Religion and Science in the Making of Modernist Bodies

By Preston, Carrie J. | Twentieth Century Literature, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

Religion and Science in the Making of Modernist Bodies


Preston, Carrie J., Twentieth Century Literature


Modernist Writings and Religio-scientific Discourse:

H.D., Loy, and Toomer

by Lara Vetter

Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. 219 pages

Lara Vetter's Modernist Writings and Religio-scientific Discourse describes the merging of religion and science into a discourse that was used by modernist writers to navigate new bodily experiences, particularly the vulnerability of the body to penetration by technologies. Many scholars of modernism have postulated a crisis of the body, but Vetter's approach is new in its emphasis on women writers and writers from racialized minorities--groups that have been denied control over their bodies, often with the support of religious and scientific establishments. H.D., Mina Loy, and Jean Toomer all invoke the uneasy nexus of religion and science with varying degrees of ambivalence to explore constructions of bodily and spiritual subjectivity. While these writers were interested in spiritualism and the occult, they were never involved in the formal theosophical societies of the period. Vetter argues that in spite of the emphasis on theosophy in modernist studies, it is just one metaphysical system among many that merged religious and scientific discourses in a way that influenced modernist writers (20).

Vetter's book is truly interdisciplinary, drawing from literary studies, histories of science and religion, and gender and sexuality studies to describe a major and heretofore neglected trajectory of modernism. Vetter convincingly demonstrates that modernists' fascination with and adaptation of religio-scientific discourses was not a "fringe phenomenon" (23). Her study is organized into three main chapters, each of which examines a different combination of her three writers in relation to a central topic within religio-scientific discourse: electromagnetism, the physical culture movement, and evolutionary theories of race. Each chapter opens with a section that traces the history of extraliterary engagements with these topics. Occasionally these sections read like an overlong list of quotes from diverse and seemingly unrelated figures, but they are always based on extensive and original research into cultural phenomena that influenced modernism. Vetter does occasionally treat H.D., Loy, and Toomer's writing the way she treats her extraliterary sources, that is, as religio-scientific discourses and evidence for her project. I would have appreciated additional close readings and discussions of how the project might encourage new approaches to the authors' major works. That said, her book opens up many avenues for further research sure to enrich our understanding of modernism.

Vetter's introduction amply demonstrates that religion and science found considerable, and occasionally bizarre, common ground at the turn of the twentieth century. Scientific researchers and religious leaders alike advanced theistic and occult explanations for important scientific advances: the discovery of radium by Marie Curie in 1898, Max Planck's theory of quantum particles, Einsteinian relativity, and other developments that may have sounded like science fiction to the general public (3). Vetter introduces a sometimes bewildering number of figures with diverse interests in religion, science, and occultism, but this strategy underscores the extensive reach of the nexus she describes. Modernist artists, she shows, demonstrated widespread interests in scientific discoveries, compared their work to that of scientists, and used science to develop new aesthetic techniques and modes of perception (11).

Chapter Two, "'The electric incitement of Eros': Electromagnetism, Sexuality, and Modernism," demonstrates the extent to which electricity was thought to be the divine spark of the body, linking humanity to the heavens and humans to each other. H.D. and Loy, along with D. H. Lawrence and other modernists, used the language of electricity, particularly the notion of charged poles, to characterize the erotics of heterosexual attraction. …

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