The problem of memory in modernism: Gestures of memory in Virginia Woolf, Wallace Stevens, Marcel Duchamp, and Samuel Beckett
This dissertation is an interdisciplinary interpretation of modernism that argues the problem of memory is a central theoretical link between the diverse cultures, genres, and forms of experimental twentieth century art and literature. The dissertation reads the literary history of modernism and the philosophical redefinition of memory offered by writers such as Freud and Nietzsche in the light of contemporary theorists of memory associated with Holocaust and trauma studies.
I locate Virginia Woolf's work in the context of a London beset not only by the losses of the Great War but also by the burden of memorializing the war's losses. I show how the experience of transnational exile—a predominant, formative phenomenon in the twentieth century culture—is accounted for in the work of one of America's seemingly most provincial modern poets, Wallace Stevens. My recontextualization of Stevens takes the specific form of a comparison between his poetry and the artwork of Marcel Duchamp. When rigorously and exhaustively explored by Beckett, the limits of representation call out, on the one hand, for new forms while on the other hand his work for the theater complicates any attempt to reconstitute or reconfigure the past. I argue that this locates his drama in the context of the Holocaust.
I describe a particular way in which memory is figured by the literary work, or I analyze a particular way in which memory is figured in twentieth century culture that the artist critiques or counteracts. I use the term "gesture of memory" to distinguish between these figurations and the notion of stable memories either held in the mind or inscribed in collective forms like monuments. I contend that each writer recognizes, on the one hand, that in the wake of events like World War One and the Holocaust the duty of the artist is to make viable an aesthetic of critique, undermining collective forms of memory. However, each writer recognizes this critique does not obviate the need to memorialize. I thus define the gestural as that which exists in the middle-ground between purposeful memorial inscription and the withholding of this determinate shape typical of modernist art.
British and Irish literature
0377: Art history
0591: American literature
0593: British and Irish literature