Colloques & Conferences de l'Universite Lyon 2, Modernism and Unreadability / Modernisme et Illisibilite

Unreadable, Unread, Unwanted: Edith Sitwell's Facade as a Challenge to Modernism's Norms of (Un-)Making Meaning

Rainer Emig

Temps: 2008-10-23  04:00  – 04:35
Dernière modification: 2008-07-07


In most studies of modernism, Edith Sitwell features as an "also ran", a contemporaneous figure whose works display modernist aesthetics, but somehow do not qualify her for central status. This was already the verdict of her contemporaries and has only been slightly modified by recent feminist criticism. It was certainly also an impression provoked by her cherished eccentricity, her strategies of staging herself, which made her a problematic figure for the male modernists (whose own brands of eccentricity met with much greater indulgence).
The proposed paper, however, is less interested in the status of Sitwell as a person than in that of her pivotal collection of poems Facade, first published in the modernist annus mirabilis 1922. What it intends to show is that in terms of fragmentation, openness, collage, radical overdetermination, intertextuality, and intermediality, the poems of the collection are not merely prime examples of modernism's aesthetics. It also intends to demonstrate that their opaqueness is a determined gesture that challenges conventional poetic norms as much as the newly established modernist ones. Where Eliot, for example, opts for high culture as his intertextual reference point in The Waste Land, Sitwell knowingly chooses material of low standing, such as fairy tales and ghost stories. Where Joyce and Pound provokingly gesture towards music as the vanishing point of language in Ulysses and The Cantos, Sitwell actually writes poems in the structure of waltzes, fox trots and mazurkas. More than that, she stages her poems as a performance set to music by William Walton. This aligns her work with the Swiss and German Dadaists and the French Surrealists, while avant-garde strategies of this kind are shunned by the tellingly labelled "classical" male modernists of the English canon.
When Virginia Woolf first reported hearsay about Facade as "sheer nonsense through a megaphone" and admitted after witnessing a performance, "I understood so little that I could not judge", she may unwittingly have spelled out the classical modernist verdict on such aesthetic strategies. "Something lies beyond the Scene", the title of the last poem in Sitwell's collection, could then also be read as a self-referential statement concerning its aesthetics of unreadability and a self-fulfilling prophecy concerning its future status within the modernist canon.