“It’s a rare work of academic literary criticism that finds a general audience. There is still a kind of snobbery—not unlike the modernists’, actually—that if it’s not ponderous, contorted, and insular, then it’s not serious. God forbid that scholarly work should be fun, stylish, and have a distinctive voice.”—Laura Frost
The following is an interview with Laura Frost, author of The Problem with Pleasure: Modernism and Its Discontents. For more from Frost, you can also read her post “Of Muscle Cars and Modernism,” (part 1, part 2). We are also offering a FREE copy of the book!
Question: Why focus on pleasure in modernism? What exactly was the problem that modernists’ had with pleasure?
Laura Frost: If you read a lot of modern literature, you appreciate “the fascination of what’s difficult.” It’s tough going: it involves a lot of deciphering, decoding, and interpretation. This is something all scholars in the field acknowledge, but it tends to get lost or naturalized as modernist techniques become familiar to us. When you teach modern lit to undergraduates, for example, it reminds you of how challenging it is. While the students are asking, “Why is this author making things so hard for me?” you are trying to convince them that it’s interesting, consequential, and, well, fantastic. Modern critics and writers constantly invoked the concept of pleasure and difficulty to distinguish their project from other forms of culture.
Q: How would they define or defend difficulty as a pathway to pleasure?
LF: The critic Q. D. Leavis, for example, described popular fiction, cinema, dancing, newspapers, and radio as producing “cheap and easy pleasure,” while she argued that modernist fiction gives rise to pleasure that has to be struggled for and earned: pleasure that almost doesn’t even correspond with conventional definitions of pleasure. Remember, this is the period of Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle, which explores the attractions of contorted, painful, and seemingly unpleasurable pleasure. That’s a great description of modernist readerly pleasure. The usual ways of thinking about modernism, such as the high/low or elite/popular culture divide are actually based on these distinctions about different qualities of pleasure. However, even as modernists set up these distinctions and valorize hard cognitive labor, they clearly recognized the attractions of the culture (popular novels, cinema, and so on) they put down, and they are constantly sneaking in similar techniques. So if you consider modern literature through the lens of pleasure, you get a new reading of old paradigms, a new understanding of interwar culture, and a new understanding of what it means to read and enjoy modernism.
Q: The role of technology plays an important role in your book. How did new technologies and the explosion of popular mass media shape modernists’ views of pleasure?
LF: Mechanized, automatic pleasure is something many modernists criticized as inauthentic and meaningless: “fake pleasure.” Emergent technology was thought to facilitate this effortlessness, in which machines do not so much alienate (like, say, the mechanisms in Chaplin’s Modern Times) as they make simple, somatic pleasure all too accessible.
Cinema was a key example of this ambivalence about technology and pleasure. Authors describe cinema spectatorship as intoxicating, distracting, regressive, hypnotic, and escapist, but also as disorienting, alienating, addictive, boring, or even nauseating. The circumstances of cinema going—sitting passively in the dark and watching–were thought to produce a distinctive mental and physical reaction in the viewer. The addition of sound added a new dimension: many critics of early talkies felt that there was something overwhelming about all this stimulation. The momentous transition from cinematic silence to sound in the interwar period is a recurring reference point for the authors I examine: for example, it underpins the pornographic “feelies” in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World; My book weaves films such as D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance, The Jazz Singer, the blockbuster Rudolph Valentino film The Sheik, British nature documentaries (The Secrets of Nature), Douglas Fairbanks comedies, and Felix the Cat cartoons throughout the story of modern literature as authors set up cinematic pleasure as a foil for the more deliberate, cognitive pleasures of reading.
Q: Your book ends with a discussion of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Does the modernists’ ambivalent, difficult relationship with pleasure have anything to say about our contemporary era that at times seems awash in entertainment and pleasure?
There’s a scene in the film Before Midnight (2013) where a group of characters sits around a dinner table and the talk turns to pleasure. The Julie Delpy character, Celine, brings up a classic scientific experiment about pleasure, where James Olds and Peter Milner embedded electrodes in the brains of rats, allowing them to stimulate the pleasure-centers of their brains. The rats neglected food, water, and their young in order to keep feeling good. (David Foster Wallace also writes about this experiment in Infinite Jest.) Celine’s husband, Jess (Ethan Hawke), speculates that we have become like the rats, that “we’re pleasure-obsessed, porn-addled materialists, ceding our humanity to technology at the same moment that computers are becoming sentient.” The modernist nightmare of amusement on demand has been realized, at least for those who can afford it. Leaving aside the computers and the electrodes, the discussion about virtual pleasure is not that different from the early twentieth century debates about culture. There was a widespread sense that technologies of mass culture were corrosive because they made simple, base pleasure too accessible, and that people were mindlessly consuming them.
Q: Does the modernists’ conception of pleasure, likewise our own, also take on a gender dimension?
There was a lot of anxiety about women’s increasing autonomy: women’s ability to articulate and explore pleasure of all kinds is a key cultural development in the twentieth century. Despite the dubious claim that we’re in a “post-feminist” moment, there is still a fixation on women’s sexuality and autonomy, and their relationship to pleasure. A book like Daniel Bergner’s What Do Women Want?, which got so much attention this year by arguing that women are alienated from their true desires and have difficulty achieving pleasure, is symptomatic of how women’s pleasure is still construed as “the dark continent,” as Freud described it about a hundred years ago! So clearly, we are still trying to come to terms with pleasure, and modernism is still relevant to that discussion.
Q: Shifting gears a bit, there is a perception that academic critics themselves are guilty of robbing pleasure from the reading fiction. Do you think there is a place for academic literary criticism to engage a range of readers in thinking about modernist literature and its continuing relevance in new ways?
It’s a rare work of academic literary criticism that finds a general audience. There is still a kind of snobbery—not unlike the modernists’, actually—that if it’s not ponderous, contorted, and insular, then it’s not serious. God forbid that scholarly work should be fun, stylish, and have a distinctive voice.
That said, I think what academic work can bring to the table is historical context and a broader, perhaps more synthetic view of cultural phenomena: so, for example, I briefly trace the debate about pleasure back to classical Greek philosophers and also point to theorists like Kant who are in the background of the modernist story. Also, in many ways, we’ve absorbed the lessons of modernism: recent graphic novels, television, and films demonstrate the extent to which we’re accustomed to experimental, fragmented and non-linear narrative. But the modernist attention to language is something that is still surprising and useful for us. Authors like Conrad or Joyce still have a lot to teach us about what language can do.