes that if one takes into account the current debate focussing on the definitions of modernism it is possible to re-consider modernist concepts in the Australian context - and this involves a regional inflection, perhaps within the notion of a 'geo-modernism'. In turn, this would allow for the work of women writers to be discussed in a wider and more productive framework. In this paper I will briefly consider the work of Eleanor Dark and Christina Stead in relation to these ideas.

'Modernism' is understood, too often, as a universal, totalising notion. The grammar of modernism, (that describes the mutual contrasts and relations of language, especially in nominative or adjectival modes), indicates anything but stability and universality. Modernism can be modern, modernist, or a state of modernity: it is high, low, American, European, early, or late. It is usually white and male - but not always. Despite previous totalising tendencies, the nominative solidity of 'modern' is undermined increasingly by the adjectival states: it is easy to see why feminist scholar Susan Stanford Friedman says modernity is a term 'at war with itself.'4

It is with interest, therefore, that this paper notes the increasing international deliberation over this term and that some of the more interesting work has emanated from feminist theorists, specifically Friedman and Terry Threadgold. Today, modernism is frequently written of in the plural - we have as many modernisms as feminisms - and therein, according to Friedman, lie complications.

Before considering the work of these theorists, I note that the term 'modernism' is still contested in Australia, and as such the term has particular impact in literary discussions. For example, in a 1993 review of new and substantial anthologies of Australian poetry, Bruce Barbour says that the difference in the compilations lay in their respective editorial approaches to, and definition of modernism. Noting the difficulty associated with this term in Australia, Barbour concludes that this difference underpins the widely differing 'ideological casts' of the anthologies.5

In many respects, such deliberation represents a long-held reluctance to speak of 'Australian' and 'modern/modernist' in one breath.

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