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The Problem with Pleasure: Modernism and Its Discontents

By Laura Frost
Columbia University Press, 2013theproblemwithpleasure

Laura Frost’s The Problem With Pleasure: Modernism and Its Discontents offers us an illuminating perspective on modernism during the interwar era, a period of literary history in which writers took on more audacious subjects and explored more challenging formal strategies. Frost focuses on the notorious “difficulty” of much modernist writing, difficulty that the writers themselves intended and that critics such as Lionel Trilling regarded as the distinctive, as well as most valuable, feature of modern literature. As she puts it:

Modernist texts do not appear on summer reading lists: for all its attractions, modernism is no picnic. Its pathways to readerly bliss often require secondary sources and footnotes as dense as the original text. Yet the modernist doxa of difficulty gives rise to new kinds of pleasure. Along with offering thrilling and powerful innovation, modernist writers ask the readers not just to tolerate but also to embrace discomfort, confusion, and hard cognitive labor. Modernism, in short, instructs the reader in the art of unpleasure.

Modernist fiction expects us to acknowledge its inherent difficulty, a difficulty that comes from its rejection of the usual kind of story and, more importantly, the usual kind of storytelling. But it also helps us discover “new kinds of pleasure” by successfully assimilating a particular work’s particular kind of “difficulty” through “hard cognitive labor” that converts initial discomfort into something closer to comfort, confusion to greater clarity. Thus the discontents of modernism are not the signs of its own problem with providing pleasure but the deliberate strategies that work to redefine pleasure and strengthen the reader’s resistance to insipid modes of mere “entertainment.” “Unpleasure” is therefore not the negation of pleasure but its transformation. This requires a deferral of gratification, a willingness to actually court confusion and endure a sort of pain that results from delaying immediate satisfaction. In return, “against the saccharine, predictable, easy amusement of popular novels, newspapers, and cinema, modern fiction offered cognitive tension, irony, and analytical rigor, which can and should be enjoyable in themselves.”

Although she never quite suggests that reading modernist writing is a kind of literary masochism, Frost does invoke Freud to provide a contemporaneous analogy in psychoanalytic theory to what the modernists were illustrating in practice. “Far from a perverse experience,” Frost observes, “unpleasure can be part of commonplace experience, and not just in the sexual realm. The reality principle itself, Freud maintains, requires ‘the temporary toleration of unpleasure as a step on the long indirect road to pleasure’.”

Frost develops her argument that a chief characteristic of modern fiction is its distinctive preoccupation with redefining pleasure through a series of chapter-length interpretations of the work of a multifarious group of modern writers. In the first, “James Joyce and the Scent of Modernity,” she considers the motif of aroma (especially perfume) as it is manifested—quite often, it turns out—in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses. The second chapter analogizes the particular kind of difficulty embodied in the work of Gertrude Stein to the ambiguous “pleasure” provided by tickling. A chapter on D.H. Lawrence unsurprisingly focuses on Lawrence’s troubling ideas about the proper degree of pain and pleasure required for a “healthy” female sexuality, while the subsequent chapter on Aldous Huxley highlights the critique of modern forms of narcoticizing pleasure in Brave New World. Chapter 5 discusses two less iconic modern writers, Patrick Hamilton and Jean Rhys, and concentrates on the problematic relationship to pleasure, often explicitly joined to pain, experienced by the two writers’ protagonists. It is the chapter in this book that comes closest to suggesting that the “problem with pleasure” among modern writers is a masochistic one, after all. A final chapter takes up the career of the now somewhat forgotten Anita Loos, specifically her novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, suggesting that Loos’s attempt to give a rather more populist spin to the difficulty valorized by modernism actually prefigured the more playful attitude to the pleasure and seriousness exemplified in postmodernism.

JJoyceUlyssesOn the whole, The Problem With Pleasure makes a convincing case that modernism was, at least in part, a response to the rise of mass entertainment in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a kind of entertainment that seemed to many modern writers to offer only “cheap” pleasures. Writers like Joyce and Stein (or Virginia Woolf or William Faulkner) were certainly well aware that many readers would find their work unorthodox and intimidating, but hoped that these readers would rise to the challenge and put aside their expectation of immediate gratification to find a more lasting satisfaction in the willing struggle with their books for the sake of breakthroughs to a kind of higher awareness—both of their own capacities as readers and of the capacity of literature to offer profounder pleasures. Frost’s readings are insightful and should be accessible even to general readers uninterested by the practices and protocols of academic criticism. Although Frost in her introductory chapter situates her book in the context of prevailing scholarly approaches to modernism (mostly focused on the influence of class and gender), she commendably avoids dismissing modernism for its various retrograde assumptions. While also pointing out where such assumptions are clearly evident—Lawrence’s attitude toward women, for example—Frost takes seriously the collective effort to redefine pleasure and generally affirms modern fiction’s success in turning “difficulty” into a virtue.

The strongest chapters in the book are those on Joyce and Stein. Both present fresh and persuasive readings of these core modernists (something that is by now not easy to do). Almost no one before has looked so closely at scent as a motif in Ulysses, although certainly it is a novel saturated in sensory detail, as well as one that emphasizes its characters’ experiences of pleasure. As Frost herself notes, Joyce is “far less defensive about vernacular culture than many other modernists.” Her discussion focuses on the way in which the scent of perfume, especially for Leopold Bloom, works as a correlative of the more complex understanding of pleasure required to read a novel like Ulysses successfully. Bloom’s preference is for perfumes that mingle the fragrant and the faintly disgusting, the pleasant and the “base,” that produce pleasure partly through unpleasure. For example,

[t]he perfume Bloom tells Martha that Molly uses, Peau d’Espagne, is a…complex fragrance, straddling the line between delicious and noxious. It features leather, musk, and civet in its composition. Its name, ‘Spanish Skin,’ is fitting for Molly’s Gibraltar heritage, and for Bloom’s erotic fantasies about his wife’s ‘animalic’ tendencies…. Unlike perfumes that mask human odors, Peau d’Espagne emphasizes carnal, mammalian scents, musk smeared on leather, the animal in the human.

