- Bodies of Modernism: Physical Disability in Transatlantic Modernist Literature by Maren Tova Linett
Although studies of disability in Victorian literature have been commonplace for decades, modernist studies have only relatively recently embraced disability analysis as a valuable area of inquiry. Along with Rebecca Sanchez's ground-breaking Deafening Modernism (2015), Maren Tova Linett's Bodies of Modernism is one of the first book-length studies of disability in modernist literature. Unlike Sanchez's work, Linett's monograph focuses on characters with disabilities, seeking to demonstrate how both American and British modernist writers engaged with physical disability in an attempt to explore issues of "sexuality, intimacy, communication, knowledge, and subjectivity, and to reflect on the formal experimentation crucial to modernist praxis" (3). As such, her study takes a combined interest in disability as "narrative prosthesis"—as that which, according to David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder, pulls metaphorical weight to make broader commentaries about bodies that resist the cultural imperative of normalcy (222–23)—and disability as engendering "aesthetic nervousness," or that which, according to Ato Quayson, dismantles and/or remakes the text's aesthetic framework (25). As Linett writes, "The goal […] is not just to discover how a character is depicted by its author, but also how that depiction affects the overall workings of the text and what it tells us about how embodiment was understood in particular times and places" (4–5). She thus challenges Lennard T. Davis's claim in Enforcing Normalcy that character-focused studies of disability are necessarily limited in their scope (124), instead revealing how an attention to the representation of disabled characters in literature productively illuminates the enculturation of bodies as well as enables a consideration of the textual ripples created by the presence of disability within a text.
Linett focuses on the way in which modernist writers use physical disability as a means of reconceptualizing the relationship between the body and the mind. She concerns herself with the embodied nature of subjectivity as depicted by both canonical and non-canonical modernist authors—or as she writes, "modernist imaginings of disability's effects on the bodymind" (5). In the first four chapters, she examines the representation of particular [End Page 499] bodily functions—namely, walking, seeing, and hearing—and how they are envisioned as affecting characters' subjectivities and their comprehensibility to readers, narrators, and other characters. Her readings of transatlantic literary texts compellingly demonstrate how modernist writers incorporated disability into their works in order to challenge normative conceptions of embodiment while also often relying on what she terms the "eugenic mode," a representational stance that assumes the undesirability of disability (200). Here she builds on work by scholars like Janet Lyon, who locates in aesthetic modernism an interest in disability as permitting "experimental forays into territories […] beyond normative models of subjectivity" (552). The tension Linett locates between literary modernism's antinormative and eugenic impulses results in a specifically "modernist mode of representing disability," a "paradoxical combination of othering and selving […] [that] understand[s] disability as alien and unfathomable" while also "entertain[ing] the possibility that radical otherness is in fact within us" (204). This balanced and nuanced approach to analyzing disability in modernist literature resists any tendency toward reductive character analyses and establishes a useful methodology for assessing the formal and cultural ramifications of literary treatments of sensory and mobility difference.
At the same time, Linett's interest in the bodymind begs for more discussion of mental disabilities, for the only sustained attention given to the relationship between modernist art and cognitive difference is found in her analysis of Olive Moore's Spleen. But even here, the focus is on how the physical influences the mental—how the deformity of Richard's feet is presumed to affect his consciousness and mental awareness. Although Linett acknowledges the important work being done (and still needing to be done) at the intersection of mad studies and modernist studies (7), a neglect of mental disabilities casts the interplay of the body...