Read Ghostwriting Modernism: Transnationalism and Sri Lanka's Migrant Housemaids by Helen Sword Online


Spiritualism is often dismissed by literary critics and historians as merely a Victorian fad. Helen Sword demonstrates that it continued to flourish well into the twentieth century and seeks to explain why. Literary modernism, she maintains, is replete with ghosts and spirits. In Ghostwriting Modernism she explores spiritualism's striking persistence and what she calls "thSpiritualism is often dismissed by literary critics and historians as merely a Victorian fad. Helen Sword demonstrates that it continued to flourish well into the twentieth century and seeks to explain why. Literary modernism, she maintains, is replete with ghosts and spirits. In Ghostwriting Modernism she explores spiritualism's striking persistence and what she calls "the vexed relationship between mediumistic discourse and modernist literary aesthetics."Sword begins with a brief historical review of popular spiritualism's roots in nineteenth-century literary culture. In subsequent chapters, she discusses the forms of mediumship most closely allied with writing, the forms of writing most closely allied with mediumship, and the thematic and aesthetic alliances between popular spiritualism and modernist literature. Finally, she accounts for the recent proliferation of a spiritualist-influenced vocabulary (ghostliness, hauntings, the uncanny) in the works of historians, sociologists, philosophers, and especially literary critics and theorists.Documenting the hitherto unexplored relationship between spiritualism and modern authors (some credulous, some skeptical), Sword offers compelling readings of works by James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, W. B. Yeats, H.D., James Merrill, Sylvia Plath, and Ted Hughes. Even as modernists mock spiritualism's ludicrous lingo and deride its metaphysical excesses, she finds, they are intrigued and attracted by its ontological shiftiness, its blurring of the traditional divide between high culture and low culture, and its self-serving tendency to favor form over content (medium, so to speak, over message). Like modernism itself, Sword asserts, spiritualism embraces rather than eschews paradox, providing an ideological space where conservative beliefs can coexist with radical, even iconoclastic, thought and action....

Title : Ghostwriting Modernism: Transnationalism and Sri Lanka's Migrant Housemaids
Author :
Rating :
ISBN : 9780801487750
Format Type : Paperback
Number of Pages : 224 Pages
Status : Available For Download
Last checked : 21 Minutes ago!

Ghostwriting Modernism: Transnationalism and Sri Lanka's Migrant Housemaids Reviews

