Book Review: Dynamic Form: How Intermediality Made Modernism

29 April 2021

Rachel Fountain Eames, University of Birmingham

Cara L. Lewis, Dynamic Form: How Intermediality Made Modernism (Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press, 2020)

Cara L. Lewis’s first monograph, Dynamic Form, presents a reading of modernism that unites the historicist turn of New Modernist Studies with New Formalism, to show how re-establishing a dialogue between these two critical approaches encourages a deeper understanding of form itself. Lewis follows these two tributaries of criticism which, she argues, have grown too separate, resulting in a false dichotomy which risks diminishing the value of both. ‘As modernism has come to mean history, not form,’ she argues, ‘so too has form been transmuted into archive, into medium’ (6). Fortunately, Dynamic Form offers an expansive, intermedial approach to modernism which demonstrates the potential for intriguing new interpretations that a unified approach can facilitate. Drawing case studies from a cross-section of modernist literature – Henry James, Virginia Woolf, Mina Loy, Evelyn Waugh, Gertrude Stein – Lewis explores the cross-pollination of a diverse range of artistic media and literature in order to demonstrate the affordances of intermedial form for these writers.

The first two chapters consider how the modernist novel might employ forms which, upon first glance, appear static and stationary, to generate a sense of ‘narrative temporality’ (12). Chapter one interrogates the sculptural imagination of Henry James, whose circuitous late style encourages a mode of ‘reading in the round’, which Lewis demonstrates by drawing comparison with the act of circling a three-dimensional sculpture. Here, the process of viewing from multiple angles takes on a temporal aspect, as images are revisited, re-articulated, and re-examined within James’s novels. Lewis not only asks important questions about the act of seeing and the process of reading artworks (how, for instance, does the spatiality of form inflect the reader’s understanding of its subject), but also highlights the potential deceptiveness of the rounded image, through which James betrays, rather than improves, the shallowness of his female characters.

The second chapter reinforces the narrative power of ‘static’ artforms with an in-depth analysis of the still lifes that punctuate the atmosphere and spur the plot of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse (1927). Here, Lewis develops upon David James’s proposal that ‘description is not so passive as we might assume’ (67), grounding her reading of Woolf in the elegiac ‘mortal form’s (53) whose versatility can ‘register absence as presence’ (69). The implicit narrative arc of momento mori and vanitas images, which embody reminders of the life’s transience and death’s immanence in the novel, is a well-chosen example for Lewis’s wider argument about the dynamism of forms, facilitating an examination of literary patterning and artistic process, and questioning how ‘still’ still lifes truly are.  

Chapter three turns toward questions of ‘pure form’, understanding Mina Loy’s oeuvre as a continual re-examination of the bounds and boundlessness of form itself.  Taking up some of Loy’s ekphrastic poems, “Brancusi’s Golden Bird (1922) and the less discussed “‘The Starry Sky’ of Wyndham Lewis” (ca. 1921), Lewis gives an astute reading of Loy’s striving for ‘pure forms’ through distillation and abstraction, form and formlessness. Importantly, this chapter emphasises the way Loy’s abstractions are never quite separate from the grounding materiality that lies beneath them; ‘pure form’ approached in this way never forgets its roots in the physical world. Lewis discusses Loy’s relationships with the artists around her, her appreciation of Brancusi’s sculptures as works designed to be viewed ‘in the round’, and of Gertrude Stein’s formal experimentation. Finally, she explores Loy’s connection with Futurism and its echoes in “Love Songs to Johannes” (1917) to suggest the poet saw formlessness as a means of achieving an expanded formalism which radiates beyond the bounds of the art object itself. Despite the breadth of this chapter, it is a shame that Loy’s spirituality and mysticism are largely overlooked, despite their strong influence on her understanding of form and its dissolution.

If these case studies demonstrate how intermediality can expand the potential of form for modernist writers, Lewis’s final two chapters remind us that the act of borrowing and integrating other forms does not always lead to unbridled deepening or success. Discussing Evelyn Waugh’s cinematic style in Vile Bodies (1930) and The Loved One (1948) and Gertrude Stein’s use of photography in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), Lewis draws attention to what she calls ‘bad formalism’ and interestingly challenges previous critical perspectives on both writers. For Waugh, she argues, an adoption of filmic plots leads not to coherence but to a chaotic aesthetic of formulaic formlessness, which challenges our understanding of what form is. The final chapter expands upon Waugh’s characterization and reliance upon shallow archetypes and finds similarity in the ‘superficial form’ of Stein’s Autobiography. Through a close reading of the photographs included alongside Stein’s use of name-dropping, listing, and self-positioning within the narrative, Lewis shows the wide range of inflections they offer, which sometimes serve to bolster Stein’s self-written self-image, but at other times exposes the superficiality of the anecdotes she presents. These chapters provide a provoking look at the underside of modernist form, which for Lewis is always a verb as well as a noun; a process rather than a mere product

One of the delights of this monograph is its omnivorous intermediality; Lewis’s analysis spans an appropriately dizzying range of forms, from still life to sculpture, photography to cinema, poetry, novels, and letters, and she is keen to point out the necessity of a multi-sensory appreciation of the forms she discusses, moving beyond the visual to consider the aural and tactile aspects of her subject. Those interested in the interweaving of literary, artistic, and cultural disciplines through modernism will find this study interesting not only for its scope, but for the questions it throws up about a future of modernist studies which attends equally to the different strains of criticism that have shaped the field.

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