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Book Review: Primordial Modernism 

Christy Heflin, Royal Holloway, University of London

Cathryn Setz, Primordial Modernism: Animals, Ideas, Transition (1927-1938) (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2019)

Cathryn Setz’s book Primordial Modernism: Animals, Ideas, Transition (1927-1938) is part of a series from University of Edinburgh Press titled Edinburgh Critical Studies in Modernist Culture, edited by Tim Armstrong and Rebecca Beasley. Divided into four chapters, Setz brings the reader along an evolutionary path – from amoeba, to fish, then lizard and finally bird – while thoroughly examining Eugene Jolas’ experimental literary journal transition within the framework of modernist animal studies. However, there is much more than just a recital of animal imagery found within this important interwar publication. Setz weaves these creatures and the writers who invoke them into historical, political and scientific contexts showing that these references were not occurring in any sort of vacuum but were in fact part of the cultural zeitgeist. Throughout the book Setz establishes many new pathways of inquiry for both established and beginner scholars of modernism, giving the reader the impression of being guided by a benevolent mentor. There was no haphazard natural selection from the review’s contributors, and Primordial Modernism is organized in such a way that everything is laid out clearly and explained in such depth that many aspects of the book could be pursued for future scholarship. 

The book gives a glimpse into the life and work of Eugene Jolas, an American writer, poet, translator and literary critic, during the years of transition’s run – between 1927 and 1938, totaling 27 issues and featuring over 450 contributors (p. 5). While the book is certainly devoted to the subject of the avant-garde, it specifically analyzes certain works, the zoological and how it plays into the larger idea of modernism. In the Introduction Setz sets the stage by giving us the origin of the term primordial and its use, presenting the state of the research in this area and giving plenty of historical background so as to allow the reader to dive in and perhaps make otherwise unknown connections. She uses a precise language in her text while also making it a point to clearly define and reinforce key terms throughout. She then goes on to masterfully connect modernism with what was happening in the world of science and describes what amounts to a semi-permeable membrane between these two worlds.

In Chapter 1, titled ‘Amoeba: Figures of Abstraction, Surrealist Influence and the Revolution of the Word’, the author takes the amoeba and analyzes its meaning within transition, looking at its ‘biomorphic abstraction’ in both avant-garde writing and art (p. 25). While the chapter begins in the latter era of transition, it is in part to highlight the significance of its move to New York, from Paris via The Hague. The amoeba’s shape as well as developments in microbiology research gave it a singular place in mid-1930s avant-garde thought. The concept of the amoeba was also used by MoMA director Alfred H. Barr – who was thought to have been highly influenced by transition – and applied it to ‘non-geometrical abstract art’ by artists like Miró and Kandinsky (p. 25). Setz also takes the idea of the oceanic primordial soup and places it within modernism, drawing on the idea of abstraction – mostly from French Surrealist texts and art – to explore pre-historical themes and to juxtapose the ancient and the modern. 

In the second chapter, titled ‘Fish: Evolving the Artwork in James Joyce’s ‘Shem the Penman’ (1927)’, Setz connects Joyce’s work with his interest in the briefly popular theory of neo-Lamarckian evolution, which countered Darwin’s theories. The instalment was part of a series which would later become Finnegan’s Wake, and while it is described as semi-autobiographical, the protagonist Shem is a fish. As Setz says herself, ‘Joyce enacts a connection between the animal and the artist through the context of the life sciences […] the fish is never far off.’ (p. 56) In addition to Joyce blurring the lines between the animal and the human, there is also a fascinating examination of the parallels between popular science journals and modernist periodicals, giving further context to the Joycean, ichthyological references. Lastly, the religious and mythological meanings attached to fish are explored, giving further depth as well as alternative interpretations to the piece.

In Chapter 3, titled ‘Lizard: Gottfried Benn, ‘The “Dark” Side of Modernism’ and Transition’s ‘Pineal Eye’’, Setz not only takes Benn’s piece and analyzes the lizard’s place within the review and incorporates it into a discussion of the pineal eye’s reptilian origins, but she also addresses the Expressionist poet’s prominent role within transition. There is also an acknowledgement of a problematic past with regards to racism, eugenics and the rising tide of fascism which is slowly rolling into the era. Moreover, this chapter addresses contemporary psychology and biology, Benn’s background as a physician and how advances in scientific research permeated modernist writing in the early 1930s. What is particularly interesting is the discussion of reptilian metaphors – and their connotations relating to ‘nationhood, zoological language and abject subjectivity’ – in transition after Benn’s 1932 piece (p. 94).  Contributors such as Lothar Mundan, Édouard Roditi and Henry Miller are described as having been part of ‘the “dark side” of transition’s intellectual legacy made visible through the lizard.’ (p. 96) This critical analysis of both certain contributors’ works as well as the larger contemporary socio-political climate holds the publication accountable regardless if Jolas had been fully aware of the implications at the time.

In the fourth and final chapter, titled ‘Bird: Editorial Flights with Eugene Jolas’, Setz discusses Jolas’ role as head of transition as well as the neoromantic symbolism stemming from his use of birds and their different significations throughout the review’s run. Setz divides the chapter into three parts: first, the editor’s early poems, second, a project which later resulted in an anthology titled Vertical: A Year-Book for Romantic-Mystic Ascensions and lastly, transition’s reception by both anglophone and francophone audiences. A distinction is made for the remarkable cultural difference between the review’s reputation in anglophone readership – generally negative for being politically too far left and members of the actual left seeing transition as too bourgeois. On the other side, the positive, supportive response in France speaks to the willfully apolitical editor’s alignment with a more European, neoromantic treatment of language as well an earnest yet neutral stance on various modernist theories and ideas. 

In Primordial Modernism, Setz presents the history of science alongside the review’s history and its contributors, giving much context and taking modernism scholars out of a literary and artistic vacuum, thereby providing an even fuller understanding of its impact as well as its relevance. The end of transition coincided with the incoming socio-political turmoil that led up to World War II. During its run, though, it made an essential contribution to linking avant-garde thought, literature and art between Europeans and Americans alike. One notable claim was introducing French Surrealism to its American readership (p. 16). Tracing through the evolutionary hierarchy, this book untangles the journal’s vivid biological imagery and organizes it by recurring themes, analyzing these creatures’ implications and connotations and how they fit into a world on the brink of devastation. 


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