Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

On Marrying a Butcher: Animality and Modernist Anxiety in West's "Indissoluble Matrimony"

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

On Marrying a Butcher: Animality and Modernist Anxiety in West's "Indissoluble Matrimony"

Article excerpt

This essay suggests that West's story exposes forms of racialized and gendered mastery that are coded as a failed attempt to eliminate and transcend animality. The exposure is read as a sophisticated commentary on species anxiety in modernist literature, a rhetorical problem that is still critically under-thought.

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Modernist critics in the last decade have recuperated the work of Rebecca West, a British writer noted for her construction of "female epics" and feminist heroines. West's short story "Indissoluble Matrimony" appeared in the experimental journal, BLAST, published by Wyndham Lewis in 1914 as a Vorticist manifesto and call for revolution in British art. Recently, BLAST has garnered increasing critical attention as an avant-garde modernist compilation committed to unsettling intellectual and aesthetic practices at the beginning of the twentieth century. The placement of West's story within the anti-normative context of BLAST has implications that have not been theorized for twentieth-century literary criticism. "Indissoluble Matrimony" not only unveils various racial and gender codes that were operative at the turn of the twentieth century, but it also implicitly articulates how those codes are given force through the discourse of animality. Ultimately, this text should be read in its specificity as a sophisticated gloss on species anxiety in early-twentieth-century literature.

The question of the animal in modernism can be situated in the wake of postcolonial and feminist criticism, which has dominated studies of British modernism in recent decades. Postcolonial critiques worked to illuminate the dialectic between Western subjectivity and the non-Western "other," a disenfranchised other whose projected alterity served to stabilize European imperialist identity. Marianna Torgovnick's Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Lives, for instance, was widely read as an expose of primitivism's cultural work in the modernist aesthetic. Torgovnick, gives primacy to the racial and sexual binaries used by writers to codify the primitive. She maintains that European primitivism often rehearses a self-serving set of dichotomies that defines native peoples alternately as "gentle, in tune with nature, paradisal, ideal--or violent, in need of control" (3). Modernist writers deploy the primitive in an ambivalent, self-serving discourse of otherness, whose object is at once excessively desirable and deeply threatening, ideal and abject.

While Torgovnick notes that Western ambivalence toward the racialized "savage" was frequently rooted in the post-Darwinian evolutionist premise that a continuum exists between civilized and savage, she fails to address the ways in which animality often underlies this dynamic. A similar elision appears in the more recent postcolonial work of Anne McClintock, whose insightful 1995 study Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Conquest reads gender as a constitutive category of imperialism. McClintock's work establishes a link between the British investment in domesticating women and in controlling the racial other at the turn of the twentieth century. While McClintock discusses the appropriation of Darwinism by European anthropologists to determine the rank of human races, she does not recognize the discourse of species as fundamental to these imperialist otherings. For instance, although McClintock points clearly to the feminization of natives in various images from the period, she does not theorize the animalization of native populations so striking in many of her book's images.

Therefore, while the problem of the "irrational" and the "primitive" has been analyzed within modernism, the specificity of modernism's species discourse remains undertheorized. West's story exhibits a complex grid of racial, gender, and species discourses that seem to reproduce "typical" preoccupations of the period. In this narrative, George Silverton, a white man, has an ambivalent relationship to his mulatto wife, Evadne, whom he repeatedly associates with nonhuman animals. …

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