Examining The Theories Of Paranoid Modernism English Literature Essay

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1st Jan 1970 English Literature Reference this

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In Paranoid Modernism, David Trotter develops a theory of modernist paranoid narrative that centres on the pressures of professionalization in late nineteenth and early twentieth century English culture. David Trotter states that the modernist authors he discusses in Paranoid Modernism, 'wrote about madness and went a little mad themselves.'(Paranoid Modernism p.7-8) 

Trotter's madmen are Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, T.E. Hulme, D.H. Lawrence and Wyndham Lewis. They are all mad in different ways, though Lawrence is the sanest amongst them. Paranoid Modernism climaxes dramatically with the case of Wyndham Lewis, who turns out to be monumentally mad. Trotter diagnoses most of his subjects as paranoid, but Lewis is schizophrenic as well. In Paranoid Modernism David Trotter is attempting a psychiatric reading of modernism.  This emphasis is a fresh one in literary criticism, where psychoanalysis has been the preferred psychological theory. 

For Trotter, it is the paranoid's excess of meaning and symbolism that makes 'paranoia [...] anti-mimetic: it puts meaning and value in place of the world.' (PM p.5) In Paranoid Modernism, modernism is a creative madness, which is not psychological breakdown but revolutionary breakthrough. This is a madness of the professional in pursuit of high expertise, and paranoia, in this book, is the space in which modernist intellectual identity is constituted.

A major theme in Paranoid Modernism is the new idea of paranoid professionalism. The argument is that during the mid and late nineteenth century British society became professionalized, that specialised groups had to defend their interests, and that paranoia 'helped'. (PM p.83) Trotter argues that the emergence of the professional middle class needed the construction of a new outlook. The rise of the literary intelligentsia in particular was constituted within the discursive field of paranoia or madness. An analysis of Charles Dickens, William Godwin, and Wilkie Collins' protagonists starts off the examination of the professional's life as bordering on madness, which becomes the discourse within which his identity is defined and constructed.

The professionalization of English society and culture from 1880 to 1914 is the context for Trotter's positing a range of literary texts from Conrad to the modernist triad Madox Ford, Lawrence and Lewis in the category of what he calls the paranoid narrative. This is explained as a masculine narrative of structured experiment, which denies the feminine romantic impulse. Trotter starts from the Nietzschean spirit which permeated the years of artistic experiment: he defines this as a striving toward an austerity and bareness and structure which was anti-naturalistic, a rejection of 'mess', a striving he calls a 'will-to-abstraction' (PM p.24). The writers he analyses all wrote about madness, and Trotter follows the development of each during the Modernist period. The concept of 'paranoia' in psychiatric literature is briefly but concisely surveyed and distinguished from 'schizophrenia', and his thesis on English male modernist novelists and their subjects as 'paranoid' now gathers momentum.

  Paranoid Modernism is mostly a series of close readings of the chosen texts that are linked to biographical details about the novelists, with the theory constituted as separate chapters that are largely an historical survey of the field. The actual readings of the text, though critical, remain so in the traditional sense and could benefit from a theoretical rigour. However, Paranoid Modernism is a well-researched and well-focused book, never veering from his thesis, which constitutes the work and the ideology of the literary modernists in a precisely defined 'paranoia'.

In his first chapter Trotter writes a history of paranoia. Trotter separates paranoia from schizophrenia and then moves into culture. In a footnote, he identifies the use of the term 'schizophrenia' in post-modern theory noting that it was Frederic Jameson who was responsible for its widespread use. Trotter makes it clear here why he rejects the term 'schizophrenia', opting instead for 'paranoia'.

Paranoid Modernism is founded on the assumption that a literary critic can make a medical diagnosis of a text or a person.  When Paul Edwards asserts that Lewis's polemics are 'a permanent insight into the nature of modernity' (PM p.289), Trotter replies that those polemics are 'mildly psychotic'. (PM p.289). These are different kinds of statements, and they do not match. There is a distinct problem with Trotter's attitude to mental illness itself.  He sometimes seems to think it is funny, paranoia was 'the professional person's madness of choice' (PM p.7) and at other times treats it with a melodramatic intensity intended to enforce its significance for culture. Paranoia and schizophrenia are intensely distressing medical conditions that one could argue, should stay in the world of the clinic.  The effort to demedicalise mental illness damages the interests of the mentally ill by elevating schizophrenia into something supposedly special.

However, despite this criticism, Paranoid Modernism is an original if eccentric text, and is a valuable addition to critical writing on the high moderns.

In his article 'Rewriting Sex: Mina Loy, Marie Stopes and Sexology', Paul Peppis contends that Loy and Stopes do what their feminist contemporaries do not: merge lyrical and scientific language to create a new language of sexuality. Peppis begins by acknowledging the fundamental problem of writing about gender and sexuality with the only available discourse being inherently sexist, and then later illustrates how Loy and Stopes circumvent this paradox. He also contextualises their writings by describing the polarisation of the Women's Movement at this time, at one extreme the social purists calling for abstinence, at the other the free-love liberators. His interest lies in how both of these writers collapse this dichotomy using language as the vehicle. Peppis claims that Loy 'develop[s] new idioms of female sexual experience by adapting established vocabularies, conjoining in different ways scientific and literary language' (p.564) and 'unites antagonistic, and differently gendered, vocabularies of sentimental love and rationalist science' (p.566).

Although he touches on the eugenics and free love of Loy's 'Feminist Manifesto' and poem 'Parturition', his main thesis relies on The Love Songs of Joannes which he argues as a later work does a more sophisticated job of expressing the limitations of attempting to metamorphose sexual relations through language. In all of these works, he argues, Loy parallels her advocacy of sexual liberation with the demand for superior female creativity to be realised. But while the two earlier works presents a sanguine attitude toward the possibility of 'free love maternalism' (p.570), Love Songs points out the failures.

In his analysis of Love Songs, Peppis focuses on the lack or abnormality of offspring created in free-love sexual unions. Either the offspring is 'a butterfly/ With the daily news/ Printed in blood on its wings' (Quoted p.573) or 'NOTHING/ There was a man and a woman' (Quoted p.574). According to Peppis, what is also revolutionary about Love Songs is its unwillingness to allow for marriage between a scientific and sentimental depiction of sex. Instead they continually insist on 'opposing and undermining each other, enacting formally the unrealizability of union between lovers and languages' employing the literary techniques of 'fragmentation, collage, jarring juxtaposition' portraying sex as 'discordant, contradictory, ugly' (p.574). Although this analysis contradicts his initial premise of Loy merging the two arenas, the point is a significant one.

In his conclusion he purports that the importance of Love Songs resides not in its eloquent diction or even radical feminist stance, but rather in its success at tilling a new terrain of thought. Love Songs 'remains suspended between free love and social purity, literature and science, sentimentalism and modernism.'(p.575)

Loy neither chooses a side nor attempts to conciliate the polarities, but instead offers her readers something entirely new: an intricate juxtaposing of these extremes to 'forge new relations between these allegedly incompatible disciplines' (p.575). When we consider what a male-dominated domain science was at this time, we can appreciate the boldness of Loy's writing and the compelling questions and restiveness she exposes with her writing. This article offers insight into Loy's singular projects of motherhood and sexuality.

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