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  • Modernism’s Mythic Pose: Gender, Genre, and Solo Performance by Carrie J. Preston
  • Megan Quigley
Carrie J. Preston. Modernism’s Mythic Pose: Gender, Genre, and Solo Performance. Modernist Literature and Culture Series. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. xiv + 357; illustrated. $49.95 (Hb).

Emma Lyons Hamilton, the eighteenth-century performer of classical attitudes, sets the stage for Carrie Preston’s fascinating examination of modernist, mythic solo performances. Barefoot and clad in little but a tunic, Lyons Hamilton carefully arranged her hair, garments, and expression to match famous poses from mythological or biblical art. Throughout the palaces and drawing rooms of aristocratic Naples, Hamilton’s poses drew the praise of tourists, artists, and writers like Goethe. As her audience recognized each pose, there were shouts of “Bravo la Medea!” and “Viva la Niobe!”– and Hamilton carefully transformed herself into her next pose (35). Preston argues that this solo embodiment of classical statuary and its attendant tensions between movement and stasis, impersonality and personality, freedom and conformity, nostalgia and novelty, and performer and audience, compose a central motif of modernist literature, dance, and film. For Preston, the pose’s “imagined rupture in time” is key to understanding the aesthetics and kinesthetics of works stretching from Robert [End Page 408] Browning’s dramatic monologues to Isadora Duncan’s solo dances and H.D.’s essays on film theory (7).

Arguing that literary modernism aligned itself with classicism against a mushy earlier romanticism is nothing new: T.S. Eliot famously proclaimed that he was “classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion” (18–19). Preston’s important new book, however, calls into question Eliot’s bifurcation of classicism and romanticism by demonstrating that Eliot’s classicism was part of a larger, arguably romantic, and certainly humanist interest in classical posing derived from the French performance theorist François Delsarte (1811–71). Preston’s detailed and convincing exhumation of Delsartism as an influential, international set of movements that emphasized solo performance and mythic posing for spiritual and physical health is her book’s most essential contribution to scholarship. She contends that a wide array of early-twentieth-century artists should be designated “antimodern” modernists, for their Delsarte-inspired belief that “modernity had separated the body from the soul and that expressive solo performance could reunite a whole person” (5). If this metaphysical belief fails to sound modernist at all, the fact that these artists embraced new technologies like film and new philosophical ideas about the future nonetheless aligns them with movements like futurism. Preston’s work on anti-modern modernists, therefore, challenges easy distinctions between traditionalists and the avant-garde and works to destabilize its own central term, “modernism.” Her “book’s commitment to examining what is not new in modernism” is part of a movement in what is called New Modernist Studies, which reveals continuities rather than divisions between modernism and earlier time periods and includes works like Liesl Olson’s Modernism and the Ordinary and Lisi Schoenbach’s Pragmatic Modernism (9). Because of Preston’s focus on Delsartism, which she dubs “the first international performance theory of modernism,” her truly interdisciplinary book also aims to contribute to scholarly conversations in performance theory, dance, and film (59).

Modernism’s Mythic Pose begins by tracing the origins of Delsarte’s solos in popular nineteenth-century solo performance pieces, monodramas, and attitudes, where a character from myth is presented in a climactic scene. Preston links the monodramas to the Victorian literary genre of the dramatic monologue. She argues that both invite a version of reading derived from biblical typology, wherein the viewer or reader must decipher the historical or mythic and contemporary meaning and consider its ramifications and overlap. Methodologically, my greatest difficulty with Preston’s work – perhaps inevitable, given the scope of this project – is the occasional lack of enough historical or theoretical context for her ambitious arguments; for example, this chapter about origins would have benefitted from more clearly demonstrating the connections between ancient classical drama and the monodrama. Since her claims about Delsartism in the modernist [End Page 409] era are often historical, moreover, I believe a section devoted to Hellenism in early-twentieth-century British and...