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  • Modernism, Memory, and Desire: T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf
  • Sarah Henstra (bio)
Gabrielle McIntire . Modernism, Memory, and Desire: T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf. Cambridge University Press. x, 264. US$76.00

This meticulously researched and intelligently argued book considers the role of memory in major and minor works by T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf. In particular it asks how these acts of literary remembrance intersect, for the two authors, with various forms of desire. While traditional readings of modernism posit a radical departure from the past and a spurning of history in favour of the new, McIntire discovers a modernist understanding of the present as insubstantial and discrepant unless supplemented with a desire-infused substrate of memory. McIntire is not alone in this discovery, of course, and this book joins a growing list of scholarly investigations of modernism's mournful engagement with its pasts. For McIntire, though, the alternative to jettisoning history is not merely coping with its traumatic return. Eliot and Woolf are seen here as taking an 'incorporative' approach to the past, whereby writing memory amounts to a sensual ingestion and digestion of the past that transforms the body of both writer and text. An immediate effect of such a proposition is to overturn the received view of Eliot as a sexless aesthete and of Woolf as a nearly neurasthenic intellectual. The most intriguing aspect of Modernism, Memory, and Desire is the convincing archival and biographical case it mounts for the eroticism that fuels these artists' work throughout their careers. As McIntire puts it, for Eliot and Woolf, 'to remember is to desire; to desire is to remember.'

If for Eliot the past is the magnetic pole of desire that underwrites the present, then for McIntire, exploring this polar region necessitates a look at Eliot's earliest, most explicitly sexual poems: his unpublished 'Columbo and Bolo' cycle. Working against what she calls 'the quaint closeting of Eliot's verses' in his own time and ours, she finds in them not just the roots of Eliot's 'queer poetics' but a transgressively parodic critique of colonial history. I find her attentiveness to the details of these 'pornotropic' poems overdone at times - she cites a background mountain in Eliot's pen drawing of the clownish Bolo as proof of the character's geographical-historical transferability, while to me this hastily scribbled angle looks suspiciously like Bolo's top hat! [End Page 435]

But taking the 'Columbo and Bolo' poems seriously does manage to lay a convincing foundation for McIntire's reading of memory's libidinal resonance in Eliot's more canonical work. McIntire unearths margin notes by Eliot's first readers, drafts, and letters to back her argument that The Wasteland's desiccated, nightmarish landscape arises not from the drying up of desire, but rather from 'the relentless repetition of desire unmet.' In 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock' there is a sustaining tension between the claim that desire is past or overcome and the impassioned protestation against such a disavowal. For McIntire, this desire that wars with itself is homoerotic: again, historical context (here, the losses of the Great War) and biography (letters, and Prufrock's dedication to Eliot's beloved friend, Jean Verdenal) support her contention that 'Eliot's repulsion from sex - and both memory and history's eroticism - was coded.'

Turning to Woolf in the second half of the study, McIntire begins with the way Orlando overturns biography's normative objectivity to explore the eros of life-writing. Woolf's ardent focus on Orlando's gender-shifting body as aristocratic history itself exemplifies the claim throughout all her writing that history is genealogically inscribed in the body and can be retrieved in memory's material traces upon it. To The Lighthouse, Mrs Dalloway, Between the Acts, and the unfinished 'A Sketch of the Past' are similarly mined for instances of memory as erotic encounter. While the present for Woolf is ephemeral and spectral, the past is replete with the richness of desire, and writing it offers access to that poly-temporal experience of plenitude Woolf desires above all else.

The book's title and subtitle could be inverted: despite brief engagements...


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pp. 435-436
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