Adam Phillips

  • The Short Sharp Life of T.E. Hulme by Robert Ferguson
    Allen Lane, 314 pp, £20.00, November 2002, ISBN 0 7139 9490 8
  • Paranoid Modernism: Literary Experiment, Psychosis and the Professionalisation of English Society by David Trotter
    Oxford, 358 pp, £35.00, September 2001, ISBN 0 19 818755 6

What is now called trauma theory informs contemporary biography as much as it does the academic practice of literary history. Belief in trauma as a kind of agency, as a cultural force – in events as the real heroes and heroines in life stories – turns up historically when people are beginning to lose faith in God and character and cause and effect. Despite the fact that the relationship between being shocked and being changed is indeterminate – many shocking things make little real difference, and the unnoticed and the unnoticeable can have astonishing repercussions – the idea of trauma reassures us that we can find a beginning, and that there is a beginning worth finding. It puts a plot, if not a plan, back into modern lives.

T.E. Hulme believed that we needed to get back to a time before human nature was deemed capable of radical change, before the idea of progress distorted our sense of reality – a time before Romanticism. He loathed anything without the ballast of original sin in it, and was one of the first people to defend the Modernism of the abstract art of Bomberg, Epstein and Gaudier-Brzeska against the apparent progressivism of Roger Fry and Bloomsbury. He had found his preferred version of human nature in Byzantine art, and its recovery in these abstract Modernists. One of the many things that is so interesting about him, and that Robert Ferguson illuminates in this first thorough biography, is his redescription of original sin as the best way of talking about ineluctable human limitations. In his own combative, unacademic way he was trying to work out why original sin, even in its secular versions, was an idea we should not be trying to do without. And clearly no modern writing has yet been able to do without a version of it, whether as something to be acknowledged or as something to be defied. The problem of original sin, secularised as the problem of anti-social behaviour, has been remarkably resilient.

David Trotter believes that what we have learned to call Modernism is more akin to the cumulative trauma of secularisation, and that if we can’t get a wholly convincing sense of the beginnings of Modernism, we can get the next best thing: a sense of what the Modernist generation and in particular the Modernist artists thought they had lost, which was, among other things, the assured place of the artist, his or her necessary significance within the culture. The self-cure for insignificance is paranoia, and Trotter’s Paranoid Modernists are marked, above all, by a sense of what is unbearable about modern life. They weren’t exactly trauma theorists themselves, but much of the writing of the period has a manifesto-like quality, and the manifesto – the address to the enemy – is the paranoid genre par excellence.

Yet even the most committed modern trauma theorists must be wary of the ways in which their theories smuggle back the sacred in the guise of the secular. The idea of something beyond our control intervening in our lives in a way that ineluctably changes them is not exactly news; nor is the sense that radical unpredictable change confounds us, and usually makes us ask what we have come to think of as deep questions about life. Trauma theory is only properly secular when it stops needing to be morally reassuring; when it stops having to reinsert a plot. When we were being told that the world would never be the same after 11 September, that we would never forget that day, we were being reassured – i.e. coerced into believing – that we can still recognise a meaningful event when we see one. It is a difficult fact of life that we can be horrified by things that we don’t find meaningful; that don’t matter to us despite our wish for them to matter (and with so much horror around not caring becomes a kind of forbidden pleasure). The appetite for inevitability or a sense of inevitability – for the idea of things having to happen in a certain way, known to someone – is hard to give up. Paranoid Modernism came into being, Trotter suggests – and Hulme is an exemplary instance of it – because many of the most important Modernist writers were writing out of the fear that they would have to make their own systems or be trapped in a world without system. ‘The beginning of paranoia,’ Trotter remarks in one of many arresting formulations, ‘is the deep sense that it all hangs together’; ‘paranoiacs . . . find themselves by eliminating muddle.’ ‘Paranoia’, in other words, was the Modernist word for sanity. It was sane to believe that life made sense, and that the sense it made could keep us going.

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[*] Reviewed in the LRB, 10 August 2000.