Cara Lewis's Dynamic Form: How Intermediality Made Modernism proceeds from Virginia Woolf's ([1925] 1974: 173) provocation in her essay “Pictures” that a professor write a book called “The Loves of the Arts,” which “would be concerned with the flirtations between music, letters, sculpture, and architecture, and the effects that the arts have had upon each other throughout the ages.” Literature, Woolf claims, loves the hardest and widest of the arts, readily receiving impressions of sculpture, music, architecture, and painting throughout its history. Lewis situates literature's polyamory in modernism, asking, alongside Woolf, how it is that painting, sculpture, film, and photography make themselves felt in writing (2). Or, put a little differently, what does modernist literature love about visual and plastic art?

That modernist writing is in love with art is not questioned by Lewis or by Woolf. (We have plenty of books on that subject.) Rather, Lewis is interested in figuring out the terms and depths of such capacious love. For Lewis, the way art impresses itself upon literary form is not a matter of imitation but a matter of experience and feeling. Methodologically, this move is critical, for the shift from mimesis to feeling allows for her renewed investigation of modernism's formal commitments. Lewis argues alongside critics like David James that formalism is both modernism's legacy and its promise, for it is by attending to form that we encounter the political and social purchase of literature. Keeping in mind the expansive goals of the new modernist studies, Lewis aims to dissolve the association of modernism with what she calls “bad formalism”; that is, to break apart the conflation of modernism itself with aesthetic autonomy (Clive Bell's “significant form,” New Criticism's strictures) (6). Rather than countering modernism's formalist tendencies with new historicism, as has been the field's bent, she endeavors to draw the new formalist studies alongside the new modernist studies, asking that formalism no longer be circumscribed by New Criticism's limits. Unbounded, “dynamic form” becomes the pivot for a consideration of what Lewis calls “intermediality,” which, borrowing Woolf's terms, I understand to mean literature's various love affairs and dalliances with other arts.

Dynamic Form is composed of five main chapters, each of which takes up a different formal proposition or offers a revision of a different “formal orthodoxy” by pairing an author with an art (13). The broad goal is to work through a set of received understandings about modernism—that modernist works are associated with “spatial form” (most famously argued by Joseph Frank), that modernism seeks pure or abstract form, and that modernism hews close (too close?) to formlessness. Lewis is more interested in pairing rather than paradigms: she brings narrative and time to bear on “spatial form” and stillness, finds the ground in abstraction, and form in dissolution. Her effort is not, however, to reinforce the either/or of these opposites but rather to locate the dynamism of form in the movement between terms and the interactions between media.

The first chapter, “Plastic Form: Henry James's Sculptural Aesthetics and Reading in the Round,” offers a sculptural reading of The Golden Bowl, which means both that Lewis pays close attention to the sculptural objects therein and that the encounter with sculpture in the novel teaches us something about how to read it “in the round.” This chapter and the next are put to the task of resisting Frank's understanding of modernist narrative as spatial. Lewis wants to get at the experience of sculptural encounter as unfolding over time in incomplete circles and revolutions, which she sees as formative in James's novel. This chapter, like the others, is meticulously and carefully written, its readings of James nuanced, revealing over and over how The Golden Bowl loves sculpture. Even so, I am not sure that I am thoroughly convinced by the claim that sculptural viewing molds the formal perambulations of the reader of James's novel (although this is certainly true for the characters’ movements). The metaphor that joins looking “in the round” at sculpture and reading elliptically dissolves in practice—even though they both unfold in time, the experience of walking around an object feels fundamentally different to that of reading a dense text.

From James's love of plastic form, Lewis moves in the second chapter to Woolf's desire for still life, focusing exclusively on Cézanne and To the Lighthouse. Lewis challenges received understandings of the still life's association with description rather than narration, looking to the ways in which the genre operates at the service of both by capturing the tensions between continuity and finitude, life and death. The chapter cleverly pivots away from positioning the painting at the center of the novel, Lily Briscoe's (not very good) abstract portrait, as its shaping force. Lewis points toward a different center—the bowl of fruit and seashell set carefully on the dinner table—her reading of which finds the novel's elegiac form in the still life, the genre that molds the terms of death and grief. Cézanne's still lives—his table arrangements—so central to Bloomsbury aesthetics, provide the chapter's correlative to the table's centerpiece. (Carol Armstrong's [2018] recent interdisciplinary scholarship on Cézanne would have been a welcome addition to Lewis's arguments about still life, Woolf, and Roger Fry's formalism.) Lewis gathers the novel's still life objects—folds of fabric, fruit, skulls, shells—which are also its discarded objects, those things left behind after a person has left the room or left the world. These still objects, which persist and move in time as well as space, are the forms that loss takes, providing the shape of the narrative to come.

