"Myths tongue-tied with girl-talk" : sexuality and aesthetics in ' female' modernism

Young, Suzanne Hamilton, Department of English, University of Virginia
Booth, Alison, Department of English, University of Virginia
Fraiman, Susan, Department of English, University of Virginia

This dissertation brings scholarship on gender and sexuality to bear on the traditional study of modernist form. I look at the way late 1920s works by Virginia Woolf, Djuna Barnes, and H.D. respond to aesthetic and sexological discourses of the decade. Scientific talk surrounding the new woman and the "mannish lesbian" (both of whom desired "male" privileges) fueled a wider debate about the rights, status, and abilities of all women and, by the 1920s, public opinion conflated the two figures as unnatural intellectual and sexual over-reachers. This social discrediting of female figures associated with "excess" and "artifice" became part of the modernist project through the gendered language of high modernist aesthetic pronouncements. Scholars have noted that male modernists posed their "hard," "objective," and "impersonal" ideal for modem writing against the "soft," "sentimental," and "subjective." What I argue is that a writer's relationship to language was defined not merely by gendered assumptions, but by a heterosexualized rhetoric drawn from sexological models. High modernist preferences for the natural over the artificial, concision over excess, and objectivity over subjectivity echo the distinctions between "normal" and "perverse" sexuality of popularized sexology. In response to high modernist emphasis on a "natural language" free of "ornament" and a "natural object" that is evident to perception, Woolf's Orlando treats the natural style as itself an artifice and uses the resisting masquerade of the "intermediate sex" to satirize the conflicting desire to know and not know about the lesbian underlying the visual confidence of modernism and sexology. Djuna Barnes's Ladies Almanack presents an aesthetic of ornamental excess that values proliferation of language and desire in contrast to modernist calls for concision and discipline, on the one hand, and sexological cures for "excessive" lesbian sexuality in punishment of the body, on the other. In the face of medical and aesthetic calls to achieve a "mature" objectivity by rejecting adolescent thralldom to lesbian sexuality or melopoeic language, H.D.'s HERmione claims the bisexual agency of adolescence by reversing the psychoanalytic meaning of the lesbian relation as an "arrested" stage; instead, H.D. creates an unapologetically subjective, narcissistic sexuality and textuality.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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