- Cold Modernism: Literature, Fashion, Art by Jessica Burstein
Jessica Burstein calls the introduction to her provocative Cold Modernism “Nothing Personal.” She might well have called it “Never Mind.” Burstein has uncovered a strain within modernism without selves or psychology, a strain in which the individual as such does not exist, let alone matter. In such modernist prose, poetry, sculpture, painting, and even fashion accessories, mind itself is largely beside the point. Much received modernist art is caught up with the “warm” insides of things, and particularly with consciousness, the metaphorical “inside” of both the brain and the body. Even when such art contemplates the absence of the human—as it does in Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room or in Birkin’s more anti-human screeds in D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love—the act of imagining mind’s absence first implies the presence of an imagining mind. In cold modernism, on the other hand, “there are no laments . . . for there are no characters who could conceive of themselves as subjects” (2). And in identifying a kind of Neverland of “never mind,” Burstein astutely brackets off a form of art that uses the body (and its articulation in space) and language (in its articulations in time) to create a world in which subjectivity and consciousness are mere empty counters. All is surface, imitation, and reflection as cold modernist artifacts reflect “a world that is complete without us” (258). [End Page 135]
These works are unappealing, to borrow Burstein’s wordplay. They resist easy appreciation and knowingly set themselves apart from the aesthetic categories that urge themselves kittenishly upon the observer. Two chapters on the fiction of Wyndham Lewis share her attention with the disturbing doll-sculptures of Hans Bellmer and an enigmatic painting by Balthus. Mina Loy, both as Futurist poet and as unexpected inventor, stands side by side with Burstein’s most surprising inclusion, French couturier Coco Chanel, a figure for whom cold modernism courts the practical attention of both the observer and the market. As “high art” opens pathways for interpreting mass-produced artifacts, artists engage in a highly abstract meditation on how certain strains of ahumanism can be used to reread modernism itself.
Cold Modernism juxtaposes works of esoteric art against the allure of the synthetic in both philosophy and fashion; it explores how the body can constitute the beginning and the end of all analyses of certain kinds of art and style. Both realms—art and style—share economies of imitation and substitution in which distinctions between inside and outside become as blurred as the boundaries between originality and imitation. For instance, Burstein reads Wyndham Lewis’s Tarr and his earlier Mrs. Dukes’ Million as complementary texts in which substitution and imitation replace conventional rules of characterization. Burstein’s attention shifts from the figure of the double to a crowd of imitations and imitators and finally emerges, in her second Lewis chapter “Waspish Segments,” as a consideration of prosthesis and disassembly in Snooty Baronet. In all of these works, Burstein expands upon her opening contention that, in cold modernism, “the body is a machine to be toyed with” (13). She ultimately complicates that observation by asking whether a fascist aesthetics—a brush with which Lewis has been tarred—can be said to exist.
Similarly waspish—with a sting reserved particularly for psychoanalysis—is Burstein’s analysis of Bellmer. Here she reads Bellmer’s dismembered and reconstructed dolls against the received surrealist grain, asking not only “[how] the presentation of womanliness [can be presented] quite literally [as] masquerade, and how artificiality . . . intercedes retroactively to naturalize appearance” (96), but also “what happens when the mind is acknowledged, but as an extension of surface appearance” (96). In her conclusion, Burstein suggests new ways to avoid placing such artifacts neatly on one side or the other of a series of divisions (between modernist and avant-garde, reactionary and revolutionary); she sees Bellmer’s dolls, both politically and apolitically, as “resisting the formulaic iterations of psychoanalytic readings that treat things like people under the...