As she does here, Frost connects Joyce’s use of the odor motif to the more general portrayal of sensual pleasure in the novel, especially erotic pleasure: “Ulysses offers the thematic titillation of bedroom scenes, but the novel’s allusive and ironic layers demand active, analytical reading practices. Joyce mediates somatic pleasures by rendering them aestheticized, self-reflexive, and textually difficult….” By examining the interactions of pleasure and unpleasure in the novel’s depiction of these particular “somatic pleasures,” Frost provides us with the kind of “active, analytical reading” modernist fiction requires, but also demonstrates that such a reading practice makes possible a “cognitive pleasure” that is indeed enjoyable.

Where the difficulties of Ulysses come from both its formal and stylistic variety, the difficulty posed by Gertrude Stein’s work is fundamentally stylistic, produced by the complex effects (of diction, grammar, and syntax) she achieves through her enigmatic orderings of otherwise simple language. Frost proposes that this complexity could be usefully regarded by perplexed readers as a kind of verbal tickling, intended to both provoke and amuse, to “tease” the reader with writing that withholds clarity but also can make the lack of clarity itself oddly satisfying:

Tickling, whose mysterious idiosyncrasies have intrigued theorists from Plato to James to Adam Phillips, strikingly characterizes Stein’s infantile and erotic impulses, her abstraction and sensuality, and the sliding scale of pleasure to irritation that her work arouses.

Frost examines these lines from Tender Buttons, for example:

Go red go red, laugh white.
Suppose a collapse in rubbed purr, in rubbed purr get.
Little sales ladies little sales ladies little saddles of mutton
Little sales of leather and such beautiful beautiful, beautiful beautiful

Frost then remarks:

As this passage illustrates…Stein’s work often evokes tactile sensation, both thematically and through sonic oral play. The ‘rubbed purr’ fondles not just language but also the reader’s lips, mouth and skin as the line is read. However, such sensations are rarely extended, they are aroused suddenly, seemingly out of the blue, and they dissipate just as quickly.

Stein’s work even more directly and insistently than Joyce’s (except in Finnegans Wake) tries to induce the reader to redefine difficulty and indeterminacy as pleasurable in themselves when they enhance our awareness of the satisfactions reading well can provide. The attentive reader will, of course, note the “infantile” and “erotic” qualities of Stein’s writing (no doubt they are closely related), but these more recognizable pleasures can only be accessed through those “analytical reading practices” that often make modern literature seem to involve more work than pleasure.

TenderButtonsThe remaining chapters in The Problem With Pleasure, while not without interest and generally informative about the writers surveyed, are ultimately less convincing. Including writers like Lawrence and Huxley provides additional perspective on the historical circumstances that motivated modern writers’ suspicion of the cheap pleasures to be found in popular culture (in a period when what we now identify as “popular culture” was gaining ascendance), but they are much less representative of the formal and stylistic experimentation that is typical of modernist fiction, and that gained it its reputation as being “difficult” in the first place. The book’s subtitle asks us to consider “modernism and its discontents,” and while both Lawrence and Huxley were certainly discontent with many features of modernity, their discontent did not so much extend to the formal assumptions of fiction itself, a kind of discontent that did indeed inspire most of the writers associated with modernism as a literary movement. If anything, the books of Hamilton and Rhys are even less representative of formal and verbal complexity, however much they reflect the conflicted views of pleasure Frost shows to be more widespread in modern fiction as a whole. The chapter on Anita Loos is an entertaining survey of Loos’s career as a writer of silent film titles and her elevation of title-writing to a more “literary” status; but finally the way in which this experience informs Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is of only modest interest, since it seems unlikely that the novel will survive as an important work of modern fiction.

This variability of focus is arguably not a lapse in judgment on Frost’s part but instead an almost inevitable consequence of the sort of book The Power of Pleasure represents. A work of academic criticism by an academic critic, it exists first of all to find its place in its “field” of professional literary scholarship. While Frost’s book is accessible enough to appeal to non-academic, non-specialist readers, its ultimate value to them is weakened by its more diffuse discussions of writers only loosely related to each other as chronologically “modern.” Ultimately Frost’s most important insight, that the signature “difficulty” of modernist fiction was not a rejection of readerly pleasure but an attempt to redefine and thus enrich it, could surely have been conveyed very effectively in an essay devoted to Joyce and Stein, an essay that would both be credible as a contribution to the scholarly commentary on modern fiction and enlightening to general readers about the motives of writers who otherwise might be perceived as willfully obscure. However, the requirements of academic publishing, as part of the academic system that dispenses recognition and rewards, prescribe instead a “study” that can be extended to book length (the “academic monograph”) as evidence of achievement and seriousness of purpose.

The value of literary criticism ought to be determined by how well it enhances our comprehension and appreciation of works of literature, and ultimately of literature itself. By this measure, early academic critics remain valuable for the rigor and breadth of knowledge they added to the critical repertoire. By now, however, academic criticism has, perhaps inevitably, shifted its ambition from explicating literature to reinforcing its own conventions. It would be a shame if this book’s adherence to these conventions caused readers to avoid it, since it does offer fresh and useful ways of approaching the most important literary phenomenon of the 20th century.

Daniel Green is a critic and writer whose work has appeared in a variety of publications and who maintains the literary weblog, The Reading Experience.