The Problem with Pleasure: Modernism and Its Discontents

Laura Catherine Frost, Author
Laura Frost. Columbia Univ., $35 (304p) ISBN 978-0-231-15272-3
Book - 213 pages - 978-0-231-52646-3
Open Ebook - 1 pages - 978-1-306-31386-5
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As most English majors would admit, reading modernist poetry or novels is often a difficult experience. But as New School literature professor Frost (Sex Drives: Fantasies of Fascism in Literary Modernism) details in this accessible volume, the difficulty is part of the point. Frost argues that suspicion of the seductions of mass entertainment led many modernists to subvert easy enjoyment in favor of “unpleasure.” Somewhere between pleasure and pain, unpleasure is the product of bewilderment, frustration, and strenuous cognitive work cultivated through textual experimentation, riddlelike constructions, or a repudiation of popular forms. Among the highlights in Frost’s analysis of modernist bliss are a discussion of scent in Ulysses, the use of “tickling” as a model for understanding Gertrude Stein’s textual effects, as well as the “orgasmic discipline” of D.H. Lawrence that veers between novel and familiar pleasures. Frost also investigates the class origins and gendering of pleasure in Patrick Hamilton and Jean Rhys, and the synthesis of popular pleasure and highbrow language games in the work of Anita Loos. Loos, finally, offers Frost a bridge between the modern and the postmodern, which she addresses in a coda on David Foster Wallace’s ambivalence toward the ubiquity of pleasurable content in contemporary media. While aimed at academic audiences and undeniably trendy in its exploration of affect, this is an original and useful revision to our understanding of modernism. (July)
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