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T.S. Eliot’s untrendy underwear

Beci Dobbin interviewed by Richard Marshall.

Beci Dobbin writes with nifty insight about modernism as a modernness. She thinks there’s a snobbery about Orwell that keeps him out. She finds the snobbery in Nabakov too substantial to dismiss as a whim. She’s interested in modernism’s approach to the business of living and its connection to technology and the slap-stick of Laurel and Hardy. And Kierkegaard’s elf. Which all in all makes her a groovacious curve of fab.

3:AM: What made you become an English specialist? Were you always a reader or was it something you gradually felt the need to do or what?

BD: I’ve always read a lot. I grew up on top of a hill in Wales so there wasn’t much else to do.

3:AM: You look at British literary modernism, technology and Nabokov – although you mention Nabakov tentatively. Before we start, could you say what you take modernism to be? Is it something best understood in terms of what it isn’t or what it rejects or do you think there are key characteristics that can be identified even across the diversity of writers it seems to encompass, from Orwell to Joyce to Beckett to Auden etc?

BD: The jury’s still out on whether Modernism exists, or whether it’s just a way of being snobbish about people like Orwell, who tends not to make the cut. In my book, I define the movement in terms of an impulse towards ‘modernness’, which, for instance, might take the form of an attempt to include words like ‘automatic’ in one’s poetry. I was amused to find that Tennyson poeticises telegraph signals in Idylls of the King as: ‘thunderless lightnings striking under sea.’ A Modernist would have revelled in the clipped rhythm of ‘telegraph’.

In addition to showing an interest in what it might mean to be ‘modern’ (there’s never a clear definition, of course), Modernist writers may also be distinguished by what Bourdieu usefully calls ‘artistic pretensions’. The question of Orwell’s classification as a Modernist is a particularly fraught one because he famously claimed to prioritise the practical, communicative function of language. It’s also hard to take seriously his only obviously experimental novel, The Clergyman’s Daughter, which he himself dismissed as ‘bollocks’.


3:AM: You’ve an essay forthcoming entitled ‘An elf wearing a hat that makes him invisible ’: Modernism’s Shy irony.’ Is that reference to the shy irony a clue to something you find important in modernism? And what’s with the elf?

BD: I think that’s a nice word for it: clue. Shy irony is a form of irony that hides; it’s like a buried clue. Do you know the joke about the ‘shy gene’ that remains hypothetical because it hides behind the other genes? Well, this follows the same principle. Paul de Mann says that it’s impossible to be ‘a little bit ironic’, and I’m arguing the opposite: that sometimes Modernist literature de-emphasises its irony.

The elf comes from Kierkegaard, who defines irony as a sort of flamboyant absence. You’re made conscious of its existence, but you can’t put your finger on it. Shy irony is less flamboyant, more absent. It’s a way of being private in public, literature being, by definition, public, because it’s a mode of expression. We’re good at being private in public these days; the commuter lifestyle encourages it. So, I suppose you could say that shy irony is ‘important’ in the sense that it’s a way of being modern. But I don’t think we’re good at irony anymore. It tends to be a bit all or nothing; drum roll, irony: no vanishing elves.

3:AM: One of the things you’re interested in is the relationship between modernism, technological innovation and what you call ‘the business of living’. An interesting feature of this is that modern technologies – like vacuum cleaners and tv – didn’t appear everywhere at the same time. So the USA was ahead of everywhere, and in Europe it was uneven. But it wasn’t just a question of whether it was available, it was also a matter of funds. So the British modernists couldn’t afford the stuff, unlike their American modernists. Is this right? Can you say something about what difference this made to writers’ attitudes towards the new, and who are we talking about when looking for examples?

BD: There’s some truth in what you say about the time lapse in availability, but the question of what people could ‘afford’ is a complicated one. In 1921, when Eliot was writing the section of The Waste Land that describes a modern typist who ‘puts a record on the gramophone’ when she’s feeling dazed, gramophones were still expensive. Eliot had one himself, but he was earning substantially more than she would have been.

So, either the gramophone is introduced to raise doubts about her authenticity, or she bought one by installments (which people often did in the period), or she stole it, or was given it. Eliot himself had recently written to thank his brother for leaving behind his typewriter as a gift. In answer to your question, then, I’d say that the way to approach one’s research for an essay about technology in Modernist literature, whether British or American, is to find the literary references first and then contextualise them as best you can (there’s lots of historical work still to be done on the cultural emergence of particular technologies). If you find a reference, you know a writer has come across what he or she is describing, whether at home or elsewhere; in the office, on film screens, in magazines, or while travelling.

3:AM: So in your essay on Laurel and Hardy’sThe Dancing Masters’ you relate this theme of modernity to film as well as literature. So how was technology presented in modernist films and what attitudes are revealed?

BD: Slapstick films of the Modernist period tended to approach technology, and particularly the labour-saving device, as a good source for gags; e.g. the vacuum cleaner in ‘The Dancing Masters’ spills its contents all over the carpet. But it’s hard to deduce an ‘attitude’ from moments like these because the whole point of slapstick comedy (at the time) was to find the potential for clownishness in everyday activities. It wasn’t that vacuum cleaners per se were ridiculous, but that they had the potential to be amusing.

