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  • Undesirable Desire: Citizenship and Romance in Modern American Fiction

Undesirable is a curious word. In the meaning “not to be desired” (OED) it is out of line with most English adjectives beginning un-/in- and ending -able/-ible. Inexplicable means “not able to be explained” but undesirable does certainly not mean “not able to be desired.” On the contrary, an eager appetite for the books or pictures or ideas under interrogation is precisely what the censor seeks to curb. In his lexicon, undesirable means “that ought not to be desired” or even “that may not be desired.”

The point can be stressed further. What is undesirable is the desire of the desiring subject: the desire of the subject is undesired. If we take the morphological liberty of reading undesired not as un(desired) but as (undesire)d, then we can think of undesire as a verb whose meaning is something like “to curb the desire of X for Y”.

—J.M. Coetzee, Giving Offense

1. The Return of Romance

In the eyes of this [the modernist] generation, love was nothing but a sublimation of sexual need, “a mere biological fact,” . . . “ridiculous and disgusting,” . . . “strictly the old phedinkus.”

—Ann Douglas, Terrible Honesty

[End Page 144]

The most long-standing view of American modernism, the one we are most likely to have learned in college and perhaps that we still teach our students, described the dynamism of the moderns as a simultaneity of incongruities and paradoxes. Modernism was defined as a time of “refusal”—of middle-class pieties, scientific or philosophic certainty, propriety, tradition, and faith (Hoffman 32–33, 40). “If we can postulate a modern tradition,” Ellman and Feidelson maintained, “we must add that it is a paradoxically untraditional tradition. Modernism strongly implies some sort of historical discontinuity” (vi). Understanding modernism as incongruity and paradox seemed, to many, to make the work of interpreting its cultural responses much easier. “In short, Modernism was,” Bradbury and McFarlane concluded, “an extraordinary compound of the futuristic and the nihilistic, the revolutionary and the conservative, the naturalistic and the symbolistic, the romantic and the classical. It was a celebration . . . and a condemnation . . . an excited acceptance . . . and a deep despairing” (46).

The modern trope I call “undesirable desire”—desire for that which is marked as undesirable, that which “‘ought not to be desired’” or even “‘that may not be desired’”—appears to embody just such a paradoxical dialectic of celebration and condemnation, fascination and repulsion, embrace and negation. But paradox and incongruity cannot suffice to explain why romance—specifically, romances structured around undesirable desire—is so ubiquitous a feature of literature that parades its own anti-romantic cynicism and lack of sentimentality.

It has long been assumed, as Margot Norris, for example, puts it in her overview of modernism for The Columbia History of the American Novel, that high modernism wed “an antiromantic intellectual bias” to an “elitist reaction against . . . the greedy materialism, cultural philistinism, and spiritual bankruptcy of modern society” (316–17). It’s not surprising that the modernists’ fascination with romance would take clandestine, even hidden shape, since most of the modernist writers were challenging sentimentality and romance. And various social movements, principally feminism’s first wave, were exposing the romance paradigm as ideology. At the same time, a national obsession with race, ethnicity, nationality, and “type” was stressing group rather than individual identity. At this juncture, then, one would expect the romance narrative to be losing ground.

But the opposite has proved true. Just at the moment when the [End Page 145] terms for national belonging were being reset along ever more restrictive and race-related lines, there is a phenomenal explosion of interest in romance and marriage narratives. From society romance films to True Romance (which reaches a circulation of more than two million in this period) to popularly read sociological and psychological treatises devoted to taxonomies and assessments of various types of marriage (companionate, Boston, and so on), modern culture gives itself over with as much passion to the marriage story as it does to the story of national belonging and identity. And this is as true of the modernist writers as it is of the “booboisie” they...

Additional Information

ISSN
1080-658X
Print ISSN
0026-7724
Pages
pp. 144-169
Launched on MUSE
1997-03-29
Open Access
No
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