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Modernism/modernity 12.4 (2005) 607-627

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Problem Space:

Mary Butts, Modernism, and the Etiquette of Placement

Her choice of objects—of possessions—was perfect, and her virtue—for she was most men's friend and very few's lover—had the same passion and detachment.1

The second novel in Mary Butts's 1928 Taverner Novels series, The Death of Felicity Taverner, repeatedly returns to the topic of how to correctly possess things, lauding a style of ownership that blends "passion and detachment" (169). For Butts, one's affective relation to what one possesses defines an ethics and politics, a lifestyle. The Taverners, Butts writes, did "not tire of real things once they . . . got them home to play with" (301). In praising the family, Butts does not simply define their "real things" as authentic objects, instead of spurious imitations or copies. Rather, here Butts understands a "real thing" as an empirical surface, perceptible to touch, sight and smell:

The polish on a horse's coat, the china-red lacquer of Adrian's car, two shots as a half-mirror, were to them surfaces as pleasant as petal or silk. . . . Like others of our age, they had re-discovered also the still-life, that, however it may get itself painted, it is not nature mort, but that each haphazard arrangement can be composed of formal perfections of shape and light—plates on a table, a basket of folded linen, a sea-scape off the beach in a glass dish.

In describing these surfaces, Butts's prose lovingly creates its own still-life, placing each object in reference to a composition of "formal perfections." This formal symmetry occurs in a world [End Page 607] where the walls of a habitation are "in their place again" when a "shining room" is "charged-up with pain" (186). For Butts, the affective life of an interior works paradoxically; in the ideal spatial scenario, the fixed, precise, and demarcated arrangement of concrete things encourages a more fluid state of empathic connection.

Butts's concern for the lives of objects broaches a number of important critical and conceptual issues, both theoretically and in terms of modernism more specifically. The purpose of this argument is twofold: to understand Butts's significance to modernism and to determine what her presentation of object life might contribute to critical thought more generally. In what follows, I argue that Butts's fiction counter-intuitively emphasizes the role of a grounded or situated object-life in theorizing empathy as an idealized synthesis of "passion and detachment" (169). Butts's modernism consistently addresses how to properly place objects in order to develop a form of affective attachment that preserves the discrete integrity of those objects. However severe Butts's real-life affective failures, which ranged from her abandonment of her daughter to the hatefulness she directed towards her mother, her novels and short stories emphasize how humans might affectively attach themselves to the object world, particularly through a form of private possession that avoids reifying its objects.2

In focusing on the art of placing objects, Butts's work foregrounds a second area of concern: the relation between empathy, the proper placement of objects, and an appropriate style of ownership. Private possession, it appears, is essential for objects to remain both soluble and intact in their boundaries. In creating a diffuse sense of boundary, Butts's etiquette of placement de-privatizes the world of objects and humans, refusing to uphold a demarcated sense of subject and object. Paradoxically, this solubility develops precisely from the kinds of relations that arise from specific styles of private ownership. Butts's description of Felicity Taverner suggests that objects only become "possessions" when they are the subjects of "choice," through an idealized process that builds, rather than severs, the affective relation between these objects and their collectors. The passage I quoted above directly links Felicity's admired "passion and detachment," or her empathic abilities, to this exercise of choice, to her careful claiming of an object as her own.

In suggesting that empathic connections between...


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