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Modernism Is the Literature of Celebrity by Jonathan Goldman (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 49, Number 2, Winter 2012
pp. 371-375 | 10.1353/jjq.2012.0014

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Ever since Lord Henry, in Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, defended himself from the accusation of maintaining a pose by remarking, “[b]eing natural is simply a pose, and the most irritating pose I know,” the concept of “character” as the outward manifestation of something essential, the way Charles Dickens might have understood it, has been, effectively, dead.1 And while Lord Henry made this point succinctly, modernist writers have driven it home over and over again across hundreds of pages. As Clarissa Dalloway comments, “she would not say of herself, I am this, I am that.”2 Stephen Dedalus gets more elemental still, arguing that his molecules have shifted since he incurred various debts and therefore “he” does not owe anybody anything (U 9.202–06).

If natural identity becomes a performance, so-called “celebrity culture” reveals something even more, as Jonathan Goldman attests in his book Modernism Is the Literature of Celebrity: “[C]elebrity makes the self contingent; identity depends on an audience for its continued existence, turning the individual into a stereotype, condemned to perform itself until death” (1).

In relatively self-contained chapters, Goldman applies this thesis to the works of Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein, Charlie Chaplin, Jean Rhys, James Joyce, and John Dos Passos. The method of his application is to argue that “the canonical writings of Anglo-American modernism, situated within a newly mechanized society saturated with reproducible images, participate in the phenomenon of celebrity” (2). This participation does not come in the form of depicting celebrity but, rather, in the mode of production of these writers themselves. The idea of Stein in Paris operating like a somewhat more stout Paris Hilton does not seem like an obvious parallel. Goldman, however, locates the celebrity dynamic in the complex apparatus of style and technique employed by these modernists. The cumulative result is that they generate the notion of the author as “a unique, larger-than-life personality, a choreographer of disparate discourses and repository of encoded meaning” (2). So, definitely not Paris Hilton. But not so fast. Hilton, in her way, also choreographs “disparate discourses” even if she would not recognize the phrase, and various celebrity magazines anatomize celebrities every week, literally and figuratively, as though they were a “repository of encoded meaning.” If any of us have ever been struck by an overly thorough exegesis of a phrase from Ulysses, is it so far removed from examining long-distance shots of Jennifer Lopez at her private-island resort cavorting with a non-celebrity mere mortal?

Goldman’s thesis is ably pursued and very useful. He situates “celebrity” as the “missing link” between high and low culture in modernism, and I think he has a point (2). In the era of New Criticism, nothing as vulgar as popular culture was allowed to be perceived in the modernist canon; but then various scholars, Jennifer Wicke, R. B. Kershner, Cheryl Herr, and myself just to mention some of the Joyce cohort, demonstrated that popular culture was integral and ever-present both as subject and literary topos in Joyce’s work.3

What Goldman adds to this is his demonstration that the modern “self” has become a creature born of circulation and exchange, as opposed to the older model of a “self” being the manifestation of “inward” character. As he says of Dorian Gray: “Dorian’s body circulates and spreads corruption, suggesting that to keep the subject out of circulation [the act of putting the painting in the attic] empties the individual of value” (12).

But Goldman is more interested in how the modernists use their works to keep themselves “in circulation” (45). In the case of Joyce, he argues, “by continually asking readers to guess Joyce’s extradiegetic rationale for [a character]” he creates the idea of a celebrity author, above and beyond the work, who holds the key to the encoded text before we do (61). Of course, Joyce uses a similar metaphor of the artist as above and beyond his creation, but adds, “like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails” (P 215). Well, come to think of...


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