The Modernist Review #20: Moving Bodies


1st June 2020

Is the stay-at-home order making you notice your body more? Maybe it’s the niggling aches and pains that are making you miss the ergonomic desk chair in your office, or are making you wish you had one in the first place. Perhaps you’re a FitBit wielding, 10,000 steps per day kind of lockdown warrior – or, like us, you’re feeling victimised by your iPhone tracker telling you, ‘on average, you’re moving less this year compared to last year’. 

We never thought a socially-distanced supply run to Sainbury’s would be a conscious experience of joyful movement but, honestly, months of sitting still at home has changed the way so many of us think about our moving bodies. Our 20th issue of the Modernist Review invites you to reflect on motion through the bodies of modernism: through dancing and performance, and through disability and aestheticism. Here at BAMS, we’ve been embracing the stillness and moving things online in the worldwide bid to stay at home: the bi-annual committee meeting took place on (the now ubiquitous) Zoom, and it was great to see the faces of committee members old and new. And, in that vein, at the beginning of May not one but two winners of our annual BAMS Essay Prize were announced. Congratulations again to Megan Girdwood for her (very fitting!) essay on ‘Dance Dialogues in Mina Loy and Carl Van Vechten’, and to Harriet Walters for ‘Rural Ritual, Gardening Faith: Ford Madox Ford’s Memorial Plots’. No doubt many of us feel fresh envy for Ford’s access to a garden of one’s own. Girdwood and Walters’ essays will be published in Modernist Cultures, and we can’t wait to read them! 

We also hosted our very first #ModMovie night, and loved the voters’ pick of Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Modern Times’. If you still want to watch it, you can find the video link on our Twitter page. Of course, one of the standout moments is Chaplin’s dance to his ‘Nonsense Song’, proving himself to be the ultimate modernist hipster icon – he did the moonwalk before Michael Jackson made it cool. Dancing, as it turns out, has become one of those positive gems that have been emerging out of this global health crisis. Several leading dance companies have been streaming their performances online, sometimes with a pay-what-you-can goodwill donation system, and we’ve been grateful to enjoy performances that might not have been accessible to us before, whether because of price, time or location. 

For Róisín O’Brien, reviewing Ramsay Burt and Michael Huxley’s Dance, Modernism, and Modernity, dance is more than just a form of vicarious escapism, but something that ‘expand[s] notions of modernism(s)’ and ‘intersects with modernity’. Her review provides an insight into a new ‘historiography of dance and modernism’, though not, perhaps, at the artists that we might expect to hear about when we think of dance and the modernist canon. Burt and Huxley’s ‘selection aims not to write the artists in question into the canon, but rather to question their omission in the first place’. O’Brien highlights the impact of surveys of modernist dance outside of the academy, pointing out that ‘dance artists […] may benefit from the close readings of works’. Do you fall into this category? Have you been taking any online dance classes, streamed on YouTube or live on Zoom or Instagram? We’d love to hear about modernist dancing happening in our respective homes!

Francesca Dytor takes a rather more specific look at another figure of modernist dance who might never have crossed your horizon, whether you have two left feet or not. Her article explores ‘the case of the now little-known dancer Alexander Sacharoff’, who moved through a series of poses in a way that might not seem typical of dance to the untrained eye. ‘This stony beauty left many critics cold’, while others felt ‘awed at the potency invested in the simple positioning of a fingertip, or the turn of the thigh.’ Maybe this is an awe we’ll try to feel as we look down at our typing fingers in our 982nd hour at our computers. (Not, that is, that we’re writing anything past ramblings at the moment.) 

Taking a step back from her vivid analysis of Sacharoff, Dytor calls us to think more about how the dancing body takes ‘centre stage, invites criticism, demands praise, and at certain moments has been a crucible for debate over the proper nature of the body.’ The usually too-rigid idea of ‘the proper nature of the body’ brings us to Michael Davidson’s Invalid Modernism: Disability and the Missing Body of the Aesthetic, reviewed for us by Aaron Pugh. He highlights how ‘Davidson wisely cautions us to remember how an understanding of “the aesthetic” can represent “not merely a branch of philosophy but a series of acts and practices that makes sensible what society would prefer not to see”.’ This book ‘reveals a litany of bodies and minds which […] could not be contained, reduced or marginalised within “normative versions of national, gendered, or racialised identity”.’ Pugh’s review comes at a time when, amid the reams of Covid-related discourse, the voices of disability campaigners in universities have been, and should continue to be, highlighted and even vindicated just a little. Classes have been moved online and, in particular, lectures are being recorded after years of our disabled students and colleagues being told that this was not possible. As we eagerly await the day that university buildings reopen and we can joyously reunite with the books we had to leave behind, let’s take the time to consider what our institutions could do to create spaces that accommodate the movements of everybody and not just able bodies.