On the other hand, it’s possible to see these films as a kind of anti-advert, publicising worst case scenarios. On the other hand, as they say, any press is good press. So, I think you could say that early slapstick films reveal an interest in the comic potential of the labour-saving device, but no more. It’s worth adding here too that it’s especially difficult to ferret out ‘attitudes’ in comedy, except in satire, of course, where you know that something is being undermined.

3:AM: And did modernist literature and film talk to each other about technology and the business of living? Are there examples of direct borrowing or lifting, one form from the other, or of commenting?

BD: I taught a dissertation a few years ago on Beckett and Chaplin, and discovered in the process not only that Beckett liked and was influenced by Chaplin but also that slapstick film in general was warmly regarded by quite a number of Modernists. Alfred Appel in his book on Nabokov and cinema notes how the famously snobbish writer brightened when he described a Laurel and Hardy slapstick sketch, which he remembered in detail. For lots of writers who saw themselves as having taste, there was something compelling about the intricacy of slapstick, and more broadly about the paradox of a calculated accident. In my essay, I use this paradox as a way in to thinking about the representation of technology in film and literature, and ultimately in to thinking about Modernism, which was deeply, you might even say neurotically, concerned with neatness. I don’t discuss direct references to films in my essay, but there’s plenty to say on that score. Michael North’s Machine-Age Comedy says some of it.

3:AM: You ask why TS Eliot’s typist in his translation of Anabasis is only almost modern. You focus on how he dresses the woman. What’s going on here with Eliot? You say that she is ‘a tragic victim with the costume of a pantomine dame’ and that its muffled levity is a modernist experiment. What is going on and what does this tell us about modernist (or at least Eliot’s) attitudes to the business of living?


BD: That section of The Waste Land is usually read as an indictment of all things modern, including the lifestyle of a modern typist, who lives in a cramped modern flat, has perfunctory sex, plays gramophone music to cheer herself up, and hangs her underwear out to dry after a day at the office. The problem with this argument, I suggest in the chapter on Eliot in my book, is that her underwear isn’t modern; it’s distinctly old-fashioned.

In Eliot’s translation of Anabasis, he shows that he knew the terms for modern underwear (one of his translations for the silk lingerie hanging from a washing line in the French poem is ‘camiknickers’, which were new and trendy at the time). So, Eliot consciously chose untrendy underwear for his typist. The reason for this, I argue, is that he wanted The Waste Land to be a bitty poem, full of unassimilated detail. This fits into the larger thesis of my book, that Modernist literature understood and represented everyday life as a mess of details.

3:AM: You’ve thought about the ‘waste’ in The Waste Land in a great essay in Critical Quarterly. It’s a contested theme isn’t it? Is this Eliot rejecting the incoming modern technologies and so forth, and kind of relishing the ruins, or is his attitude more complex than that? What are the competing readings of this?

BD: The poem is often read as some sort of grand statement about modernity, but I think it’s about being modern, which, for Eliot in the late 1910 and early 1920s, meant trying to find a house in a city that must have seemed like one big building site at the time, and trying to juggle writing and his day job, and on top of that, trying to establish what he thought of as a new ‘literary tradition.’

All of these were modern problems in the sense that they belonged specifically to the period, but Eliot isn’t standing back and reflecting on his times: he’s reacting to them. You might read the poem as a sort of working definition of the modern condition. What marks my reading as original is its suggestion that Eliot hasn’t made up his mind. His thoughts are in transition, like London itself. Waste means wasting.

3:AM: You’ve written about George Orwell’s squeamishness. What was he squeamish about and why is it significant?

BD: Orwell uses the phrase ‘middle-class squeamishness’ in The Road to Wigan Pier to describe his reaction to the prospect of sharing a drinking cup with someone from a lower class. My question in the essay is whether squeamishness is always just snobbish in his work, or whether there’s more to it. In The Clergyman’s Daughter, when the heroine rejects an offer of marriage in favour of a life of chores as a sort of parish dogsbody, she decides to drink from a side of the communion cup with no saliva on it. The change that allows her to adapt to her life panders to her squeamishness, but it’s still an important change. For her, squeamishness is more than just snobbishness: it offers her a way out of victimhood.

On the other hand, Raymond Williams argues that by making minor adjustments, she and other Orwell characters put off the opportunity to express their dissatisfaction. Squeamishness is a fairly wimpish form of protest. I come to the conclusion in my essay that squeamishness can be politically meaningful when there are no other means of resistance to hand. Winston, at the end of Nineteen-Eighty Four, is unable to reason for himself and knows that his phobias can be manipulated by Big Brother, so his squeamishness, which doesn’t rely on reason and isn’t manipulable in the way that phobia is, is his only way of registering his non- or incomplete allegiance to the totalitarian state.


3:AM: You contributed to Subha Mukjerji’sThinking on Thresholds’ by discussing the ‘queer part doors play’ in Nabakov’s Laughter In The Dark. Can you say something about this and what is that queer part? And could you say a little about the project as a whole and the role of thresholds in modernist literature?