  • Joshua Buhs
    2018-09-19 10:01

    Here’s what I imagined as I read this book: Someone who’d caught a fish without really trying or wanting to; not knowing what to do with it; alternately fascinated and troubled, but mostly squigged out by the flopping, slimy, scaly beast.Helen Sword discovered that spiritualism—that is, the practice of mediums communicating with the dead in seances—was a repeated trope in high-modernist writings by the likes of Eliott and Pound and H.D. and she couldn’t figure out why they’d bother with such ridiculous stuff (pp. 8-9):“The very characteristics that so discomfited nineteenth-century intellectuals, I argue here, can help to explain spiritualism’s persistent, sometimes baffling appeal for twentieth-century writers. Even when they mocked its ludicrous lingo and derided its metaphysical excesses, modernist writers were intrigued and attracted by spiritualism’s ontological shiftiness; its location of authorial power in physical abjection; its subversive celebration of alternate, often explicitly feminine, modes of writing; its transgressions of the traditional divide between high ad low culture; and its self-serving tendency to privilege form over content, medium over message.”As befitting a book about a subject that the author considers gross, the narrative seems much longer than it is: the text goes to only page 166, but that includes a preface, introduction, and epilogue, as well as pages devoted to long quotes of poetry that take up a lot of space on the page. Yet the book is a long, slow read.Sword starts out characterizing, briefly, the history of spiritualism from the nineteenth century to the twentieth, and qualifying it as a particularly low form of culture. (She insists upon calling it “popular spiritualism”) which is already problematic, given that the distinctions between high and low culture were just then being drawn (and simultaneously subverted)—but she wants to emphasize that spiritualism is something that did not belong among the highly cultured and its presence there is, hence, a problem that needs explaining. She takes pains to emphasize that often the modernist writers who borrowed spiritualist imagery were themselves not credulous believers, but did so for theoretical reasons.The first fully argued chapter argues that one of the main drawing points of spiritualism—as far as cultured modernists went—was that it questioned the authenticity of authorship. When a book was written about a spiritualist medium’s channeling of some controls thoughts, who was the author? The control? The medium? The person who arranged the material? She notes that there was a proliferation of ways to deal with this problem until the 1940s when librarians finally systematized the process. (And re-did so again in the 1970s, paradoxically giving priority to the spirit.)As one would expect—again—an author dealing with a subject she herself finds repugnant, she turns away from the subject at hand and finds solace in theory: the fish is less its own thing than a biological object that could be fit into some taxonomic schema. Of course, this recourse to theory is a notorious feature of literary criticism, and was particularly so in the 1990s. This book was published in 2002 and shows its age already. And so concerns about authorship are quickly translated into theoretical issues plumbed by Foucault in his distinction between writer and author. The more interesting bits of the history (to me)—the actual fish itself—with the debate among librarians over how to deal with this newfangled form of writing is mentioned, but briefly, and then put in the service of more distant theoretical concerns.The next chapter starts with the theoretical concerns: in this case, Sword builds on Harold Bloom’s “Anxiety of Influence”—the idea that really good authors are locked in a basically Oedipal fight with the writers that came before them. (She notes the Oedipal language almost locks women out of the whole dynamic, but then gives examples of them fighting with their own literary fathers.) In the case of mediumship, the actual dead author could be resuscitated, interrogated, and reinterpreted. The subsequent chapter builds on this insight and focuses exclusively on how Shakespeare was a common figure for spiritualists to resurrect, and for authors to bring to life in their own works, using spiritualist tropes: James Joyce, for example, had a scene featuring the (virtual) resurrection of Shakespeare in the modernist locus clasicus Ulysses. Joyce, Sword emphasizes, was not a credulous believer in spiritualism, but the language of spiritualism was too perfect for his needs to be ignored.And that was the case for others, too, explaining why modernists felt obliged to deal with this declass subject. She makes that exact point in the following chapter: that maunders heroes such as Thomas Mann and T.S. Elliott were ashamed of their fascination with spiritualism, knowing it was low brow, but felt forced to reckon with it in their high art—Mann was exposed to spiritualism, which he disavowed, but worked through his ambivalence in The Magic Mountain, and Eliott, whose cleaving to the High Church left him sniffing at spiritualism, nonetheless peppered his most iconic works with ghosts. Spiritualism also offered a model for the modern author as a passive vehicle, and is thus implicated in the rise of automatic writing. (This point backs up Sword’s musings on the death of the author.)The next chapter finds Sword finally daring to touch the beast, albeit fleetingly, and without fully looking at it. She considers two authors—Yeats and H.D.—who were credulous believers in spiritualism. But she still wants to save them from being thought too vulgar. For they eschewed the happy metaphysics of the mediums’s Summerland and instead used spiritualism to prove modernist theories about language and consciousness, In the case of Yeats, spiritualism showed that consciousness was slippery, and language was too, the connection between the word and the thing itself precarious. H.D. dwelled on death, but for her death, too, was slippery, and the language used to describe it unsure: these were the modernist grays against the ludicrously lurid colors of the popular spiritualists.A final full chapter looks at poets who came between the high modernism of the 1920s and the post-modernism that would become dominant later in the twentieth century. Sword sees the engagement of these authors with spiritualism as poised mid-way between the concerns of the modernists and the later concerns that would trouble post-modernism—particularly its playfulness (as opposed to modernism earnestness), sense of irony, and fetishization of commodities. In particular, Sword looks at the role of Ouija boards in the poetry of Plath and Merrill—it an object of spiritualism that raises concerns over authorship, but also a commodity, a mass-produced child’s game, of the same ilk as other commodities that would concern later post-modernists.The book ends with an epilogue about the proliferation of historical and critical studies of spiritualism that were taking place at the same time that Sword was writing this book—a kind of apology for not incorporating all of them. Of course, spiritualism has been noticed by lots of commentators. Some of those just previous to Sword, she dismissed because they saw spiritualism as too marginal—here she was thinking especially of histories of science, such as by Alison Winter and Alex Owens, who strongly linked spiritualism to feminism—but the idea of a haunted modernism has been around for longer than that, as she notes herself in her citations sprinkled throughout the book—particularly important for her, oriented to theory as she is, was Derrida’s call for a ‘hauntology’ of modernism. Her last question, though, about where did spiritualism go--that seems relevant--but would require her to take the subject more seriously.The proliferation of writing, though, undermines some of her claims in ways she doesn’t make clear: they point out that the fish was not so gross—that spiritualism was not just a low pursuit that should have been done away with (as she claims) by the rise of life expectancy and scientific rationalism, except for the horrors brought by the two world wars. No! Modernism itself, modernity itself, moderns themselves have never been unenchanted or on the verge of being unenchanted, except when they convinced themselves of that possibility through their theories. Spiritualism was not just some low bow pursuit that oddly made claims on the great—like Carl Banks’s art work transcending the juvenile medium of comics—but part of a main tradition of occultism and enchantment that was worked and reworked in many ways by modernists.She is not necessarily wrong in her interpretations, but, the book is too limited in its scope. The fish is not ugly. It’s the point.

  • C.S.Soares
    2018-10-14 07:11

    Em Paraty, durante sua apresentação na FLIP 2009, o escritor português Lobo Antunes se disse um autor sob ”instruções do além”. Em 'Ghoswriting Modernism' (Cornell University Press, 2002), Helen Sword apresenta, a partir de uma sistemática abordagem, o fascínio modernista pelo espiritualismo popular, o que mostra que os escritores, não é de hoje, sentem-se irresistivelmente atraídos pelos segredos do além túmulo. Em 1922, 'annus mirabilis' da literatura modernista, enquanto o mundo descobria o 'Ulysses', de James Joyce, e a 'Waste Land', de e T. S. Eliot, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, criador do personagem mais racional da história da literatura, publicava o resultado de seu trabalho apaixonado sobre pesquisas psiquicas, 'The coming of the faires', e Thomas Mann participava de uma sessão espírita (lembrada, como ficção, em The Magic Mountain) em Munique, onde, uma década antes, Rainer Maria Rilke consultou um médium e tentou comprar uma 'planchette' para exercitar escrita 'automática'. A longa (mas não esgotada) lista inclui ainda William Butler Yeats, em sua 'tour de force' espiritualista, The vision, uma sistematização das experiências mediúnicas de sua esposa, além de diversos outros escritores que flertaram com o sobrenatural tais como James Merrill, Sylvia Plath, Kiplingh, Henry James, D. H. Lawrence e Virginia Wolf. A título de ilustração (não são citados no livro de Sword) incluiríamos Guimarães Rosa, Coelho Neto, Monteiro Lobato e o cético Machado de Assis.

  • Leif
    2018-10-11 12:50

    What an accessible and informed study! Focusing on the supernatural's relationship with modernist writers, Sword develops a barely there thread of argument that – gracefully and strongly, despite its scantiness – holds together her accessible readings across the canon of Anglophone Modernism. A nice job, and a quick read.