Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

"Sparse and Geometric Contour": Transformations of the Body in H.D.'S 'Nights'

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

"Sparse and Geometric Contour": Transformations of the Body in H.D.'S 'Nights'

Article excerpt

I don't like the second half of the Orpheus sequence as well as the first. Stick to the woman speaking. How can you know what Orpheus feels? It's your part to be woman, the woman vibration, Eurydice should be enough.

Rico to Julia in H.D.'s Bid Me to Live [51].

Near the end of H.D.'s little-known novella Nights [1935], protagonist Natalia Saunderson meditates on the geometrical forms of her sister-in-law's house. With lyric intensity--developed through H.D.'s characteristic techniques of parataxis, syntactic parallelism, and repetition--Natalia admires the building:

The house was her spirit [...]. It was parallel and modern and ran level with lines of mountain, it was squares to be bisected and parallelograms and rhomboids. In the sparse and geometric contour of the house, there was all wisdom. She wanted to walk along the corridors, just that; she wanted to walk from one end of the fiat roof to the other far end. She would be so embodied in large parallelograms and in square and cube and rectangle. She wanted those things. (90)

In this passage, the geometric house [1] comes to express Natalia's desires: she not only venerates the building--in its "contour" she finds "all wisdom--but also identifies with it: "The house was her spirit." Although this sentence implies that she already feels coincident with the building, the sentences that follow indicate that she still has not quite reached the point to which she aspires--that she wants to unite more completely with the house. The simple past tense of "The house was her spirit," connoting a present state, contrasts with and thus highlights the conditional tense of "She would be so embodied." The house may already be Natalia's spirit, but now she wants it to become her body: only then will her desire be completely fulfilled.

This passage appears in a novella that focuses not only on Natalia's body but also on states of sexual transport that make her keenly aware of her body Throughout the narrative, she achieves an ecstatic state through erotic arousal that affords her access to a "holy" realm of visionary consciousness: like a mystic, she travels what she calls the "high-road to deity" (52). The text attends insistently to Natalia's shifting condition of embodiment, marking moments when she feels "incarnate" (80) or embodied" (90) and other moments when she is "disembodied" (43) or gets "out of her body" (64, 66). By the time we reach this passage about the house, Natalia's desire to "be so embodied" in "square and cube and rectangle" signals yet another instance of her longing to get out of her everyday body--paradoxically, by way of the erotic stimulation of her body--into an alternative state of embodiment figured by geometry. Natalia's persistent geometric fantasies mark her continual effort to transmute her ordinary bodily state into a transcendent one and thereby to surpass many boundaries--the boundaries of her body, conventional sexual practice, conventional womanhood, even conventional humanity-and achieve visionary consciousness.

Descriptions of achieving a sacred realm by way of erotic arousal appear quite frequently in H.D.'s work. (2) Only in Nights, however, does she conspicuously employ the language of geometry to figure the ideal state of embodiment attained through such arousal; and this choice inflects the significance of the process of transcendence in ways that merit our attention. (3) This essay interrogates the implications of H.D.'s use of geometry in Nights as she constructs what I will call the "geometric body" to imagine an eroticized condition of being that enables visionary awareness.

The geometric body in Nights can complicate some recent dominant critical constructions of H.D. in several valuable ways. First, it can prompt reassessment of the assumptions and investments that have informed such constructions--and that, more generally, have sustained efforts of the past three decades to introduce a greater range of women writers into the modernist canon. …

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