Academic journal article German Quarterly

Body Ascendant: Modernism and the Physical Imperative

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Body Ascendant: Modernism and the Physical Imperative

Article excerpt

Segel, Harold B. Body Ascendant: Modernism and the Physical Imperative. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1998. 282 pp. $35.95.

In Body Ascendant Harold Segel proposes that we look at modernism as a disenchantment with intellectuality and the mind, and a fascination with the physical body. Segel finds evidence for this thesis in many realms, from the preoccupation with dance and pantomime to skeptical views on language and the popularity of sports and fitness. The time frame for modernism in this work is not entirely clear, but if we judge by the works and individuals cited, it falls loosely within the final three decades of the nineteenth century and the first third of the twentieth century. The site of modernism is rather better defined: Segel's command of a number of different European traditions allows him to include material from various Slavic cultures, as well as from the English, American, German, and French heritage. Considering the momentous events that occurred in central Europe during the thirties and forties, it is appropriate that Segel also devotes some consideration to the political implications of the cult of the physical. The broadest and most pernicious ramification of the repudiation of intellectual culture and the advocacy of physicality is the anti-Semitic deprecation of the Jewish body and the adoption of a biologically based racism. Although Segel occasionally suggests that his own monograph contributes to the investigation of fascism and modernism that has been in progress since the 1970s, he makes it clear that his main purpose is not to explore the wayward political trajectory of modernism, but rather to sketch the multiple forms in which the modernist physical imperative insinuated itself into European culture.

Segel's five central chapters-he also ineludes an introduction and a short conclusion, as chapters one and seven, respectively-most often focus on one particular aspect of modernist physicality. In chapter two Segel examines an array of modernist pantomimes written by Wedekind, Hofmannsthal, Schnitzler, Einstein, Kuzmin, and Kandinsky before turning to playwrights (Maeterlinck, Chekhov, Hofmannsthal, Schnitzler, Lev Lunts, and Gertrude Stein) who undercut dialogue and substitute instead the performance of the human body. Chapter three is devoted to dance. Segel explores innovations in modern dance, in particular the most influential American and European contributors during the modernist period, but his central concern is the impact that dance had on dramatic action among playwrights, and how it emerged as a theme among prose writers. In the fourth chapter, Segel writes directly about authors; he discusses the various writers who were simultaneously men of action, which includes a diverse group from the symbolist D'Annunzio and the futurist Marinetti to the adventurer Hemingway or the airplane enthusiast Saint-Exupery. …

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