BD: There’s a great moment about midway through the novel when Nabokov smirks that his main character, Albinus, is ‘quite unconscious of the queer part doors play in his and her [his lover’s] life.’ At the time, Albinus is standing behind the bathroom door, calling to his lover, who, unbeknown to him, is having sex with their mutual friend in the adjoining suite. The door of the bathroom plays a part in their love life, but so does the mutual friend, who is pretending to be queer. So, Albinus is both unaware of the fact that doors have a habit of standing between him and his lover, and that Rex, who plays a ‘queer part’, also stands between them.

My essay goes on the think about the role of doors in the novel, which are often associated with obstruction, both from a comic or slapstick perspective, and from a tragic one. On one level, I think the novel is about suffocation; Albinus wants to escape from his marriage, but also from death itself. It’s important that doorways are thresholds; that you can move back and forth across them. The changes they symbolise aren’t final. And I think that has implications for the project as a whole. The doorway is a space of transition; it keeps options open. The idea of resisting finality is also important for Modernist literature more generally. There’s a bizarre image in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse of a tongue in a keyhole, which must be sexual of course, but it also seems to define language as something that lingers in an unlocked door.

3:AM: One thing I always feel about some of the modernist stuff is that it is pretty negative and snobbish about popular culture. In your talk about Nabakov you relate his sense of the vulgarity of garishness as a mode of inspiration. This you connect with the photographer Walker Evan’s sneering ‘There are four words which must be whispered: colour photography is vulgar.’ Can you say more about this because it made Nabokov’s attitude look kind of complex – given that he needed his snobbery as inspiration perhaps he needed the garish despite his feelings towards it? So perhaps the snobbery is only apparent and not deep? And perhaps the same could be said about the relationship of other high culture snobs in the modernist canon to the garish? Taking your essay as a starting point, could you say something about this?

BD: One of the things I find curious about Nabokov is the relation between his snobbery and his enthusiasms. Lolita is the trashiest of his heroines, and he spent lots of his time pontificating about the foolishness of trashy taste, but she’s also fascinating, not just to Humbert Humbert, but to Nabokov. The way some critics get round this contradiction is to argue that Lolita is a work of satire, but I don’t think that’s right because satire isn’t interested in celebrating what it condemns/critiques.


On the other hand, you can’t say that Nabokov is celebrating Lolita, colour photography and all things trashy in the novel without ignoring his stated views. Your suggestion that his snobbery may be ‘only apparent and not deep’ is one solution to the problem, but there’s so much evidence of it in his essays and interviews, as well as in his novels, that it’s hard to dismiss as a whim. Even if his snobbery isn’t deep in the sense of deeply considered, it’s certainly substantial. My approach to solving this problem is to analyse moments in Nabokov’s work where immersive interest coincides with disapproval, and to read them as models for the author’s own paradoxical ‘shallow immersion.’

For instance, in Nabokov’s first play, The Tragedy of Mister Morn – which Tommy Karshan and Anastasia Tolstoy have just translated brilliantly – one of the characters kicks himself for having fallen under the spell of a woman he finds ‘shallow.’ In answer to the second part of your question, I don’t think this problem of trashy fascination arises in the same way for other Modernists. David Chinitz has written a fantastic book about TS Eliot’s interest in ragtime, but there’s no hint that Eliot’s snobbery might encroach on that interest. In fact, Chinitz’s Eliot seems to credit the medium with real intricacy.

3:AM: Is modernism over or do you think in writers like Coetzee and Foster Wallace (or other writers if you prefer) there are still modernist traces still running?

BD: I’ve just been writing about Foster Wallace’s Modernism, actually. The short answer is that the word ‘modern’ has to be historical to have any meaning at all, so if writers are Modernists now – in the sense of aspiring to be ‘modern’ – it means something different. The argument that contemporary writers are Modernist in the sense that they resemble Twentieth-century Modernists is problematic for the same reason; that the meaning of ‘modern’ has changed. I suppose you could say that they’re Modernist-ists in the sense that they set out to be Modernist rather than ‘modern.’

3:AM: When you’re not immersed in deciphering the modernist’s attitude to the business of living, who are the contemporary writers and film makers that you find inspirational and enlightening?

BD: It’s a bit embarrassing, but the only contemporary poetry I read is by Cambridge poets: Emma Jones, Angela Leighton, Rod Mengham, Jeremy Prynne. It’s all great, though. My favourite contemporary novelists are Don DeLillo and Cormac McCarthy. Again, predictable. And like everyone else I watch lots of Mad Men. I’m not really a film buff; I know I’m missing out.

3AM: And for the readers here at 3:AM who are keen to go deeper into the modernist world, are there 5 books about the period that you’d recommend?

BD: David Trotter’s Cinema and Modernism
Lawrence Rainey’s Institutions of Modernism: Literary Elites and Public Culture
Michael Levenson’s Modernism and the Fate of Individuality: Character and Novelistic Form from Conrad to Woolf
Raymond Williams’s Politics of Modernism
Maud Ellmann’s The Nets of Modernism: Henry James, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce and Sigmund Freud

Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, July 20th, 2012.