restricted access Modernism, Memory, and Desire: T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf (review)
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Reviewed by
Gabrielle McIntire. Modernism, Memory, and Desire: T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008. x + 264 pp.

It is perhaps a truism for many modernists (pace Ezra Pound's injunction to "make it new") that, as William Faulkner notes "The past is never dead. It's not even past." This certainly holds true for T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf as Gabrielle McIntire demonstrates in her illuminating Modernism, Memory, and Desire. Arguing that "representing the past was for both a sensuous endeavor" (2), McIntire considers the "kinds of work memory does in Woolf and Eliot's literary experiments," suggesting that both construct memory as a sexual/textual form of desire (3). This assertion, however, is somewhat more convincing for Eliot than for Woolf, who might be seen as looking at the past or memory as a moment of plenitude or wholeness rather than as eroticized. Rejecting a Freudian melancholic stance toward the losses of the past, where one's ego is deeply diminished, McIntire finds a more nuanced engagement in these two writers, "involving pleasures and aims, attachments and renunciations, and, above all, a recognition of the still-becoming life of the past within the present's only partial fullness" (6). In presenting her argument, which has a psychoanalytic cast to it, McIntire draws on a number of thinkers, including Freud, Cathy Caruth, Michel Foucault, and Henri Bergson, but they remain mostly in the background, subservient to her readings of the texts.

Her introduction situates her project within the debate as to whether modernism was hostile to history or whether it was obsessed with history. Thankfully, McIntire slips in between these monologic positions and thinks "of modernism's looking to the past as both a return and a departure," one "where present and past time are dialogically and endlessly engaged in a rearranging of the past's significations" (5). She also wants to get away from the (hopefully outdated) idea that these writers are apolitical and simply concerned with style for style's sake. She divides the book roughly into two halves, the first [End Page 179] four chapters discussing Eliot's work and the final three chapters devoted to Woolf.

Her first chapter, aptly titled "An Unexpected Beginning," is a consideration of some little known and still only partially published poems that Eliot worked on for nearly 50 years, sharing them with some of his closest male friends, including Pound and Wyndham Lewis. A set of verses she calls "pornotropic" (10), these "Columbo and Bolo" poems concern Christopher Columbus and two native inhabitants of Cuba, "King Bolo and his Big Black Bassturd Kween," and are full of "masturbation, miscegenation, scatological ritual, and rape as the modus operandi of imperial conquest" (11). McIntire wants to use these verses to help work against the received idea of Eliot as "asexual, straight, conservative, rigidly Anglo-Catholic" and instead explore the "sexy, dangerous, and a crucially uneven" Eliot (7). Certainly one can see Eliot as uneven (particularly given the "schoolboy doggerel" nature of these poems) and one can let go of Eliot as asexual; however, it remains doubtful whether her reading proves him sexy or just sexist, racist, and homophobic, a complication of which McIntire is aware. Indeed, as interesting as Eliot's excursions into the pornotropic might be, McIntire fails to fully convince that they should be the grounds for reevaluating Eliot's oeuvre.

Continuing her argument in chapters 2, 3, and 4 through readings of The Waste Land, "Gerontion," Prufrock, and other works, McIntire contends that these Columbo and Bolo poems are of a piece with Eliot's more well-known work because they mix "memory and desire, history and sexuality, the past and eros" (39). As she reads Eliot's other works, McIntire more persuasively demonstrates that the status of the past is at the heart of his work—holding out a kind of plenitude that cannot be obtained while simultaneously producing a kind of remains that stimulate psychically, materially, and textually. In staking out this claim, she also is at pains to debunk what she sees as scores of misreadings of Eliot's "Traditional and the Individual Talent"—including those that persist...