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Masochistic Modernisms: A Reading of Eliot and Woolf

From: Journal of Modern Literature
Volume 28, Number 3, Spring 2005
pp. 25-43 | 10.1353/jml.2005.0044

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Journal of Modern Literature 28.3 (2005) 25-43

A Reading of Eliot and Woolf

Eve Sorum

University of Michigan

In Virginia Woolf's penultimate diary entry, made as German planes flew over London and as she began her final descent into illness, she proclaims, "No: I intend no introspection. [. . .] Observe perpetually. [. . .] Observe my own despondency. By that means it becomes serviceable. Or so I hope" (Diary V 357–58). In these words we see kernels of a modernist aesthetic—a sense of both resiliency and despair in the face of terrifying mental, social, and political events, and the determination to make some use of this situation through a creative act. By taking Gilles Deleuze's explanation of the formal nature of masochism one step further, I argue that this modernist aesthetic depends on a dynamics of suffering and compensation that can be described as masochism. I would like to forge a stronger connection between these two systems of ordering the world—literary aesthetics and masochism—by suggesting that attention to this surface link will reveal the ways in which a masochistic ordering through pain actually defines key modernist aesthetic philosophies.

Looking through the lens of masochism, therefore, I propose a rereading of the work and aesthetic philosophies of two major modernists, T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf. I have chosen these two writers because they are viewed as canonical representatives of high modernism, and they both wrote a number of pieces that proclaim their aesthetic visions. Focusing on Eliot and Woolf also means that that I can probe the manifestation of a masochistic aesthetics in poetry and in fiction, as well as in their stylistically and tonally contrasting essays. Even when these writers examine a similar dynamic—for example, the relationship between reader and text, as we will see in Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent" and Woolf's "On Being Ill"—they formulate the interaction in tellingly different ways. Thus, pairing them allows for an exploration of the variations within a masochistic aesthetics.

My project involves a shift in critical focus: instead of thinking primarily about how modernist literature orders a chaotic world, I examine how Eliot and Woolf's aesthetic philosophies depend on this chaos. In other words, the suffering, pain, self-sacrifice, and disorientation are precisely what enable acts of literary creation, and the artist comes into being through exposure to such shattering experiences. Reading Eliot and Woolf through masochism, therefore, gives us a new way to conceive of a modernism that feeds off of suffering for its sense of meaning. The aesthetics of Eliot and Woolf are what I will call a masochistic aesthetics—a manifestation of a particularly modernist conception of the artist and her project, in which creativity and self-destruction are linked in inextricable and productive ways. Identifying the latent masochism in their works does not diminish our view of Eliot's and Woolf's novels and poems as brilliant aesthetic achievements; it does, however, redirect our attention to the simultaneous dependence on and rejection of the fissures, sacrifices, and gaps that produce these pieces of literature. The darker side of this inquiry, of course, revolves around the perhaps unanswerable question of whether suffering, however successfully it produces meaning and order, can ever be worthwhile.

In the past decades, numerous critics of Eliot and Woolf have touched on the relationship between suffering, alienation, or loss and the writers' literary production. Maud Ellmann provides a thorough reading of Eliot's theory of impersonality as she explores how his poems "compose and decompose the self" (15). Roger Poole rereads Woolf's mental breakdowns through her novels in an attempt to understand the biographical through the literary, while Shirley Panken takes the opposite approach by examining the ways in which Woolf works through her emotional and psychological problems in her writing. Work done on trauma, mourning, and the Great War has opened up new ways of reading the writing of these modernists. Tammy Clewell argues that, in "her sustained effort to confront the legacy of the war, Woolf repeatedly sought not to heal wartime wounds, but to keep them open" (198), thereby initiating a discussion of the way that absence and loss figure...



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