The Modernist Review #28: Modernism in the Contemporary

26 February 2021

This special issue of the Modernist Review aims to bring together approaches to modernism that relate to contemporary times. Much in the way that life as we know it has changed since the spread of Coronavirus, modernism grew out of a time of great change in the early part of the 20th-century. Urmila Seshagiri suggests that contemporary fiction is interested in modernism’s defamiliarizing act and the rewriting of “public and private discourses through the violent, surprising, or thrilling erasure of the habitual and the known.” In commissioning works for this issue, I asked contributors to think about the ways in which the ideals and aesthetics of modernism are still relevant today, and what inspirations and techniques we can use to reflect our own realities. In this vein, Orlaith Darling unpicks the ways in which writers June Caldwell and Lucy Sweeney Byrne borrow from James Joyce’s Ulysses in her article Rewriting Joyce in contemporary Irish women’s short fiction. Caldwell shapes Joycean characteristics to paint a contemporary picture of Dublin in her story ‘Dubstopia’, using her main character as a vehicle to explore the city in a similar way to Joyce’s Leopold Bloom. Darling reads Sweeney Byrne’s story ‘Le Rêve’ in the context of Dubliners, both what it borrows and how it subverts Joyce’s own stories within the collection. 

The Coronavirus pandemic has not been easy. We have found ourselves adjusting to a new way of life, learning to work from home, becoming adept at socialising on zoom. One of the most difficult things to get used to is the move to online teaching. Many of the teachers that I know personally have expressed how challenging it is to plan and deliver classes over zoom, how much more time it takes. But what lessons can we learn from the Modernists to help our current teaching practices? Julie Irigaray presents a fascinating review of Amanda Golden’s book Annotating Modernism: Marginalia and Pedagogy from Virginia Woolf to the Confessional Poets, which examines the teaching habits of Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Anne Sexton and John Berryman. Golden surmises that ‘If Plath is the student, Berryman is the scholar, and Sexton is the teacher, then Hughes is the poet’, revealing the different approaches each poet took to design courses that were valuable and engaging for their students. While Plath relied on her own student notes and the critics her teachers trusted, Berryman had a meticulous and scholarly approach. On the other hand, Anne Sexton interjected herself into her teaching method, using interviews and Q&A’s as well as creative writing exercises, while Hughes remained the most faithful to creativity by rejecting the over-intellectualisation of literature. Irigaray, as a teacher herself, concludes that through reading Golden’s book and learning the techniques and approaches of these four poets, teachers today are able to reassess, and likely improve, their own practices.

Vanessa Guignery describes the typically modernist technique of fragmentation as “a piece of a whole which has been ruptured”, implying a violent act. But she notes it is something that is distinctly hard to define within the nuances of writing. In her creative writing piece, Elodie Barnes uses fragmentation to take us on a journey through her preoccupations. Part observation, part review, part stream of consciousness, Fixations: Reading Nightwood and the Domestic weaves together extracts from Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood and Elodie Barnes’ own diary to create a delicate web of reflections that allow us to step with her and emerge ourselves into the fragile space she finds herself in, the way her home, her environment, spills into the imaginary, but no less vivid, world of Nightwood

In a similar vein, Charlotte Knight uses Jean Rhys’ novel Voyage in the Dark as a starting point for her poem WE MUST CONTINUALLY REVISE OUR ENDINGS. Rhys’ fiction is constructed around loss – loss of language, of homeland, of sexual and economic power. In Voyage in the Dark, the protagonist Anna Morgan has a botched abortion and, in the novel’s original incarnation, she dies as a result. However, Rhys revised the ending prior to publication, leaving it more ambiguous. Drawing on this, Knight gives us a vividly surreal and haunting version of the experience of losing a child during pregnancy as it shifts around the central idea of what could have been (motherhood) leaving us clutching with both hands.

