WHEN VIRGINIA WOOLF read T. S. Eliot’s poems, much as she admired “some of the loveliest single lines in modern poetry,” she confessed that she felt daunted by the effort required to understand them. “As I sun myself upon the intense and ravishing beauty of one of his lines,” she wrote in her 1924 lecture “Mrs. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” “and reflect that I must make a dizzy and dangerous leap to the next, and so on from line to line, like an acrobat flying precariously from bar to bar, I [...] envy the indolence of my ancestors who, instead of spinning madly through mid-air, dreamt quietly in the shade with a book.” There are no lazy, dreamy moments for readers of The Waste Land, James Joyce’s Ulysses, or Gertrude Stein’s genre-defying Tender Buttons. Reading the modernists, as Woolf noted, is hard work: making sense of their verbal experiments requires an intense intellectual effort. In Woolf’s terms, modernism is “dizzying,” “ravishing,” “precarious” — that is, it’s situated on a strange cusp between joyfulness and trepidation, if not actual discomfort. Why is that? Laura Frost asks, in her sharp, fresh look at modernists’ vexed relationship to pleasure.
Frost, who teaches literary studies at The New School, is intent on complicating our views of modernism and the works and motivations of its varied practitioners. In her previous book, Sex Drives: Fantasies of Fascism in Literary Modernism (2002), she took on the edgy topic of “fascist chic” — bondage, sadomasochism, and the erotics of those tall black boots and body-hugging uniforms — examining a wide range of literary and artistic works from painters such as Hans Bellmer and Salvador Dalí to writers like D. H. Lawrence, George Orwell, Christopher Isherwood, and Sylvia Plath. That book considers the connection of sex to power, violence, and deviance; Frost argues that the idea of eroticized fascism contradicts many critics’ desire to see modernism as inherently liberal and even progressive. The reality is that the sexual fantasies and political views of the modernists are often disturbingly inconsistent. Like Sex Drives, Frost’s new study reflects her interest in contextualizing modernism in the cultural moment from which it emerged and tracing the afterlife of modernist tropes and rhetoric. Eroticism was Frost’s focus in Sex Drives; pleasure — somatic, aesthetic, and intellectual — is her concern here.
Frost sees pleasure as central to our understanding of the high/low or elite/popular culture divide that many scholars consider to be a defining characteristic of literary modernism. For modernists, Frost agrees, pleasure was problematic, associated as it was with effortless popular entertainment — movies and romance novels, for example — that required little to no intellectual engagement on the reader’s part. Modernists claimed to sneer at pleasure that was diluted, widely disseminated, and experienced passively by the masses. Eliot’s allusive, elusive poetry and Stein’s rapturously tortured prose posed formal challenges for readers. Even writers like Lawrence, Huxley, and Virginia Woolf, whose prose is relatively accessible, make their readers work to extract meaning. Work, and not passivity, was intrinsic to modernist aesthetics. Modernism, Frost says, “is conspicuously labor intensive.”
That labor meant learning how to read in a new way: to notice repetition, juxtaposition of words, and structure of sentences. Composition is explanation, Stein announced, and Joyce famously said that “the demand that I make of my reader is that he should devote his whole life to reading my works.” That devotion, Frost asserts, generates an experience of “unpleasure,” which she distinguishes from pain, and which is bound up with the effort involved in paying “heightened attention to form and the construction of pleasure itself.” Unpleasure is a modification of pleasure, evoking “discomfort, confusion, and hard cognitive labor” and, like pleasure, “integrally tied to bodily, sensual experience.” Sensuality, for the modernists, was both alluring and suspect. Frost is excellent at identifying modernists’ feeling of vulnerability about their reputations. They were afraid that sensual arousal and even aesthetic pleasure took away from the intellectual importance of their works.
The category of “unpleasure” helps Frost to illuminate the connection between modernists and their readers “We do not read modernist works now in exactly the same way readers did in the 1920s and ’30s” she writes. Yet while we cannot duplicate that original experience, “the author’s linguistic cues give a strong sense of what kind of response was expected and desired.” This response, for Frost, can be tied to changing cultural assumptions about pleasure: she distinguishes between the aesthetics of the 1920s, in the hedonistic aftermath of the first world war, and the fear and disillusion of the 1930s, when modernism took a darker hue, reflecting new discontents regarding pleasure.
Her analysis begins, appropriately enough, with the ardent pleasure-seeker James Joyce, “one of modernism’s great hedonists,” according to Frost, “who is also one of the great artists of unpleasure.” Frost sees olfactory pleasure as central to Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and especially Ulysses, where natural, often repulsive odors and artificial, commercially produced perfumes waft through the novel, triggering memories and physical and emotional responses. Frost enlivens this chapter with a concise history of the evolution of perfumery from the strong “animal” scents of the 16th century to the creation of Chanel No. 5. For Joyce, perfumes function as a metaphor for sensuous experience: layered, evocative, allusive, and culturally constructed. Like his texts, perfumes require exegesis to fully appreciate them: they demand that readers work.
