- Solid Criticism
Adorning the cover of Douglas Mao’s Solid Objects is the mysteriously self-sufficient Torpedo Fish (1914) by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. It is worth pausing over because it is an exemplary modernist object, one that Hugh Kenner, after Ezra Pound, brought to our attention in The Pound Era:
Gaudier about 1913 cut (but did not cast) a brass figure that embodies in its four inches several hundred formal decisions: that two triangles, one fish-tailed, shall have open centers and beveled edges, that four finger-like rectangularities shall prolong but displace the downward thrust of a straight vertebral gesture, that next to that descent in high relief shall lie a concavity, its far side curved. . . . T. E. Hulme used it for a pocket toy to occupy his restless fingers. It is a sacred object, elusively anthropo- and ichthymorphic, with no god but its own vigor. I do not know what has become of it. 1
This piece of brass exists best not as a dust-jacket illustration but as an object to be handled, toyed with, flipped, stroked, and misplaced—a multiplicity of functions that emphasizes the transient nature of things. In short, Torpedo Fish embodies with stunning exuberance the modernist commitment to defamiliarization, to the slippery evasion of routine and the provocation to see anew.
A version of the logic of defamiliarization informs Bill Brown’s recent discussion of the story that gives Mao his title, Virginia Woolf’s “Solid Objects.” Brown makes a helpful distinction between things and objects when he writes that “the ‘thing’ registers the undignified mutability of objects,” naming “a mutual mediation (and a slide [End Page 145] between objective and subjective predication) that appears as the object’s difference from itself.” 2 Things get at how objects wrestle free from the pinions of habitual perception and encourage category mistakes by taking a piece of crystal for a lump of glass, and vice versa.
In the process of using a knife as a screwdriver, of dislocating it from one routinized objectification and deploying it otherwise, we have the chance (if just a chance) to sense its presence (its thinness . . . its sharpness and flatness . . . the peculiarity of its scalloped handle, slightly loose . . . its knifeness and what exceeds that knifeness) as though for the first time.[“SL,” 3]
One might well employ Torpedo Fish as a screwdriver (and I love to imagine Hulme doing so, maybe trying to fix Yeats’s glasses with it: the size would have been perfect); 3 this version of its name calls up both homologous and metonymic distortion. While Mao’s dust jacket credits it as Torpedo Fish, it also answers to Torpille, Ornement torpille, and Pound called it Toy. 4 Its fishness emerges when you hold it lengthwise in your hand; it jets off to the left—the organic writ brass, sered fish. 5 One of the last things its maker did before dying in the trenches of World War I, remember, was recall that a rifle butt was made from walnut and carve it into something else. 6
Mao’s main claim is that
Anglo-American modernism is centrally animated by a tension between an urgent validation of production and an admiration for an object world beyond the manipulation of consciousness—a tension that lends modernist writing its dominant note of vital hesitation or ironic idealism, and that leads modernists . . . to that impasse in which all doing seems undoing, all making unmaking in the end.
Taking off from the modernist “struggle against the mass-produced commodity on behalf of the handcrafted thing” (11), Mao charts the different trajectories of how modernist subjects, principally Virginia Woolf, Wyndham Lewis, Ezra Pound, and Wallace Stevens, understand objects (which include artworks, trees, humans, kettles, and books) aesthetically, sociopolitically, and/or philosophically; and how the tensions and collusions between these competing and abetting narratives work to produce, vex, and illuminate Anglo-American modernism. In the service of this argument, Mao analyzes the appearance and negotiation of things within literary texts and in the course of artistic production, the...