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Modernism and the Ordinary.

Modernism and the Ordinary. Liesl Olson (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009) 200pp.

"Make it new," the rallying call of one of the most influential modernist movers and shakers, Ezra Pound, is one that not only helped shape the development of certain kinds of literary modernism, but importantly also became the way in which critical responses to a vast array of literary modernisms have been shaped. One of the central narratives about modernist writing has been a Bloomian one and has had at its core the sense of rupture with what came before, specifically a break with nineteenth-century realism and its narrative conventions which were perceived as inadequate for the task of representing twentieth-century modern experience. As Woolf famously asserts in "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown," the realist "tools" and conventions employed by her realist contemporaries "are death." However, more recently critical attention has shifted toward an exploration of the more complex relationship of modernist writing to its immediate literary forebears. In the sphere of Woolf studies, for instance, this has been explored by Steve Ellis and Jane de Gay. While a reappraisal of modernism's relationship to nineteenth-century realism is not the central focus of Olson's study by any means, realism's attention to the everyday and to the materiality of lived experience is one that Olson sees as reconfigured and re-valued in modernist writing. Her exploration of "modernism's commitment to the ordinary" turns the tables on decades of criticism which has channelled readers' fascination with modernist forms to focus most persistently on the transcendent, epiphanic, crystalline, revelatory and sometimes shocking moments of being which heighten self awareness and signal a new way of perception. Her attention to "a pervasive quotidian" in modernist writing contests this emphasis, arguing that modernists are also preoccupied with "the diffuse and messy particularities of [that] life" (19, 5). She explores the representation of the ordinary in the work of five key writers--James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens and Marcel Proust--offering a detailed and nuanced analysis of the difficulties encountered, and of the multiple ways in which the ordinary seems to function--aesthetically, ethically, affectively, socially, politically and philosophically.

Olson considers the influence of philosophers William James and Henri Bergson, and weighs the usefulness of theories of the everyday put forward by Henri Lefebvre, amongst others. What proves most significant for Olson in Lefebvre's theory is the "paradoxical nature" of the everyday and the "impossibility of its representation" (13, 15). She also repeatedly questions whether the ordinary and everyday can remain so, once represented in writing, mediated and to an extent sanctified by language. She makes clear that working to sustain representations of the ordinary as ordinary in writing is "a tricky task" (7) as representation of the ordinary inevitably and paradoxically draws attention to a central quality of the everyday which is that it is characterized by being unnoticed, insignificant. Her analysis draws attention to class and gender issues, to the representation of wartime, and returns to a core idea which is that the ordinary and everyday provide a context into which heightened experiences can be subsumed and made useful. The quotidian works to sustain their meaning, creating a space for reconsideration and effecting change beyond the momentary flash of awareness and the shock of revelation. Each chapter explores the different preoccupations with, and "tricky" representations of, the everyday in the work of one of the five main authors.

Joyce's Ulysses represents "an environment chock-full of everyday stuff" (6) most obviously represented through the lists, which simultaneously "attempt to register and record the variety of ordinary moments that flood experience, while gleefully acknowledging realism's defeat" (35). These detailed lists and Joyce's factual style promise to reconstruct Dublin on 16th June 1904, but inevitably "the ordinary... slips away" (34) as it is either made extraordinary though the process of literary representation, or has its factual details skipped over by the reader in a way that echoes how we overlook details (and so fail to interpret) many of the banal aspects of our everyday experience. Indeed, it is the flood of everyday experiences in Ulysses which, Olson asserts, works to counter the possibility and importance of the epiphanic moment of transformation found in Joyce's earlier writing and privileged in critical assessments of his work. Joyce's turn to the aesthetic of the ordinary also has a political dimension in emphasising the importance of engaging with one's context in order to effect change. Ultimately, however, this near documentary representation of the everyday also acknowledges the impossibility of the task as lists both reveal and withhold information, and the variety of styles indicates this novel is a testing ground (but not a definitive model) for ways to represent the ordinary in literature.

Olson's discussion of Woolf's engagement with the ordinary similarly emphasizes Woolf's "commitment to ordinary experience" (58) as well as her recognition of the ways in which the everyday eludes literary representation, and indeed her criticism of representations of the ordinary and political which are too crass. She argues that one of Woolf's aims was to develop a style capable of conveying the experience of non-being and the everyday world of things, alongside that of the inner life as ordinary experience. Rather than seeing "psychological interiority" only as an exceptional, highly subjective experience, Olson suggests that it "is shaped by a myriad of external factors" and repeated actions, making it a shared experience and part of the ordinary (59). Although it is the heightened moments of being that provide the "shock" necessary for insight and artistic inspiration, the important function of ordinary experience is to provide a context in which revelatory moments can be translated into actual processes and can bring about change. The ordinary and everyday also crucially act as a buffer and protection allaying the anxieties and "deformations" wrought by traumatic modern events, notably war, as Olson argues is the case for Septimus and others in Mrs. Dalloway. At one point Olson asserts the "power of the everyday to trump trauma" (76), but it is clear in this novel that it is a privileged "ordinary" experience that provides significant protection. Clarissa's class privilege gives her considerable control over her everyday experience, whereas the pleasure of ordinary experience offers only a momentary reprieve for Septimus and Rezia. Olson also makes a strong case that "Clarissa's satisfaction with the ordinariness of events and their transitory quality is her hallmark characteristic," and accepting Clarissa's own (perhaps resigned rather than satisfied) assessment of the routines of her life and everyday events as being "enough" (72). However, I wonder whether this misses another "hallmark characteristic" of Clarissa's, which is a deep-seated sense of something lacking in her privileged life. I think there might be further scope for considering the more problematic aspects of ordinary routine and habit (perhaps as Olson develops in her discussion of Stein drawing on the Jamesian sense of habitual repetition as inhibiting progression), to explore further the ways in which habit and everyday routine can also deter change and gloss over tensions and ambitions which are perceived as out of the ordinary, especially in relation to gender and class. Olson touches on an interesting sense of the ordinary put forward by Auerbach that "the everyday is constituted by moments that are in fact indiscernible to a dominant order" (79) and this could be productively explored to complicate and nuance this argument further here.

