Encountering Choran Community: Literary Modernism, Visual Culture, and Political Aesthetics in the Interwar Years

Encountering Choran Community: Literary Modernism, Visual Culture, and Political Aesthetics in the Interwar Years

Encountering Choran Community: Literary Modernism, Visual Culture, and Political Aesthetics in the Interwar Years

Encountering Choran Community: Literary Modernism, Visual Culture, and Political Aesthetics in the Interwar Years

Excerpt

The past only comes back when the present runs so smoothly
that it is like the sliding surface of a deep river. Then one sees
through the surface to the depths. In those moments I find one
of my greatest satisfactions, not that I am thinking of the past;
but it is then that I am living most fully in the present. For the
present when backed by the past is a thousand times deeper
than the present when it presses so close that you can feel
nothing else, when the film on the camera only reaches the eye.
But to feel the present sliding over the depths of the past, peace
is necessary.

—Virginia Woolf, “A Sketch of the Past”

At the time of this writing, a library search for materials on "Modernism” reveals much of the same rubric as twenty years ago. Despite the fact that the field has recently become more transnational, as well as politically and mass media-engaged,1 with a few noteworthy exceptions, Modernist scholarship still revolves around the work of such canonical Modernists as the U.S. poet Ezra Pound or his “British” contemporaries, visual artist and writer Wyndham Lewis and novelist James Joyce. But, as my study follows those relatively few others in pointing out, not all strands of influence must lead to a Monolithic Masculine Modernism, or, literary and artistic production orchestrated and arbitrated solely by the “men of 1914.” This classic concept of Modernism is too simplistic, as well as troublesome in various ways and not least of all because it suggests that modernist art must necessarily be defined by its representation of an alienated white man’s epiphany. Cultural critics such as myself agree that this limited definition of Modernism too easily passes over the ways in which the solipsistic development of Joyce’s male artist, the BLAST of phallic-shaped shards of glass and machinery in Wyndham Lewis’s work, or the misogynist ennui of T. S. Eliot’s “Prufrock” reinforce or even celebrate gender, race, and class norms of their time. In the teens and twenties, the often-studied Pound, Lewis, and Joyce developed Modernism as masculinist, equating “feminine” language with such negatively freighted images as those of chaos, the womb, dung, and jellyfish. In the increasingly fascist culture of the thirties, Pound sympathized with the Nazi’s platform in an internationally broadcast radio address. Modernist art employs the racialist and classist terms of imperialist primitivism, overromanticizing the so-called simpler experience of racially “Other” or working people by characterizing their experience of the world as more direct, and hence more authentic or “pure” than that of modern (white man), while taking for granted the racial or economic Other’s enjoyment of the drudgery and poverty that accompany a supposed simpler life. When defined in canonical terms, Modernism engages in the predominant “master narratives” of early twentieth-century transatlantic history; yet this canon is only a part of the more inclusive, wider, and richer story of modernism(s).

This book identifies and describes modernist choran community as a previously understudied key counternarrative to Modernism’s engagement with early twentieth-century master narratives. I use the term “choran community” in order to emphasize the almost sacred nature of the experience represented in common by the modernist texts, photographs, and phototexts discussed in the chapters that follow. As I describe, choran community comes about as a result of the “choran moment,” or, textual instant when characters and/or readers (re)cognize their connection with a larger, inherently unified whole. The empathy created in the space between characters is often signaled by a common reaction, to art or music or nature, where a sense of communion is found. Whether in a visual, verbal, or hybrid text, the stasis of the choran moment contains the potent possibility of communal awareness, or choran community, in the future as well as the present. The textual choran communities I study consequently offset the sexist, racist, and classist solipsism of imperialist or fascist master narrative. In contrast with Modernism, choran community is hybrid, egalitarian, and maternalist. Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927) and Gertrude Käsebier’s photographs, for example, ground their stories upon “illuminated moments,” which mirror the fragile yet vivid . . .

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