Restoring Dora Marsden

Restoring Dora Marsden

1996-12-30
Dora Marsden and Early Modernism: Gender, Individualism, Science
Bruce Clarke
Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1996.

Michael Wutz reviews Bruce Clarke’s Dora Marsden and Early Modernism: Gender, Individualism, Science

Dora Marsden was not a madwoman in the attic. When she and her female compatriots climbed down from the attic of the Southport Empire theater on 3 December 1909 to disrupt a public appearance by Winston Churchill, she did so as a freewoman agitating for universal suffrage and gender equality. Soon she was to edit a short-lived journal by the same name, the Freewoman, to be renamed and reconceived as the New Freewoman and, eventually, the Egoist - three journals that were to have a formative impact on the literary and artistic configuration of modernism. Bruce Clarke retraces Marsden’s wide-ranging but hitherto largely unacknowledged influence on her modernist contemporaries and, in the spirit of revisionary literary and cultural criticism, seeks to correct “a tradition of misinformation” (4) that has led to a monolithic and largely masculinist construction of modern literature. Marsden, he argues, and convincingly so, was a “fugitive midwife to the miraculous birth of a literary tradition out of the ‘individual talents’ of Pound, Joyce, Eliot, Lawrence, and Williams” (11), and hence deserves to be recognized for her contributions to this cadre of established modernist giants.

Avoiding the stale and reductive causalities of some other modernist studies, Clarke maps out the cross-disciplinary intellectual heritage of what he calls “Dora Marsden’s London” - the cultural center at debut-du-siècle Europe that (together with Paris, Munich, and Moscow) enabled modernism’s divergent impulses to coalesce into a formative critical mass. Marsden’s London comprises a rich field of intellectual currents - ranging from feminist and philosophical to scientific and popular discourses - from which her evolving thought draw substance and sustenance. The mosaic of Marsden’s thinking contains elements from Herbert Spencer, Friedrich Nietzsche, Edward Carpenter, and Otto Weininger, among many others, which she composes into a distinct intellectual trajectory of her own: beginning with an early feminist and suffragist phase, Marsden eventually developed a philosophy of egotism that subsumed her earlier concerns about gender and politics.

Specifically, as a “feminist retort to Nietzsche’s Übermensch,” Marsden proposed her perhaps “greatest single creation” - the “type of the freewoman” - a superhuman female fighting at the forefront of political and sexual emancipation (63). That ideal, which she espoused largely in the Freewoman, gradually gave way to a postfeminist, but no less political, androgynous model of human selfhood, “the man-woman or woman-man who had evolved beyond the separatist dualities of patriarchal engendering” (78) and thus already signals her philosophical shift toward a theory of egotism. This shift, soon to emerge in the later portions of the New Freewoman and the Egoist, fundamentally attempts to supersede any form of typology in favor of a Bergsonian model of incessant fluidity beyond the bounds of gender, the perpetual constitution and transformation of selfhood: “a celebration of vitalistic flux in the absence of a definitive telos, an affirmation of pure existential velocity without the drag of predetermined or collective destination” (99). Through a generous sampling of Marsden’s leaders in each of her journals, as well as archival material, Clarke carefully reconstructs the evolutionary curve of Marsden’s ideas and allows readers of his book a good look into one of the most fascinating and scintillating personalities of modernism.

Marsden’s mercurial mind and intellectual restlessness urge a comparison with Simone de Beauvoir a generation later, or, in contemporary terms, with postfeminist thinkers like Susan Sontag or, perhaps, Donna Haraway; and Marsden, no less than these women writers and philosophers, exerted cultural pressure on their largely male environment. One of the most fascinating aspects of Clarke’s book in this regard is his discussion of the relationship between Marsden and the presumed dean of modernist letters, Ezra Pound. Standard accounts of their affiliation have it that, when Pound joined the New Freewoman in the summer of 1913 as literary editor, he came to the rescue of an ailing journal and, once renamed the Egoist, shaped it into a crucial outlet for experimental modernism. Clarke gives due credit to Pound’s influence, which significantly altered the course of both journals, but (in an effort to complicate, if not rewrite, the canonical history of literary modernism), he demonstrates that Marsden was an assertive and strong-willed collaborator in the tug-of-war over editorial leadership and, more often than not, the driving impulse behind conceptual redirections. Marsden, not Pound, for example, proposed and saw through the name change from the New Freewoman to the Egoist (129-31), and it was largely in response to her discursive influence and the aesthetic provocations in her letters that Pound wrote what has come to be a canonical essay of modernist thinking, “The Serious Artist” (108-13).

Marsden’s relationship to other canonical males is less confrontational. In two fine chapters on D. H. Lawrence and William Carlos Williams, Clarke establishes a series of intriguing relays between their work and Marsden’s, discovering not direct influences so much as their joint visits to the same intellectual watering holes, such as, for example, Edward Carpenter’s evolutionary vitalism that infused their thinking with a generous dose of popularized science and cultural energetics. The chapter on Lawrence contains suggestive thermodynamic readings of The Study of Thomas Hardy and Women in Love, and while Lawrence and Marsden were, in many respects, radically at odds (the one worshiping the ego, the other crusading all of his life against it), their “common vitalist orientation, their early modernist turn - away from progressive evolutionism and toward a counterentropic emphasis on the maintenance of individual energies - are remarkably similar” (155). Unlike Lawrence, who may not have known of Marsden directly, Williams is the only major male modernist to acknowledge, in Spring and All, “Dora Marsden’s philosophic algebra.” Clarke sees in Williams’s receptivity toward Marsden an “index of his ongoing relations to creative female figures, beginning with his mother, Elena, and falling into line with his literary relations to H.D., Gertrude Stein, Marianne Moore,” among others (179). At the same time, while Williams occasionally recognized his own cross-gendered artistic impulse (at one point describing himself as being “too much a woman”), he was fundamentally critical of Marsden’s intermediate theory of androgyny in an effort to “proclaim the morbidity of bisexuality, thereby to counter feelings of androgynous ambivalence and to underwrite his own masculinist investments” (199). Reacting productively to Marsden’s theories, Williams -no less than Lawrence - sought to repress his own conflicted gender identity and to establish a sexual circuit that reduces the female element to a catalytic complement for the engendering force of the male.

Given the discursive richness and interdisciplinary reach of Dora Marsden, it would be unfair to ask more of a book. Personally, I would have liked to know how Williams’s “residual investment in philosophical vitalism” which he shares with Marsden (209) can be located in the context of his medical training, and especially in a text - Spring and All - that is replete with pediatric resonances? Why was Wyndham Lewis not granted a room in the Egoist Hotel, the militant and egocentric editor of Blast whose philosophical beliefs were uncannily close to Marsden’s? How about Joyce, who in Ulysses created one of modernism’s most famous “new womanly” men? And, more importantly, why does the fine discussion of Marsden’s anti-democratic tendencies stop short of delineating a protofascist impulse camouflaged in scientific terms that was already visible in the Italian Futurists and the British Vorticists, i.e., Lewis and Pound? But these are queries leading, perhaps, to another book, and queries important mainly to a reviewer charged with sniffing out possible lacunae and blind spots - they do not detract from the suggestiveness and integrity of this fine study. Besides, Clarke gives the answer himself: his purpose has been to restore the record, to provide a long overdue balance to masculinist modernist history, to function as a “devil’s advocate for a devil’s advocate” (10). Dora Marsden and Early Modernism does all of that, and much more. It is a countercanonical account of the history of early modernism that cuts not only genders, but disciplines as well.