Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Accommodating Intimacy, Compromising Sex

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Accommodating Intimacy, Compromising Sex

Article excerpt

Bloomsbury, Modernism, and the Reinvention of Intimacy by Jesse Wolfe

Cambridge University Press, 2011.272 pages

Matthew Eatough

Looking back on Bloomsbury from the vantage point of the early '60s, Leonard Woolf summarized the central charge that Bloomsburians had repeatedly leveled against detractors and disciples alike:

  What came to be called Bloomsbury by the outside world never existed
  in the form given to it by the outside world. For 'Bloomsbury" was
  and is used as a term--usually of abuse--ap-plied to a largely
  imaginary group of persons with largely imaginary objects and
  characteristics. ... We were and always remained primarily and
  fundamentally a group of friends. (21), (23)

An intimate association of friends secluded from the gaze and politicized labels of "the outside world"; a heterogeneous assortment of opinions, aesthetic techniques, and lifestyles bound together by affective, rather than artistic, attachments: Woolf's "group of friends" has persisted as something of a constitutive obstacle for critical accounts of Bloomsbury. How can one draw generalizable inferences about Bloomsbury's aesthetics and politics if its affective community was formed anterior to such public concerns? In an age in which the bombastic manifesto was the favored mode of publicity for avant-garde platforms, how does one account for Blooms burian writings that actively refuse to declare a distinct artistic movement? These challenges are even more apparent vis-a-vis Bloomsbury's literary productions, which lack the self-conscious defenses of formalism that can be found in a Roger Fry or a Clive Bell. Bloomsburian fictions from E. M. Forster's Howards End to Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway turn inward to intimate, domestic settings that seem to elude public classification, and which leave us to wonder what terms might best describe a peculiarly Bloomsburian aesthetic vision.

Jesse Wolfe's Bloomsbury, Modernism, and the Reinvention of Intimacy approaches the paradox of a Bloomsburian aesthetic by undertaking a literary, philosophical, and cultural investigation of that which, according to Leonard Woolf, precludes general statements about Bloomsbury: personal intimacy itself. If intimacy often appears in popular discourse as the antithesis to publicness, as a sort of minimal sociality free from political and economic determinants, Wolfe argues the shape and style of intimacy in turn depend upon a long series of assumptions about personhood, gender, sexuality, domesticity, and affect. The Bloomsburian preference for intimacy over publicness thus reflects its members' participation in "a debate about love and marriage spanning the Victorian and modern eras," a debate which "often appeared to moderns as a crisis of intimacy" (4). As Wolfe shows, the generalization of official marriage over common-law and other "irregular" forms of marriage, the rise of the nuclear family household, and the decline of live-in servants all conspired during the early twentieth century to redefine companionate marriage as the locus of intimacy. But at the same time as marriage was being tasked with sustaining intimacy, "desires that lurked beyond the borders of the law--a man's for a man, a woman's for a woman" (23)--presented a threatening and potentially liberating force for imaging the modes through which intimacy operated. In Wolfe's account, same-sex desires among Bloomsburian writers forced them to expand the scope of companionate intimacy beyond the husband/wife dyad, in the process provoking questions over what men and women are, how gender complementarity does (or does not) make possible intimacy, what role sexual desire plays in intimacy, and what the ultimate substance and efficacy of intimacy is. In other words, the codification of Bloomsbury as a "group of friends" is less an evasion of larger commitments than "part of a post-Enlightenment project of making equality and freedom (for men and women with opposite- and same-sex desires) into realities of daily, domestic life, not just of a male-dominated public sphere" (4). …

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