We might not be able to move much, or very far, but we hope that this month’s dive into modernist movement brings you some joy, and maybe even puts a spring in your step as you embark on an essential voyage out to the supermarket or some government-mandated exercise. And if you live in England, maybe you and five friends can channel the six narrators of The Waves as you gather in the sunshine for some socially-distanced socialising. And, as ever, we encourage you to get in touch with us if you’ve any ideas or pitches for TMR! Our shiny new email address is tmr@bams.ac.uk, and we’re on Twitter at @Modernistudies

With all best wishes, and we hope you are managing to stay safe,

Cécile, Polly, Bryony and Josh

Performing the Past: Alexander Sacharoff and the Modernist Body

Francesca Dytor, University of Cambridge

1 June 2020

The dancing body is a special kind of body. Taking centre stage, it invites criticism, demands praise, and at certain moments has functioned as a crucible for debate over the proper nature of the body. With the emergence of European modern dance at the beginning of the twentieth century, the dancing body was at the centre of discussions over the possible forms that knowledge could take.[1] Could knowledge be embodied in the dancing body? Was this knowledge a form of cultural memory or of scholarship? What relationship did the dancer in particular have with the past? This article outlines one way in which the past was performed in the 1910s, and the distinctions drawn by contemporary spectators between a reconstruction of the past, and the more problematic embodiment of it. Continue reading “Performing the Past: Alexander Sacharoff and the Modernist Body”

Book Review: Dance, Modernism, and Modernity

Róisín O’Brien 

1 June 2020

Ramsay Burt and Michael Huxley, Dance, Modernism and Modernity, (London: Routledge, 2019)

Ask someone what comes to mind when they hear the term ‘modern dance’, and you may get a vague answer relating to jazz, or that it’s ‘not ballet’. Ramsay Burt (De Montfort University) and Michael Huxley’s (De Montfort University) book Dance, Modernism and Modernity (2019) explores, amongst other things, how choreographies of ‘authenticity’, or the popular appeal of some productions, might not sit within but instead expand notions of modernism(s), alongside investigating how dance intersects with modernity. The authors aim to look at how ‘dancing developed and responded to, or came out of an ambivalence about, or a reaction against, the experience of living in modern times’ (p. 1). Continue reading “Book Review: Dance, Modernism, and Modernity”

Book Review: Invalid Modernism: Disability and the Missing Body of the Aesthetic

Aaron Pugh, University of Kent

1 June 2020

Michael Davidson, Invalid Modernism: Disability and the Missing Body of the Aesthetic (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019)

In Invalid Modernism, Michael Davidson compellingly situates disability at the heart of what he terms ‘the missing body of the aesthetic’ in modernist art and literature. In this study, Davidson produces a sweeping and persuasive survey that reveals a litany of bodies and minds which, he suggests, could no longer be contained, reduced or marginalised within ‘normative versions of national, gendered or racialised identity’ (p. 12). Davidson develops an intersectional statement of intent which repositions disability as being, not an extension, but a constitutive element of a varied range of modernist texts. Supplemented by close readings of canonical modernists such as Djuna Barnes, Samuel Beckett, F. T. Marinetti and Virginia Woolf, Dadaist and Surrealist aesthetic interventions, as well as a selection of experimental contemporary texts, Davidson resolutely constructs a study that expertly demonstrates ‘the various ways in which disability is an absent presence in the theory and practice of cultural production’ (p. 141). Continue reading “Book Review: Invalid Modernism: Disability and the Missing Body of the Aesthetic”

Book Review: Square Haunting

Francesca Wade, Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars (Faber & Faber, 2020)

Elizabeth O’Connor, University of Birmingham

 ‘I like this London life . . . the street-sauntering and square-haunting.  

— Virginia Woolf’s diary, 1925

Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting follows the lives of five modernist women who called Bloomsbury’s Mecklenburgh Square home in the interwar years in Britain. Woolf’s 1925 confessional forms the book’s title and its basis, as Wade details her protagonists’ search for a ‘room of their own’ in London and wider society, and the ways in which such a place was central to their self-actualisation as women, artists and thinkers.

Continue reading “Book Review: Square Haunting”

Crawling up the Walls: Kafka’s Domestic Space

Rory Hutchings, Independent

1 May 2020

In Modernism and the Architecture of Private Life (2005), Victoria Rosner asks: ‘is there an argument to be made for dirty living?’[1] Rather than literally advocating dirtiness, Rosner invites us to consider what dirty spaces, chiefly domestic, might signify and reveal. Drawing on the memoirs of Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey, Rosner observes dirt as ‘a symbol for household matter considered unspeakable, unseeable, and unwritable […] includ[ing] bodily secretions, socially inappropriate emotions, and sexual transgressions.’[2] Continue reading “Crawling up the Walls: Kafka’s Domestic Space”

Book Review: Global Modernists on Modernism

Francesca Bratton, Maynooth University

Global Modernists on Modernism: An Anthology, eds. Alys Moody & Stephen J. Ross (London: Bloomsbury, 2019).

Alys Moody and Stephen J. Ross’s Global Modernists on Modernism: An Anthology aims not only to provide a compendious resource, but, through its collation of self-theorising primary documents,  to ‘go beyond merely gesturing to the existence of modernists around the world, to defend the value of “global modernism” as a critical hermeneutic’ (p. 2).

Continue reading “Book Review: Global Modernists on Modernism”

Virginia Woolf on Black Out, Air Raid Precautions, and De-Civilization during the Second World War

Stephanie Butler, University of Toronto

During the Second World War, Virginia Woolf expressed concerns, shared by many civilians, about blackout air raid precautions.[1] Writing to her niece, Angelica Bell, on October 16, 1939, Woolf described London’s transformation into ‘a queer place’ in which Londoners were ‘running in and out of each other’s houses with torches and gas masks’, because of the fear of gas attacks and the lack of street lights after ‘[b]lack night descend[ed]’.[2] Shopping hours were also limited, much to her chagrin, because blackout ensured shops were closed around ‘5 or so’.[3] Continue reading “Virginia Woolf on Black Out, Air Raid Precautions, and De-Civilization during the Second World War”

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