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  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: December 2017

6 - Paralyzed Modernities and Biofutures: Bodies and Minds in Modern Literature


To be ill is to produce narrative.

Athena Vrettos

Although we tend to think of literary modernism as a revolution of the material word, it is less often noted that it is underwritten by the material body. The fragmentations and dislocations that we associate with modernist experimentation often accompany representations of psychological and physical trauma. It is hard to think of any major modernist work that does not, in some way, feature disease or disability as a figure for social upheavals and cultural malaise – from Charlotte Perkins Gilman's “The Yellow Wall-Paper” (1892) and Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome (1911) to Henry James's The Wings of the Dove (1902), from Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier (1915) to Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent (1907), from Dostoevsky's The Idiot (1868) and Ibsen's Ghosts (1881) to Andre Gide's L'Immoralist (1902), from Thomas Mann's Death in Venice (1912) and The Magic Mountain (1924) to Gunter Grass's The Tin Drum (1959), Katherine Ann Porter's “Pale Horse Pale Ryder” (1939), and most of the plays and prose by Samuel Beckett. If we were to include in this list the psychological toll of physical impairments caused by World War I, we would have to add figures such as Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises (1926), Sir Clifford Chatterley in Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928), and Septimus Smith in Mrs. Dalloway (1925). If to be ill is to produce narrative, as Athena Vrettos says in my epigraph, nothing could embody this fact more vividly than those cosmopolitan novels whose grand tours include stops at health spas, sanitaria, or the therapeutic air of the Alps.

At another level, the rhetoric of disease permeates modernist cultural poetics. Matthew Arnold in “The Scholar Gypsy” (1853), speaks of “this strange disease of modern life, / With its sick hurry, its divided aims,” and Søren Kierkegaard describes the unredeemed time of modernity as a “sickness unto death.” Dostoevsky's Underground Man in Notes from the Underground (1864) regards “excessive consciousness [as] a … genuine absolute disease,” and Walter Benjamin refers to Baudelaire's description of the “shock” of the metropolitan crowd as a type of nervous disorder.

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The Cambridge Companion to Literature and Disability
  • Online ISBN: 9781316104316
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