Writers & typists: intersections of modernism and sexology




Jenkins, Brad

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This study explores the intersection of Modernism and sexology. To date, most studies of sexology’s influence on literature have focused on the importance of inversion in the lesbian salons of interwar Paris and, specifically, on Radclyffe Hall and her associates. The central question in these studies is whether inversion was ultimately beneficial or detrimental to the larger struggle for sexual equality and gay rights. This is an important question and key elements of the debate are reviewed. Sometimes lost in this discussion, however, is sexology’s influence on the creative process of different Modernist writers. By purporting to explain the origins and function of desire, sexology raised the prospect of engineering response, of literally seducing the reader into new aesthetic experiences. These prospects arise not from a literal application of sexological precepts but from a process of critical revision that transformed sexology without undermining the objectivist pretensions upon which the discourse was founded. The dissertation is directed toward explaining the nature of this exchange and its influence on the work of Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, and Djuna Barnes. Theoretically, the study follows Bruno Latour in rethinking the arts/science divide. It suggests writers were able to occupy seemingly self-contradictory positions—embracing both the objective authority of science and the perspectivism of the arts—by exploiting a disavowed hybridity at the heart of the modern condition. This discursive sleight of hand empowered these writers to reinvent both their own identities and the forms in which they worked. Proceeding more or less chronologically, the study begins by looking at Gertrude Stein’s efforts to incorporate the mechanics of attraction into her writing, guided by the work of Otto Weininger. It next examines Virginia Woolf’s exploration of androgyny with reference to Edward Carpenter’s advocacy on behalf of the “intermediate sex”. Finally, attention shifts to Djuna Barnes and the limits of sexology and other attempts to theorize desire. Ultimately, the goal is not to explain sexual difference or to advocate on behalf of any one position. Instead, the dissertation examines how sexology inspired the Modernist imagination in further challenging artistic conventions.



Modernism, Sexology, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, Djuna Barnes, Radclyffe Hall