D.H. Lawrence presents a different kind of difficulty for the reader: his prose is not as obscure and hermetic as Joyce’s, but his work is exemplary of modernism’s striving to manipulate the reader’s pleasure. Lawrence writes about sex, Frost asserts, “not to promote pleasure but rather to discipline and even curtail it.” He balked at being associated with novelists who aimed to incite their readers’ sexual arousal; his work, he insisted, was neither sexy nor pornographic. Still, as Frost argues persuasively, Lawrence drew upon his reading of popular romance — she cites in particular Edith Hull’s best-selling 1919 novel The Sheik — as a model for his own plots and themes. Nevertheless, to distance himself from such works, Lawrence made his prose intentionally difficult, and he consciously shaped his representation of eroticism in order to redefine pleasure as “a deliberate, arduous encounter.” In Lady Chatterley’s Lover, for example, “Mellors cannot be too seductive as a leading man, and his sex with Connie cannot be so compelling that the reader merges with the scenes in masturbatory bliss.” Mellors is no suave Rudolph Valentino, the actor who famously played the Sheik in its 1921 film version.
Aldous Huxley, like Lawrence, thought aesthetic pleasure was best achieved through hard work. Still, although he was a vehement protestor against popular entertainment, particularly the talkies — at least silent movies required the audience to read — Huxley ended up writing a musical version of Brave New World that he hoped would be made into a major motion picture. Just as Lawrence gleaned much from The Sheik, Huxley, Frost reveals, was an astute reader of the prolific, best-selling romance novelist Elinor Glyn. He parodied her racy 1907 novel Three Weeks in the trite movie he invented for Brave New World: Three Weeks in a Helicopter. Yet although Huxley publicly derided Glyn, he admitted to being “enraptured” by Anita Loos’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, as were Joyce, Edith Wharton, George Santayana, and William Faulkner. And so, too, is Frost, who presents Loos as a shrewd commentator on mass culture, a satirist of the romance genre, and the creator, Frost says, “of a distinct style that incorporates the kinds of linguistic projects modernism cast as unpleasure into a more buoyant form of vernacular textuality.” Reading Loos, Huxley and many of his contemporaries admitted, was fun.
Reading Gertrude Stein was not fun. Stein required her readers to work so hard that some simply gave up. Scholars have suggested what, how, and why her writings mean, seeing them analogous to cubist paintings or surrealist automatic writings, analyzing them in terms of William James’s theories of consciousness and cognition or private communications to her lover, Alice. Frost invents another way to characterize Stein’s work: tickling, a term that aptly captures both the intermittent moments of delight and the protracted, frustrating passages of her hermetic, opaque texts. Tickling, Frost writes, is a form of childish play, a physical communication that “fuses pleasure with irritation, intimacy, and estrangement in a way that resembles Stein’s textuality.” Frost cites a line from “Sacred Emily” — “Tickle tickle tickle you for education” — to support her idea that Stein, like other modernists, aimed not only to delight aesthetically, but to teach a new way of responding to words and, indeed, a new way to think about the relationship between writer and reader, a relationship in which the writer often was aggressive and disorienting. Tickling, when prolonged, ends in distinct unpleasure.
And, for Frost, this “distinct unpleasure” was a specific response to the social currents of the interwar era. Modernists like Stein, Joyce, and Eliot responded in part to the dizzying effervescence and frantic sexuality of the Jazz Age and the Roaring Twenties. A decade later, the party was over, and works by the writers Patrick Hamilton and Jean Rhys reflect not frivolous unpleasure but social and political trauma: the rise of fascism, a worldwide economic depression, civil strife in Spain, and intimations of another great war. In the face of misery, “facile amusement” might be understandable, but both Hamilton and Rhys, Frost shows, “present an overwhelmingly somatic world in which distinction is won through the ability to resist pleasure entirely.” Their characters live in a bleak world where they are subject to oppression by figures in power, and their response is “boredom, frustration, disorientation, and paralysis.” Unpleasure, Frost argues, is a fitting response to dysphoria, and unpleasure requires a rejection of both elite intellectual pleasures offered by earlier modernists and the easy sensory pleasures offered to the masses.
Frost’s epilogue brings us to the present, “an exhilarating and alarming moment,” she says, when digital technology and pharmaceuticals offer “prosthetic pleasure. The modernist nightmare of bliss on demand has been realized.” But bliss need not be synonymous with mindless amusement, and intellectual and sensual pleasure need not be mutually exclusive nor, as modernists so dourly claimed, “perverse.” Somatic and cerebral pleasure no longer need to be thought of as threats to one another. Frost feels optimistic that modernism’s legacy, “its insistence on mental vigor, critical thinking, and artistic innovation” and its redefinition of pleasure as intellectual engagement, can exist and even thrive in our own time, and into the future. It’s no wonder that Anita Loos makes such an exuberant and compelling appearance in this book: for Frost, she represents a playful, paradoxical, teasing, tickling intellect, a writer who penetrated the high/low divide and demonstrated the aesthetically invigorating potential of pleasure.
Frost does not make it easier to read Stein and Eliot, but she helps readers to understand the tensions and challenges that they faced in creating work that they ardently hoped would be admired aesthetically and intellectually. She is an irreverent, imaginative guide to modernism, and her own writing throughout this impressive study is a pleasure and a delight.