This is second part of Laura Frost’s essay “Of Modernism and Muscle Cars” (you can read part 1 here). Laura Frost is the author of The Problem with Pleasure: Modernism and Its Discontents
“Modern literature should be commemorated in all its difficulty and beauty, with all the features that make it a formidable and demanding pleasure.”—Laura Frost
We left off with the USPS “Modern Art in America” Forever™ stamp series. The experimental techniques we see in those images– abstraction, multiple perspectives, and surreal juxtapositions–have equivalents in modern literature’s fragmented language, multiple points of view, obscure allusions, and ambiguity. Both modern literature and art make enormous demands on their audiences, challenging them to embrace difficulty as a cardinal virtue and even a pleasure.
However, while visual art lends itself to mass reproduction like the images on the USPS stamps, it’s difficult to fit, say, the “Time Passes” section from Woolf’s To the Lighthouse onto a stamp. When authors are commemorated, it’s their faces, not their works, that represent them. In 2012, the USPS issued a Twentieth-Century Poets series that did just that; Woolf, Hemingway, Stein, and Joyce all graced the cover of Time while they were alive. But the portrait approach is wrong: modern writers were preoccupied with depth, interiority, and, above all, textuality: the play words on the page. A composed snapshot—say, of Virginia Woolf in a ruffled blouse–just doesn’t begin to capture the quality of her work.
It’s tough to excerpt modern literature for user-friendly purposes. Take, for example, Marks & Spencer’s “Celebrate the Best of British” merchandise this past summer. It included Union Jack-festooned plates and picnic blankets, tins of shortbread trumpeting “good wishes to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on the Birth of Their Beautiful Baby,” and a shopping tote emblazoned with a quote from A Room of One’s Own: “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” And shopped well? Sure, it’s cute (believe me, I wanted one), but the actual context of the quote is hardly a cheery promotion of picnics: it’s a discussion of the deprivations of women’s education. Really, a more representative quote for Woolf would be, “Killing the Angel in the House was part of the occupation of a woman writer”: put that on a coffee mug, M&S!
More egregiously, last April, the Bank of Ireland issued a new ten euro coin showing James Joyce’s face on one side and, on the reverse, an excerpt from the “Proteus” episode in Ulysses, when Stephen Dedalus walks on the beach and ruminates on Aristotle, the German theologian Jakob Boehme, and perception: “Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read.” It was a great quotation to choose—obscure, perplexing–except the Bank got the quote wrong and inserted an extra “that.” Great hilarity ensued (“A Blooming Mistake,” “James Joyce Coin-troversy,” etc.).
Why can’t modern literature be presented as effectively as the USPS “Modern Art” series–or even its “Muscle Cars” series? Surely The Waste Land is as compelling as Joseph Stella’s Brooklyn Bridge or the 1970 Plymouth Hemi ‘Cuda? But let’s not soft-pedal it. Modern literature should be commemorated in all its difficulty and beauty, with all the features that make it a formidable and demanding pleasure.
So why not a series of stamps featuring emblematic phrases from modern literature? Wouldn’t it be nice to pay your next big Visa bill with a stamp proclaiming “The horror! The horror!”? Or to send your next love letter with a sexy line from Tender Buttons, “A cool red rose and a pink cut pink, a collapse and a sold hole, a little less hot” (or the more obvious, “A rose is a rose is a rose”)? True, many great modernist phrases probably wouldn’t fly with the USPS (“Once a bitch always a bitch, what I say” comes to mind). But seriously, each of these fragments would ideally provoke the reader to seek out the original source: a first step toward the active pleasures of modern literature. Wouldn’t you think twice if you received a letter with one of these phrases?
“Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically.”
“like a ripple on an unfathomable enigma”
“I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”
“in the middle of my party, here’s death, she thought.”
And of course, the crowd-pleasing “and yes I said yes I will Yes.” But please, USPS, get the punctuation right.