This article contends that contemporary modernist studies' break with the previous model of High Modernism uncannily repeated modernism's own declared break with the nineteenth century. A key marker of this repetition is the flurry of publications addressing modernism's relationship with spiritualism and occultism in the 1990s, just before the field began a dramatic rejuvenation. This cluster of works repeats both modernism's grounding in and its obsession with these twin features of Victorian mass culture. The parallel further furnishes a specific idiom for the dynamics of the relationship between modernism and spiritualism/occultism. The article takes Joseph Conrad's The Nigger of the “Narcissus” as a symptomatic instance of this dynamic, since it is perhaps the key transitional work from nineteenth-century realist aesthetics to modernist experiment in England. The article reveals the novel's previously neglected use of spiritualist figures as key to its transitional status. The article concludes by turning again to contemporary modernist studies' attempted break with the new critical paradigm of High Modernism. It points to the inconsistencies in advancing a new model of plural modernisms and yet retaining modernism as the field's key identifier. It suggests that there is an ethical oversight in doing so while repudiating the critical and aesthetic models that made the current field configuration possible. Contemporary modernist studies owe a debt to the newly minted “other” of new-critical High Modernism that they must acknowledge and appease if they are to parallel not only modernism's founding gesture but also its sustained creative production.
Stephen Ross; The Nigger of the “Narcissus” and Modernist Haunting. Novel 1 August 2011; 44 (2): 268–291. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00295132-1260986
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