- I Do, I Undo, I Redo: The Textual Genesis of Modernist Selves by Finn Fordham
The title of Finn Fordham’s ambitious book looks more elegant on the cover, where the three verbal activities of doing are uncapitalized and unpunctuated, than it does on the inside page, or here, or as it will in library catalogues and bibliographies. “I do I undo I redo” has a Joycean simplicity; “I Do, I Undo, I Redo” seems scholastic. But perhaps the confusion is appropriate, because the book’s subject is the dense knot of relations between the “I” and the things it makes and remakes, including itself, including literature. W. B. Yeats, who is one of the indefatigable modernist revisers that Fordham discusses, puts the problem clearly in his famous 1908 rebuke to friends who, in noting that the “I” and its “song” were not finally dissolvable, complained that his revisions were wrong. For Yeats, as for Fordham, the self was remade in revision, and revision was the act of a reformed self.
Fordham’s book is a very timely contribution to two major recent strands of work in modernist studies: namely, textual genesis and life writing. Its ambition, its pleasure, and some of its difficulty lie in bringing the two fields together. For example, do writings about the self have a different, or more complex, genesis than more straightforwardly exterior writing (realist fiction, non-fiction)? Fordham refers to Philippe Lejeune, who has argued that autobiographical writing is uniquely complex in genesis, and covers, in his own genetic analyses, a broad range of texts, such as Hopkins’s unpublished poetry, Yeats’s juvenilia, or the fiction of Conrad, Forster, Joyce, and Woolf. But he does not select the most obviously autobiographical or self-reflexive writings: he chooses Ulysses over Portrait of the Artist, and The Waves instead of To the Lighthouse. Bringing the two fields together like this, without making a modal or generic argument, risks, as Fordham courageously admits, having too many moving parts. For example, did Hopkins’s syntactically compressed poetry, which was written, as Fordham beautifully shows, on extremely economically used and reused paper, reflect an actual (repressed) self or a desired one (“a waste-free economy of the virtuous self” (92))? Did [End Page 1029] it embody or create it? And there are additional questions about how far both writing processes and ideas about selfhood need to be historicized.
As a historian, Fordham works with both a long and a short version of modernism. He argues that modern subjectivity, from Descartes and Hamlet onwards, has been defined through ultimately misguided textual metaphors, but also that the act of writing threatens the possibility of imagining the self as prior to it. In a sense, the metaphor deconstructs itself. His reminders that writing is both a universal activity (the leaving of traces) and a historically and technologically specific one are very useful. But this is not a book for media historians; it contains very little actual discussion of the writing technologies new to the twentieth century.
A long introductory chapter, “Modernism and the Self,” is, in fact, a vertiginous laying-out of the book’s moving parts. A second introductory chapter on Descartes and Heidegger presents useful (if fairly familiar) material on theories of selfhood in modern philosophy. These chapters (containing digressions on Hamlet and a snapshot self-portrait of the author, among other things) are full of provocative speculations. It would perhaps have added to the book’s balance to have another introductory chapter on Fordham’s own genetic methods. He has a lot of exciting points to make in passing about textual genetics, but many clear and startlingly original ideas are slightly tucked away. Several times we are reminded, in ways that I found truly helpful, that even the most vatic writers of first drafts anticipate and model book publication. Here Fordham shows a real way to connect the social questions asked about sites of publication and reception by critics such as Jerome McGann, George Bornstein, or Lawrence Rainey, with...