Primordial Modernism

Animals, Ideas, transition (1927-1938)

Cathryn Setz

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Brings ideas and animals together to shed new light on modernist magazine culture
  • Tests the concept of ‘primordial’ modernism as a tributary of primitivism, Jungian thought, and fraught nationalisms
  • Provides readings of Eugene Jolas’s creative and critical works that place him centre-stage in modernist studies
  • Moves between unpublished archival material, reception studies, and readings of overlooked authors
  • Considers a wide range of modernist authors and artists as befitting to such a rich document
  • Touches on contemporary scientific discourse as an aspect of animal studies

This adventurous study focuses on experimental animal writing in the major interwar journal transition (1927–1938), which contains a striking recurrence of metaphors around the most basic forms of life. Amoebas, fish, lizards, birds – some of the ‘lowest’ and ‘oldest’ creatures on earth often emerge at the very places authors seek expressions for the ‘newest’ and the ‘highest’ in art. Discussing works by James Joyce, Henry Miller, Gottfried Benn, Eugene Jolas, Kay Boyle, Bryher, Paul Éluard and more, Cathryn Setz investigates this paradox and provides a new understanding of transition’s contribution to twentieth-century periodical culture.

List of figures Acknowledgements Introduction

  1. Amoeba: figures of abstraction, Surrealist influence, and the Revolution of the Word
  2. Fish: evolving the artwork in James Joyce’s ‘Shem the Penman’ (1927)
  3. Lizard: Gottfried Benn, ‘the "dark" side of modernism’, and transition’s ‘pineal eye’
  4. Bird: editorial flights with Eugene Jolas

ConclusionBibliography Index

Cathryn Setz is the first scholar who dares systematically study a key modernist magazine (the famous transition) via its fantastic zoology. Animals like amoebas, lizards, fish, and birds function as uncanny attractors bringing out problematics of raw life and pre-verbal expression, Ur-myths of nonhuman forms of social life. In this brilliant and captivating book, Setz offers us a new Origin of Species of transatlantic modernism.
Jean-Michel Rabaté, University of Pennsylvania, American Academy of Arts and Sciences
Primordial Modernism asks us to behold modernism afresh, through pineal eyes. Gone is the fetishization of male ego that once made Wyndham Lewis’s coinage, “the Men of 1914”, a reasonable characterization of the modernist movement. Gone, too, is the fetishizationof genius. Jolas is celebrated by Setz primarily for his influence on other writers, while the most august of the magazine’s contributors, James Joyce, is shrunk; Setz puts it beautifully: “The ‘Work in Progress’ was an agenda-setting presence [for transition], and the slither of that world of a book explored here has received a necessarily partial discussion”.
Beci Carver, Times Literary Supplement
Cathryn Setz is an Associate Visiting Research Fellow at the Rothermere American Institute at the University of Oxford. Her work explores the junctions between modernist magazine culture and popular science, specifically around the ‘Eclipse of Darwinism’, ‘bad’ biology in 1920s America, and literary resistance to scientific racism. She is also Co-Editor of Shattered Objects: Djuna Barnes’s Modernism (Penn State University Press, 2019), and a collaborative Selected Letters of Djuna Barnes project.

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