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Masochistic Modernisms: A Reading of Eliot and Woolf

Eve Sorum
Volume 28, Number 3, spring 2005
pp. 25-43 | 10.1353/jml.2005.0044
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:
From Journal of Modern Literature 28.3 (2005) 25-43
A Reading of Eliot and Woolf
University of Michigan
In Virginia Woolf's penultimate diary entry, made as German planes flew over London and as she
began her final descent into illness, she proclaims, "No: I intend no introspection. [. . .] Observe
perpetually. [. . .] Observe my own despondency. By that means it becomes serviceable. Or so I
hope" (Diary V 35758). In these words we see kernels of a modernist aesthetica sense of both
resiliency and despair in the face of terrifying mental, social, and political events, and the
determination to make some use of this situation through a creative act. By taking Gilles Deleuze's
explanation of the formal nature of masochism one step further, I argue that this modernist
aesthetic depends on a dynamics of suffering and compensation that can be described as
masochism. I would like to forge a stronger connection between these two systems of ordering the
worldliterary aesthetics and masochismby suggesting that attention to this surface link will
reveal the ways in which a masochistic ordering through pain actually defines key modernist
aesthetic philosophies.
Looking through the lens of masochism, therefore, I propose a rereading of the work and aesthetic
philosophies of two major modernists, T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf. I have chosen these two writers
because they are viewed as canonical representatives of high modernism, and they both wrote a
number of pieces that proclaim their aesthetic visions. Focusing on Eliot and Woolf also means that
that I can probe the manifestation of a masochistic aesthetics in poetry and in fiction, as well as in
their stylistically and tonally contrasting essays. Even when these writers examine a similar
dynamicfor example, the relationship between reader and text, as we will see in Eliot's "Tradition
and the Individual Talent" and Woolf's "On Being Ill"they formulate the interaction in tellingly
different ways. Thus, pairing them allows for an exploration of the variations within a masochistic
My project involves a shift in critical focus: instead of thinking primarily about how modernist
literature orders a chaotic world, I examine how Eliot and Woolf's aesthetic philosophies depend on
this chaos. In other words, the suffering, pain, self-sacrifice, and disorientation are precisely what
enable acts of literary creation, and the artist comes into being through exposure to such shattering
experiences. Reading Eliot and Woolf through masochism, therefore, gives us a new way to conceive
of a modernism that feeds off of suffering for its sense of meaning. The aesthetics of Eliot and Woolf
are what I will call a masochistic aestheticsa manifestation of a particularly modernist conception
of the artist and her project, in which creativity and self-destruction are linked in inextricable and

productive ways. Identifying the latent masochism in their works does not diminish our view of
Eliot's and Woolf's novels and poems as brilliant aesthetic achievements; it does, however, redirect
our attention to the simultaneous dependence on and rejection of the fissures, sacrifices, and gaps
that produce these pieces of literature. The darker side of this inquiry, of course, revolves around
the perhaps unanswerable question of whether suffering, however successfully it produces meaning
and order, can ever be worthwhile.
In the past decades, numerous critics of Eliot and Woolf have touched on the relationship between
suffering, alienation, or loss and the writers' literary production. Maud Ellmann provides a thorough
reading of Eliot's theory of impersonality as she explores how his poems "compose and decompose
the self" (15). Roger Poole rereads Woolf's mental breakdowns through her novels in an attempt to
understand the biographical through the literary, while Shirley Panken takes the opposite approach
by examining the ways in which Woolf works through her emotional and psychological problems in
her writing. Work done on trauma, mourning, and the...