In Stein's work radical experiments with form and language articulate the pleasure of the ordinary, domestic life and habit (a preoccupation Olson connects to Jamesian pragmatism). As with Woolf, Olson argues that in Stein the everyday is a crucially important stay and protection against the disruption and trauma of war. However, while a focus on ordinary everyday objects serves to productively disrupt the habitual associations of things in a text like Tender Buttons, the preoccupation with daily life in Stein's World War II writing (Mrs. Reynolds and Wars I Have Seen) is criticized for "an entrenchment in habit" (98) which "marks the limits of her modernism" (99) and which proves "paralysing and troubling" (113). Olson argues that although a focus on ordinary routines and habits may typify the bored and monotonous experience of a vast number of civilians during wartime, and indeed may pose a challenge as the ordinary "accumulates value and takes precedence over war's action" (91), it equally foregrounds "habit's political inadequacy" (101). Unlike novels like Mrs. Dalloway and Between the Acts, Stein's writing blocks out the violence of war in a way that is "both defiant ... and troubling" (104).

This creates "an extremely problematic escapism" (113) that for Olson is not found in the work of other writers she considers, for example Wallace Stevens, whose preoccupation with the ordinary and the particular has long provoked criticism for its apparent removal from the realities and effects of war. In contrast, Olson argues that his focus on the commonplace "was deeply mindful of the politics of his times," signalling as it does "the necessary negotiations between private life and the public world" (117). Although critical assessments often analyze Stevens' work in relation to what it suggests about the working of the mind, Olson argues that his work values the routines of the everyday over startling revelatory moments of clarity and that his sense of "the commonplace is as much an approach to things as it is the things themselves" and so is "shared" (117, 121). It is both personal and individual and part of a collectively experienced environment, as well as what absorbs attention in the face of traumatic extremes (125). Stevens' reflections on his own life, essays, letters and lectures and his long meditative poem "An Ordinary Evening in New Haven" are explored in terms of what Olson reads as Stevens' positive sense of the ordinary as elusive and "always transpiring," and as representative of his understanding and enjoyment of "the paradox of representing the ordinary without transforming it" (118).

Olson concludes her exploration of the ordinary with the earliest writer that she considers, Marcel Proust, and examines how his writing exemplifies the fundamental incompatibility between the diffuseness and atemporality of the everyday and narrative form conceived in an Aristotelian sense. In particular she discusses Proust's use of the imperfect tense coupled with a sense of "habits [that are] engaged with a specific historical world" and that provide a crucial context for epiphanies to register and become meaningful (153-4). As Olson argues in earlier chapters, habits can be "life affirming," offering a protection and safety, but also "life denying" as they guard against change and spiritual experience or transformation (152). Here she also considers habits as "mini narratives" which may give the illusion of controlling time by creating "small narratives within a larger narrative of social and historical time" (154). However, although Proust's In Search of Lost Time foregrounds the impossibility of a literary representation that does not transform the ordinary, his modernist representation of the everyday works to counter the limitations of narrative form as it allows for a lack of connection between all aspects of experience and adapts its shape to the unevenness and unexpectedness of ordinary life.

This decision to discuss Proust last invites a sense of chronological disorder that perhaps attests to the way Olson's own text embodies the ordinary through its chronological circling back and suggestion of a two-way continuum--"resisting a moment of summation" (151) or conclusion, just as the everyday resists the teleological logic of narrative. This sense of the ordinary is also generated by repetitions of ideas and interpretations and overlapping elements that each of the chapters have in common. The "animating tension" she identifies in "the fundamental incompatibility of the everyday with narrative form" resonates in the tensions and paradoxes inherent in the form of her own discussion (11). Her argument works through a process of layering and differentiation, highlighting obvious differences as well as more subtle distinctions, and she, like writers she considers here, is engaged in the "tricky task" of putting the ordinary into words while retaining its nebulous qualities and pleasures--a task she does well.

--Kathryn Simpson, University of Birmingham, UK
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Author:Simpson, Kathryn
Publication:Woolf Studies Annual
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2010
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