The notion of bewildering speed, inscrutable hustle and a general spirit of chaos has long been linked to the concept of modernism. Typically, the omnipresent sense of velocity is presented as self-evidently uncomfortable and disorienting. As Virginia Woolf explains it “if one wants to compare life to anything, one must liken it to being blown though the Tube at fifty miles an hour—landing at the other end without a single hairpin in one’s hair! . . . . Yes, that seems to express the rapidity of life, the perpetual waste and repair; all so casual, all so haphazard. . . .” The remark occurs in her essay “The Mark on the Wall,” even the title of which points to a basic modernist strategy for surviving this self-annihilating pace: a self-conscious, forcefully willed fascination with otherwise insignificant details of one’s surroundings—such as marks on the wall.
Of course, this detail is as random as anything else, but it is static, it can be contemplated, it can be designated as an occasion for reflection. Its actual existence is ephemeral, but it becomes something around which one can wrap a thread of personal narrative. Joyce, to offer a counter-example, fully engages the issue of “speed,” but has his Odyssean hero think about a modern solution to this modern dilemma, one that involves engagement with it rather than aversion to it. Just before falling asleep, Leopold Bloom’s mind returns to an oft-rehearsed fantasy: “What were habitually his final meditations? Of some one sole unique advertisement to cause passers to stop in wonder, a poster novelty, with all extraneous accretions excluded, reduced to its simplest and most efficient terms not exceeding the span of casual vision and [End Page 882] congruous with the velocity of modern life.” Although this is a descripton of a presumably low art form (an advertising poster), the goals that it sets out for itself are not easily distinguished from Ezra Pound’s Imagist credo to “make it new.”
In the case of cinema, there was no need to “make it new,” it was new. The best of the current revisions of the concept of modernity and modernism are concerned with a project of defamiliarization that attempts to revisit what it was like to be surrounded by an increasingly mediated world, one where images—whether they be advertisements, photographs, movies, or imagist metaphors—flicker before the eye of the viewer, open up a window of self-experience, and then just as rapidly close down again. Joyce’s famed trope of the epiphany, for example, long ago mined for its religious significance, might also be understood as an aesthetic perception based on the “snapshot,” or a scene quickly extracted from everyday life because it is something viewed from a passing train. Joyce’s epiphany “frames” reality the way a cinematic shot “frames” what it represents. The Joycean epiphany is motion arrested by the mind, a mind briefly exposed and latently imprinted the way a clicking shutter briefly exposes film to light. Nothing is in fact arrested by an epiphany, rather the spectator selects a sample and, like Woolf’s mark on the wall, nominates it as a characteristic representation of the chaos from which it was “snapped.” The result, like Bloom’s fantasy poster, is something with “all extraneous accretions excluded.” Now, Linda Ruth Williams has come along and made a very convincing case that Lawrence, too, was compelled by intersections of technology and art, such as the cinema, to experiment with temporal and spatial orientation, constructions of desire, and the multiple perspectives individuals simultaneously experience through fantasy.
One general effect of Williams’s approach to the modernist text is that innovative style is no longer a sort of shibboleth determining who is to enter the walled city of canonization. D. H. Lawrence, of course, has dwelled within those walls for some time, but always with the explanation as Williams recounts, that he found stylistic experimentation a form of self-mutilation; Lawrence himself referred to “thousands and thousands...