restricted access Libidinal Currents: Sexuality and the Shaping of Modernism
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Reviewed by
Joseph Allen Boone. Libidinal Currents: Sexuality and the Shaping of Modernism. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1998. xii + 513 pp.

Joseph Boone’s new book begins with the premise that close reading—if it is successful—induces readers into self-surrender. We read novels, Boone claims, because we want to give ourselves over to fresh and uncanny scenarios. Satisfaction consists in the partial self-estrangement that reading encourages, and modernism generally enhances this satisfaction because it is one of the last cultural movements to permit self-extension without irony.

This argument has a rich history of its own, owing partly to Romantic and neo-Hellenist conceptions of beauty’s redemptive possibilities and partly to Sigmund Freud’s significant but underdeveloped arguments about sublimation and the uncanny. But it is perhaps a sign of our times, Boone contends, that we distrust literature’s ability to suspend and partly destroy subjective boundaries. Boone also joins others in cautioning that “the era of the postmodern [. . .] literally has no time for sustained narrative pleasures.” He continues, “[T]he most formidable opponent of the long [sic] durée is a postmodern culture at large in which the rapidity and multidirectionality with which information floods daily experience leaves little time for honing processes of thought or interpretation that depend on the gradual unfolding, over time and space, of carefully sustained webs of explication [. . .].”

Boone is not writing here for the likes of Harold Bloom, Helen Vendler, or even Wendy Steiner—critics who for years have urged readers to tolerate what Steiner, in The Scandal of Pleasure, calls “enlightened beguilement.” Echoing these critics, however, he raises concerns about the possible “obsolescence” of the long read “in the face of prevailing critical currents” that tend to prefer advancing “multilayered, heteroglossic account[s] of macro-cultural formations.” What Boone wants cultural critics to realize—and his argument here is convincing and seductive, in the best sense—is that close reading complicates the naive idea that knowledge and intelligence adequately inhere in “sound bytes and the snapshot image.” Boone points to factors such as bliss and lust that elude these categories.

Libidinal Currents offers an expansive vision of British and American modernism that incorporates literature and art, theory and context. [End Page 550] Boone’s substantive and conceptual interests extend far beyond High Modernism to include “what might loosely be called protomodernist, high modernist, and late modernist modes of writing”: Charlotte Brontë’s Villette (1853) is his example of protomodernist writing, while Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet (1957–60) and Doris Lessing’s Golden Notebook (1962) represent late modernist writing. Additionally, Boone incorporates into his book feminism, queer theory, and race studies, in the process offering a more comprehensive perspective on modernism than we have seen in some years. Boone also engages generously with many of the scholars preceding him. And he views afresh the antinomies that have arisen between Freudian and Foucauldian approaches to Victorian and modern culture, arguing that both schools of thought share “complex interimplications.”

This brief summary of Libidinal Currents highlights its strengths—expansiveness, comprehensiveness, and conceptual elasticity. For readers well acquainted with the modernist canon and its many interpretations, however, these very factors are likely to produce concerns and caveats. Boone’s ambitious, near-encyclopedic aims—which rely on extensive plot summaries—give Libidinal Currents the paradoxical effect of being both intensely detailed and conceptually quite diffuse. Arguably, this is a logical effect of Boone’s wanting to trace the near-limitless influence of sexuality on British and American literature from roughly 1853 to 1962. In fact, this large book is extraordinarily patient in charting modernists’ extensive concerns about sexuality and fantasy; few readers of Kate Chopin, D. H. Lawrence, Freud, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Djuna Barnes, and William Faulkner—Boone’s primary modernist figures—would dispute these writers’ substantive concerns. At the same time, Boone’s thesis about sexual desire ironically seems too broad to do justice to the intricacies and diversity of these works. And because many scholars have advanced similar claims about these writers, it is necessary to ask whether Boone’s descriptive readings can catch the radical evanescence of sexuality, or indeed of modernism itself.

Libidinal Currents...