BRYN MAWR REVIEW OF COMPARATIVE LITERATURE

Volume 4, Number 1 (Summer 2003)
 
Sarah Danius, The Senses of Modernism: Technology, Perception, and Aesthetics.

Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2002. 
xi + 247 pp. ISBN 0801488001. 

 

Reviewed by Tim Harte
Bryn Mawr College

A loud collision between aesthetics and technology resounded at the start of the twentieth century.  High modernism, instinctively resisting machines and their growing sway over society, exuded a “technophobia,” a guarded suspicion of the mechanical.   Although the Italian futurists did celebrate technology at this time, proponents of high modernist literature avoided any conspicuous cult of the machine or speed.  For many modernists, the written word conveyed a personal, subjective reality, while motors and mechanical means of reproduction signified a mass-oriented, unrefined sensibility.  Subsequently, numerous critics over the years have juxtaposed high modernist aesthetics with the century’s onslaught of machines.  As the story goes, modernist literature steadfastly resisted this dehumanizing technology and its ostensible dulling of the senses.

Although modernism paralleled and even documented the rise of technology in the twentieth century, relatively few critics have seen technological breakthroughs as in fact enriching the substantive and formal innovations of high modernist prose.  But as Sarah Danius argues in The Senses of Modernism: Technology, Perception, and Aesthetics, this anti-technology bias has ignored, or at least clouded, an important series of artistic transformations that occurred in literature in the early part of the twentieth century.  Modes of perception and the manner in which the written word could convey the modern world soon began to conform to new notions of speed, sound, and vision, all the result of late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century technological innovation.  In modernist literature’s “crisis of the senses,” as Danius calls it, artistic modes of experience could not help but adapt to and exploit the mechanized, accelerating world.

In her persuasive, well-written exploration of technology’s essential yet underestimated role in high modernism, Danius establishes a vivid picture of the modernist landscape as one where technologically enhanced means of perception became a prominent component of the aesthetic discourse.  Rather than dwelling on modernism’s numerous overt references to technology, be it to the telephone or to the movies, Danius explores how technology emerged as an internalized, pervasive element of modernist prose.  Correspondingly, this intersection of technology and aesthetics constitutes the basis of Danius’s close readings of three canonical texts of high modernism: Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain (1924), Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (1913-1927), and James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922).  Within all three of these celebrated novels, perception becomes a central motif that Danius sees as closely related to the scientific and technological breakthroughs that had occurred in the preceding decades.  In novels that Italo Calvino dubbed “open encyclopedias” of the modernist era, technology is crucial to both plot and an evolving aesthetic agenda.

Using a highly theoretical, historicist approach to her topic, Danius first highlights the far-reaching significance of a variety of important cultural figures from the modernist period.  This overview includes, for instance, Richard Wagner, who at the end of the nineteenth century envisioned a synesthetic “total work of art” (the Gesamtkuntswerk), and Etienne-Jules Marey, whose chronophotographic depictions of animals and people in motion led to the invention of motion pictures.  In a similar vein, Danius discusses how philosophical work by Henri Bergson on human “internal time” proved instrumental in the rise of modernist aesthetics, despite Bergson’s ambivalence toward new art forms like the cinema.  And in the rigorous theoretical framework of The Senses of Modernism, Danius draws on a range of ideas, such as Michel Foucault’s paradigm for cultural history, Slavoj Zizek’s juxtaposition of modernism and postmodernism, and the oft-cited essays of Walter Benjamin on the intersection of modernist literature and technology.  Danius also develops upon Stephen Kern’s seminal work of 1983, The Culture of Time and Space, 1880-1918, as she explores how modernization and mechanized means of transport informed the modes of perception so prominent in modernist aesthetics.  But whereas Kern refers to artistic works mainly as a means of supporting his contention that modernism embodied a major change in human perception of time and space, Danius contextualizes these important aesthetic transformations, going beyond Kern’s cultural history with her close analyses of Mann, Proust, and Joyce.

Discussing The Magic Mountain, Danius highlights the preponderance of optical issues, be they human or mechanical, in Mann’s novel.  Danius bases much of her analysis of The Magic Mountain on the Greek notion of aisthesis, which signifies apprehension through the senses, or the act of observation, and in Mann’s work this close scrutiny is ubiquitous.  “Vision is celebrated for vision’s sake” (55), a pure manifestation of aisthesis, as modern technology informs the way the characters of the novel engage in sensual forms of observation that border on synesthesia, or complete stimulation of the senses.  Modern devices, such as the X-ray machine and the phonograph, abound in The Magic Mountain, as Mann allows technology to play a decisive role in both the plot and the underlying development of his hero, Hans Castorp.  Linking the novel to the emergence of technology at the beginning of the twentieth century, Danius explains how Castorp’s X-ray examination enables him to modify his notions of self and his own mortality, as the technology “introduces him to the enigmas of physiological perception.  The opaque interior of the human body is suddenly brought to light by a language that names what is seen” (74).  In Mann’s Bildungsroman, the maturation and education of Castorp are conveyed through the hero’s newfound ability to perceive in a physical, corporeal way that ironically emerged out of the day's newest technology.

