Academic journal article Postmodern Studies

Allegory and Fragmentation in Wyndham Lewis's the Wild Body and Djuna Barnes's A Book

Academic journal article Postmodern Studies

Allegory and Fragmentation in Wyndham Lewis's the Wild Body and Djuna Barnes's A Book

Article excerpt

Abstract. Fragmentation is usually treated as a central category in Anglo-American modernism, particularly in its most canonical configuration. It is also a crucial feature of the historical avant-gardes that flourished at roughly the same time. However, these two strands of fragmentation can be traced to very different traditions: symbolism for modernism and allegory for the avant-garde. These two traditions have been customarily related to the opposition between organicism and mechanicality. This paper attempts to trace the boundaries and implications of this distinction by looking at modernist texts - short stories by Djuna Barnes and Wyndham Lewis - that seem to feature forms of fragmentation that are closer to avant-gardist allegory than they are to hegemonic modernist symbolism.

Keywords: Djuna Barnes, Wyndham Lewis, allegory, avant-garde, fragmentation, organicism

Epiphanies and Apocalypses

If literary history and literary criticism can accept epochs, moments and eras as feasible conceptualisations, it is on condition that they articulate particular practices into a more or less coherent framework. Modernism, for one, is seen as an era that articulates fundamental processes of modernity through a recognisable series of univocal devices. Thus, the loss of received epistemological certainties would be echoed by a subjective narrative point of view. The process of reification would be resisted by the literary artefact's experimental aesthetic (Eagleton, Against the Grain 140). Above all, the fragmentary experience of modern life would be mimicked by a correspondingly fragmentary, or fragmented, text. The plausibility of this last point depends entirely on whether we accept that the experience of modernity is an inherently fragmented one. A convincing argument can be made that it is exactly the contrary: an overwhelmingly unified and oppressively self-coherent one (Eagleton, Walter Benjamin 89-90). If this is the case, then our interpretation of modernist texts will need to be reassessed using entirely different critical notions. Alternatively, modernity can be seen as the development of collective movements, notably feminism and socialism. This would imply that modernism reacts to these currents in ways that are not univocal, that shift between the two poles of seduction and rejection.1

If we accept the prevalent view that modernist fragmentation mirrors the fragmentation of modern existence, we are faced with two assumptions: first, that the modernist aesthetic is a primarily mimetic one; second, that there is a unity of aesthetics, that is, that a set of tropes and devices reflects common attitudes, so that whenever fragmentation and discontinuity appear in modernist texts, they serve a common function.

When the short story genre is brought into this equation, the crucial question becomes: what are the main features of a modernist short story? In The Modernist Short Story, Dominic Head suggests a possible answer: if the brevity of short fiction provides it with its distinctive traits, to wit, "its intensity and its exaggerated artifice" (2), and if formal innovation is a core modernist concern, it follows that the modernist short story "may be seen to contain the distilled essence of the modernist novel, at least as far as it is usually perceived" (6). This argument poses two interconnected and insurmountable problems: first, to assume that formal innovation is a core modernist concern is quite a prepossessing assumption to make; second, the phrase "at least as far as it is usually perceived" shows an unvoiced awareness that this view will not hold true for many modernist narratives. This includes, in fact, those that will be discussed here.

As far as short fiction is concerned, the canon of hegemonic modernism revolves largely around James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. Two central critical categories often applied to these two authors have become part of a consensus regarding modernist narratives, short or otherwise. …

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