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  • Katherine Mansfield's Lyricism and Jacques Rancière's Politics of Aesthetics
  • Elsa Högberg (bio)

In 1939, Walter Benjamin famously described the gradual waning of lyric from the mid-nineteenth century onwards as a consequence of modernity: "One wonders how lyric poetry can be grounded in experience [einer Erfahrung] for which exposure to shock [Chockerlebnis] has become the norm."1 With the expansion of capitalism and industrialization, Benjamin argues, Chockerlebnis—the immediate shock experience through which the increasingly alienated individual responds to fragmented stimuli—has made the communication of poetic experience (Erfahrung) unsustainable ("On Some Motifs," 328–31). Comparing the lyric poet to the minstrel and the archaic storyteller, Benjamin notes a breakdown in the communal function of lyric: "only in rare instances does lyric poetry accord with the experience of its readers" (328).

Benjamin's sense of a dissonance between the affective structures of lyric and those induced by modernity resonates with a conventional notion of literary modernism as emphatically anti-romantic. But in response to the familiar discourse of objectivity and impersonality advocated by prominent modernist writers at the time of World War I, other modernists defended and explored an alternative lyricism with distinctly romantic features.2 Katherine Mansfield's mature fiction is groundbreaking in its romantic-modernist lyrical experiments, which emerged directly from this quintessential shock experience of modernity. This article aims to provide an account of Mansfield as a pioneer in this alternative lyrical tradition, and of the challenges her work [End Page 729] poses to the idea that modernist writing forecloses the affective and communal bonds created through the lyrical mode.

In a frequently cited letter to John Middleton Murry from February 3, 1918, Mansfield articulated two inspirational, and lyrical, motives:

I've two "kick offs" in the writing game. One is joy—real joy … and that sort of writing I could only do in just that state of being in some perfectly blissful way at peace. Then something delicate and lovely seems to open before my eyes, like a flower without thought of a frost or a cold breath—knowing that all about it is warm and tender and "ready." And that I try, ever so humbly, to express.

The other "kick off" is my old original one, and (had I not known love) it would have been my all. Not hate or destruction … but an extremely deep sense of hopelessness, of everything doomed to disaster …. There! as I took out a cigarette paper I got it exactly—a cry against corruption—that is absolutely the nail on the head. Not a protest—a cry, and I mean corruption in the widest sense of the word, of course.3

Mansfield's first "kick off" as a writer is an emotion "recollected in tranquillity"; her description of this poetic impulse recalls William Wordsworth's preface to Lyrical Ballads. The image of the frail and tender flower exemplifies the lyricism of much of her late work, written between 1915 and 1922, and it conveys a romantic notion of poetic writing as the transmission of emotion and sense perception.4 The cry against corruption also suggests the lyric voice, but no longer at peace, protected against the external world. "Corruption" meant at least two things for Mansfield at this time: her tuberculosis—illness corrupting the body—and the war, in which her brother died; both preoccupy her personal writings of the postwar years. These motives—the opening flower and the sense of disaster—are intimately related in Mansfield's writing. In a letter written a month before she experienced the German bombardment of Paris in April 1918, she reflects that "Spring, this year, is so beautiful that watching it unfold one is filled with a sort of anguish…. It has made the War so awfully real—and not only the War … it has made me realise so deeply and finally the corruption of the world" (Collected Letters, 2:86, emphasis in original).

Despite the affinity between these two "kick offs" or motives, sociopolitical readings of Mansfield's short fiction have focused almost exclusively on the second. With the growing scholarly attention to her literary achievements since the 1990s, her stories' characteristic, modernist turn towards disillusionment has...


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