Notions of perception and education are also prominent in Danius’s reading of Remembrance of Things Past.  Proust’s narrator, like Castorp, learns to explore and aestheticize his world in a fresh, technologically-enhanced fashion.  Danius, author of several other works on Proust, suggests that the period’s increasing speed and modern emphasis on perception accompany as well as augment the narrator’s return to the past.  Highlighting a rapid coach ride taken by Proust’s narrator in Swann’s Way, Danius notes, “The sight [of the passing landscape] arouses a peculiar pleasure.  He decides to act on the irksome impulse, borrows a pencil and a piece of paper from the doctor, and begins to write.  It is his first piece of writing.  The emergence of writing, then, is intimately linked to technologies of velocity and the new spaces of representation they burst open” (133).  This view from the coach suggests a range of impressions closely linked to the automobile.  In 1907, as Danius explains in TheSenses of Modernism, Proust published the short article “Impressions de route en automobile” in the French newspaper Le Figaro.  Here Proust provided a rich account of modernity’s visual sense of speed, as he describes the landscape rushing by him during a series of road trips he made with the professional driver Alfred Agostinelli.  Danius argues that Proust’s article on these automobile rides offers a deeper understanding of Proust’s aesthetics of perception that emerges in Remembrance of Things Past.  Thus aisthesis, as in The Magic Mountain, is crucial in Proust’s novel, as Danius elaborates on the formalist notion of “estrangement” to show how Proust’s narrator both observes and fastidiously renders everyday objects and events in ways that stem directly from the period’s technology, with modern transportation empowering the novelist to describe things anew. 

Intoxicating automobile rides are not the only technological component of Proust’s modernist aesthetic.  As Danius explains, “Anyone who reads Proust’s novel carefully will discover how difficult it often is to keep categories of art apart from those of technology.  The smell of petrol is as epiphanic as the taste of a madeleine dipped in tea; the airplane above the treetops in Balbec is as sublime as a sea storm” (94).  Although references to modern means of transportation are more common in Remembrance of Things Past than any mention of photography or the motion pictures, Danius contends that cinema does in fact figure prominently in Proust’s celebrated novel and his overall theory of art.  Proust may juxtapose film with prose as a contrasting means of conveying reality, but in matters of perception and one's observations of the accelerating modern world, cinema did prove extremely germane. Marey’s proto-cinematic chronophotography, for instance, constituted an expedient model for Proust’s own emphasis on modern perception and optical vocabulary.  Danius, in fact, discerns a “rhetoric of movement,” underscored by optical vocabulary, that emerges in passages from The Guermantes Way (1921-22), where Proust’s narrator provides vivid “chronophotographic” descriptions of Albertine: “ . . . so now, during this brief journey of my lips towards her cheek, it was ten Albertines that I saw; this one girl being like a many-headed goddess, the head I had seen last, when I tried to approach it, gave way to another.”  By 1921, high modernists like Proust instinctively employed cinematically-infused imagery and description in their work.

In addressing Joyce’s Ulysses, Danius invokes and broadens her earlier discussion of estrangement and its direct applicability to perception.  An emphasis on the human senses, so prevalent throughout this most modernist of novels, suggests the 1920s formalism of the Russian critic Viktor Shklovsky, whose theory of “defamiliarization” Danius explores in conjunction with Joyce’s urge to describe immediate experience as encountered in the modern city.  The novel’s narrative, Danius explains, develops upon this impulse as it establishes a stylistic strategy influenced by the technological inventions of the phonograph, the telephone, and the motion pictures.  In The Senses of Modernism Danius convincingly demonstrates how Joyce continues Proust’s aesthetic agenda of perception, as both modern sounds and a propensity for observation pervade the novel.  In one of many passages Danius quotes from Ulysses, Joyce writes, “The tram passed.  They drove off towards the Loop Line bridge, her rich gloved hand on the steel grip.  Flicker, flicker: the laceflare of her hat in the sun: flicker, flick” (166).  As in Proust, the tram and other modern phenomena provide an ideal prism through which Joyce can view, and ultimately describe, everyday reality anew. 

Although Danius tends to exaggerate the similarities between photographs and Joyce’s vivid descriptions in Ulysses, her emphasis on framing techniques in the novel and her provocative comparison of Ulysses to the “visual symphonies” of two avant-garde films of the 1920s, Fernand Léger’s Ballet mécanique (1924) and Dziga Vertov’s The Man with the Movie Camera (1929), contribute to the study’s persuasiveness.   As Danius argues, modernism’s emphasis on the eye and observation, although significantly informed by mechanics, nonetheless promoted a sense of corporeal materiality.  Léger and Vertov, along with Joyce and Shklovsky, “articulate the primacy of the visual.  In effect, Bloom’s right hand -- that Bloomy hand-in-itself -- is to Léger’s dancing mannequin leg as Shklovsky’s stony stone is to Vertov’s exuberant city machines" (170-171).  The eyes and ears (and hands and feet) of modernity had learned not only to coexist with the period’s ubiquitous technology and speed, but also to thrive aesthetically under these newer, faster, yet equally fertile stimuli.

Danius is somewhat less successful in her discussion of the critical theory addressing the modernist intersection of technology, aesthetics, and social issues.  Citing the ideas of Gilles Deleuze, who suggested that machines are “social before being technical,” and Bruno Latour, whose translation model of technological determinism is linked to X-rays, Danius might have provided clearer explication of these complex views and their applicability to her analysis of Mann, Proust, and Joyce.  Moreover, further discussion of the scientific underpinnings of the period’s technological advances might have strengthened Danius’s main thesis.  Einstein and his theories of relativity, for instance, receive no mention whatsoever.  But these qualms are relatively minor in light of the work’s impressive breadth, theoretical rigor, and informed approach to modern perception.  Danius’s ability to utilize a wide body of theory and to draw adeptly upon examples from film, painting, and photography to support her close readings of three pioneering modernist novels makes this a provocative, rewarding study from a variety of vantage points. 


URL: Danius.html; Last updated: Summer 2003; mail to: Complitreview@brynmawr.edu
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