Haptic Modernism: Touch and the Tactile in Modernist Writing

Haptic Modernism: Touch and the Tactile in Modernist Writing

Haptic Modernism: Touch and the Tactile in Modernist Writing

Haptic Modernism: Touch and the Tactile in Modernist Writing

Synopsis

Opens up the field of literary studies to the promise of a haptic-oriented analysis. This book contends that the haptic sense - combining touch, kinaesthesis and proprioception - was first fully conceptualised and explored in the modernist period, in response to radical new bodily experiences brought about by scientific, technological and psychological change.How does the body's sense of its own movement shift when confronted with modernist film? How might travel by motorcar disorientate one sufficiently to bring about an existential crisis? If the body is made of divisible atoms, what work can it do to slow the fleeting moment of modernist life? The answers to all these questions and many more can be found in the work of four major writers of the modernist canon - James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, D. H. Lawrence and Dorothy Richardson. They suggest that haptic experience is at the heart of existence in the early twentieth century, and each displays a fascination with the elusive sense of touch. Yet these writers go further, undertaking formal experiments which enable their own writing to provoke a haptic response in their readers. By defining the haptic, and by looking at its role in the work of these major names of modernist writing, this book aims to open up the field of literary studies to the promise of a haptic-oriented analysis, identifying a rich seam of literary work we can call 'haptic modernism.'

Excerpt

In Sinclair Lewis’s 1922 novel Babbitt, we first meet our eponymous hero at rest in his sleeping-porch, where his recumbent body may be read: ‘He was not fat but he was exceedingly well fed; his cheeks were pads, and the unroughened hand which lay helpless upon the khaki blanket was slightly puffy. He seemed prosperous, extremely married and unromantic’ (Lewis 1950: 2). Babbitt’s choice of bed, in a space related only tangentially to the main body of the house, and removed from the conjugal chamber, leads the reader to suppose he may not be as ‘extremely’ married as the narrative voice would have us believe. For Rebecca West, this initial approach to a slumbering Babbitt is part of Lewis’s exhaustive study of an inconsequential man, for ‘we know the poor fatuous being in his standing up and his lying down’ (West 1987a: 272). Lamenting the ‘planless’ quality of the novel, West states that ‘its end arrived apparently because its author had come to the end of the writing-pad, or rather, one might suspect from its length, to the end of all writing-pads then on the market’ (271). Whatever the meanderings of the story, West concedes that Babbitt constitutes ‘a triumph of impersonation’ and ‘a bit of character-exhibition comparable to [Charles Dickens’s] Mr. Micawber’ (271). To the detriment of the world’s paper stocks, then, Lewis achieves an insight into the (vertical and horizontal) life of a suburban estate agent in the year 1920. Yet it is the second protagonist of that opening sleeping-porch scene that takes centre stage in the novel–Babbitt’s ‘unroughened’, ‘helpless’ and ‘slightly puffy’ hand. It is through his hand that we come to know the man–as a synecdoche of Babbitt’s agency, his organ of intentional touch, and the point at which his skin both defines him (his continent skin contains him; his fingerprints are his alone) and most conspicuously extends to meet the world (in an array of manual practices). Dermatoglyphics, the . . .

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