Surrealism is one of the best ways to explore reality, says writer and translator Jen Calleja, which is exactly what she does in her short story collection I’m Afraid That’s All We’ve Got Time For. Each of the thirteen stories plays with the absurdity of everyday life through subversion and humour. In her review, Josie Cray examines the collection within the context of surrealism, from the femme enfant to the bending of reality, to give us a collection that is, in her words, “witty, sharp and bold”. Calleja’s characters reveal their complexities and idiosyncrasies in a way that is both over-the-top and rooted within believability. As quoted by Cray, surrealism does not mean a denial of the real, but rather speaks to a higher reality. 

During January of this year, like many others, I spent my time in lockdown watching Russell T Davies’ heart-wrenching five-part drama It’s a Sin. Set in London during the AIDS crisis, It’s a Sin highlights the story of a group of friends whose lives were devastated by death from the then-fatal disease. Artists Wolfgang Tillmans and Felix Gonzalez-Torres lived through the crisis, both losing their partners to AIDS. In her essay Physical impressions and the marks we leave behind, Charlotte Russell explores the work of Tillmans through writings on Felix Gonzalez-Torres, whose work often incorporated the ready-made, a term coined by Duchamp in 1916. Russell looks at the way both Tillmans and Gonzalez-Torres use fabric to represent loss within their work. Tillmans took photographs of items of clothing which lead us to ask who they belonged to and where that person is now, while Gonzales-Torres photographed a bed with crumpled sheets, as though someone has just been lying in it. This absence remains in the work because time has been frozen within the picture. Russell thinks about the photographs within the context of the current coronavirus pandemic, noting that because of the lack of context within the works by both artists, it is easy for viewers now to project their own sense of loss and grief onto the images. Many people have lost loved ones to the virus, and so even though the works were made in response to the AIDS crisis, they are still emotionally relevant now. 

Where would we be without queerness in modernism? Without the efforts of writers such as Woolf, Stein, Nugent and H.D., we would arguably have a vastly different understanding of what we term ‘modernism’. Since starting his Instagram account @queer_modernisms, Jesse Ataide has accumulated a following of over 18k, showing just how relevant the subject of queer modernism is to current times. Toni Roberts interviews Ataide about his motivations for starting the Instagram account, as well as the impact of queerness within the study of modernism, and the importance and challenges of uncovering the stories of non-white and non-European queer modernists.

In the final instalment of this special issue on modernism in the contemporary, Chloe Austin looks at the work of the Gee’s Bend Quilters. Passed down through the generations, the tradition of making these quilts in Boykin, Alabama – commonly known as Gee’s Bend – came out of a necessity for the residents of the town to stay warm from the cold winds that came through the panes of their windows. In this sense, the quilters never considered themselves artists, or at least not before their quilts began to be displayed in large institutions such as The Met in New York. Indeed, Loretta Pettway Bennett – an artist associated with the Gee’s Bend Quilters – describes the quilts as “ugly”. Austin grapples with her own temptation to view the quilts in relation to the Abstract Expressionists and Colour Field Painters, and questions the motivations and ethics of trying to view the quilts within the context of Art History. Looking at the work of contemporary artist Eric N. Mack, Austin compares the relationship to his work Proposition: for wet Gee’s Bend Quilts to replace the American flag – Permanently, displayed at the Whitney Biennial (the biennale exhibition of contemporary American art by lesser known artists) in 2019, with the quilters, questioning whether Mack’s quilt would have a place at the Whitney without the Gee’s Bend quilts as a precursor. 

Thank you to all of the writers who I commissioned for this wonderful special issue on modernism in the contemporary. They have demonstrated the enduring appeal of experimentation and reinvention, finding new and interesting ways to explore life and society. In a year that has been one of the most difficult in terms of creative output, I hope this issue offers some optimism in the ways in which we can continue to develop and expand our creative pursuits in dialogue with the world around us. To everyone reading this issue, thank you and I hope it brings you some pleasure.  

Rochelle Roberts 

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