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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).

In developing his intention to contribute to ‘an intersectional understanding of disability studies’ (p. 180), Davidson negotiates theories of gender, race and queer studies, while incorporating readings from literature, theatre, painting, sculpture and opera to produce a distinct and inclusive study. Underpinning these social categories and artistic endeavours is Davidson’s understanding of the ‘invalid’ body – a fluid concept which changes ‘depending on whether one places the accent on the first or second syllable’; either referring to a ‘“sick” or “ill” modernism – one in a state of convalescence – or a modernism invalidated by elements that challenge artisanal autonomy’ (p. 8). Supporting this broader theme is the figure of the invalid aesthete who, Davidson proposes, is ‘a new modernist type that appears in the late nineteenth century […] whose inertia and passivity are the antithesis of modern mobility and progress’ (p. 27). In an area customarily linked to idealised versions of beauty and form, 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’ (p. 59). By highlighting the disability narratives present in these aesthetically rich works, Davidson unsettles the ‘presumed normalcy of embodied life’ (103).

Invalid Modernism is divided into eight diverse and revealing chapters, each demonstrating a nuanced perspective of how the disabled body forges an identity, and indeed, language, of its own making to expand ‘the meaning of disability beyond the social model’ (p. 180). An illustrative example of this occurs during an enriching chapter which focuses on imaginings of male pregnancy. Here, Davidson deftly navigates how Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood (1936) anticipates current theoretical accounts that position a recognition of disability as limited to what ‘the so-called average person imposes on the non-traditional body and cognition’ (p. 118). Indicating the scope of his project’s intersectional qualities, Davidson examines Nightwood’s cross-dressing doctor Matthew O’Connor’s desire to give birth in a world ‘increasingly divorced from gender’, to suggest that ‘the default nature is not culture but, rather, disability, read as the defamiliarizing condition for the spectacle of bodily normalcy’ (p. 122). Indeed, Davidson proves adept at making those bodies which seemed previously hidden, appear as part of the essence of these texts; a viewpoint clearly conveyed in his reading of Samuel Beckett’s play Endgame (1957), in which disabled aesthetes Hamm and Clov function ‘in tragi-comic relations of co-dependence’ (p. 85). A further case is demonstrated when observing how the convalescing Hans Castorp, in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain (1924), is able to restructure his isolated world through an experience of ‘invalidity’ (p. 34). In these examples, of which there are many in Invalid Modernism, Davidson enforces the importance of how ‘modernist formal strategies may be enlisted to appropriate the rhetorics and legal justifications that invalidate some and render others invisible’ (p. 141).

An introductory recounting of an amusing, yet poignant anecdote describing theorist Theodor Adorno’s cautious attitude in meeting disabled actor Howard Russell, acts as a point of reference to support Davidson’s aim of making ‘those bodies and minds that interrupt an ideal of bodily coherence and health’ visible (p. 2). This sense of aesthetic trepidation, exhibited by examples of various able-bodied encounters with ‘differently configured bodies’, runs through many of the chapters. In accordance with careful attendance to such concerns, Invalid Modernism does not shy away from modernism’s problematic history of perceptions towards the disabled body and issues of eugenics, as Davidson indicates that certain disabled modernist creations – such as the disparate characters that populate Barnes’s Nightwood and the cognitively disabled Benjy Compson in William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury – projected spectres of a ‘tainted blood that eugenics sought to control’ (p. 114). In this bold approach which forges a link to affect theory, Davidson points out that it is the ‘sight of difference’ that can trigger ‘affective realms for which there seems no rational explanation’ (p. 134). Crucially, rather than view such moments of negative affect as ‘diversions from a trajectory towards fulfilment and self-reliance’, Davidson sees them as fissures ‘that are constitutive aspects of the disability experience’ (p. 177-178); a powerful concept that should encourage future reconsiderations of comparable moments that may lie in other literary texts. In emphasising those instances of affective encounters; Davidson suggests that when such states ‘become ancillary to an emancipatory narrative of progress and independence, they lose their ability to illustrate contingency’ (p. 78). Indeed, it is these ‘dramas of contingency’ – a title of a later chapter – that underpin a modernism reconceptualised through its non-normative bodies and minds.

Throughout the book, Davidson demonstrates a patient, yet cogent approach as his argument gradually coalesces in its consideration of the marginalised ‘invalid’ body in modernist literature. Although the sections on Beckett, Mann and Barnes are rewarding in their rigorous analysis, there are, however, some briefer readings that could benefit from the same treatment. Nevertheless, Davidson’s overarching argument continually ties together those more minor and fragmented parts to offer a convincing gateway into how disability studies can confront ‘the various and variable bodies around which aesthetic discourse revolves’ (p. 47); an important point of consideration when approaching any text, let alone those which overtly focus on either modernism or disability.


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