The formal gravity (or groundedness) of the still life carries over into the next chapter, “Protean Form: Erotic Abstraction and Ardent Futurity in the Poetry of Mina Loy,” which troubles modernist teleologies that see untethered abstraction as the apex of pure form. Loy's abstractions, shaped by Constantin Brancusi's sculptures, seek foundation and base physicality instead, muddying any notion of purity or formal completion. If the first three chapters are about literature's love of art and its objects, the encounters of the last two are more difficult to describe in terms of desire. Instead, they sound what feels more like a warning against loving film and photography, looking slightly askance while literature attempts to accommodate these “bad forms.” The chapter on Waugh and film, “Bad Formalism: Evelyn Waugh's Film Fictions and the Work of Art in the Age of Cinematics,” worries over the stakes of formal dissolution (formlessness) after film formalizes ephemerality and dynamism, and the final chapter, “Surface Forms: Photography and Gertrude Stein's Contact History of Modernism,” considers photography's superficiality another “bad form” that undoes the forms of modernist writing. The arguments in each chapter are highly nuanced and would be of interest to scholars of either Waugh or Stein, but the general takeaway is this: the impermanence of film and the shallowness of photography make them bad forms for literature to love, as they threaten to erase form itself. This provocation returns Dynamic Form to its more broadly theoretical beginnings, which pull away from the finely tuned readings of the individual chapters to more general claims about form as object and method.

In the beginning and the end, then, what is form? To answer this, Lewis turns to Ali Smith's recent hybrid work, Artful, which I had just finished reading prior to writing this review. While I am aware that this coincidence means that its explanatory force might stand out in greater relief to me than other readers, Smith delivers a way to get at the intertwined stakes of love, feeling, and form that seem to be at the heart of Dynamic Form. Smith's Artful is a work of experimental literary criticism, a collection of four essays that are stitched together by a story of mourning and loss. It opens with grief's distended clock, “the twelvemonth and a day” that has elapsed since the death of the unnamed narrator's lover (Smith 2012: 3). Even “more at a loss” than before, the narrator makes her way through the leftover lecture notes that remain piled on the dead lover's desk (another still life). This “unfinished stuff” provides the fluttery, incomplete structure for the four lecture/essays of the book, the second of which is titled “On Form.” The notes for this lecture offer Lewis an expansive and modernist definition of form (resounding echoes of James Joyce throughout): “Form, from the Latin forma, meaning shape. Shape a mold; something that holds or shapes; a species or kind; a pattern or type; a way of being; order; regularity; system. It once meant beauty but now that particular meaning's obsolete. It means style and arrangement, structural unity in music, literature, painting, etc.” (Smith 2012: 68; Lewis quotes this passage on p. 9). Form is, however, by no means fixed or prescriptive. Instead, as the lecture notes claim, form is both essential and protean, a shaper and shape-shifter, rule and its undoing. In Smith's (2012: 68) book, which negotiates the impermanence of the beloved, form begins to sound a lot like love, which has the capacity to “mold us” and “identify us” but whose hold is nonetheless tenuous or fleeting. As I understand it, the form of Artless is bereavement's excessive remaindering—the impressions left in the absence of another, a world that persists in emptiness.

Incomplete and changing, form does not create a sense of wholeness or comfort, and it is for this reason, I think, that Lewis turns, in the epilogue, to question “form's ability to console” in the face of its own impermanence (220). I was not anticipating this turn to consolation at the end and indeed might not be able to square it with the intricacies of the rest of the work without help from Smith. Artful's narrator seeks solace in form but does so with no expectation that the loss of the beloved be repaired. Instead, small comfort is gleaned from form. Lewis quotes Smith (2012: 77) in her final paragraph (229): “In its apparent fixity, form is all about change. In its fixity, form is all about the relationship of change to continuance, even when the continuance is itself precarious.” While Lewis stops there, I read want to read further in Smith (2012: 77), who follows with a poetic example of continuance's precarity:

here, for instance, fragility and its opposite sureness are evident in the form, the diminishing line-length, and the thematic preoccupation of Wisława Szymborska's six-line poem (translated by Cavanagh and Barańczak) called, simply, “Vermeer.”
                              So long as that woman from the Rijksmuseum
                              in painted quiet and concentration
                              keeps pouring milk day after day
                              from the pitcher to the bowl
                              the World hasn't earned
                              the world's end.

This is a solacing poem, but it does not console with a false promise of formal wholeness. Instead, the receding lines map the tension between ongoingness (the present imperfect tense of “pouring”) and anticipated finitude (the world will eventually end). It vouches thus for a still persistence that is constituted by eventual loss. Yet the suggestion that an oil painting might offer the only evidence that the world has not, in fact, ended is to say that the world already has—it just didn't earn it.

I include the poem here because it acts as Ockham's razor, sharpening my understanding of Lewis's argument that modernist form gives shape to the incomplete promise of change, allowing for its dynamism. Its dynamism—its force—is the strength of form's love to carry from one object to another. Literature's love for other arts is not just a starting point but an essential condition of modernist form. Elaborated thus, the conclusions that Lewis draws in Dynamic Form are deeply compelling and even consoling as they recuperate form for modernist studies and reanimate conversations about the relationship between the arts.

Works Cited

Armstrong, Carol.
Cézanne's Gravity
New Haven, CT
Yale University Press
Smith, Ali.
Hamish Hamilton
Woolf, Virginia. (1925)
The Moment and Other Essays
New York